Of course, this Bruin team has come back down to Earth. Some symptoms of Battered Bruin Syndrome surface again. UCLA, now, will be out of the national college football discussion.
It was fun for those two weeks, though, wasn't it?
Here's the thing, though. The Cranks might jump off the bandwagon quickly now, saying things like, "Same ol' UCLA football program," etc. The Blues might spin this as just a stumble, that you have to expect a few steps back as Jim Mora takes the program on giant leaps forward.
Whichever side of the fence you decide to come down on, well, that's your prerogative.
But just like the three wins to start the season 3-0 weren't really enough for us to conclude that UCLA had turned the proverbial corner, one loss isn't enough to conclude that the things are the same as the last 10 years and nothing's different.
We said things were different after the three wins, and things still definitely are different. But this game was just a matter of some forces coming together that made this team, in a different program, lose.
You didn't expect that UCLA was never going to lose again, did you?
You might have expected, however, that UCLA wouldn't lose to Oregon State. Heck, we expected that, too. But this is what happened on the way to realizing that expectation: The Oregon State coaching staff drew up an excellent game plan and they simply out-gameplanned UCLA's coaches this time.
Seriously, that's pretty much what this game comes down to. And that's not anything to be ashamed of, actually. It wasn't as if UCLA got out-coached or out-gameplanned by a bad coach. Oregon State's Mike Riley might be one of the best coaches in the country. Seriously, this guy has done more with less than any coach in the nation. It's bizarre to think about where things would be if UCLA had hired Riley when he was under serious consideration before hiring Karl Dorrell. Where would the program be now? With Riley's coaching ability, and a consistently better level of talent than what he has gotten at OSU, it's easy to assume that UCLA would have been a successful program for the last 10 seasons.
The guy can flat out coach.
Oregon State fans are high if they ever entertain the idea of wanting Riley fired. He's done wonders in Corvallis, and it'd be very difficult to find a coach who could do better with the OSU program.
In this game, Riley and his staff simply did a better job of analyzing the match-ups and installing a game plan that maximized the match-ups in favor of the Beavers.
See, and this is why it's different with Mora and Co. In years past, when UCLA would lose a disappointing game like this, the fallout was desperately hopeless. But in this game, you have to recognize that Noel Mazzone's offensive scheme is still the same. It's still an excellent offense. It's not the Pistol and it's not Dorrell's West Coast Offense. This offense makes logical sense and is designed well to fit college talent and the college game, to take advantage of inherent aspects of college football, and matching up with college defenses.
But the thing is – while the scheme is a proven, good one, the game plan for this week wasn't. While the scheme is the same, the utilization of it wasn't successful this week. This week, the game plan didn't make logical sense.
Now, if this becomes a consistent phenomenon, week after week, that UCLA doesn't utilize its offensive scheme well enough to win, well, then that would be a problem.
But we have to think the guy who designed the scheme will more often than not know how to utilize it well.
So, what happened this week? We have to admit, the fact that we were doing some head-scratching as a result of some play calls did feel a little Dorrellian or Neuheiselesque. It's even more surprising because this wasn't Dorrell or Neuheisel, but Mazzone, the guy we thought got college offenses. And it's not that he doesn't now, but his game plan definitely didn't get OSU's defense in this game. Like in our game preview, we thought UCLA's offense would approach the game in much the same way it had in its first three games and, if it did it, more than likely it would be successful against OSU's defense. That was: Stretch the field horizontally, make the defense have to defend from sideline to sideline, get skill players out in space – outside the tackles – and take your easy plays that get you 9+ yards. We haven't kept stats on UCLA's swing passes so far this season, but we'd have to say that UCLA averaged probably 10 a game in the first three games, and there were maybe three in this one. If you go by the first three weeks of college football, UCLA has one of the best ball carriers in the country when he's out in the flat in Johnathan Franklin. But the offense against OSU almost exclusively used Franklin between the tackles. There were only two times when Franklin was given the ball on the outside, on one swing pass and one option pitch, and both plays went for 10 yards, at least (there was one more swing pass that Brett Hundley threw behind Franklin for an incompletion). In that game preview, we noted we had observed the OSU defense against Wisconsin did well at defending the middle of the field, on both the run and the pass, but could be suspect if they had to cover the entire width of the field. It wasn't rocket science to assume that UCLA's offense, which already emphasized playing horizontally, would try to work the flats. But I guess it was rocket science.
You could point the finger at Hundley, and say he didn't have a good game. He might not have had a stellar game, but it certainly wasn't a bad one. He threw for a friggin' 372 yards and a touchdown. Did he miss a few throws? Probably. Did he miss seeing a few guys open? Probably. But he also had a few key drops, and he also was asked to throw down the field quite often instead of seemingly the more high-percentage throws that made up most of the game plan for the first three games.
Where were the easy outs and dig routes? I saw a couple of them. But mostly Hundley was looking down the field vertically. It also seemed like that should work, too, since generally he had good pass protection, but OSU's defense, with their narrow zone, compressed the field, and forced Hundley to have to make perfect throws on tough routes.
Then, UCLA's running game never got on track, mostly because OSU was able to out-man UCLA in the box, cheating up an extra defensive back or two, like it did against Wisconsin. It was able to do this because UCLA tended to play down the middle of the field instead of stretching the width. If, perhaps, UCLA had attempted a few more swing passes, a fly sweep or two, moved Hundley's release point to outside the conventional pocket, and had been successful, OSU would probably have stopped cheating up its DBs, and perhaps the running game would have found more room.
Not rocket science.
But it's not time to panic just yet. Let's just chalk this one up to Mazzone calling a poor game, having a bad day. It happens all of us.
On defense, too, the coaches got out-gameplanned. UCLA's defense consistently went to man-to-man coverage, and was consistently burned by it. The times it opted for a zone it tended to do much better, providing layers of coverage against both the pass and the run. In the man coverage, UCLA was pressing, with most of its defenders on the line of scrimmage, and it would send pressure at the quarterback, providing the defense with no depth. So, if one of Oregon State's receivers got behind his man it was over. And that happened a number of times.
So, why would UCLA do this? It's a bit, well, head-scratching. It could be that UCLA has far too much confidence in its man coverage, specifically in its corners, Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. And to be candid, we don't know why that would be. Price and Hester have only been, at times, serviceable throughout their career. It's hubris to trust them one-on-one against good receivers, like Oregon State's.
Perhaps if UCLA had gotten better pressure on the quarterback it might not have put so much pressure on Price and Hester, but UCLA, even with blitzing, didn't. Perhaps, again, it's hubris and over-confidence in UCLA's pass rush.
I have seen this in the first three games, too, and thought it was what got UCLA's defense in trouble then also – believing its players are actually better than they are. It appears it has caused UCLA's coaches to be too aggressive at times.
It's a bit of a new experience for UCLA fans, to have to deal with UCLA's defense failing due to its coaches being overly-aggressive.
Perhaps this game will be what UCLA's coaches needed to accurately evaluate its own talent and adjust accordingly.
One of the biggest aspects of good coaching is the ability to self-scout. Know your own talent, your strengths and, probably even more importantly, your weaknesses.
Since we're on the subject, in fact, it's a bit head-scratching that UCLA's best defender from a year ago, Andrew Abbott, the guy who is UCLA's best defensive back at run support, and perhaps its best one-on-one coverage guy, has been utilized mostly as a deep, centerfield safety. Most of the time, now, he's not even involved in the play. One of the keys to coaching is to get your best players involved as much as possible, either get them touches on offense or in position to make plays on defense. It doesn't seem that this has been realized about Abbott.
Since we're second guessing, it does appear that UCLA's defense is far more effective when it has quicker guys manning the other inside linebacker spot. Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay, again, looked like they had good games. McKay's interception, by the way, happened when UCLA was in a zone.
Clearly this wasn't completely about game-planning. There were obviously some issues in execution. We could laundry list them, but the point is that, even with what appears to be not the optimum game plans on offense and defense, UCLA very well could have still won the game if it had executed on just a handful of plays. Perhaps the biggest lapse in execution was in the critical third quarter, about halfway through, when UCLA was gifted with two OSU turnovers around midfield with the score 17-10 and it failed to capitalize. It was a time in the game that you easily could have seen the momentum shift; OSU's quarterback Sean Mannion was showing a little vulnerability and UCLA's defense was looking like it was starting to make some adjustments that helped to get OSU's offense out of its rhythm. After McKay's interception, in particular, UCLA had the ball at OSU's 48-yard line, and it seemed like the offense was starting to call some plays that would be more effective. UCLA started with a nice, quick dig in the flat to Shaquelle Evans who broke a tackle and gained 12 yards for a first down. It made us wonder why this play hadn't been called about 10 times up until that time. It might very well have been one of just a few instances in which UCLA actually gained a first down through a real play, rather than a penalty or a Hundley scramble, which seemed to comprise most of UCLA's offense in the first half. On the next play, Hundley threw a bubble screen in the flat to Kenny Walker that gained about five yards, except for a questionable holding call against Darius Bell leading the screen brought it back. Next, the swing pass to Franklin that Hundley missed. Execution. Hundley then threw a pretty good ball to Walker in the end zone that Walker didn't seem to make a good enough play on. It touched his out-reached hand, but it didn't appear Walker had enough balance under his feet to get two hands on it, or to lay out for it. It might have been that Hundley led Walker a foot too far, but either way, you chalk up this missed opportunity to poor execution. UCLA gets that touchdown right there, and it's tied 17-17 midway through the third quarter and UCLA probably would have had the momentum.
Heck, you just add that up and the missed Kai'mi Fairbairn field goal and you don't even need a shift in momentum. There's ten points and a Bruin win.
So, take the onus completely off the game plan and give at least some of it to the players, for a lack of execution.
It's interesting, however, how UCLA fans, at least those on the BRO Forum, have reacted to the loss. You'd think the Cranks would come out of the woodwork, but that generally hasn't been the case. Since the game ended Saturday night it's mostly been pretty reasonable and civil discussions about the loss.
How could this be? Any loss like this in the last 10 years would have generated an eruption of outrage and Crankiness.
But funny, perhaps it's a different kind of loss. A poster on the BRO Premium Football forum, Bruinbasketball1, pointed out that it's the closest conference loss by UCLA since 2009, when the Bruins lost to Oregon State, 26-19. In fact, to find a UCLA conference loss by less of a margin you'd have to go back to 2007, when it lost to Arizona State 24-20. Now, that's just a statistic, but you could take away something from it – that this new program, with its coaching, schemes and the toughness it's trying to instill, is going to be more competitive than the previous regime. It indicates that the last regime generally got blown out when it lost in conference, and Saturday against OSU that wasn't the case.
It does seem that people – the fans on the message board – are sensing that, even with the loss to OSU, the program is different. It appears that Mora, Mazzone, Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos and the rest of the staff have earned themselves a bit of a honeymoon. It's curious, too, because we had originally believed Mora was going to get literally no honeymoon at all, inheriting the impatience and general grumpiness UCLA fans have accrued from the last decade of under-achievement. But it seems to be there. He's earned a honeymoon because it's not the same-o, same-o. It's not an unproven, experimental offensive scheme that has no track record. It's not a bend-and-not-break defense. Mora and his staff have installed systems that have proven to work and, if anything, they didn't succeed against OSU because they were too aggressive.. That seems to have generally won over UCLA fans.
At least for the time being.
At least enough to grant Mora a little honeymoon. It's not hard to imagine, though, that the honeymoon will abruptly come to an end if the staff strings together a number of games in which they're out-gameplanned and the players don't execute.
For now, though, Mora has earned a little tropical drink with an umbrella in it. But, knowing how this fan thing works, that's probably about it.