Without Brett Hundley, there's a good chance that UCLA would have lost on Saturday. For the first time since the Rice game, he used his legs effectively, generating positive yardage off of broken plays, scrambles, and zone reads. Although he still fell down (almost always awkwardly) at times where it seemed like he could have gained a few more yards or thrown the ball away, he generally made good decisions running the ball and doesn't seem hampered by any lingering issues in his ankle. His two zone reads on the first touchdown drive were really well executed, and for the first time since the Rice game, he didn't appear tentative in his running style.
In the passing game, he was adequate. His throw to Shaquelle Evans for the touchdown was one of his better reads of the night, noticing that Evans was open down the sideline and, despite momentum carrying him away and a player in his face, putting every ounce of effort into the throw. It barely snuck by the safety en route to Evans, but it showed a good amount of confidence in his arm and ability to throw down field. That downfield confidence didn't show up much on Saturday, but he wasn't helped by his receivers' inability to separate from defenders. Still, there were a few times where he either didn't see or elected not to throw to open receivers down field. His best single throw of the night was to Joseph Fauria for the first down. Other than the two throws to Fauria and Evans, though, he mainly played it safe, with a variety of swing passes and short dig routes.
One thing that should be noted: the inability to hit downfield receivers, whether due to receivers not getting open or Hundley not seeing them, is the primary reason for the run/pass disparity on Saturday. Consider: UCLA ran the ball 47 times, but 13 of those were scrambles by Hundley, where he first looked to pass and then tucked and ran. If he threw on each of those downs rather than scrambled, UCLA would have ended up with a perfectly balanced run/pass ratio.
Running Backs: B
A week after getting probably too little work against the porous run defense of California, the UCLA running backs received a surprising amount of carries into the teeth of the Utes' defense. Although the offensive line struggled to open holes in the middle of the field, UCLA's running plan seemed to be focused primarily between the tackles, so the overall rushing numbers for the running backs were a little deflated.
The numbers don't indicate it, but that might have been one of Johnathan Franklin's most impressive days of the season, when you factor in how banged up he has been and the quality of the defense he was facing. His balance is just tremendous, and he had at least four runs on Saturday where he got hit within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage, kept his balance, and then managed another 6+ yards. In the third quarter, he had one play where he got hit at the line, bounced off, ran another ten yards, got hit again, and then backpedaled for another four or five yards. With his vision at the line of scrimmage, balance, very good speed, and another newfound quality that I will not jinx by mentioning, he's gone from a fringe prospect to a real possibility for the NFL. It's just uncanny how much better he is this year, after already being a very good running back.
A week after Damien Thigpen got very little work and Jordon James took the bulk of the second string snaps, the roles were reversed on Saturday. Thigpen didn't have much room to work with on Saturday, and even on the few off tackle runs he got, he was stifled pretty quickly. James only got one carry, and didn't touch the ball otherwise.
Considering the amount of speed at the running back spot, and the exciting ways they were used through the first few games, you'd like to see a bit more utilization of both Thigpen and James, especially with Franklin a little hurt. Although both frequently motion out of the back field, it would be good to see them get more plays split out from any of the receiver positions.
Both Franklin and James did a very nice job blocking in the back field.
UCLA's receiving corps was even more depleted than expected on Saturday, with Jerry Johnson joining Darius Bell and Devin Lucien on the sideline for the entire game. Without those three in the lineup, UCLA had a serious lack of downfield threats, and, more importantly, effective route runners, which inhibited the Bruins' passing attack and forced Hundley to take several long scrambles and self-sack himself a couple of times.
Evans had a big first half, catching four passes for 91 yards, including the long touchdown run down the sideline in the first quarter. He was mostly absent after that, which was a combination of him not getting great separation and Hundley not seeing him when he got separation. With Lucien out, Evans is probably the most reliable down field threat among the remaining receivers, and he'll need to show a more consistent ability to get open throughout games.
Joseph Fauria caught a few passes, including the nice third down catch where he nearly leapt over a defender, and was open for a couple more. He's been better over the last few games, and you'd like to see him targeted more as a receiver, since that's where his strength lies.
Jordan Payton looks like he has a chance to make up for some of the loss of Bell and Lucien, but didn't get targeted much on Saturday. He's shown good ability to get YAC so far through his first two games of real action, so you have to figure he's going to be targeted more going forward.
Devin Fuller was only in for a handful of plays, and didn't appear to factor into the game plan much at all.
While Hundley did seem more inclined to run the ball on Saturday, the receivers, as a general body, did a poor job of getting open. With another week to prepare, you have to imagine Kenny Walker, Fuller, and Payton are going to be given a huge amount of reps to get them ready to participate in a bigger way down the home stretch of the season.
Offensive Line: B
After what was the worst showing for UCLA's offensive line this season, the Bruins followed with one of their best, generally holding their own against a very good Utah front four. Star Lotulelei, the nose tackle for Utah, has been hyped by many as a potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft, but UCLA managed to neutralize him for most of the game, using a heavy dose of Xavier Su'a-Filo and the occasional double team to keep him in check.
Su'a-Filo has been very impressive this season, but nothing he's done has been more impressive than his performance containing Lotulelei. Often matched up one on one, he kept Lotulelei from making much of animpact in the game. In run blocking, he was also a force, getting down field on Hundley's touchdown run, helping to seal the lane.
Jeff Baca was another key for UCLA's line play on Saturday, playing well at both the right guard spot and the right tackle spot. When he stepped in for Simon Goines, who injured his knee in the 4th quarter, he proceeded to shut down Utah's left defensive end, and looked very good playing tackle, as he has throughout much of his career. Albert Cid had a false start in his first few moments in the game, but didn't look awful otherwise.
Although we don't anticipate it happening, it would be interesting to see if slotting Baca in permanently at the right tackle spot had a positive net effect on the offensive line. You have to figure that the senior Baca would be an improvement over Goines at right tackle, and then you have to weigh whether that improvement is enough to offset the dropoff there is at right guard between Cid and Baca. If that all checks out, you could then just have the best of Goines or Torian White man the left tackle spot.
Obviously, it's hard to determine whether that all would be an improvement just based off theorizing, but it would be an interesting thing to try out during the bye week, especially if Goines is out or limited for any amount of time.
Jake Brendel had one of his worst games of the year, and really just looked out of sorts. There was a play in the third quarter where he held a block for about a second, let the guy go past him and pressure Hundley, and then just kind of stood there as the remainder of the defense ran past him to sack Hundley. It was pretty clear that he thought that play was dead and Hundley would be sacked as soon as his man blew past him, but it was a weird thing to watch. He had a couple other plays where he didn't get a body on someone, and he generally just didn't look good blocking all day. His snaps, also, were consistently low, and he had another false start, which is beginning to become an issue for him.
White and Goines actually had pretty decent days, after really struggling last week.
Offensive scheme, game plan, and play calling: C-
The game plan wasn't actually as run heavy as the stat line ended up making it; after all, only two of Hundley's runs came off of zone reads. However, the play calling was, for the third or fourth time this season, pretty strange, given what we knew going in about Utah's defense. The Utes were strong up the middle, and pretty weak in the secondary, yet UCLA spent most of the game running directly into the middle of the Utah defense. USC, the previous week, had its success running the ball when it went off tackle, and you would have expected UCLA to do something similar.
In terms of the passing attack, the Bruins really didn't try much in the way of deep passes, which, again, was weird. With Utah playing up on the line of scrimmage most of the game, loosening up the defense with an occasional deep ball would have been a good bet. Mazzone went mostly to his staple, the swing pass, and didn't find much success there. Aside from Hundley's pass to Evans for the touchdown, which was a split second from being picked off, the passing attack was effectively non-existent.
There was definitely a tendency for the good old UCLA standard of run-run-pass on Saturday, which isn't necessarily bad in and of itself. However, the plays called weren't very creative, with the aforementioned runs up the middle and short passes to the outside.
The tempo, for the most part, was fairly pedestrian. On the first touchdown drive, actually, when UCLA's offense looked the most in-rhythm it looked on Saturday, the Bruins actually managed some pretty good tempo; aside from that, though, the offense just didn't move very quickly from play to play. Again, weird.
4th down decision making appears to be a weakness so far. On the first touchdown drive, with UCLA driving and facing a soon to be 4th and 1 around the Utah 40 yard line, the coaching staff sent the punt team onto the field until realizing that they'd get another shot at 3rd down due to a Utes' offsides penalty. Just so everyone is clear, punting from around the opponents' 40 on 4th and 1 is a really unsound mathematical decision, and the fact that the punt team was more or less automatically coming onto the field there is a worry. Then, later, on 4th and 5 from the Utes' 33 yard line toward the end of the second half, the Bruins suffered a delay of game after a timeout, which was silly, and then decided to punt. Again, even though it's a 4th and 10, punting from inside the opponents' 40 with that distance to go at that point in the game is a questionable mathematical decision, even if your punter is great. The decision to kick the fourth down punt toward the middle of the 4th quarter was iffy, again from around the 40 yard line with a couple of yards to go, but it wasn't quite as egregious because there were only about six minutes left in the game and thus a limited amount of possessions remaining for Utah to score.
After the strange field goal decision last week, it's safe to say that 4th down calls are a bit of a worry.
Defensive Line: B+
Cassius Marsh has come into his own in this defense, and it's all the more surprising given how he started the year. Through three games, he actually looked like he might be a weak link in this unit, but now he looks like one of the stronger players. His sack of Travis Wilson was impressive, and he's shown great improvement in his spin and swim moves, but his pursuit of John White on one stretch run was a very athletic play.
Datone Jones also continues to play well from the defensive end spot. It's interesting watching both he and Marsh work, because with two fairly different skill sets, they both same to have found a niche in this defense. Jones is stronger this year, although he doesn't look much different physically.
Donovan Carter had a really impressive day, pursuing the bubble screen really well. He had one play where he got knocked down at the line of scrimmage, got up, and ran down the ball carrier to join in on a tackle. Seal'i Epenesa also had a pretty good day against the interior of Utah's line. The Utes' success running the ball came primarily on the outside, thanks to how good UCLA's defensive line was.
Jordan Zumwalt made the switch to inside linebacker, and looked good despite not having played there significantly over the past two years. He had a couple of nice plays in pursuit, and his presence seemed to make Eric Kendricks a bit more comfortable. Zumwalt was pulled in nickel packages, which is curious, considering, first, that he's probably better in pass defense than Kendricks, and second, that he's certainly a better pass rusher than Damien Holmes from the outside linebacker spot.
Kendricks, again, looked better with Zumwalt in. He had one big fourth down stop in the third quarter, and generally did a better job in pursuit. He looks a little lost on passing downs, and doesn't seem like the ideal player to drop into a zone on nickel downs, as he tends to bite the wrong way on fakes and get himself out of position. He was gashed a couple of times on bubble screens, failing to wrap up effectively and allowing extra yardage. His personal foul for the late hit on DaVonte Christopher on the receiver pass showed a lack of awareness.
It's getting dull writing about how good Anthony Barr is at outside linebacker, but he keeps playing well, so there's not much else to write. He did have two missed tackles on Saturday, both behind the line of scrimmage after he made exceptional athletic plays to even get to the ball carrier, so, hey, clean that up Anthony. His one sack, which I'm not sure he was credited for, was really impressive. He bit on the fake to the running back, turned toward him, and then recovered to chase down Wilson for the sack. He's a freak.
Holmes regressed a bit from the past two weeks. On the second play of the game, which was a throw to the tight end, Holmes shed the tight end and then just kind of stood near the line of scrimmage for a second or two, almost as if he was in a spy, and let the tight end get open for an 8 yard gain. He struggled to make much of an impact against Utah's offensive line, and didn't do anything spectacular in pursuit.
Dalton Hilliard had another fairly good game, and was generally in position to make plays most of the game. He seems to be getting even more comfortable at the linebacker spot, so with he, Zumwalt, Kendricks, and Stan McKay, the Bruins should actually have a decent enough rotation there.
Defensive Backs: C-
While this wasn't the spectacular failure of the Cal game, the defensive backs still have a lot of work to do to be anything but a weakness. At this point, Andrew Abbott is the only one of the bunch who has been much of a strength. Abbott made a big fourth down stop in the second quarter, to go along with a nice tackle for a loss in the fourth, and was pretty much flawless aside from one missed tackle in the third quarter. He seemed to play a lot more nickel in this game, and was generally closer to the line of scrimmage than he has been this season.
Sheldon Price was not tested much at all on Saturday, which was probably a relief for him after Cal. Aaron Hester had another pretty rough outing, dropping an interception and getting out of position on the Utah touchdown in the 4th quarter. Hester somewhat inexplicably dropped about halfway into the end zone, allowing the Utah receiver to get open on the drag, and then only breaking on the ball after it was too late. He also bodied up a receiver in the 2nd quarter where he probably should have been called for pass interference near the goal line.
Tevin McDonald got himself out of position on quite a few plays, and tackled, generally, pretty poorly. He leads with his head too much, which actually got his helmet knocked off in the 4th quarter, and it's really just a worry. Coming from the safety position, with a lot of momentum, leading with your head can lead to scary things.
Before the season, the defensive backs didn't appear to be a glaring weakness, but we probably didn't take into account enough how much of a strain this defensive scheme would put on the secondary. This scheme really requires good to great play out of the secondary, and there really just isn't enough talent.
Defensive scheme, game plan, and play calling: B
This was actually more or less the kind of scheme we were looking for out of the Bruins. Generally, they didn't blitz much and kept to a four man rush, and largely they were pretty successful in containing the Utah offense, which admittedly wasn't very good to start with.
The coaching staff had the bubble screen sniffed out fairly well, and the defensive line seemed like it had been coached up to get off its blocks quickly to make tackles.
There are still a few nitpicks. On a few of the zone calls, unless two or three players were wildly out of position, the middle of the field was wide open for a slant, with two deep safeties and everyone else pressed up against the line of scrimmage. But overall, it was a pretty clean game from the defensive staff.
Special Teams: F
Could it be any other grade? The two worst plays of the game, and possibly the two silliest plays of the season, took place on special teams: Steven Manfro's botched punt return and Logan Sweet's downing of the punt with a second to go in the game. Mora explained Manfro's punt return as him getting the ball lost in the lights, but, honestly, players are taught in grade school never to attempt to catch a punt that's over their head. Especially inside the ten yard line.
That's now three serious fumbles off of punt returns this year, based simply off of silly decisions made by the punt return teams. At this point, that's becoming a really big concern.
Sweet's decision to down the punt with a second to go is a bit more understandable, and Mora called it kind of an instinctual play, which rings true. Taken as part of a whole, of course, it becomes part of the larger concern. With the several botched punt returns and some odd decision making on returns and coverage this season, you have to wonder how big of an emphasis special teams will get during the bye week.
Jeff Locke, after a relatively sub-par game against Cal, had another ho-hum day against Utah. It might be a case of a tired leg, but it's something to monitor.
Ka'imi Fairbairn got a break from field goal duties, but his extra points are looking a lot better, so hopefully that's a sign that his field goals should follow suit soon.
Thigpen looks like he'll have the opportunity to man both return spots for the rest of the season, and really, we can't figure out why he shouldn't. With his speed, the odds are good that he'll break off a few big returns before the season is over.
Utah Unit by Unit Analysis
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