Brett Hundley was bound to have a mistake-filled game, and if you looked at the schedule and had to pick a game for it to happen, you probably would have picked this one. Outside of his swing throws, most everything he threw was off—the deeper the ball, the further off the throw. What's clear at this point about Hundley is that, first, he's ahead of the curve on the number one staple of Noel Mazzone's offense: the swing pass. He hits it well, and even in this game, he had a couple near-perfect swing passes, including one to Steven Manfro where he led him just the right amount, allowing Manfro to get a running start at the catch. It's clear, also, that he struggles with slant passes. In each of the first three games of the season, he has generally been throwing slant passes to the back shoulder of receivers, and this has carried over since the beginning of fall camp. Twice, on Saturday, receivers had to make tough catches on slants that should have gone for many more yards.
On deeper passes, he's not terribly consistent yet, which is to be expected. I'm not sure exactly how much you can take from his notable inaccuracy in this game, given that with the ankle injury last week, he probably wasn't throwing from the greatest base. Still, when he can't hit throws beyond 10 yards, it does take away a really important dimension of the offense. Against a Houston team that was rushing six most of the game and stacking most of its personnel near the line of scrimmage, it severely inhibited UCLA's attack to not be able to make the Cougars pay. Make no mistake: 567 yards of offense is actually a minor disappointment against this mostly bad Houston defense.
With his interceptions, Hundley made a really bad decision on the first one, and he wasn't under much pressure. On the second interception, though, he didn't get much help from Jerry Johnson, which we'll get to in a bit. It seemed, also, that Hundley was a little limited in his mobility, looking a step or two slower on his few scrambles.
On the positive side, even when he's having a bad game, there's so much to like about Hundley's poise in the pocket. Facing probably the most significant pass rush he's dealt with this season, he kept his cool and delivered the ball even with defenders a step or two away from him. It's refreshing to see a quarterback with that kind of pocket awareness, especially as a redshirt freshman.
Speaking of, isn't it great that the day a redshirt freshman completes 64 percent of his passes while throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns is considered a sub-par performance?
Running Backs: B+
It was a bit of a down day for the rushing attack, in terms of their performance through the first two games, but it's difficult to attribute much, if any, of that to the running backs themselves. Johnathan Franklin had 110 yards rushing, and easily could have had another 40 or 50 specifically if Joe Fauria had held a few more blocks. What was really kind of astonishing in this game was how Franklin was able to grind out five or six yard gains when there was little room to run against Houston's blitzing defense. In fact, watching in the press box, just looking at the offense and defensive lines, we kept thinking plays were getting blown up at about the line of scrimmage, but more often than not, Franklin would end up with a four to six yard gain.
What's been really impressive is how much better his balance is this year. I'd wager that a lot of time was spent this offseason improving his core strength and leg strength, because he's so much better at staying on his feet through contact now. Couple that with his improved explosion, and it's hard to imagine him doing much worse than he did in this game—which, as far as such things go, doesn't suck.
Damien Thigpen had another explosive day, and even though he got a few more touches on Saturday, we're getting greedy and would like to see more. The most impressive thing he did all day was the kickoff return, for two reasons. First, he showed better acceleration from the kickoff return spot than anyone has since Maurice Drew handled kickoffs in 2004. And second, Johnathan Franklin was his lead blocker and, running at near full speed down the field, actually slowed Thigpen down, preventing him from breaking out into open space. Think about that for a second. It would be an upset if he didn't score a touchdown on a kickoff return this year. Even though we like Steven Manfro, and think he's a good punt returner, Thigpen should get a long look there as well. Heck, he even blocks pretty well too, helping to keep a blitzer off of Hundley when he overthrew Fauria in the end zone in the first half.
Jordon James had a nice bounce back game after having a poor game against Nebraska. He read his blocking well on his touchdown catch (although we attribute most of that to Darius Bell being a lord and somehow managing to block two guys on that play), and generally ran well between the tackles. With those three guys in the backfield, UCLA has more dynamic playmaking from the running back position than they've had in years.
Wide Receivers: D
How do you solve a problem like Fauria? Tortured Sound of Music allusions aside, Fauria continues to be an enigma in this, his senior season. On Saturday, he was clearly not as engaged in the game as he should have been, as has been the case at various points through the last two years. He missed at least three key blocks on swing passes, preventing Franklin and Manfro, at different points, from breaking big runs. When he wasn't missing blocks, he held, getting a penalty on a nice James run where the hold wasn't really necessary at all. And then, he had the fumble, which you really wouldn't blame him for if the rest of the game had gone better for him.
Darius Bell got his first real action of the season, and he shined. He had two nice catches over the middle, but what was most impressive was his blocking. On the James touchdown run, he really did about 60% of the work, holding the edge of the play and blocking two guys, which let James scoot around him. If you could somehow combine his tenacity with Fauria's physical gifts, then…well, then you'd have Marcedes Lewis, circa 2005.
Devin Lucien didn't have a great day, catching only two passes and fumbling one of them on what seemed like a pretty unforced drop. It was a little weird to see Jerry Rice Jr. getting some time at the expense of Lucien, but the receiver rotation is pretty deep, and Ricky Marvray did not play. Lucien is the one receiver who has shown the ability to make big catches down field this season, so you'd like to see him factor a bit more into the game plan. However, there were some focus and concentration issues with him throughout spring and fall that could be playing into his usage.
Jerry Johnson gave a really poor effort on Hundley's second interception, almost as if he gave up on it when it wasn't perfectly catchable. He had a really good shot at breaking up the interception if he'd given it a try, but he just stood there. Honestly, the most troubling part of the early season is how different Johnson looks between camp and now. In the spring and summer, he was a dynamic playmaker, and looked like he'd be Hundley's No. 1 target, but he just doesn't look like he's running particularly good routes, or giving a great effort on balls at the moment. That No. 1 receiver spot is one to watch.
Now that the negatives are out of the way, let's talk about Manfro. He's currently leading the team in receptions, and that doesn't seem fluky. His touchdown run was a pretty easy scamper into the end zone, and he caught most everything thrown his way, aside from one Hundley pass that grazed his outstretched finger tips. He's not the devastating threat on the swing pass that the three headed monster is, but he is compact and powerful enough that he doesn't get caught for a loss on it as easily as the others. Like Thigpen, he's also a pretty good blocker.
Speaking of blockers, Shaquelle Evans deserves some accolades (props, if you will) for his blocking so far this season. It's a neat little trick I've picked up on, but if you watch a swing pass that goes for a long gain, often Evans had something to do with it; if you watch a swing pass that gets blown up behind the line of scrimmage, there's a decent chance Fauria was somewhere in the vicinity. Evans also caught a key first down in the second half, and it would be good to get him more involved in the throwing game.
Offensive line: C
This was the first time the offensive line had to deal with a significant amount of blitzing, and largely, the linemen didn't deal with it well. Torian White had an especially poor game, even outside of that really rough sequence in the fourth quarter. Clearly, Houston had designed a game plan to attack White with two or three blitzers for most of the game, and White looked a little flummoxed about who to block. On several plays, he actually chose to double down on Xavier Su'a-Filo's man, creating a lane for blitzers to come at Hundley. Some of that may have been the line calls, so we're sure there's some blame to lay at the feet of Jake Brendel, but White's primary job at left tackle is to avoid getting his quarterback mauled, and the Cougars had too many opportunities off the edge.
The three play sequence in the fourth quarter, of a false start and two holding penalties, we'll attribute to a combination of fatigue and probably a little bit of psychology- after having a pretty poor game, as a redshirt freshman, shaking off the bad plays is probably difficult. At that point, he was mostly just one on one with a defensive end bull rushing him, but he didn't handle that particularly well. Once he was pulled, immediately after that sequence, Xavier Su'a-Filo moved over and handled the guy easily.
Simon Goines also had a bit of a freshman day, but he wasn't attacked the way White was so he looked better. He had a couple of missed blocks in pass pro, and generally, it looked like both he and White struggled against Houston's smaller linebackers, not having the lateral quickness to keep them bottled up.
Brett Downey actually didn't have a horrible day playing guard, considering the blitzing, and neither did Greg Capella during his limited action. Downey did a nice job blocking on Manfro's touchdown run, not that Manfro needs any help.
All in all, the line probably missed Jeff Baca quite a bit, as a steadying influence more than anything. And, unfortunately, until Hundley can start hitting deeper passes more consistently, the line is probably going to be dealing with a heavy amount of blitzing the rest of the way in the Pac-12.
Offensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: B
We're going to spot Mazzone's a couple of things: first, Hundley's ankle probably limited what kinds of plays could be called. If you'll notice, there wasn't a ton of read option during the game, because Hundley running probably wasn't a great option. Second, Hundley's inability to hit the deep ball (which we'll attribute partially to the ankle) probably tweaked the game plan a bit to keep it more underneath. The play calling in the passing game, actually, looked quite a bit like the game plan against Rice.
In the second half, UCLA went even more to a quick passing attack, to keep Houston's pass rush from having such a large effect, and it worked—on the first drive after halftime, UCLA scored a touchdown on the James swing pass. We're still a little concerned with the red zone efficiency, as that's been a bugaboo for Mazzone since ASU, and it does appear that the offense veers a little bit more conservative once inside the 20 yard line. Then again, they did run an offensive set with two defensive ends and an outside linebacker, so maybe conservative isn't the right word.
Now, I'll say this: we're probably fairly justified in thinking that UCLA's offense was, generally, sub-par on Saturday. The Bruins turned the ball over five times, Hundley was wildly inaccurate at various points, and the offensive line struggled to block pass rushers. It was, to anyone watching the game, kind of an ugly offensive performance.
And UCLA gained 567 yards and scored 30 points on offense. The scheme just works.
Defensive Line: B
The unblockable Datone Jones has really shined in this 3-4 scheme, and it seems pretty clear that he's finally found his best position. While he has benefited from UCLA's much more aggressive blitzing, individually, he just looks so much quicker and stronger than he did a year ago. His pursuit of ball carriers is something that just didn't happen last year. Heck, on one play on Saturday, he came from the other side of the field to tackle a receiver for a loss on a swing pass. Houston really didn't have much of an answer for him in the run game.
The Cougars actually had a bit of a weird pass protection plan, sagging hard around the quarterback immediately after the snap. It kept David Piland from getting sacked (Anthony Barr had the only one), but it also seemed to start plays unnecessarily far behind the line of scrimmage. In the press box, we were trying to figure out why each of Houston's plays looked like they went for a lot longer yardage than they did, and watching it again on replay, it looked like the sagging offensive line was the culprit.
Seali'i Epenesa once again had a pretty solid game, and stuffed a couple of runs by collapsing the center, but he didn't play all that much with UCLA running a nickel package for most of the game.
Cassius Marsh, Jones, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa had a pretty even rotation throughout the game, with Owa getting a bit more time and Marsh getting a little less. It seemed like it worked out well for all parties. Marsh had his best game of the year, and generally looked fresher than he has through the first two games .Given the amount of depth at defensive end, using Marsh more sparingly could be the way to go the rest of the season.
Ellis McCarthy only got significant time in garbage time at the end of the game. From watching him in games and camp, he needs to work on his conditioning, and even though he's not fat, he could probably stand to lose 10 or 15 pounds. His play on the pass breakup at the end, though, showed some nice athleticism.
Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt didn't have their most impactful games, having trouble blitzing through Houston's sagging offensive line. Barr did have the sack of Piland that led to the intentional grounding call, which was key. Zumwalt made a few impressive tackles in the running game, and both looked good in pursuit of ball carriers. One of the more quietly impressive things was, on the fumble recovery, instead of picking up the ball himself, Zumwalt instead allowed Eric Kendricks, who was building a head of steam, to pick it up while he walled off Piland from making the tackle. It was a nice unselfish play.
Dalton Hilliard, playing that nickel linebacker role, had one of his best games as a Bruin. He had two pass breakups in the first quarter, and also made a devastating block during Manfro's long punt return on special teams. He, actually, was probably the best linebacker in pursuit on a day where pursuit was a strength of the team. Every time he was in the game, it seemed as if he ended up near the ball carrier.
Damien Holmes played sparingly, given that the team was in nickel most of the game, and when he was in, he was ineffective, primarily playing outside linebacker. He was blocked out of the play by the referee on Piland's touchdown run, but that was more Aaron Wallace's fault for over pursuit. Houston did have a really long drive on Holmes' first extended series in the second quarter.
Eric Kendricks had his best game of the season, and looked a bit more like the whirling dervish of last season, pursuing better, and, more importantly, tackling better. While the fumble return for a touchdown was a gift, because that Houston running back had his head up his hoo-ha, he managed to stay in position so much more than he has through the first two games.
Wallace and Keenan Graham got limited time, and didn't make much of an impact. Stan McKay, who's also playing that hybrid role like Hilliard, didn't have as big of an impact as Hilliard, but physically he looks the part, and might be a good candidate for being a full on linebacker, rather than just a nickel guy.
Defensive Backs: B+
It's never easy for a defensive back, going up against a team that throws the ball as much as Houston. By and large, though, UCLA's secondary came through against Houston. Sheldon Price obviously had the game of his life, coming away with three interceptions, all of which required him actually making a play on the ball. His second and third interceptions actually came on, effectively, the same play, with Piland throwing up a fade against Tevin McDonald and Price sliding over to make the catch. Overall, Price didn't have too many miscues in coverage, although there were a couple. Strength is always going to be an issue for Price, and on one play, his man was able to shake him off when Price was trying to tackle him.
Randall Goforth apparently doesn't like to make easy interceptions, but he'll tear into a difficult one. Watching that play live, I don't think anyone realized that he'd caught the ball, since it was such a difficult catch to make, squeezing his hands around the receiver while diving. Of the defensive backs, Goforth actually looked like he had the most pass-catching instincts in camp, which stands to reason considering he was a pretty high level receiver in high school. That probably will not be his only interception this year.
Not to be outdone, McDonald also had an impressive interception, and generally played pretty well in coverage. He is probably getting some grief from his teammates for being caught from behind by Piland on the interception, but Piland actually is pretty fast.
Andrew Abbott was locked in in man coverage, but maybe a little too locked in on Piland's long touchdown run. As Piland was running past Wallace, Holmes, and the rest of UCLA's defense, Abbott only had eyes for the receiver he was covering. If he'd looked up a second earlier, he would have been able to make the tackle on Piland, but alas, it was not to be.
We would have graded the defensive backs better, but Houston left a lot of points and yards on the field with dropped passes. There were at least two slants that could have potentially gone for touchdowns that the Houston receivers dropped.
Defensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: B+
It's so interesting watching UCLA's defense this year. After years of watching UCLA defenses where the default setting was passive conservatism, it's wild watching UCLA open a game with ten players within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and one deep safety playing center field. UCLA's game plan was to sell out against the run and swing passes, and it was actually similar to what Houston planned for UCLA. The difference, of course, is that UCLA's athletes are superior to Houston's, so defending the flat was much easier for the Bruins.
The Cougars helped by dropping so many mid to long range passes, but we have a feeling that if the Cougars had started to complete those, Mora and Spanos would have had an adjustment in place. That's, actually, probably the wildest thought of all: trusting the coaching staff to make in-game adjustments.
Special Teams: A
I talked with Ka'imi Fairbairn after the game, and he said that he had a long conversation with his old soccer coach this week, because his confidence was pretty shot after the events of the past two Saturdays. His soccer coach gave him the typical it's-the-same-game-just-a-different-stadium speech, and it apparently worked. All three of his field goals were on the money, and only one of his four extra points looked like it might miss. He generally kicked with a higher trajectory, and it was probably smart of Mora to show confidence in Fairbairn on those 4th and 1's, given that UCLA was going to win this game handily anyway.
Manfro finally broke out in the punt return game, and Thigpen had the aforementioned kick return where he looked like the fastest player on the field. Again, we'd like to see more Thigpen, because that's just our thing, but anything is an upgrade over the return game from the last few years.
Jeff Locke banged all but one of his kickoffs into the end zone, and because the football gods have blessed Locke, the one he kind of mis-hit was covered so well that the returner only made it to the 15 yard line. His punting has been so spectacular this year that it was a shock when one actually went into the end zone. If Hilliard hadn't gotten blown up by one of the Houston defenders, that one might have been downed at the 1 yard line.
If the improvement in special teams over the last two weeks is indicative of the teaching skills of this coaching staff, then this coaching staff might be even better than we thought.
Houston Unit by Unit Analysis
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