The most amazing thing about Brett Hundley's performance on Saturday was how slim the margins were on so many of his throws. I counted at least four completions in the first half where, if he'd mistimed his throw by the merest of milliseconds, or been off on his throw by the merest of inches, USC not only could have intercepted the pass but possibly taken it for a touchdown. The sheer natural ability to make those throws, like the 4th and 14 toss to Shaquelle Evans or the first down passes to Jerry Johnson, is very impressive, but the confidence it takes to throw those without getting jittery is almost more so.
Hundley has rarely been as accurate as he was on Saturday. Obviously, UCLA has begun throwing down field more over the last few games, and that has helped Hundley find more space to throw. Against USC, Noel Mazzone had running backs motioning out of the back field to fake wheel routes and swing routes for most of the game, which helped put Evans and Joe Fauria in single coverage down field. Even with that, though, Hundley made some incredible throws and, especially with Fauria, continued to throw the ball to places where only Fauria could catch it.
The freshman quarterback also ran the zone read to near perfection, getting a couple of six yard gains out of it, along with the two touchdown runs. Earlier in the year, he was much more likely to turn the read into a conventional handoff, with little threat of pulling and running, but he was much more at ease pulling the ball and making plays with his legs on Saturday. Add into that his many scrambles, and agility in the open field, and you have to figure this game would have been much different with a statue at quarterback.
You also can't talk about Hundley without discussing that final touchdown drive, with the Bruins up by a slim 31-28 margin. That Arizona State experience of leading a game winning drive had to help. Hundley's nerves might have shown up on one throw, the one that skipped in to Jerry Johnson's arms, but other than that, he was fantastic, completing the first long first down to Evans, and then connecting on that slipping, sliding throw to Fauria for the next first down. It was just another drive to add to the growing legend of Brett Hundley.
The only nitpick at this point is the propensity to take bad sacks and not throw the ball away. However, if the difference is between taking an occasional sack out of aggression or avoiding sacks by playing passively, you probably want to err on the side of aggression. With time, though, you can expect Hundley to get much better at not only determining when a play has little chance of succeeding, but also developing an even better feel for a pass rush.
Running Backs: A-
If there's an iconic play from Johnathan Franklin's spectacular senior season, well, he probably has two options from this game alone. Do you choose the swing pass from Hundley in the second quarter where, on third down and 13, Franklin caught the pass, was hit on the sideline eight yards from the marker, spun his way another four yards, tip-toeing down the sideline, and then broke another tackle to get the first down? Or do you choose the touchdown run that drove the stake through the heart of USC in the fourth quarter, where Franklin juked his way through three or four defenders en route to the end zone from 32 yards out? I probably choose the first down because, like many of his other fantastic plays this season, it was close to unbelievable.
Franklin's first touchdown run was impressive as well, running the ball in from 16 yards out, relatively untouched despite defenders all around him. He was helped by some masterful blocking from his interior linemen on several of his runs, but he also displayed his usual excellent individual running skills. With Damien Thigpen going down after one carry, Steven Manfro unavailable, and Jordon James largely ineffective, Franklin also had to shoulder more of a load than he has at any time this year, and it didn't seem to slow him down.
James did not run particularly well, which only served to accentuate how well Franklin ran. James Still finds himself tip-toeing behind the line of scrimmage rather than hitting the hole hard. On one play, it was a perfect storm of one of Jeff Baca's rare missed blocks, coupled with James' hesitant running, which combined for a loss on the play. James had little impact on the game, carrying the ball only three time.
Thigpen, in his one run, looked explosive, like he might have a big day. The knee injury is obviously a huge blow to Thigpen, but also to this team. Thigpen's motion out of the back field was key on Fauria's touchdown catch, after he abused Arizona through the wheel route so extensively two weeks ago. Without Thigpen, UCLA loses its fastest player and second most dynamic playmaker out of the back field. With Thigpen out, and Manfro possibly not fully recovered, it's going to be interesting to see what practice looks like this week.
UCLA's sometimes-maligned receiving corps had a spectacular day against the Trojans. Jerry Johnson, in particular, was impressive, showing off some of the fire and effort that was so very present during camp, but seemed to vanish during the season. He made a couple of plays where he caught short passes from Hundley and then turned up field to break through tackles to get first downs. UCLA is also using him a bit differently, working to get him the ball in easy situations so he can create with his legs, after he showed an inability to get open down field. The adjustment clearly seems to suit Johnson, although it's no fault to the coaching staff that it took a while to make it—Johnson really did look like a dynamic, down field threat in camp.
Evans clearly had one of his best days as a Bruin, catching the 4th and 14 ball from Hundley as if it were another routine play, but also catching that looping first down catch in the third quarter from Hundley down the right sideline. Evans has been the go to receiver all season, and in the absence of the potential deep threats from earlier in the year (Devin Lucien, Kenny Walker) has developed into one himself.
Fauria also had one of his best days, with clutch catch after clutch catch, to go along with some much improved blocking. His first down catch on Hundley's final drive will likely go down as his most important catch as a Bruin, catching the very low pass while his feet slipped on the wet ground. He was such a matchup nightmare for the Trojans down field, and was so often matched up in single coverage thanks to clever scheming from Noel Mazzone. His blocking was very important on two of Franklin's first down runs, and he didn't seem to have any breakdowns during the game, which is always impressive for a guy who's 6'8.
Obviously, UCLA narrowed the rotation a bit on Saturday, with only six players catching passes. Devin Fuller, actually, was the only other receiver to catch a pass, and he also looked good. The one complaint with Fuller was on the play before Locke's punt in the 4th quarter (which Marcus Rios failed to down), Fuller went out of bounds instead of falling down on the field. With 8 or so minutes to go, up by two scores, you obviously want to keep the clock running there. But, since he's a converted quarterback playing his fourth game at receiver as a true freshman 3000 miles away from home, we'll give him a pass. This time.
Offensive line: B
The interior of UCLA's offensive line has been a near dominant force this season, which culminated against USC. There were several running plays where both Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jeff Baca pulled to the right side ahead of Franklin and steam rolled defenders for six to ten yard gains. Su'a-Filo, in general, was wildly impressive in the run game on Saturday, destroying a defender on Franklin's first touchdown run, and then, on a play just after Kendricks' blocked punt, burying another defender about ten yards down field. His ability to make several blocks on a single run play is simply uncanny.
Baca, despite the penalties (which were arguably all good calls), didn't play all that poorly, and you have to give him credit for switching to center on the play where Jake Brendel went down and not missing a beat.
Brendel was the key on Franklin's second touchdown run, which iced the game. Brendel actually got up and pulled right after the snap, and made the one block necessary for Franklin to break into the open. Brendel had his best game in weeks on Saturday, and looked much more like he did through the first few games of the year. The botched snap that led to the touchdown for USC was more of an issue with Franklin and Hundley than with Brendel, although it wasn't a great snap.
The two freshman tackles were hit and miss on Saturday. Simon Goines did a serviceable job at times on Morgan Breslin, but any time he couldn't get a good punch on him, Breslin was able to go to work, and his mobility really hurt Goines. Goines had an OK day run blocking, but still needs to work on getting lower. Torian White had a slightly worse day than Goines, and failed to pick up T.J. McDonald on the blitz in the third quarter that sacked Hundley. White had some issues on his side of the line in pass protection, but was better in run blocking. Both he and Goines also had times where they blocked really effectively. Honestly, they're effective most of the time in pass protection, and you have to like the potential for the future.
Offensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: A
This game looked and felt much more like the game plans from the beginning of the season, rather than that lull in the middle of the season. With an added vertical threat over the last three weeks, the field has opened up quite a bit more for UCLA, and USC was unable to stack the box the way that some teams were able to do during the middle of the year.
Mazzone really did call a great game. The motion out of the back field, with either Thigpen or Franklin running in motion to one side or the other, was invariably a decoy on Saturday, and served to open up the middle of the field, which UCLA hasn't thrown to much this year. When the Trojans started to adjust, by putting defensive backs on the motion men, UCLA began throwing to the weak spots of USC's Cover 2, hitting Fauria and Evans on deep timing outs to the sideline, with the motion guy now serving to keep the underneath player from getting into the play. UCLA clearly had USC's defensive scheme mapped out pretty thoroughly.
Tempo, also, was a huge factor. In the first half, UCLA seemed to go a bit slower at times, looking to eat up clock and keep USC's offense off the field. Then, in the fourth quarter, when you, being a longtime BBS sufferer, would expect UCLA to go into a shell to try to protect the lead, Mazzone went up tempo, looking to score another touchdown and seal the game proactively.
There was just an overall great mix of calls on Saturday, ranging from quarterback draws to that crazy formation with Goines and White split out wide. Obviously, the fourth down call took some cajones, and helped to set up the field goal.
Defensive Line: B+
We're probably saying this a lot, but this was also the best game of Owamagbe Odighizuwa's career. He was an absolute force all game, seemingly never getting pushed off the line and frequently pushing deeply into the back field. He doesn't go to the spin move and force himself out of plays anymore, and since he's not doing that, he's able to use his strength to eat up offensive lineman and get into the back field. He blew up the one wildcat play to Marqise Lee, which ended up in a fumble, and ate up countless more plays by forcing Curtis McNeal to make his cuts behind the line of scrimmage. A small thing, but important: Owa also gets his hand up on pass plays almost all the time, which, at the very least, served as an additional distraction to Matt Barkley all game.
Datone Jones continued his impressive senior season with another high impact game. He didn't get into the back field as much as he has this season, but did make a couple of saving tackles at the line of scrimmage. Cassius Marsh was a bit quieter than he has been, and also looked like he didn't play quite as much as he has, with Owa getting more of his time in this game, with UCLA going pretty frequently to a two-down linemen, nickel front.
Seali'i Epenesa was solid up front for most of the game and, when UCLA adjusted to USC's line in the second half, actually dropped into coverage once or twice.
Obviously, McNeal did get some running room, which has to fall, to a certain extent, on the defensive line, but it looked like most of those runs came because of issues on the outside with the linebackers. However, we've grown so accustomed to seeing the defensive line blow up plays in the back field that it's almost a shock to not have it happen—which is a credit to how the linemen have played this year.
There's little doubt that Anthony Barr's sack of Barkley, which effectively ended the game and, potentially, Barkley's college career, will go down in the lore of the UCLA-USC rivalry. It was such a solid, clean hit and, although we feel for Barkley, it had to be a cathartic moment for Bruins fans. Barr should have had at least one other sack of Barkley as well, but the game was called by Pac-12 refs, which prevented that. Barr actually spent a good portion of the day dropping into coverage, with Damien Holmes much more often playing as the rush end, which is why it might have felt like he wasn't quite as impactful in the early going.
Holmes had some very effective moments, and was one of the few players who got pressure on Barkley during USC's 20 point blitz. However, he had a few plays throughout the game where he got Barkley nearly wrapped up and then had him slip through. There was also at least one head scratcher on a run play in the fourth quarter, where Holmes pulled inside after the snap, which allowed McNeal to run right through the gap for a nine yard gain.
Eric Kendricks was, once again, a force at inside linebacker. It's really amazing how quickly he's turned it on after struggling with picking up the defense through the first six games. Again, he made significant saving tackles, preventing touchdowns and longer gains, and was generally in the right position at the right time. He also was the one who forced the fumble from Marqise Lee, and also caught that bizarre interception from Barkley. And, just so we're clear, he's a redshirt sophomore—it'll be fun to watch him the next two years.
Jordan Zumwalt played a very nice game as well, and looked good in pursuit of McNeal at times. Aaron Wallace came up huge in limited time, making a very nice tackle of McNeal on an inside run in the 4th quarter.
Defensive Backs: A+
Tracy has already mentioned how good Aaron Hester was on Saturday, but he really deserves a few more paragraphs. Hester made two of the biggest defensive plays of the game, picking off Barkley's opening pass and then breaking up the long pass down field in the 4th quarter that really could have broken the game open. Even beyond those plays, Hester had a great day matched up primarily against Lee, using his strong body to make it tough for Lee to get open immediately. It was really good to see the senior have a game like that with such high stakes, especially after the criticism he has drawn this year, from here and elsewhere.
Sheldon Price got dinged for a few pass interference calls, all of which were questionable. Aside from that, he, too, had a nice day. On Lee's touchdown reception, Price was the trail guy, but Lee being open was more of a scheme issue than an issue with Price—there was no one in the middle providing any kind of safety for Price. USC was able to use that play again on the next drive, in much the same situation.
After a poor game against Washington State, Andrew Abbott rebounded against USC, looking like the same guy who was the best DB on the team for the past two years. He had one big pass break up, and was instrumental in containing McNeal's runs.
Randall Goforth made his return, and was solid, and Marcus Rios played a little, and actually matched up against Lee at one point, which might be a look at the future.
We'd be remiss not to mention Tevin McDonald's spectacular three play sequence on the first defensive series of the second half. On first down, he pushed broke up a pass to Lee on the UCLA sideline. On second down, he broke up a pass on the USC sideline. On third down, he helped force the Barr-tipped pass to fall incomplete. In a game full of impressive feats, that sequence was particularly so.
Defensive scheme, game plan, and play calling: B
It was an interesting opening game plan for the UCLA defensive staff. In the first half, by my count, UCLA blitzed just twice, mostly rushing four the entire time, and switching about evenly between base defense and nickel. In the early going, the scheme was seemingly effective, but there were some warning signs. First, Barkley was way off early, throwing the pick to Hester and skipping a pass to Nelson Agholor in the second series. Second, UCLA wasn't getting a ton of pressure on Barkley, aside from a stunt by Holmes. USC began to attack the middle of the field toward the middle of the second quarter, and UCLA didn't have much answer, dropping its linebackers primarily into zone coverage.
With the lack of success of the four man rush in the first half, UCLA opened the second half by blitzing and stunting much more on the interior, which was much more successful, obviously. The stunts would occasionally look like an outside linebacker or two moving inside, and the nose tackle actually dropping into coverage. The Bruins also played a bit more man coverage.
One neat note: on the play where Barr crushed Barkley, the formation was that nifty one that debuted last week, with Datone Jones as the only down lineman and the two outside linebacker/rush ends standing up. This time, UCLA rushed five, with Barr looping through the right side of the line. It's a devastating formation, and if used sparingly, is going to be very difficult to scheme against for opposing offenses.
Special Teams: A-
The most important piece of the game plan going into this game was simple: keep the ball out of Lee's hands as much as possible. It's safe to say that Jeff Locke did his part. Aside from the kickoff after Franklin's throat-slashing gesture in the 4th quarter, Locke booted every kickoff out the back of the end zone, forcing some noticeable frustration from Lee. He also nailed two punts inside the five yard line. Aside from one somewhat poor punt to Robert Woods in the second quarter, Locke was money all day.
Rios, on special teams, didn't field Locke's punt at the one yard line very well. In fairness to him, it probably didn't help that it was pouring rain at that point in the game.
The two blocked kicks, after the four last week, were key. Price made a great play to come in from the edge to block the field goal, and Kendricks made much the same type of play to block the punt.
Ka'imi Fairbairn nailed his one field goal attempt squarely through the uprights from 23 yards, and is a far cry from the nervous freshman from the beginning of the season. Kudos, of course, to the coaching staff for putting him in confidence-building situations throughout the season.
Kickoff returns are a problem, with poor blocking combined with some not great running from Devin Fuller. Obviously UCLA has lost a good amount of return men this season, but Fuller might not be ideal in that role, since he doesn't quite have that top level speed that Thigpen or Walker has. However, there are few who do, so it might be the case where he's the best available option. In any case, the blocking up front has been the real issue, but returns are difficult to come by with the new rules anyway, so it's hard to say how much time should be spent in practice on it.
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