UCLA fumbled twice, and those two turnovers led to 14 points for Stanford, points which were decisive in the loss to the Cardinal, 45-19. The Bruins also missed two PATs, consistently were unable to execute at key times, had a couple of breakdowns in coverage, and the coaches had some head-scratching calls and decisions.
And folks, this was easily the best performance of the season for UCLA.
Let that sink in. UCLA lost to Stanford, 45-19, and it was the Bruins' best performance in 2011.
How far we have fallen.
The game still goes in the under-achieving column. So UCLA, in terms of playing up to its capability or under-achieving, is 0-5 on the season.
How can I say it was UCLA's best game of the season -- and it still under-achieved?
UCLA has enough talent to be able to compete with Stanford. Realistically, If it played the Cardinal 100 times it would probably lose about 70 times, but UCLA has enough talent to easily hold its own on the field against Stanford. The Cardinal are a good team, but not truly dominant, and over-rated as the #4 team in the country, mostly because of the talent of quarterback Andrew Luck. The #4 team in the nation should dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and Stanford didn't do that decisively. UCLA easily is in the same league in terms of overall talent.
But here's one big difference between the two programs (among many): Stanford utilizes its talent while UCLA is leaving so much of its talent on the sideline.
This UCLA team is vastly under-achieving because of some strange, head-scratching coaching decisions. Not just within this game, but in regard to personnel. The UCLA coaching staff, quite simply, is leaving so much firepower and potential at the door because it's done a poor job of evaluating its own talent and putting that talent in a position to succeed.
Example: With potential playmakers like Josh Smith, Shaquelle Evans, Randall Carroll, or Jordon James, the coaching staff makes the clear choice of throwing the ball to Nelson Rosario short to give him the opportunity to create yards after the catch. But in four years, Rosario has yet to break a tackle. Is Rosario good down the field in isolation when he has to go up for the ball against a much smaller DB? Certainly. Can Rosario catch the ball a couple of yards from the first-down sticks and get a first down? No. Has he ever gotten any significant YAC? Not that I can remember. It's uncanny that they would choose to go to him short to try to gain YAC with the other options on the roster.
Example: Many times, within the Pistol's zone read, it ends up that UCLA opts to put so much responsibility of the offense on Richard Brehaut's decision-making and his running ability. Now, Brehaut has some strong qualities, but those two aren't at the top of the list. So, really, it finds itself in situations where it could put the ball in the hands of so many different playmakers, but it inadvertently ends up with Brehaut on third-and-short trying to run for a first down, or on fourth-and-goal trying to run through the middle of the line for a touchdown. We actually like the Pistol, but it's a strange thing that UCLA utilizes the Pistol for every down.
Example: It's clear that anytime Jordon James touches the ball he's electric. His acceleration, ability to slice through a seam and elusiveness is pretty evident. They've only utilized him on end-arounds from the F-back spot when he has little room to create. They threw to him one time in this game in the flat, coming out of motion and he made a nice gain. The offense clearly needs to get James touches on the ball out in space – like with a screen or a simple flair. Can they get a screen to James just once during the course of a game? But that's not seemingly in the playbook.
Example: Joseph Fauria. The coaching staff discovered him again. Yeah, they'll say he was nicked up for the last few games and that's why they didn't go to him. But heck, he still played and had to block, and if he's in the game you can't go to him, well, even once? It was a case of a different game plan, coupled with the knowledge that Fauria was a little nicked up, and that made the staff almost completely forget about him for three straight games. What he did against Stanford showed that was a mistake.
Example: The continued use of older players who aren't nearly as capable of making plays on defense over the younger, more talented players who are. It's inexplicable that, after watching this game, the UCLA coaches started the season with Sean Westgate, Justin Edison and Nate Chandler in the main rotation in the front seven. In one series in the first half, when Stanford's Stepfan Taylor busted a run up the middle, Edison and Chandler were blown off the line, like they have been for two years. How many times does it take for the coaches to realize that these two can't play significant minutes and certainly can't be in the game at the same time. Donovan Carter and Sealli Epenesa got more time alongside Cassius Marsh after that series and the defense, not coincidentally, started to stuff the run and get stops. It's abundantly clear that the defense is so much better with Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks getting the bulk of the plays at linebacker. How can all this be so evident, but the UCLA coaches, with the benefit of hours and hours of tape from fall camp, are only coming to realize this now, five games into the season? And, really, the transition to Carter and Kendricks getting more playing time is still fairly slow.
Example: Taylor Embree returning punts. It's almost as if the Football Gods did this intendedly to punish Neuheisel for being so conservative, making Embree, the guy Neuheisel puts out there because he's so afraid of the other, more threatening returners not being able to field a punt, fumble a punt.
And this is just the poor evaluations of their own talent. The coaching decisions in this game were, again, head-scratching. You don't want the coach to go for it every time, but when it makes sense given various factors, like time and score, and a feeling of the game's momentum. While we appreciate Rick Neuheisel's choice to go for an onside kick in the second half, it wasn't the appropriate time to take a risk -- especially when there were many other instances this season when there was better risk-reward. So, you give Neuheisel credit for at least trying something, but his choice of trying something was, well, head-scratching. It's almost as if he wants to do it but he just doesn't have a feel or knack for it.
The offensive play-calling was improved, but we're so desperate for it to come out of its conservative shell we tend to over-reward UCLA's offense when it just slightly becomes less conservative. That was the case against Stanford. It was better, but it is still vastly conservative. UCLA threw a bit more on first down, and utilized some plays we haven't seen much of. They actually used a screen against Stanford. But still, the playbook is very limited, and it's very conservative in terms of down and distance. And, it feels as if the playcalling tightens up at certain moments – like when UCLA has a first-and-goal at the five-yard line on that first drive.
And getting back to the Pistol: It's just not ideal for short yardage. Is it really that difficult to go under center from an I formation with a fullback on a 3rd- or 4th-and short? Would the Bruins have had a touchdown on that first drive and how would that have changed the game?
On the defensive side, the playcalling was also very conservative. I don't think I counted more than a handful of blitzes during the course of the Stanford game. If you had to pinpoint a problem with UCLA's defense against Stanford, it was 1) bad personnel on the field, 2) some breakdowns in coverage and 3) a lack of pressure on the quarterback. We'll put #2 on the head of the players, but #1 and #3 are on the coaches. UCLA is now sending only a four-man rush predominantly, and we understand the theory against Stanford and Luck – that he got outside of containment last year and burned UCLA's D, so send only four and try to keep Luck and the Stanford offense in front of you. While, on one hand, you can say UCLA's defense played perhaps its best game of the season with this conservative approach, on the other hand it did give up 45 points and only got a couple of stops. Neuheisel has said this season that he thinks his defense can put enough pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush. UCLA, with no sacks Saturday against Stanford, has now gone three games without a sack. It has just three on the season, two against San Jose State and one against Houston. Before the Stanford game, UCLA was tied for 107th in the nation in sacks, and it will slip even further this week. And it's not a situation where UCLA is even getting close with its pass rush, with very few hurries and touches on the opposing quarterbacks. You simply can't be successful defensively without pressure on the quarterback, and it appears UCLA is just too scared and conservative to do it. Again, we're five games in and the Bruins haven't gotten a sack in three games; how long does it take for the realization to kick in that UCLA isn't getting enough pressure on the quarterback and needs to blitz?
And then, there's the use of timeouts or, in the case of the Stanford game, the head-scratching lack of it. Traditionally Neuheisel has had to burn timeouts when UCLA, on offense, doesn't have the right personnel on the field or isn't lined up correctly. If you're doing that, why can't you call a timeout when Stanford goes to a no-huddle and a Wildcat and your defense doesn't know what it's doing against it? And then, how is it possible that you can't call a timeout when Luck's pass to the one-yard line in the fourth quarter is arguably dropped? Your own defensive players are waving it as an incomplete pass and Stanford is hurrying up to snap a ball so that the play isn't reviewed. Why wouldn't you call a timeout and ask for a review? Watching the call in slow motion, it was pretty clear the Stanford receiver didn't catch the ball. If it had been over-ruled, it would have been 3rd and goal from the seven, instead of 3rd and goal from the two. And, if the pass had been ruled complete, you would have been able to, at the very least, get the proper personnel on the field and lined up correctly for Stanford's goal-line offense.
Ultimately, you have to give the players credit for having no give-up in this game, seemingly playing with heart and character, and for obvious improvement in their play.
But it's also so disheartening to come to the realization that UCLA has enough talent to compete with Stanford, and it didn't. In fact, if you take away the two fumbles and the two missed PATs, the score is 21-21 against a top ten team in the country. So, realizing this, that UCLA has enough talent to stay on the field with the Cardinal, and it loses in the fashion it did, it's almost more demoralizing than if UCLA didn't have talent. Because you suspect that, if the talent was utilized to its fullest, the Bruins very well might have been able to make up for their mistakes and win this game.
And even given all of this – all of the things that UCLA has going against it that we laundry-listed here -- it's stunning to even say that it was UCLA's best game of the season.
That's where we are.