It's not the loss. It's maybe a too common refrain for UCLA fans, this idea that we can't be results oriented, but the significance of this game was not the loss, but the losing. Much like the game against Nebraska, many reasonable fans would have been satisfied with a well-played close loss: one devoid of penalties, dumb mistakes, coaching miscues, and turnovers. After years and years of both the few wins and the many losses featuring those qualities, most fans wanted those issues taken care of first, with the wins to eventually follow.
After six games, and one pretty ugly blowout to Cal last night, it's fair to render judgment on at least two of those: penalties and dumb mistakes. Through six games, UCLA is one of the most penalized teams in the nation, and last night the Bruins continued their sloppy play, with 12 penalties for 99 yards. Then, in terms of dumb mistakes, this team seems prone to them. Twice, this team has fumbled a punt return for running into its own punt returner on a fair catch. Several times through the first half of the season, this team has extended an opposing drive with silly personal fouls. So, at this juncture, it's fair to say that penalties and dumb mistakes have become two of the qualities associated with this year's team.
As far as coaching miscues and turnovers, last night included them, but it's difficult to say they are part of a trend. While there have been a few odd coaching decisions over the last few games, generally Mora and the staff have been pretty clean in their game management, and the game plans on offense have generally been pretty effective at putting players in positions to succeed. In terms of turnovers, UCLA has actually been very good about forcing them and not giving them up this year, so you can probably chalk this game up to an aberration in that department.
So, it's a work in progress, both among the players and the coaches.
Saturday's game featured some pretty inexplicable decision making, from both players and coaches, but the real takeaways were two things we knew heading into the season: the patchwork offensive line would have issues, and Brett Hundley, as a redshirt freshman, would experience some growing pains.
Against Cal, the offensive line allowed five sacks, but, honestly, it felt like more. For most of the game, until he was benched in the third quarter, Torian White was a sieve, several times allowing defenders through the line untouched. Simon Goines, on the right side, wasn't much better, and Jake Brendel once again, as against Oregon State, looked like he was having trouble finding guys to block. With three freshmen on the offensive line, you almost expect that kind of game to happen once or twice.
Of course, the question remains whether the three freshmen starting is a necessary evil, and whether maybe a line with Jeff Baca at right tackle and Xavier Su'a-Filo at left tackle would be a better idea. But when you try to really dive into the different combinations, you're left with one overwhelming impression: there just isn't much talent on the offensive line. A line with XSF, Albert Cid, Brendel, insert guard here, and Baca might be marginally better, but it also might not be. Greg Capella returning to full health would change the dynamic, but with his concussion issues, he's difficult to project.
In any case, the sense you're left with is that the offensive line needs a huge talent infusion before next season. Right now, it seems incapable of blocking any passable defensive front.
For Hundley, this was probably the worst game of his young career. Under pressure for most of the game, he, somewhat inexplicably, held onto the ball far too long most of the time, missing open receivers and throwing a beat late on a few of his deep balls. Many of his throws were off, and it even seemed that his reads were off. While it's hard to say definitively, it looked like Shaquelle Evans had the right idea on the read before the end of the first half, where Hundley threw the interception in the end zone. With 29 seconds, and two timeouts, Evans went under the coverage and likely would have had 7 to 10 yards (if not more) if Hundley had thrown the quick dig. Then, on the play where he overthrew everyone in the end zone after escaping the pass rush, he had about 20 yards of open field in front of him to tuck and run, but elected to throw the low percentage pass. As we learned after the game, though, he was sick, which couldn't have helped. He looked more mobile than he has in weeks, which is a good sign for the future, but also looked a little reluctant to run at times, and conservatively left probably 40 yards on the field.
The offense, also, was not put in much position to succeed. If there was one area where the o-line was passable on Saturday, it was in run blocking, yet the coaching staff, again somewhat inexplicably, went mostly to the pass through three quarters. Coming into the game, Cal's rush defense was a known, fairly mediocre quantity. The game plan on offense didn't seem to take that into account. Johnathan Franklin only carried the ball 15 times, managing over 100 yards, and Damien Thigpen, who, again, is the fastest guy on the team, got just one carry. When you factor in Hundley probably not taking as many yards as he could with his legs, and the running backs not getting much work, it was really just a weird game plan against a bad rush defense. Even if you take out any knowledge about Cal's defense heading into the game, the decision to pass the ball so much was a strange one. Then, if you're just looking at Cal's offense, with its big strike ability, you have to say that a goal is to keep it off the field. Running the ball serves that purpose, obviously, so again, it was just a weird game plan.
In a micro sense, there was one particularly baffling decision that might actually be one of the more worrying ones for the future. With UCLA down by 15 in the fourth quarter, and facing a 4th and 6 from Cal's 12 yard line, Mora elected to kick the field goal rather than go for it. While we try to look at these things from all perspectives, we're at a loss to figure out how that makes sense. Mathematically, it still means the Bruins would need two touchdowns. Secondly, with the offense sputtering, there was a good chance they wouldn't get two more chances to score. Then, with Ka'imi Fairbairn struggling, even getting three points from the field goal didn't seem likely. It was not only just a wildly conservative play, the reasoning behind it is hard to fathom. The difference between a 12 and 15 point deficit is, effectively, nothing, and even if the team doesn't convert on 4th down, Cal's field position makes it possible for UCLA's big play defense to force something. There are just so many reasons why going for it was the better play, and so few reasons for kicking the ball.
Odds are, with the way UCLA then struggled to do anything offensively in the 4th quarter, going for the first down wouldn't have changed anything, but the decision was a painful throwback to the Dorrell/Neuheisel era.
With Fairbairn, too, you have to wonder how long the leash is going to be. It would be interesting to see if Jeff Locke is an option at kicker. Fairbairn has not shown an ability to hit any kicks consistently, and looks extremely uncomfortable on the field. Locke, who reportedly doesn't like to kick field goals, at least has dealt with pressure situations, and really couldn't be much of a worse option at this point. If the coaching staff is going to insist on trotting out a kicker on most every fourth down inside of 30 yards, then it would be worth experimenting to find a more reliable option.
Defensively, this was obviously a poor day for Aaron Hester. He struggled in every facet of the game, from run support to pass defense, and seemed to be in on every broken defensive play for the Bruins. Finally, mercifully pulled for a true freshman (Marcus Rios) in the fourth quarter, Hester compiled several penalties, including a holding call and a facemask, to go along with poor tackling, poor coverage, and several plays where he was out of position.
Not to continue to critique, but it might be time for Andrew Abbott to get a longer look at corner. It might simply be the case that the coaching staff doesn't know, since they weren't here last year, so we'll say it: Abbott is probably the best cover guy on the team. Against Nebraska, playing cornerback, he looked great, and that position move allowed Randall Goforth to step in at safety, which helped improve the speed on the field. Abbott is undersized, and doesn't have the body of Hester, who looks like an NFL corner, but he plays bigger. In any case, a cornerback tandem of Abbott and the embattled Sheldon Price really couldn't be worse than the current tandem of Hester and Price. And really, anything the moves Abbott closer to the line than his current position 20 yards back would probably benefit the team.
Defensively, the issues can't simply be chalked up to Hester and Price, though. The play calling was, again, strange. On the two early touchdown passes, which went underneath the zone and Tevin McDonald, UCLA called for a zone blitz. It's pretty safe to say that, right now, blitzing is not a strong suit of this defense. It's weird to say that, of course, after years of begging for a defensive coordinator who liked to blitz, but this team just isn't made for blitzing. With slow-ish inside linebackers, and a pretty bad secondary, they don't the personnel to cover long enough to make a blitz effective. Through six games, it's been pretty obvious that UCLA has been most effective playing straight up in its nickel, with just four guys rushing the passer. So, while McDonald had a pretty bad game himself, those touchdown passes weren't as much on him as the play call, which put him in position to cover most of the middle of the field.
There were some bright spots on defense, including Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh, who both obviously came to play. Marsh has now strung together three solid games at defensive end, so his early season struggles might simply have been a product of getting used to the new position and new defensive system. Barr continues to be a dominant force off the edge, and he provides the one man pass rush that should allow UCLA to play more seven man coverage.
That game was truly awful to watch, but we should take a moment to recalibrate. UCLA now sits at 4-2, which before the season most fans would have expected. The Bruins have suffered one blowout loss, true, but they've also blown three teams out. Despite the loss to Cal, and the one to Oregon State, it's still fair to say that this coaching staff is a big upgrade over the last two regimes. With six games to go, the team still looks capable of a seven or eight win season.
So, let out a sigh, UCLA fans. This team was, reasonably speaking, not going to become a Rose Bowl contender overnight, not after years of poor coaching, bad culture, and general institutional ineptitude. There are still several kinks to work out, and there are certainly some concerns with the new staff, but there's a lot of time to solve those. At six games in, it's still very early to make judgments about the Mora era, and much of what we've seen so far indicates a level of professionalism that may, for once, work to correct issues rather than allow them to fester.
It's not yet the team we thought we saw after Nebraska, but it's a better iteration than last year, and, with a proven offensive coordinator, and a talented, developing quarterback, there's still hope for this season.