Utah: Bruins at the Crossroads

The Utah win was another in what is now a string of under-whelming performances. UCLA heads into the tougher part of its schedule and it will have to get better fast...

With UCLA beating Utah, 21-14, at the Rose Bowl Saturday, it's getting easier to get a bead on this team, and the season.

We're seven games in, the Bruins are 5-2, and that sounds relatively good, given where this program has been in recent years.

But having played seven games, it gives us now quite of bit of reference to judge this team and come to some realizations.

First, the record, when taken into perspective:

The five teams UCLA has beaten are a combined 12-19. The two teams UCLA has lost to are a combined 7-4. That means that the teams UCLA has beaten aren't very good and the teams that UCLA has lost to, well, aren't much better. In fact, UCLA has faced only two teams with winning records, and one of those is formerly-overrated, 4-2 Nebraska. Really, UCLA has faced one good team, Oregon State. UCLA's blowout loss came against a 2-4 Cal team.

So, the 5-2 record is a bit fluffy.

Realistically, too, UCLA hasn't played a good game since Nebraska, and in light of the Cornhuskers getting husked by an okay Ohio State team last week, 63-38, there is some doubt cast on just how good of a win that was.

UCLA, yes, is coming back to Earth. You had to expect it, of course. And as we've always maintained, it's all about expectations.

That's why the last five games have been disappointing because they didn't live up to the expectation we had formed as a result of UCLA starting the season 3-0 and looking pretty good. It wasn't as if, too, those expectations were set very high. They were:

-- To be more competitive against Oregon State.
-- To actually beat Cal, and at the very least be competitive.
-- To play better against the bad teams that have been on the schedule since Nebraska – Houston, Colorado and Utah.

Yes, Utah. There's no way around it. Utah is 2-4 and not very good. And UCLA's performance was under-whelming in beating the Utes.

Overall, in this game, the offense wasn't particularly impressive; the defense didn't completely shut down a bad Utah offense, particularly when it needed to in the second half; and UCLA committed some boneheaded blunders that contributed to giving Utah a chance.

And this is the thing: There wasn't much margin for error in this game. It wasn't as if UCLA's offense was dominating the Utah defense, and it was up by several scores and the Bruins could afford to muff a punt in the endzone for a Utah touchdown. UCLA's offense didn't put away this game, by any means. Plus, the fact that UCLA's defense allowed a truly bad Utah offense to score a touchdown in the second half and bring the Utes to within one score of tying the game makes us conclude that UCLA's defense, also, didn't put away the game.

When UCLA ran out the clock in the last three minutes, it was one horrifying fumble away from being tied. That's just too close and not playing up to expectation against Utah.

UCLA's offense, in fact, needed some plays not exactly in the playbook that utilized the legs of Brett Hundley to score enough points to win. Hundley rushed for 80 big yards. In UCLA's third-quarter drive that put them up 21-7, which ultimately made the difference in the game, Hundley rushed for 32 yards of the 66-yard drive. On the three UCLA possessions of the fourth quarter, Hundley had a number of scrambles that kept those three drives alive and ate up a lot of time, keeping Utah's offense off the field and unable to score.

Again, needing your somewhat-gimpy redshirt freshman quarterback to scramble – and not just slide but actually take hits and put his head down -- to win the game means that this wasn't a dominating offensive performance. Heck, against Utah, at home in the Rose Bowl, Hundley shouldn't even be in the game in the last five minutes.

Credit also has to be given to Johnathan Franklin, who took the offense on his back along with Hundley in that third-quarter scoring drive.

And you have to give credit to UCLA's offensive line. It very well might have been their best performance of the year, putting it in perspective that they probably were going up against the best defensive line they have yet faced, and they did a good job in pass protection and generally in run blocking. Hundley had a good amount of time to throw, but seemingly no one to throw to, which is understandable with three key UCLA receivers not available (Devin Lucien, Darius Bell and Jerry Johnson). It was easily the best display of the offensive line and running backs picking up blitzes in any game yet this season. It was impressive, too, if you consider that Jeff Baca made a smooth transition to playing right tackle when Simon Goines went out with an injured knee during the game, and then Alberto Cid filled in for Baca at right guard.

So, it took all of this for UCLA's offense to eke out enough points to beat the Utes by just one score.

One thing that contributed to the under-whelming offensive performance was some curious instances of playcalling. UCLA did its best to put itself in third-down holes, and then miraculously converted 10 of 17, and had one fourth-down conversion. It did this by being pretty predictable in its playcalling on first and second down. A clear illustration of this was in UCLA's first scoring drive in the first quarter. It was predictable on first and second down, and then converted four third downs. UCLA scored what proved to be a critical 7 points on that drive because its playcalling went from ho-hum to humming (and a well-timed Utah penalty). It was lucky to move down the field converting those third downs going run-run-throw. And running conventionally. It was, actually, the exact opposite of what has been the criticism of Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone's playcalling: He got far more imaginative in the red zone, mixing run and pass with some element of surprise and with creative plays. There were two zone reads, with Hundley scoring on one, and Hundley taking a snap from under center and pitching to Franklin, which I don't think we had seen yet this season.

As we've said, this offense is a very dynamic one. But it's all about the playcalling. Even a dynamic scheme can get bogged down if the playcalling is predictable. When Mazzone is being imaginative, unpredictable and creative on every down and distance in his playcalling, this offense is a treat to watch, and far more effective. Just one simple suggestion: Some of those dig and hitch routes that UCLA is calling to precariously try to convert on third down? How about we see some of them on first or second down.

The defense, on paper, looked like it had a good performance. It held Utah to a total of 319 yards and just one touchdown (we're not counting the touchdown on the muffed punt). But take into consideration that Utah was 114th in the country, averaging 299 yards per game. So, really, UCLA allowed Utah to gain more yards than what it was averaging on the season. And Utah had a true freshman quarterback making his first start. Besides the stats, the measure of a defense's performance is, when it comes down to it: Did it take away the opposing offense's opportunity to score enough points to win? When UCLA conceded that fourth-quarter, 11-play drive that brought the Utes to within 21-14 you can only conclude that it didn't. That freshman quarterback, Travis Wilson, went 25 for 35 and threw for 244 yards (61 more than Hundley). It's easy to say he was effective enough to make him dangerous, and UCLA's defense simply didn't do what it needed to do to shut him down, and not allow Utah's offense to even come close to having a chance to win this game.

In other words, all in all, it took quite a bit from UCLA to beat this bad Utah team. Either UCLA's offense should have put up enough points to be up a few scores, or the defense should have kept Utah's offense from within one score in the last few minutes of the game. Because, if not, you're one bonehead downing of a punt with a second left on the clock and one potential play that makes Sports Center for the rest of eternity away from going into overtime.

Looking ahead, UCLA's season is at the crossroads, and which direction it takes is what will determine whether the 2012 season was a successful one. Building a 5-2 record playing against mostly bad teams, it's now heading into the tougher part of its schedule. Only one of UCLA's five remaining opponents has a losing record. So, this trend of the last five games since Nebraska, of UCLA not being a very good team, might not just be a mere trend but reality. As we've said, it's difficult to develop and change, and be a different team, in the second half of the season; usually the level of play you see in the seven games pretty much is a strong indication of what you'll see in the next five. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't reasons to hope. There are different elements we've seen from this team that are positive hints at potential:

-- UCLA had been killing itself with penalties, but it had a modest 7 in this game.
-- Turnovers were a huge factor in the loss at Cal last week, and while a turnover was a big play Saturday it at least didn't make the difference in the game.
-- The bye for the coming week gives UCLA a chance to get some players healthy, particularly its wide receivers and Hundley and his ankle.
-- The UCLA coaches seem to be getting a better grasp of their personnel. It took six games, but moving Jordan Zumwalt to inside linebacker made a substantial difference in this game. He was key in plugging holes and keeping runs to three-yard gains instead of 8. It's still a bit curious why, when UCLA goes to a nickel, Zumwalt comes out, which is essentially taking one of your best defensive players off the field (there are other players I'd opt to take off the field before Zumwalt). Perhaps they'll also watch the film of this game and see Andrew Abbott slicing through blockers to make a big tackle for loss and realize he's their best defensive back and needs to be moved closer to the ball.
-- The offensive line, with so much youth and inexperience, can perhaps build on its best performance.
-- It might very well have been a step forward for Hundley, whose light seemed to come on a bit during the course of this game in realizing, first, when he should tuck and run and, second, just what a force he can be if he doesn't always take a dive when scrambling.

Hopefully there is some harmonic convergence and these elements coalesce for the rest of the season. If not, it could be a rough remaining five games of just about the same type of play we've seen for the last five.

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