Again, It's a Different UCLA Team

For the second straight week, it feels like it's a different team on the Rose Bowl field. This time, UCLA doesn't play really well, and unlike its recent history, it still routs a team it should, beating Houston, 37-6...

As we said after the win over Nebraska, this team, this season, so far, feels different...

It was the same in UCLA's win over Houston, 37-6, Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.

In a game in which the UCLA offense didn't necessarily play well it still won by 31 points and amassed 567 yards. It was a game where, just in your initial impression of watching it, you thought UCLA didn't run the ball well, but it ran for 247 yards. On a night when its redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, didn't necessarily look very good, he still had numbers that filled the stat sheet -- 27 of 42 for 320 yards, and two touchdowns (against two interceptions).

Again, that was on an off night.

In previous seasons, on an off night, UCLA might have lost this game. Its offense would have gained, say, 230 yards, and its quarterback would have thrown for 110.

Seriously, and this isn't just Bruin Braggin', but that truly was an off night for UCLA's new offense.

It's almost as if the statistician is adding yards and completions to the totals behind everyone's back.

It just didn't feel like a game in which the offense gained 567 yards. But again, this all feels different.

It now feels like a successful program. See, Bruin fans, it's a bit foreign for you to comprehend, but successful programs, when they have off nights, beat poor teams by 31 points. It's a feeling UCLA fans have to get used to, when the team kind of under-achieves but it doesn't lose or squeak out a win against a not-so-good team, but still routs them.

It's definitely the type of program, now, that recruits would recognize they'd want to play in. Who wouldn't want to have an off night and throw for 320 yards? Running back Johnathan Franklin, who is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate after his first two stellar games, was seemingly quiet on the night -- but he ran for 110 yards. . It now seems on the low side that he's averaging 180 yards per game, which is probably still good enough to get him ranked as the nation's rushing leader. Heck, if a UCLA running back had averaged 180 yards per game over the course of three games anytime in the last decade we'd be doing Bruin backflips.

I hate to bring it up, but there is a great example across town. We won't even talk about USC's loss to Stanford Saturday, because that's apples-to-oranges in terms of competition if you're comparing the two games. But overall, USC has faced one good team and two cupcakes, similar to UCLA. On the season, USC's star running back transfer from Penn State, Silas Redd, has rush for a total of 180 yards. Franklin -- 541. Redd ran for a total of 17 yards against Stanford. UCLA had three running backs who out-gained him last night. Hundley has thrown for 827 yards on the season. The USC Heisman Trophy Candidate quarterback -- 813.

That comparison wasn't meant as a specific dig at USC, but an illustration of how different UCLA's offense is this season.

It's a bit strange, too, to watch other games and, specifically, other offenses, after watching UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone's scheme. Other offenses now look so antiquated, slow and plodding. Now we all know how Oregon fans feel, like the rest of the country is in slow motion and stuck in 1982.

There is that age-old Bruin phenomenon, too, that UCLA is still looking to put together even one game (not even a season) when the defense and the offense are good at the same time. In UCLA's first two games the offense carried the day, but against Houston it was inexplicably the defense that did. The Bruin D faced its toughest competition so far this season, probably, and almost completely shut down the Cougars, except for one bad containment on the David Piland run in the fourth quarter when UCLA had its mop-up defense on the field. Houston, a team that just a week ago put up 49 points in a losing effort, as well as 690 total yards and 580 yards passing, was held almost completely in check. It threw for just 249 yards, with Piland completing only 29 of 60 throws. In fact, the biggest suspense on the night was whether UCLA was going to shut out the Cougars.

But, again, it truly was different that UCLA could combine for a very good defensive effort and plenty of offense on an off offensive night and thoroughly beat one of its non-conference cupcakes.

If, though, before the Houston game, you would have cited the improvement you would like to see in the game, you would have pointed at UCLA's defense. It was truly the biggest question mark after the first two games, but it was very impressive against the Cougars. It was interesting, too, because, if you also would have said UCLA would try to put a great deal of pressure on the Houston quarterback, and generally not succeed that much in doing it, and thus leave its secondary in quite a bit of man coverage, you would have shuddered thinking about it against Houston's offense. But it worked. Again, in previous years it would have failed miserably. But for some reason, again, it's just different so far this season. Things like that work.

It has to be said that Houston greatly enhanced UCLA's effort with many dropped passes and a good amount of well-timed penalties. But while some of that was luck, some of it wasn't. Many of the dropped passes, if you look carefully, were definitely the fault of the receiver. But at least some were because Piland was slightly rushed in his throw and the timing of the route was off by a hair, just enough to get the receiver out of his rhythm.

UCLA collected five interceptions, three by cornerback Sheldon Price (who will probably lead the nation in that category this week, with four on the season), and at least a few of those were because Piland was rushed. UCLA recorded just one sack on the night, and you wouldn't even say the pass rush necessarily got a hand on Piland that much, but you could tell he was bothered. So, ultimately the tactic of pressure-and-man-coverage worked on Houston.

You don't want to jinx it by saying this but: UCLA's secondary has yet to allow a receiver to get behind it in three games. Every completion has been in front of the secondary, and it's even contained and pursued the receivers well after the catch.

The biggest improvement we saw from the defense this week was a vast upgrade in pursuit and containment. It started with the second half of Nebraska and it continued against Houston. This is the season, at least so far, Bruin fans tend to wonder if some other players have put on the uniforms and are playing for UCLA, and it definitely has appeared that way for a game and a half in terms of this. If you noticed, UCLA defenders are far more effective in their pursuit, not taking such bad angles for tackles, and are wrapping up and completing the tackle. There was very little YAC (yards after the catch) in this game for Houston. In fact, without looking at the game a second time, there was only one glaring instance I remember in which the UCLA defense allowed a Cougar ball carrier out of its sights (other than the Piland run) -- when cornerback Aaron Hester got juked by receiver Deontay Greeberry in the first quarter. But from there on out, most of the time, any Cougar with the ball was greeted pretty quickly by a committee of guys in True Blue. Again, like with how the pressure on the quarterback wasn't overwhelming but was an influence on the game, UCLA's improved pursuit and tackling is about a better scheme putting players in a position to make a play more. UCLA defenders look like they're better fundamentally in tackling, with better balance and wrap-up, because they're in the right position more often now.

Some of that, too, comes from UCLA being in a nickel and dime package for most of the night. The Bruin defense this season has been at its best when it has additional defensive backs on the field, which gives them an edge in terms of quickness and pursuit. Dalton Hilliard, who played at that hybrid linebacker/safety spot, had perhaps his best night as a Bruin. He had a number of pass break-ups, and not just underneath but on one deep ball, was very good in being in the right place at the right time in run support, and even had a huge block on special teams to help spring Steven Manfro on a punt return. Stan McKay, too, played the hybrid spot for a huge portion of the game. Having these 6-0-ish, 200-pound-ish defenders on the field, as opposed to a 6-3, 250-pounder, improves UCLA's defensive team speed dramatically. Of course, this might not work against a pound-it-out running team, but against spreads it definitely is.

And when could you ever say about a UCLA defense that it thrives and looks more comfortable against a spread? UCLA's defense, traditionally, even its better versions in the last decade or so, has struggled against spreads. But this scheme by Jim Mora and Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos is clearly in its element against it. It was one of the concerns with the defense going into the season, whether Mora and Co., having so much NFL experience, would be able to scheme well against college football's spreads. It seems like it hasn't even been a hiccup, but a strength. It could very well be that UCLA's new defensive brain trust is recognizing how to utilize its personnel best, which would be unprecedented for a UCLA defense, and the nickel and dimes fit UCLA's defensive talent better. For one thing it tends to get the effective players on the field more and keep the less effective players on the sideline.

Revolutionary, right?

Maybe UCLA fans should dare to dream. It does give UCLA fans a certain hope that they've never been able to even attempt to hope previously. Perhaps sometime this season, UCLA will put together a game in which the offense and defense are playing well. If UCLA could put together a game with the version of the offense we saw against Nebraska with the version of the defense we saw against Houston, it might actually have one of the best teams in the Pac-12.

All in all, after the excitement and pure entertainment of the Nebraska game a week ago, this was a ho-hum game. There was such a lack of energy in the building. UCLA's offense just didn't put up the fireworks like it did against the Cornhuskers. Hundley threw two interceptions and the offense fumbled three times. The Bruins were penalized 8 times. The offense, on a couple of possessions, moved backward instead of forward. Houston's defense, to their credit, had UCLA's running game scouted out, shutting down Franklin quite a bit and, in fact, dropping him for some losses. UCLA lost 43 yards rushing on the night.

But again, this is how ho-hum games should be, at least for legitimate football programs. You should win every ho-hum game by 31 points.

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