It was almost impossible to believe, Saturday night, that Brett Hundley was playing in just his second college game. Blessed with a combination of tremendous pass protection, and an offensive system designed specifically to get playmakers in space, Hundley looked like an upperclassman, showing poise in the pocket and excellent decision making outside of it. What is really impressive about him is his ability, as just a redshirt freshman, to go through his entire progression. On the touchdown pass to Steven Manfro, it looked like that throw might have been his third or fourth option on the play. The throw to Manfro itself was a beauty—perfectly in stride, and only where Manfro could catch it.
Although Hundley really needs to learn how to slide, he showed a nice ability to avoid taking big hits. He was comfortable running out of bounds, throwing the ball away, and sliding (comfortable might not be the right word for that one). He only threw one ball that looked like it had a chance to be intercepted, toward the end of the third quarter, and only on a couple of deep throws did it looks like his accuracy suffered. He hit every swing pass more or less on the money, including the perfect throw to Johnathan Franklin for the final touchdown. It's almost certain he's going to have some freshman moments at some point this season, but in this game, there really weren't any.
Richard Brehaut didn't look great backing up Hundley. His three throws into the end zone from the four yard line were off, with one to Joseph Fauria that looked like it should have been intercepted. Then, his throw on the fake field goal was way too long, overthrowing the 6'8 Fauria by about ten feet.
Running Backs: A-
It's amazing what good coaching can do with talent. Franklin looks like a completely transformed player. After spending the last three years running almost strictly between the tackles, Franklin had some huge runs to the sidelines on Saturday, thanks to a variety of swing passes and misdirections. In terms of just his running, he looks so much stronger, faster, and quicker than he did even last year. He's clearly improved his acceleration, and on his second big run down the sideline, it was almost as if he didn't trust his newfound speed quite yet, attempting to cut back when he really didn't need to. The most impressive thing, though, is the power with which he is running now. Again, as against Rice, he had a couple of runs where he broke several tackles en route to a large gain. Against Nebraska, there were two separate runs where he was nearly tackled for a short gain, steadied himself with his off hand, and propelled for another 7+ yards.
Damien Thigpen continues to look dynamic. He's being used in a variety of ways—running between the tackles, taking swing passes, motioning into the slot—and it still seems like he needs to get more touches. He, too, is running with good power, in addition to his speed and quickness. Also, for a guy who hasn't played in…well, he never played too much under Neuheisel. But for a guy who is pretty inexperienced, he makes good decisions on when to make his cuts. On one running play, Nebraska blew the right side of the offensive line about two yards into the back field on a stretch play, forcing Thigpen out of his running lane. Thigpen tried to hit the edge, but as soon as he saw that there wasn't much chance, he turned up field and dug for two yards. It easily could have been a two or three yard loss, and with an inexperienced player in there, you would almost expect it.
Jordon James didn't have a great game. He had the fumble, obviously, but his blocking out of the back field was also somewhat poor. The last sack of the game on Hundley was about half James' fault, as he gave just a half-hearted push to the Nebraska linebacker, who then raced right by him, and it didn't seem like the play was a screen. He ran OK, but looked a little more tentative than either Thigpen or Franklin.
That play over the Nebraska receiver was an example of why most practice observers last season were saying that it was kind of silly that Devin Lucien was redshirting. Lucien has some of the best hands on the team, and couple that with his concentration and route running, and he'll have more than a few great catches like that. He really helped to break the game open with that catch, and he also had a nice slant earlier in the game that he took for 20+ yards after the catch.
Joseph Fauria is just such a physical mismatch for anyone he's up against that there's little reason not to throw it to him every time in the red zone, or at least until he gets bracketed by two or three defenders. His penalty on the hold, though, was pretty blatant, grabbing most of the Nebraska player's jersey during the 1st quarter.
After having a very rough game against Rice, Steven Manfro had a good comeback against Nebraska, catching the deep touchdown pass in addition to a couple of other short passes. He also had one run between the tackles on a counter that went for a pretty good gain.
Shaquelle Evans continues to be impressive. He had a nice run after the catch to get a first down in the first half, putting a move on the cornerback. As a unit, the receivers really do look like they're taking care of the little things so much better than last year, particularly with downfield blocking. Each of Franklin's long runs was aided significantly by receivers blocking down field.
From looking at the play live, it looked like the pass interference call on Jerry Johnson's would-be touchdown was more for the push off than for the pick play in the endzone (as the color commentator seemed to think on TV). Still, it didn't look like much of a push off, but it was a judgment call. Johnson didn't have a big impact outside of that, and didn't make great plays on a couple of deep balls from Hundley.
Offensive Line: A
Somebody may have posted this Saturday night, but it should be reiterated: Adrian Klemm is a wizard. To steal another line (my own) from last week: this offensive line is starting a guy who hasn't played in two years, another fresh off of a concussion, and THREE freshmen. Nebraska didn't get too exotic with pressure, but it was impressive to watch each of the linemen hold their blocks one on one without too much assistance. Considering the stage, the personnel, and the talent on Nebraska's defense, this was the best pass blocking performance that I can remember.
Xavier Su'a-Filo is coming into his own as a guard, and is using his quickness to devastating effect, pulling in front on running plays as a lead blocker. He had one play where he made two or three blocks on one of Franklin's big runs. Jeff Baca also looked good blocking in the running game. He did, however, get flagge for two consecutive false starts.
Simon Goines has been really impressive in pass protection through two games. After looking completely overwhelmed to start fall camp, with Jordan Zumwalt repeatedly knocking him over in San Bernardino, he looks vastly improved, and is keeping himself in balance by punching quickly off the snap. It looked like he was only responsible for one missed block. Torian White also had a nice game, and looked better run blocking than he did against Rice.
Jake Brendel might be the most impressive of the bunch, considering how much is required of him. His snaps were nearly perfect, and he looked like he made most of the right line calls. In addition to that, he hasn't been beaten in pass protection yet this year, and he's mostly been a positive force in the running game, which can be difficult for a center. Against the Cornhuskers, he had a number of plays in pass protection where he snapped the ball, and then immediately got leverage on his defensive tackle to stand him up at the line.
Offensive coaching, scheme, and play calling: A-
This game plan was nearly perfect. Knowing that Nebraska would start the game stacking up front to keep UCLA from establishing the run or swinging the ball to the outside, Noel Mazzone called several slants and deep balls throughout the first half, and even threw out the first five wide formation of the year, trying to keep the defense stretched vertically and horizontally. Then, once he'd established the deep threat, he started to run the ball between the tackles, generating positive yardage there. Once he'd narrowed the front again, he finally went back to the swing pass in the fourth quarter to ice the game.
The offense was able to generate several mismatches throughout the game through simple motion plays out of the back field. On two of Fauria's catches, UCLA lined up three wide and then motioned a running back out of the back field to Fauria's side, pulling a linebacker away from the middle of the field. Then, Fauria simply ran over the middle and caught an eight yard pass in single coverage. It's devastatingly simple—because teams always need to defend the swing pass against Mazzone, motion plays out of the back field actually accomplish something.
If we're going to pick nits, the offense did go pretty conservative to end the first half, running three times before punting away, allowing Nebraska to drive down for a field goal. Also, the play calling on Brehaut's lone possession was a little strange, given that the team was on the four yard line. If there's one worry at this point, it's that the red zone offense isn't as efficient as you'd like.
Defensive Line: B
Ineffective most of last season after being described as unblockable by most practice observers last season, Datone Jones has been more or less unblockable in the early season. Actually, unblocked might be the right word for a couple of those plays on Saturday. His read on the safety was perfect, but it did seem to be more part of the game plan than anything (after halftime, every time Nebraska ran an option, it looked like UCLA's goal was to hit Taylor Martinez). He sacked Martinez previously to that on a very similar play. Jones also held his own in the running game, and is showing a more complete game this year than he showed all of last year.
Seali'i Epenesa once again was serviceable, if not spectacular, at nose tackle. He's not getting blown off the ball, which is about what you need out of the position. You'd like to have that position command more double teams than it currently does, though. He was blocked ably by just the right guard a couple of times on Saturday. Donovan Carter actually looked a little more explosive from the nose spot, and you have to wonder if he'll start to work up into the rotation a little bit more.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa got more time on Saturday and it looked like Cassius Marsh's time was a little reduced. Marsh had one really bad whiff on Abdullah's touchdown run, missing him completely in the back field, and generally had another ineffectual day. Although he didn't impact the box score much, Owa had more of an impact, and actually got double teamed a couple of times, which helped to free up Jordan Zumwalt.
Ellis McCarthy did look lost on the Martinez touchdown run, going after the running back as Martinez was running right behind him, but that's to be expected out of a freshman. McCarthy is still working his way back into shape after sitting out most of fall camp. He didn't play much after that, so you have to figure that the coaching staff is using it as a teaching moment.
The big worry to come out of Saturday's game, aside from Hundley's ankle, is that inside linebacker still looks like a really weak position for UCLA. Damien Holmes once again looked slow and tentative, especially on the first Nebraska touchdown run. Eric Kendricks, much like Franklin, looks like a completely different player from a year ago, but for Kendricks, that's not such a good thing. He was mostly responsible for Martinez' long touchdown run as he shaded several yards toward the running back, allowing Martinez to run right through where he should have been. Additionally, neither is looking like a sure tackler at this point, which is a big concern out of that position.
But hey, there's always a bright side. Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt both had great games from the outside linebacker spot. Proving that the Rice game was no fluke, Barr once again looked like a force in the back field, again playing with just one hand. What really stands out about both guys is that they seem to have bought in fully to the defensive scheme. There was one play where Barr, on an option, went after the running back, pushed him, saw he didn't have the ball, turned around, and tackled Martinez all in about one second. It was one of the most quietly impressive things I've seen from UCLA in a long time. Barr was credited with only one sack and one and a half tackles for a loss, but honestly, what he and Zumwalt were able to accomplish in terms of pressure was directly responsible for Martinez reverting to 2011 Taylor Martinez in the fourth quarter.
Zumwalt played a great game in run support, and actually acquitted himself nicely in pass coverage a couple of plays. After sitting out the second half last week, it was also important to get a full game out of him this week. Keenan Graham got a little bit of time, but didn't make much of an impact. The coaches mostly rode the starters, though.
Defensive Backs: B
Just so you all know, Jim Mora wasn't just blowing smoke in the Sunday teleconference: Randall Goforth actually does have really good hands. During camp, there was a week where it felt like he was getting an interception every day. As with Manfro last week, the odds are very good that he's going to get another ball thrown his way this year, and the odds are very good that he'll catch it. Aside from the dropped interceptions, Goforth played an OK game in his first start. He got faked out on a couple of the option plays, and on one of Martinez' runs to the outside, he bit on a pump fake which allowed Martinez to get an extra five or six yards. He did have nine tackles, and didn't let any pass plays get behind him, which is about what you need out of a freshman safety.
Andrew Abbott, pushing up to cornerback in the absence of Sheldon Price, had a very nice day in coverage. With the talent at outside linebacker, and Jones becoming a force, Abbott may not win any defensive MVP awards , but he's probably still the best defensive back on the team. His interception to more or less ice the game had more to do with the play call than anything, but he put really effective coverage on his man all game.
Aaron Hester, on the other hand, had a pretty bad game. He was penalized twice for being too handsy, and generally didn't look strong in coverage. Given that Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios are waiting in the wings, you have to wonder if the coaching staff will take a longer look at them this week.
Tevin McDonald was out of position on two of the option runs by Martinez, but he also had a couple of nice plays in run support.
Defensive coaching, scheme, and play calling: A-
Even in the first half, when Nebraska scored 24 points and gained 330+ yards of offense, it didn't feel like it was the scheme that was the problem. More, the team was missing tackles and putting itself out of position. Marsh blew the Abdullah run, Holmes struggled with the first touchdown run, and Kendricks and McCarthy both messed up the Martinez touchdown run. Lou Spanos dialed up a good amount of pressure to start the game, as expected, to keep the running game bottled up, and largely it worked.
Starting in the second half, UCLA stopped bringing so much pressure from the outside because, much like with the Rice game, the coaching staff saw that they could effectively pressure Martinez with just four rushers. With seven players in coverage, and the defense generating a consistent pass rush with just four players, Nebraska was completely stuffed in the second half. It's important to note that now, through two games, UCLA has allowed just six points in the second half, after allowing 48 in the first half. Given the Bruins' ability to generate a consistent pass rush against both Rice and Nebraska with just four players, it'll be interesting to see if they go a bit more conservative against Houston to test it out.
The play call to put Abbott back in, effectively, a zone on his interception was inspired. Martinez' safety outlet all game had been to throw a floater to the left side, and Abbott was perfectly placed to pick it off.
Special Teams: C
Well, it was better than against Rice, so that's something. Ka'imi Fairbairn missed two of four kicks, and we can't really blame the blocking this time. At this point, this is becoming a worry, and you have to figure the two misses had a lot to do with the fake field goal call. This game should not have been as close as it was. The first miss was a very ugly shank, and the second one was just hooked to the left. Two of his extra points also looked like they were a hair's breadth away from missing.
Damien Thigpen's one kick return didn't go very far, but he looks dangerous. He's got an extra gear that no other player on the team has. Jordon James and Steven Manfro also each took a kick, and looked OK, but Thigpen just looks more explosive. It also might be worth a shot to give him a look at punt returner; Manfro looks fine, and certainly made more out of his two punt returns than most would have, but Thigpen is faster, quicker, and shiftier.
The really short kickoff by Jeff Locke in the fourth quarter actually didn't look like a squib to me; it looked more like he just hit the ball poorly. Of course, given the fact that he booms most of his kicks through the uprights, you'll take an occasional poor kick that only goes to the five yard line.
Nebraska Unit by Unit Analysis
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