The team has talent, depth, and experience, and it installed two new coordinators who, after spring and fall practice, looked like they were going to be different.
But UCLA lost to Houston, 38-34, Saturday, and did it in very typical Bruin fashion (at least, the fashion we've come to know for the last decade or so).
I could break out some old game analysis from seasons past and probably just cut and paste "Houston" into it.
UCLA was marred by mistakes, penalties, bad execution, poor tackling, and head-scratching coaching.
How tired are you of hearing that?
Really the only thing that looked a little different in this game was that UCLA's passing attack was better.
But that in itself – to have one element of the team improve while other elements slip into mediocrity, or back into mediocrity – is also very typical of this lost decade of UCLA football.
So, the passing game was better, but the defense was perhaps a bit more miserable than it was last season, and then the place kicking was abysmal.
What's a UCLA fan to do?
To begin with, it is just the first game of the season. There have been plenty of teams that have played poor first games and then had successful seasons. So, it's premature to draw any complete conclusions on this team, obviously.
But what is so disturbing was that UCLA's modus operandi was so eerily similar to what we've become accustomed to watching. Put it this way: If UCLA had lost this game, but it hadn't been sabotaged basically by itself, it would have been quite a bit more tolerable.
UCLA has gone through the worst 10 years in its football history. The 22 losses in the last three years are the most in any three-year span in UCLA history. Because of this, the expectations of UCLA fans have been lowered considerably and, at this point, most fans are just looking for a team that won't shoot itself in the foot.
Even with how bad UCLA's defense was in this game, if the Bruins had played a clean 60 minutes, with quite a bit less mistakes, penalties, and badly missed field goals, even a loss might have been tolerable.
But then again, as is so often the case, if UCLA hadn't committed so many mistakes and shot itself in the foot it probably would have won.
We'll start with the defense, since it was shockingly poor. New Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey's D looked ill-prepared and undisciplined against Houston's hurry-up spread. Not only did it look like it was at a lost to defend against it (that sounds familiar), it commonly struggled to get the right personnel on the field, or lined up in time for the snap. There was one time when Tevin McDonald was turned around and talking to the sideline or a teammate when a pass came his way.
UCLA's defense got in a rut early on, when it allowed Houston quarterback Case Keenum to get in a rhythm at the outset of the game. Here's one of the head-scratching coaching elements: Keenum is really good at executing the short-drop, quick pitch-and-catch game of Houston's offense, so it's mind-blowing that UCLA would come out and allow Houston's receivers a 7-yard cushion for its first several offensive series. Seriously, I think I could have made some of the throws that Keenum completed; his receiver just did a nice little out or dig route six yards down the field and he was uncovered. Man, you hear about taking what the defense gives you – this was a text-book example. And Tresey just gave it up to Houston, and they said, "Thank you, we'll take it." Again, the defensive back cushion has been a long-time issue with UCLA's defense, from coordinator to coordinator. Maybe there's something about the air that's piped into the defensive coordinator's office in the UCLA Athletic Department – because regardless of whose name is in the door they are going to play that 7-yard-cushion, bend-and-don't-break defense. The thing is, there are situations where it might warrant being used – going up against a young, green quarterback who would struggle to complete enough passes to consistently move the chains. But there might not be a quarterback in the country more capable at doing this than Keenum. So it's baffling that Tresey, who talked all spring and fall about making UCLA's defense an aggressive one, had UCLA's defense sit back in the bend-and-not-break philosophy to start the game. Even if UCLA's defense had been unsuccessful and burned badly, it would have been incredibly refreshing to see the Bruins start the game pressing receivers and pressuring the quarterback.
By allowing this, Houston got its offense going downhill, and UCLA's defense fell back on its heels. And it never recovered. UCLA, really, on its own, only had one defensive series when it stopped the Cougars. The other few series when Houston had to punt were due to its own ineptness, dropping a few easy passes. That one series when UCLA actually stopped Houston, in the first half…what happened? Let's review: First down, the defensive backs press, one DB jumps a route, and defensive tackle Cassius Marsh sacks Keenum. Second down, UCLA blitzes, Keenum is hurried and he throws incomplete. It's then third and 19 and Houston, which doesn't throw the ball well down the field, throws a flair to a running back which UCLA stops far behind the first-down chains.
So, with that series in the books, the rational at the time was: Okay, so Tresey started the game conservatively on UCLA's first two defensive series, but that series established what UCLA's defense should be doing.
But somehow that wasn't what UCLA's defense did from that point on. In fact, it's difficult to even analyze what it was attempting to do. It certainly wasn't consistently aggressive. It did blitz a bit, but the blitzes didn't surprise Houston at all. But it didn't keep pressing either. It was kind of a strange mixed bag after that.
Houston's offense did adjust, however. It pulled out more of its playbook, rolled out Keenum to get him more time, utilized underneath and crossing routes. And it definitely picked up the blitzes better.
So, that was on the coaching staff. But the bad tackling, and getting pushed around on the defensive line, that's on the players. UCLA and bad tackling has been like a bad relationship for years, and UCLA just can quit it. There was some very bad tackling in this game, and sometimes a UCLA defender took such a bad angle when he seemingly had a Houston ball carrier in his sights, he didn't even have a chance to make a bad tackle. You'd have to call it a bad would-be tackle. Dalton Hilliard, the new starting safety, literally had a ball carrier one-on-one in the open field and merely ran right by the runner, who looked a bit surprised about it. Many fans can blame this on coaching, that UCLA didn't do enough live work in fall camp, and that's a factor. But at this point, when some of these defenders have been in the program for 2-4 years, doing a few more live periods in fall camp isn't the problem.
Then there was the defensive line. It literally got pushed around by the smaller, seemingly weaker Houston OL. What really caused the defensive flood gates to open up was UCLA being unable to stop Houston's running game. Houston rushed for 158 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Houston was able to run around the edge pretty easily, but most shocking was the Cougars blowing right through the middle of UCLA's defense, through big holes, to gain big chunks of yards. Last year, against Houston, with a less talented and less experienced defensive line and defense overall, UCLA shut down Houston's running game. But the UCLA defense in this game looked more like the one we saw at the end of the 2010 season rather than the one we saw against Houston last September.
Where UCLA lost this game was on the last Houston possession of the first half. UCLA had just scored on a Fauria reception and came to within 17-14, and looked like it had taken the momentum of the game. With 2:40 left, the UCLA defense just had to keep the Cougars out of the endzone and get to halftime. At his own 34, Keenum throws incomplete on first down (actually Tyron Carrier had beat Patrick Larimore and Carrier dropped the pass). Then, the next three plays were jaw-dropping. Houston running back Charles Sims goes through a massive hole in the UCLA line with Justin Edison getting sealed off, and then Holmes has an easy angle on Sims but completely misses him, while Sean Westgate gets blocked back 10 yards. Sims gains 16. Then, with UCLA giving up a big cushion, Keenum finds Patrick Edwards on the sideline five yards down the field, and Andrew Abbott misses a tackle with spaghetti arms, Datone Jones stumbles by him, and Edwards goes for 16. At the UCLA 34, Michael Hayes, who is an average running back, looks like Maurice Jones-Drew, and goes through a hole in the line blown open where Edison should be, breaks five tackles, running over Westgate, and out of the non-wrap-ups of Tony Dye and Hilliard, and goes in for a touchdown.
Bottom line: Tresey has some work to do. Tackling might be a good place to start. Perhaps, then, teaching the defensive tackles not to spin out of the way of their blockers but to hold the line of scrimmage might be good. And then maybe more tackling.
The offense, of course, looked pretty good. I say "of course," because that's how it works in Bruin Football Land. The Football Gods give you something just so you can say, "Man, if only we could just have one season when we have a good offense and good defense together." It looks like, as least from this game, that this is one of the years when UCLA has a decent offense and a bad defense.
UCLA gained 554 total yards, outgaining Houston, and it did it with a balanced attack, rushing for 232 yards and passing for 322. And it actually did it despite itself, overcoming a number of mistakes, penalties and mishaps. You didn't think you could get through a game without UCLA burning a much-needed timeout in a situation where it shouldn't have to, did you? There were bungled snaps, fumbled exchanges, and ridiculously stupid penalties (10 for 80 yards). Richard Brehaut struggled a couple of times to check out of a play, which led to the one ill-used timeout and at least two penalties for false starts.
It's tough to say anything about Kevin Prince. He couldn't even get through one half without getting hurt. It's seriously the strangest thing I've ever seen – how much Prince gets injured. It might be he's very brittle, he puts himself in danger, or he's just extremely unlucky – or a combination of all three. You have to feel for the quarterback, working so hard to come back from some serious injuries, and then looking good to start this game, only to be knocked out with a concussion.
Brehaut looked like he did for most of fall camp and that's, well, capable. He was 17 of 26 for 264 yards and had two touchdown passes, while also running for 87 yards. He made some very good, clutch throws, and picked up some key yards on the ground to keep drives alive. Like I said above, he struggled on a few checks, but he also seemingly made a couple of very nice checks to get the offense into the correct play. One in the second half, Brehaut clearly checked out of a play and threw quickly to a wide-open Taylor Embree. He also had that same kind of moxie, that gamer mentality, that we saw in him last season.
It wasn't hard to predict that Joseph Fauria would be a big factor in this game, given how his height at 6-8 made him a particularly tough match-up for the generally smaller Houston defenders. He had 6 receptions for 110 yards, and averaged 18 yards per catch. What's particularly good about this is that defenses will now have to compensate for Fauria, and that will only open up other receivers.
Receiver Nelson Rosario had a typical game for him. He dropped a pass, looked lazy going up for one and slow coming back to another. Then he makes one of the most impressive catches in recent memory, on a post trapping the ball behind the receivers head to secure it for the catch as they tumbled to the ground. Even so, even despite that catch, it might be time to let Rosario see some bench. The effort level just isn't there consistently, and it's not as if UCLA doesn't have talent at wide receiver.
The game management by the coaches was a bit, well, head scratching. Down 38-28, with about 8 minutes left in the game, UCLA drove the field, but did it as if it had a couple of quarters left in the game. We realize that the coaches were thinking the ideal situation would be to not let Keenum touch the ball again, but don't you still want as many offensive opportunities as possible to make up the 10-point deficit? With 6 or 7 minutes left, down 10 points and at about midfield, UCLA was running the ball, executing its zone read.
Then, well, there was the place kicking. We're not going to put that on the head of Kip Smith. It wasn't as if he was good in fall camp and then shanked a couple in the Houston game. This is how he's been for a month. It was clear to everyone that Smith was struggling, and it was a huge surprise when Rick Neuheisel decided to go with his gut feeling and have Smith do the place kicking for this game, instead of the more reliable Jeff Locke. You can't say that, if Locke had hit the field goal, UCLA then would have also drove the field and scored that touchdown. But it very well might have, too, and those four points from the missed field goal and PAT were the difference on the scoreboard, and that's on Neuheisel's head.
So, this definitely turns up the switch on Neuheisel self-admitted hot seat. Losing to Houston, he now has a narrower margin for a successful season. And this is the thing: It's not just about winning or losing, but how UCLA football team goes about it. And, in this game, it definitely didn't turn over a new leaf in terms of its approach to the game, its discipline and fundamentals. If you're judging in terms of either achieving or under-achieving, you can chalk this one up in the under-achieving column.
But again, it's just the first game of the season. If you've been paying attention to the rest of the Pac-12 in this first weekend of college football, you could say that UCLA's conference brethren generally don't look intimidating.
Probably the biggest takeaway from the Houston game: It looks like this is one of those years when the offense might have to carry the team and the season's success rests on the defense getting it together. You're it.
Unit Grades Coming Soon...