We had been keeping a running tally of whether the team played up to its capability each week or under-achieved. Last week against Arizona we didn't even talk about it, actually.
But this week against Cal it was clearly the first game of the season where the Bruins played up to their capability.
The offense was efficient, gaining 383 total yards and 294 on the ground, which you might have been able to predict. But the performance of UCLA's defense was out of character, given the personality it had established in the first seven games of the season. Cal had been averaging 417 yards per game and the Bruins held them to 333. It was the first time this season the UCLA defense held an opponent to under its yards-per-game-average.
How'd this happen? Well, first, Cal's quarterback Zach Maynard had an absolutely horrendous game. He threw 4 interceptions, which led directly to 17 points for the Bruins and made what would have been possibly a close game a not-so-close one. Maynard usually has a brotherly connection with his half-brother, receiver Keenan Allen, finding him all over the field. Well, Maynard should check to see if he's related at all to UCLA safety Tevin McDonald, because on Saturday Maynard had just such a connection with him. The redshirt freshman had a Rahim Moore-like game, being in the right place at the right time for three interceptions as Maynard seemingly found him all over the field. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you'd literally think that Maynard was being paid to find McDonald, looking off more open receivers to find the one that was completely smothered in coverage, and seemingly throwing right to McDonald. Maynard was one of three Pac-12 quarterbacks who had thrown for more than 200 yards in every game this season, and UCLA's defense was the first to hold him under 200 (he threw for 199).
Secondly, on defense UCLA made some adjustments that had a big impact. With defensive tackle Cassius Marsh suspended for the game, defensive end Datone Jones moved inside for over 40 snaps and was clearly more effective playing the three-technique DT spot. While he might not have good quickness as a defensive end, he certainly does as a defensive tackle, and he was strong enough to hold up his blocker, leading to six tackles and 2 sacks and easily his best performance of the season. It's great, on one hand, that Jones, who had so much hype coming into the season but hadn't lived up to it, might have found his true position. But then, on the other hand, it's a bit disturbing that it took the UCLA coaching staff 8 games to discover it, something that even this humble observer had been suggesting at the beginning of the season. UCLA also utilized other personnel, like Aramide Olaniyan, the 6-1, 215-pound linebacker, as a rush defensive end, and he gave the Cal offensive tackles fits. He either easily zipped right around them, which led to one big-time tackle-for-loss, or the Cal OL had to hold or tackle him a number of times, which the referees didn't happen to see. Along those same lines, Keenan Graham, another defensive end who should have been getting more time because of his quickness, also was as big contributor, with three tackles and a sack. UCLA had six tackles for loss, which was easily the most for the defense in any game this season.
Perhaps the revelation, though, on defense was the play of UCLA's secondary. And that was because of a combination of a few elements. Andrew Abbott, who is getting playing time at cornerback because of the injury to Sheldon Price, is probably UCLA's best defensive player. Again, to many observers, including this one, it's been a bit head-scratching that he was second-string at cornerback. He also had a big tackle for loss, where he sniffed out a receiver screen, and he was excellent in coverage. The UCLA corners pressed more in this game, disrupting the routes of the dangerous Cal receivers. Aaron Hester is a big, physical corner, and so much more comfortable playing up rather than from the deficit of a cushion. He also had a fourth-quarter interception that locked down the win. Then, you have to give a ton of credit to UCLA's two young, inexperienced safeties, McDonald and Stan McKay. McDonald had the picks, and McKay was tied for the most tackles on the team, with 6, and generally was very good in coverage.
Again, and we hate to say "We told you so," but why has it taken so long to utilize Abbott more, or to realize that pressing receivers with your personnel would be more effective, or that, say, McKay might be one of your two best safeties?
On one hand, you have to feel absolutely fantastic for the players. It's clear that having some hard work finally come to fruition was rewarding for them. At one point, after UCLA recovered a fumble in the second quarter, you could see the Bruins were pumped, with half the UCLA sideline out on the field jumping up and down or raising a fist in the air, and that all the frustrations of the season were feeding into momentum on the field.
On the other hand, though, to be completely fair, you have to wonder: Why did this take so long? Why did it take the coaching staff so long to make some of these changes and adjustments? From what we know, it's not that the coaching staff isn't intelligent, it's just that they've been paralyzed a bit by conservatism.
On offense, easily the biggest factor was the running of quarterback Kevin Prince. He gained 163 yards on the night, and it was as if Cal had never played against the zone read. I'm sure Prince was almost shocked at the dozen or so times he made that read and saw the Cal defensive end dipping inside with seemingly no awareness that Prince could pull the ball down and run into the spot the DE was vacating. But wait, Cal got completely destroyed by the zone read and the Pistol last year against Nevada, so it's even more surprising that Cal looked completely clueless in defending it again Saturday. Prince did his job very well, and that's the main reason why for so long he was considered first string over Richard Brehaut, because he can make the zone read and run like that. But actually, I think just about any poster on the BRO message board could have made those reads against Cal.
But while it's great that Prince had such a big game and was the main force offensively for UCLA, it's also a bit worrisome that the guy who has a history of being so brittle – and clearly is a key to UCLA's running game – is out there not sliding but taking hits. You have to respect Prince a great deal that, with everything that's happened to him physically, he clearly has no qualms with putting himself in harm's way. That's what a player is supposed to do, how he's supposed to think. And while it's kind of bold in the case of Rick Neuheisel to tell Prince he wants him to not slide and run tough, this might be the one area where it is completely warranted to be conservative. It seemed that every UCLA fan – heck, even the Cal fans – in attendance were holding their breath every time Prince tucked and ran. Well, seemingly everyone but Neuheisel. Why, after you had gained 15 yards on a run, is it necessary to take a hit to gain two more, again, if the guy running the ball has an injury history like Prince? And when you don't really have another viable option on the bench because you obviously don't want to burn the redshirt year of freshman Brett Hundley and you don't think Nick Crissman is worthy? Also, what as uncanny was in the fourth quarter, with UCLA trying to just run out the clock and preserve the win is 1) Prince still in the game and 2) why are they still running the zone read and putting him a risk? See, so it's not just conservatism being the problem, but seemingly a lack of judgment. It makes for a great line in the post-game interview, that the coach told his oft-injured quarterback to not slide and take hits, but it's not very prudent, and it seems if there were ever a situation where Neuheisel should be conservative it would be this one.
Also, give a great deal of credit to Derrick Coleman. In his career, he has alternated between games where he ran soft and tough, but the soft games are so much more infrequent now. It was almost shocking to see how explosive he was blasting through the line of scrimmage, epitomizing the phrase of "running downhill."
Then, also give credit to UCLA's offensive line. They started out a little shaky, in both pass pro and run blocking. It might have been because of the first start of guard Wade Yandall (in place of Albert Cid, who was suspended for the first half). But the OL, and Yandall, clearly got on track. With Yandall he was so effective that the coaching staff opted to stick with him in the second half when Cid was eligible.
Also, you have to recognize Jerry Rice, Jr., the walk-on receiver who stepped in (when Nelson Rosario was having cramps) and caught two passes. His enthusiasm, jumping up and pumping a fist when he made a catch, reminds you of what is really fun about college football.
And then there's the heart and toughness of UCLA's punter – yeah, that's right, UCLA's punter – Jeff Locke. The guy was cheap-shotted on a punt, sprained his left shoulder, but kept punting and doing kick-offs. In fact, on the punt in which he was hurt, the play was called back, and after being injured, he had to go back on the field, looking kind of wobbly, and punt again. All he did was boom a 57-yarder. If every player on the Bruin squad were as tough as the team's punter UCLA would be in pretty good shape.
We'd also like to acknowledge Dietrich Riley, who was taken off the field in a very scary moment with a neck injury. We've heard all of the tests are negative and it appears he's going to be okay.
So, it was clearly a good win for the Bruins. You could feel the satisfaction and excitement of the players in the locker room after the game. In the season record tabulating if the team played up to its capability it's definitely a game that goes in the win column.
The issue, though, is that "win" brings UCLA's record to 1-6-1 for the season.
And if you're a discerning, wise UCLA fan, while you have to feel good for the players – and even personally for the coaches – you have to still recognize that, while that was a good win, one in which so many things fell into place and went right, it's still arguable whether it was enough to erase the Debacle in the Desert. It would probably take a number of similar wins to eliminate the memory and after-taste of the Arizona game. And it's not just a memory to erase, but what that game meant in terms of the state of the program.
But for now, this week, give the Bruins a great deal of credit. Both the players and the coaches clearly don't have any quit in them. In the Cal preview I wrote that I thought the Arizona game could signify the beginning of the end of the season, but it's clear that's not the case for the players and the coaches.