And it was a very interesting one, from an analysis perspective.
Just like it's a relief for the players to finally play another team after a month of fall camp, it was great for us to watch the Bruins play someone other than themselves. You think you know what you're seeing in fall camp, but then it's good to see that you were right in what you thought you were seeing.
And what we thought we were seeing in August was a UCLA team with a new level of athleticism and talent, and that's exactly what you saw Saturday night in the Rose Bowl.
For the first time, too, in a very long time, UCLA was the powerhouse team that arrogantly knew they could roll over their lesser opponent and almost used the game as a practice – to get the kinks out, work on some things, get young players some playing experience and then not show Nebraska too much. It came off a bit like arrogance, that UCLA just naturally assumed from the first snap that it could use only about three pages of its playbook to take care of Nevada. It seemed to almost designate certain series were to work on certain aspects of the offense -- okay, this is our running series; okay, this is our passing series. It sent clear messages to the Nevada defensive coaches what it was going to do offensively, arrogantly challenging the Wolfpack to stop them with that knowledge, with UCLA knowing it could do that and still win easily.
While this is some unfamiliar territory, acting like elite-program bullies, at least in recent UCLA football history, there were some familiar aspects of the game also. UCLA's defensive coaches were notorious for making good half-time adjustments last season, and it was the same in this game. The score at halftime was 17-13. The second-half score was 41-7. Nevada gained 246 yards in the first half, and 107 in the second half. It gained 140 first-half rushing yards, and just 31 in the second half. It was to be expected, since UCLA's defensive coaches didn't have any film this year of Nevada's offense, and there was a little bit of a thought that they could tweak their Pistol. And just not from a tactical standpoint, but UCLA's defensive players changed some in the second half in their approach, far more calm and focused, and successful in their assignments. They clearly were a bit too pumped up in the first half, over-running plays, spinning at the line of scrimmage, going right by ballcarriers on the zone read to tackle the other option, etc. There wasn't nearly as much of that in the second half, and it had a big impact.
Perhaps one of the main things learned defensively in the second half: The base defense is better much of the time than the nickel and rush packages, especially against offenses designed primarily to run. In the first half, we saw the rush package, with Deon Hollins having a hand down as a rush end, far too much, in non-pass situations. Remember, this was the Pistol UCLA was trying to defend, which is primarily a zone-read running offense. The strategy, clearly, was to try to get some Bruins into the Nevada backfield to disrupt the zone read and have both the running back and quarterback blanketed regardless of whom ended up with the ball. That didn't work very well. It was either a case that Hollins' job was to penetrate and cover the tailback exclusively, or a case that he wasn't very good at distinguishing who had the ball out of the zone read. And it wasn't just Hollins. Anthony Barr wasn't very good against the zone read either, and you would think he might be since he was an H-back in the Pistol himself two years ago. The poor strategy and execution left Nevada's biggest weapon, quarterback Cody Fajardo, unmarked for most of the first half, and he exploited it, running freely for 79 yards and a touchdown, with one 27-yard scamper. You had to like Nevada's game plan, too, to run right at Barr, and not give him a chance to catch running backs from the weakside. That also worked. Nevada's passing game, too, was effective. The Wolfpack recognized, with UCLA's pass rush, it couldn't look downfield, so, using the Pistol-designed passing scheme, it utilized a successful short passing game, finding holes in UCLA's young secondary. In the second half, UCLA used the base defense more, and it was definitely more effective against Nevada's rushing attack and even more effective against Nevada's short passing game, mostly because it enable some of UCLA's best players to fly around to the ball.
Regardless of what defense UCLA is using, it clearly needs to keep linebacker Jordan Zumwalt in the game. He was perhaps the defensive player of the game for the Bruins, using his athleticism and now experience to blow up many plays, especially key plays, like a big fourth-down stop on a Nevada receiver screen in the second half. When UCLA went to its Hollins package in the first half, Zumwalt came off the field. In the second half, in that same package, Zumwalt was on the field most of the time, and had a big impact.
His running mate, Eric Kendricks, led the team with 9.5 tackles, and looked like he was in the same dominating form from the second half of last season. The two of them, Kendricks and Zumwalt, were the two defensive players who consistently looked clued in, even in the first half.
When the media was let on the field after the game, UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure ran by us and said, "Hey, how about them freshman defensive linemen?" Yeah, how about them. Eddie Vanderdoes was everything that he was billed to be. He had 6 tackles, two for loss, and looked potentially dominating. He bullrushed an OL about 8 yards into the backfield and made a tackle. He was just too big and too strong for Nevada-level offensive linemen to contain. And when he makes a tackle, he consumes the ballcarrier. He is going to have to play more than he did Saturday night, and someone should create a countdown clock on when he becomes a starter at defensive end.
Of course, all of this has to be taken with a big grain of Nevada salt. This was against a team that just doesn't have the level of athlete that UCLA has, and that UCLA will face much of this season. Nevada is a mediocre team, with a good offense, for the WAC, but it will probably prove out to have a below-average WAC defense and a suspect WAC offensive line. The defense gave up 34 points a game last season, against pretty mediocre competition. On both of its lines it just doesn't have the bodies – the size and athleticism – to complete with the level of talent UCLA has up front.
On the other hand, UCLA, in the Dorrell/Neuheisel eras, sometimes barely looked like it had more athleticism than the WAC-level teams it used to play against back then. So you can say that UCLA has regained its rightful status, that of a program that should have dominant talent as compared to a WAC team.
So, maybe we shouldn't put too much stock in how UCLA's offensive line absolutely dominated Nevada. It was easily the most successful unit for the Bruins on the field Saturday night. There were so few mistakes or miscues, with just about every offensive play displaying a dominating effort by UCLA's OL. And you would think that one of the veteran OLs would be the guy to stand out, like Xavier Su'a-Filo, but it was true freshman Alex Redmond. UCLA likes to pull its guards in its running attack, so it pulled Su'a-Filo and ran over Redmond, and Redmond was a monster. He recorded numerous pancakes, screened out so many DLs to create gaping holes, and ran his DL out of the play numerous times. Redmond's performance was perhaps the one that most UCLA fans should be the happiest about from Saturday night. Again, this was against a poor WAC front seven, but it's very encouraging that a true freshman, in his first collegiate game, could be so good on the offensive line.
One of the biggest contributing factors to UCLA's dominance Saturday was the tempo. Last season, UCLA got off its offensive plays about every 18 seconds. We noted in fall practice that that looked like it had been accelerated to about 14 seconds, and that was evident against Nevada. Playing at that speed, as UCLA arrogantly seemed to know, would wear down a physically over-matched Nevada team and it did. In the third quarter, after Kenny Orjioke had that amazingly athletic play in blocking the punt that led to Phillip Ruhl's touchdown (how fantastic for him, that that ball seemed to have eyes and jumped into his hands), on UCLA's next offensive series, the Wolfpack looked stick-a-fork-in-it done. When Jordon James scampered for the 26-yard touchdown run, Nevada's defense looked like it wanted to keep running for the locker room. The strategy under Jim Mora and Noel Mazzone to play fast, and to keep playing faster, is definitely going to continue to be a factor in games. Last season, UCLA was still learning Mazzone's offense; this season they're veterans, in better shape, and more capable of snapping the ball every 14 seconds rather than 18. That four-second average increase will wear down defenses by the second half, like it did the Wolfpack. In the first half, Nevada possessed the ball 18:41 to UCLA's 11:19 – which is an Oregon-like stat. For the game, UCLA had 82 plays to Nevada's 86, not a big difference, but Nevada possessed the ball for 33 minutes compared to UCLA's 26. Opposing defenses better be in Navy Seal shape to keep up in the second half against the Bruin offense.
One of the biggest interesting aspects going into the game was how would UCLA replace Johnathan Franklin. Jordon James had never really shown he had the every-down, run-between-the-tackles mentality. Of course, again, this was against Nevada, but James looked very good, running for 156 yards on 21 carries, which are Franklin-like numbers. He started off a bit tentative, looking like he was a bit hesitant to go north-south at first, but then he starting feeling it pretty clearly. Of course it's pretty easy to feel it when you have huge swaths of grass to run through like James did Saturday, but his performance was a good sign. What's very exciting is how his cutting and shiftiness can be so electric when he gets to the second level. What is also very exciting is how good a pass blocker James is and showed it in this game.
Brett Hundley, overall, had a good game, not spectacular. He wasn't asked to do that much, and was solid, going 22-for-33 for 274 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two. His ability to see the field and find the holes in coverage has continued to improve, and he was very calm sitting in the pocket doing it (it also helps when your offensive line has perhaps its best pass pro performance in recent years). You could see that he really loves to pick apart a Cover Two zone, like the one USC employed last year. He did miss some long balls, with receivers open. He over-threw a couple of balls. But it was a good performance that showed development on Hundley's part.
There were many young players that stood out, but we're not going to laundry list them. But besides Vanderdoes, the other true freshman that was shockingly good was Myles Jack. Just like we've been saying about him in fall camp, Jack is a supreme talent. He had 7 tackles on the night, and in one series have five in a row. He lived up to that cliché of being all over the field. He played outside linebacker, inside linebacker, kind of a mini-linebacker and he played essentially defensive end. On one play when he had his hand down, he held off the 300-pound offensive lineman with one arm and slid down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle on the ball carrier with the other arm. In perhaps his most impressive play, he stayed step for step with a receiver and batted away the ball when it was in the receiver's hands. He, like Vanderdoes, is going to have to get on the field even more than he did Saturday.
It was a night of Burning the Redshirt. By our count, 14 true freshmen played, some just on special teams. It's a curious move by the UCLA coaches. For some players, even like Kenneth Clark, the reasoning is clear. But for others, like Cameron Judge, who played just special teams, or Caleb Benenoch, who played garbage minutes at OL, it's not. We can only conclude that the UCLA staff wants to get its young guys some experience for depth this season, and also to get them all some experience for 2014.
We have to point out a few issues, of course. The "old friend" penalties came by for a visit. It's going to make them lose a game this season unless it can get under control. There was definitely some confusion in getting in packages and personnel on defense. It seemed like the defensive calls were trying to be too clever for its own good at times. After this game, you'd have to think that future UCLA opponents are going to earmark the zone-read pages in their playbook. The play-calling was very conservative, but not out of weakness, such as in the Dorrell years, but out of, well, arrogance.
A big takeaway is that the Bruins didn't suffer a significant injury, and it now has a bye week to prepare for Nebraska.
The biggest takeaway is the new level of talent at UCLA, and the arrogant-like countenance the Bruins have in expecting that they're now an elite college football program.