Colorado is pretty bad.
So, takeaways from the game have an asterisk to them.
However, there were some definite things to note.
After being absolutely abysmal and depressing in conference road games for a very long time, UCLA took care of business in Boulder, registering one of its biggest conference road victories of the past decade. If you're talking about factors that might lead you to believe that the corner is turning, this would be one. The Bruins went on the road against an admittedly poor team -- but it took care of business. It's one more notch, one more element of the program that indicates things are different.
The team, the new program under Jim Mora, actually played to expectation.
UCLA's defense played well, as you would expect them to do against Colorado's offense. The first-string D allowed just 7 points and, if you take away the 75 yards the back-ups allowed on Colorado's last drive, allowed only 234 yards. After the Buffaloes scored that touchdown in the middle of the second quarter, UCLA's D shut down and shut out Colorado's offense the rest of the way.
Key to that was creating the two turnovers in the third quarter which resulted in 14 Bruin points and allowed them to go up by 35 and put away the Buffaloes. Those two turnovers were absolutely the turning point of the game. Up until that point, UCLA wasn't necessarily stomping the Buffaloes. It was 21-7, and the momentum of the game was relatively up for grabs. Colorado and UCLA were exchanging possessions, with UCLA's offense out of sync, and luckily Colorado's offense just not very good. UCLA was owning the stat sheet, sure, but it wasn't as if, in any way, you'd say that UCLA was dominating the Buffaloes and it was just a matter of time until the flood gates relinquished. The game, truly, could have gone either way at that point.
In fact, it was just a matter of a couple of seconds in which the momentum of the game switched. Colorado's quarterback, Jordan Webb, connected downfield to receiver Vincent Hobbs for a gain of 23 yards -- Colorado's biggest gain from scrimmage for the game up until that time -- and in that moment you could have thought that Colorado was seizing the game's advantage and momentum. But while Hobbs was running down the middle of the field, Tevin McDonald made the play of the game, punching the ball out from behind. In that flash of a moment, the momentum swung to UCLA. Colorado had it for about a second and half and then UCLA grabbed it back. That play was enough. UCLA's offense, now, gained some confidence, drove the field 62 yards, and went up 28-7 after Brett Hundley found a lonesome Joseph Fauria in the endzone.
Less than a couple of minutes later, Webb threw into UCLA's zone coverage, with the ball tipped by Eric Kendricks into the chest of Stan McKay, who returned it to the Colorado 35 yard line, and the momentum was now owned by UCLA. UCLA, now playing downhill, punched in a 25-yard touchdown run by Joystick Jordon James, and UCLA went from teetering on the unknown side of another potentially threatening conference road game to its biggest conference blow-out in 11 years.
A big contributor to that momentum shift, too, was the defensive stand UCLA had on the Colorado possession in the third quarter before the Hobbs fumble. Colorado had the ball at UCLA's 48 and, again, looked like it could seize hold of the game's momentum. But the Bruin defense stopped the Buffs on a 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1. Before that, Colorado had perhaps its best offensive drive, connecting on a pass for 19 yards and running three times for an average gain of 8 yards.
UCLA's defense, easily, was the difference in the game. The offense was sputtering, unable to mount a drive in the third quarter but put it together for two touchdowns right after the D had had the big stop and forced the two turnovers.
How did the defense make it happen?
The adjustments that the UCLA D had made in previous games came earlier in this one. UCLA's defense, in its first four games, generally played with five defensive linemen, with the two outside linebackers functioning as defensive ends, and the two almost exclusively rushed the edges. Usually, at halftime, UCLA's defense, then adjusted, dropped more often into a nickel, played a zone, and kept the ball in front of them. This time UCLA went to that "adjustment" from pretty much the outset of the game and, again, UCLA's defense found itself, as it had in the previous four games. While the adjustment does take a bite out of UCLA's pass rush, and it did also in this game, it distinctly is the best for UCLA's defensive personnel; its linebackers and secondary are just not good enough to play one linebacker down, which you are essentially doing when you're rushing two of them on most every down. With the adjustment, UCLA plays with three linebackers, and that extra body in pass coverage and run support has been the key to UCLA's defensive effectiveness. It worked especially against Colorado's West Coast Offense, which is prefaced on getting the ball off early, rendering that extra pass rusher useless much of the time anyway. Webb, in that offense, has to, then, consistently execute shorter throws to sustain drives, and UCLA has one more player dropping into coverage -- into zone coverage -- and that kept Colorado's receivers in front of them.
It also, too, makes the pass rush even more effective when you do occasionally send five or more, since it has a bit of a surprise element to it, rather than predictably on most every down.
In fact, UCLA sometimes disguised its defense because of the precedent it had set to put both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Many times in this game one of the outside linebackers dropped into coverage, obviously reading the offense and adjusting on the play, and that looked like it worked very well, keeping Colorado's offense off-balance and, again, giving UCLA one more body in coverage. UCLA's D, in fact, dropped into a zone blitz a few times after originating with the two OLBs at the line of scrimmage, dropping a defensive lineman into coverage.
Perhaps this whole over-use of the two outside linebackers lining up on the line of scrimmage and blitzing every down for the first four games was just a set-up for this. Now, going forward, when opposing offenses have to scheme against UCLA's defense, there really is no tendency you can rely on out of that alignment.
In this game, though, just about anything might have worked against Colorado's offense. UCLA could have kept rushing 5 throughout the game and it might not have been any different. But going to the adjustment earlier in the game, and then having this element of surprise, clearly contributed to changing the momentum.
The defensive game plan, too, clearly put some players in their best position to succeed. With outside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt injured due to a scooter accident and out for the game, Damien Holmes replaced him at at the spot, and was the guy, along with stellar Anthony Barr, who produced much of the defensive havoc against Colorado. Holmes, easily, had his best game as a Bruin, in the role of outside linebacker, with it playing to his strengths so much more. He'd been a defensive end up until this season, and he just didn't have the power to go up against offensive linemen from his hand down for an entire game. At inside linebacker, where he's been used mostly so far this season, he also didn't have the strength to hold his spot. But, at outside linebacker, he can optimize his decent athleticism, out-quick offensive tackles coming from a stand-up position on the edge, and run and pursue in coverage. On his second sack, in the second quarter he executed a spin move on Colorado's 6-6 right tackle Ryan Dannewitz, which illustrates exactly the way Holmes should be used. Holmes had the stat sheet of his life, with 7 tackles, five for loss and three sacks.
We have to say, too, it's particularly liberating for us to be able write so positively about Holmes. After so many years of him struggling, and having to evaluate it and write about it, there was nothing better about the Colorado game than watching Holmes have the game he did.
It begs the question: Might this precipitate a personnel move, with Holmes staying at outside linebacker and perhaps Zumwalt moving inside when he returns?
He might actually get some competition, however, because Dalton Hilliard, playing at the second inside linebacker spot, also seemed to find himself, with three tackles for loss. In the first quarter, Hilliard sliced through Colorado's blockers and absolutely blew up Colorado receiver Gerald Thomas on an end-around, causing a fumble. Hilliard's quickness at the position really was a difference.
It was easily UCLA's best called game on the defensive side of the ball, employing the most effective formation, utilizing its personnel well and its blitz packages. The blitzes weren't excessive, had the element of surprise and came from different spots and positions on the field, moreso than in any of UCLA's previous games.
Dare we say that, perhaps, UCLA's defensive coaches are starting to see their own talent well and are identifying the best scheme to utilize them?
This would definitely be living up to the expectation that we have for this defense and for this staff.
Offensively, it was a mixed bag. Colorado has one of the worst defenses in the country, so you would have expected UCLA's offense, which routinely put up 600 yards on this type of defense so far this season, to do it again. It was a bit more of a modest performance, and the UCLA offense didn't get the big stat numbers since it took out its starters for the last couple of series.
The mixed bag included some good things: A return to the use of the swing pass, which gave UCLA's offense dimension and width. Quarterback Brett Hundley had a typical performance for him so far this season, 25 of 38 for 281 yards, two throwing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. He didn't make many mistakes; perhaps the fumble in the first quarter could be called one, but freshman offensive tackle Simon Goines was probably more to blame for getting completely juked by Colorado's defensive end, Kirk Poston, who got in to get the sack on Hundley untouched -- off a three-man rush. The offensive line definitely benefitted from the return of Jeff Baca at right guard, with the running game going right over him a number of times for good yardage. The passing game never really got completely on track, and it appears to be a result of UCLA's receivers struggling -- to get open and catch the ball. Hundley quite often had time to throw, but obviously no one to throw to, and a few times, on key downs, receivers dropped balls. With Devin Lucien, who might be UCLA's most talented receiver, potentially out for the season with a broken collar bone (amazingly, it appeared he played a couple of downs after he breaking it), Jerry Rice Jr. saw more action, and committed a couple of big penalties that really wiped out some offensive momentum. After his biggest day as a Bruin, Shaquelle Evans was pretty quiet. It would seem that he's UCLA best remaining playmaker at receiver and that the game plan has to specifically attempt to get the ball in his hands, even though he dropped a deep ball he should have caught. Darius Bell, the converted quarterback turned Y receiver, had the catch of the day, an over-the-shoulder grab in the back of the endzone for a touchdown. And probably had the second-best catch of the day, when he gained some hard-fought YAC on another catch. Give Joe Fauria some credit, holding onto a third-down catch for a first in traffic, and for actually some good downfield blocking on Hundley's first touchdown run. It's great that 11 receivers caught passes against Colorado, but while that's an indication of UCLA's offense being designed to spread the ball around, with Jerry Johnson's four fairly quiet catches being the most by a receiver, it's also an indication that UCLA doesn't have that star receiver it can trust to make a play. Right now it clearly looks like the evolving question on offense is going to be whether UCLA can get some high-quality play out of its receivers.
The other primary issues in this game were the first-half penalties. UCLA committed six of them for 54 yards, and it was the biggest factor in keeping UCLA from grabbing the momentum and putting away the game earlier. One false start in the second quarter took away a Jordon James swing pass that looked like it was setting up to be James and about 45 open yards ahead of him to the goal line. To its credit, UCLA committed only two penalties in the second half, and, not coincidentally, the Bruins ran away with the game.
All in all, while there are some worries, it was a satisfying game. The UCLA defense looked like it might have taken a step in its evolution as an unpredictable one that uses both aggressiveness and surprise to optimize its talent. When's the last time -- well, ever -- that we've said that about a UCLA defense? It did take UCLA a while to assert its dominance in the game but it did. In the past it very well might have allowed Colorado to hang around a bit longer and give them confidence.
In other words, UCLA, in beating Colorado on the road in the manner it did pretty much lived up to the expectation most UCLA observers had for the team for this game. Living up to Expectation -- perhaps that's something UCLA fans will have to get accustomed to again after a while of going without it.