The best way to put it: It was Something to Build On.
We said previously that it would be considered a successful game if UCLA could shake off the shackles of the Ghost of Rick Neuheisel and play a clean, fundamentally-sound, relatively blunder-free game. And that really didn't happen. There were three blocked extra points, a mistake on a punt return that led to a turnover, a great deal of over-pursuit and mis-tackling on defense, a couple of key bonehead personal fouls, one which directly negated a UCLA touchdown.
But that would have been below par for a typical game in the last four years. So, to kick off the Jim Mora Era at UCLA, really, the game was actually on the cleaner, less-blunder side.
And, if you'd like, you can easily chalk up much of it to first-game kinks, with a new coaching staff, new schemes, and playing on the road. Hopefully, though, there will be less of this kind of Blunder Ball as Mora's first season progresses, and just not more of the same, as it was for four years under Neuheisel.
So, in terms of Stopping the Madness, we'll give Mora and the 2012 Bruins a pass on this game.
At least on the blunders. The primary concern, though, in this game, that you really couldn't get past there for a while was UCLA's (once again) porous defense. It was fairly atrocious in the first half, allowing what will prove this season to be a mediocre Rice offense 281 yards and 24 points in the first half. There were problems defensively with both the tactics/game plan and the execution from the players. For many years, the bugaboo of UCLA's defense, if you could narrow it down to one, would be poor tackling technique -- undisciplined pursuit, poor angles, and bad wrap ups. That was still very evident in the first half. And then, there was some head-scratching in terms of tactics and play calling. So much of what Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos seemed to be attempting to do was not only not working but enhancing Rice's offense. When would you ever think this could be said but here goes: UCLA over-blitzed in the first half. Or, well, more accurately, did so in a way that directly played right into the hands of the Rice offense. UCLA tried to consistently send pressure from the edge, on almost every down, and Rice adapted pretty quickly and took their game up the middle of the field, or quarterback Taylor McHargue easily found one-on-one matchups in UCLA's pass defense, which was forced most of the time to go man-to-man with so many bodies dedicated to blitzing. We actually understand this; perhaps Spanos suffered a bit from some hubris, thinking UCLA was just so much better and more athletic than Rice that the blitz would immediately collapse in on McHargue and not give him any time at all to find anyone in the man-to-man coverage. You have to really revel in the aggressive mindset, which is a huge departure from UCLA's recent defensive tactical history. It was then a punch, counter-punch, and that's understandable; that's how all this goes. But then UCLA didn't counter-punch back, and a majority of the first half Rice exploited this dynamic, going outside of the pressure with bubble screens or running up the middle with the Wildcat, the option or even just McHargue scrambling without enough defensive bodies in the middle of the field for containment.
Then, as I said, even though the players weren't in the right position to make plays, their performances in that first half were poor, which certainly made matters worse. Over-pursuit and an inability to contain ball carriers was the order of the day (as it's been for years with UCLA's defense). We hate to pick on him, but linebacker Damien Holmes was responsible for a great deal of it; on options he consistently picked the guy the wrong guy to contain who didn't have the ball, he was juked badly on a quarterback draw on a play which sustained a big first-half Rice drive, and he committed one of the personal fouls that also kept a Rice drive alive. But it wasn't just Holmes; defensive lineman Cassius Marsh, for getting all of the hype in fall practice, especially from Mora, was pushed around most of the night, not even when double-teamed, creating a nice seam consistently for Rice ball carriers to run through. Linebacker Eric Kendricks, the guy who was supposed to be the star in the making, also got pushed around quite a bit. And the guys who were blitzing from the edge were generally not doing much to get around their blocker and get to the quarterback. It might have looked like it was the secondary's fault for allowing soft coverage on some of McHargue's completions, but they were generally left on a man-to-man island for most of the first half.
If it weren't for Anthony Barr, who was clearly the defensive MVP and revelation of this game, UCLA's defense would have probably allowed Rice a couple more touchdowns in the first half. He was flying all over the field, was seemingly the only blitzer who could get near the quarterback and then also contain him, and he was making plays on the backend of plays with his quickness and hustle.
At this point, though, there had never been a player more missed in recent years than Patrick Larimore, with that figurative and literal hole in the middle of the field.
It felt like deja vu all over again for UCLA's defense, conjuring up images of UCLA's most recent, tragic defensive history.
But then, in the second half, the skies opened and something happened with the UCLA defense that very rarely ever did for the last 10 years: The UCLA defensive coordinator made an adjustment. UCLA went almost exclusively to a dime package, or whatever you want to call having five defensive backs and another defensive back playing inside linebacker. That gave Spanos the extra body to then utilize a zone in coverage, and that did the trick. UCLA still sent 4 or 5 on the pass rush, but now McHargue looked down field and saw far too many white jerseys to get off the pass quickly. The pressure came and either he was sacked, flushed (and mostly contained because there was an extra body in containment) or he threw incomplete. Voila. UCLA's defense, then, shut out Rice the rest of the way.
This could be the formula UCLA employs against most spread teams this season. It certainly won't work against any pound-it-out running teams, but it does give UCLA something to build on against the spreads.
Offfensively, it was also a game that clearly saw UCLA's offensive brain trust switch up its tactics and approach -- in other words, another adjustment. The offense went into a little conservative stage in the second quarter and to begin the second half, running the ball primary without much balance through the air. Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley looked a little disoriented, too, during this time. He had made a few bad throws, a couple of inaccurate ones and then the interception where he badly didn't see a linebacker dropping into coverage. The UCLA offense then got a bit conservative and Hundley seemed to lose confidence. UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone, I'm sure, didn't go to the run during this time because of Hundley alone, but more likely because UCLA needed to hold onto the ball -- after some quick-strike touchdowns -- and keep its defense off the field. Going one dimensional, though, might have been a little bit of hubris on Mazzone's part, too, thinking that UCLA could still be just as effective handing the ball to Johnathan Franklin a majority of the time.
But then, after a couple of conservative possessions to start the second half, UCLA deviated from what it would have done under Neuheisel. Under the former coach, with an 11-point lead and a quarter and a half to kill, it would have continued to go conservative and just try to run out the clock. But once Mazzone got the defense a little rest with some long drives that emphasized the run, he opened up the offense again. Hundley started connecting on high-percentage passes, UCLA's skill guys were put in space to make plays, and they did. The running game, too, with UCLA's play-calling now spreading the field, had more room to run. The offense easily moved down the field with a balanced attack. UCLA ended up with 646 yards, the 8th most for a game in UCLA history. And it certainly was a case of the offense still being under wraps to a great degree, with Mazzone not wanting to show Nebraska too much.
That period of the game, in the middle of the second half, should have made any discerning and sophisticated Bruin fan shed tears. Both its defense and offense had made adjustments and were doing the logical tactic, rather than just going into a conservative shell.
This is not to say that, for the rest of the season, the tactics of the offense and defense are going to always be stellar. But for a UCLA fan suffering from Battered Bruin Syndrome, though, it was a nice little glimmer of hope that we can reasonably expect to see logic and sense in UCLA's tactics.
For his first game as a college quarterback, Hundley was fine. He was 21 for 28 for 202 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and had the game you would just about expect from him. After that unexpected touchdown run from scrimmage the first time he touched the ball as a college player, expectations for his performance were a bit high. He had some poor moments -- the interception, a few throws behind receivers (one that would have been a touchdown to Shaquelle Evans), a number of poor decisions when the pocket was breaking down (he doesn't seem to step up into it well just yet). But for his first college game you have to think, overall, it was a solid performance and a very good foundation to build on.
If the MVP of the defense was Barr, it's not too difficult to deem Franklin as the offensive MVP. While many Bruins were trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing, the veteran Franklin definitely showed he knows exactly what he's doing. It had to be particularly rewarding for him to 1) not only finally break a big run, but break two and then 2) pick up a fumble on a kick-off.
The offensive line had a very good game. Left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo and center Jacob Brendel were stellar, constantly pushing their man down the field or sealing him into the ground. The two freshman tackles, Simon Goines and Torian White, had good debuts, mostly using their length to counter the smaller Rice DL.
All of this has to be taken with a massive grain of salt, though. This was against what will prove out to be a pretty poor team in Rice. They have some weapons on offense, like we thought, but their defense is pretty bad -- mostly small, undersized and not quick. In other words, the UCLA offensive line should have dominated them like they did.
Mora, for his first game, gets a considerable passing grade. He had said he was a good game manager, and at least in this game there were no gaffes. He, also, showed a different mindset than what UCLA fans are accustomed to, still having his offense attack and going for two-point conversions when they led late in the second half by 25 points, and not running the clock out to end the first half. Even though it was probably a case of Richard Brehaut checking into the play with 5:50 left in the game and the ball at the UCLA 1, it was still a beautiful thing to see Brehaut throw that post to Devin Lucien for 38 yards and get UCLA some breathing room. Also, he was pretty loose on the sideline -- at a couple of points during the game, he seemed to crack jokes with his players, because they came away with laughs and smiles, and a little stunned, actually.
All in all, it was a night with some echoes of UCLA's recent football woes, but there were also some clear indications that it's going in a new direction. The best way to describe it is, again: Something to Build On.
Coming Up: The unit-by-unit analysis...