In the recent past, if UCLA hadn't played well against New Mexico State, the Bruins would have won something like 24-17.
But that's not the case with Jim Mora's Bruins. This team is so good that they can turn in a pretty mediocre performance fraught with problems and mistakes and beat the Aggies by 46 points.
When's the last time a UCLA team didn't play up to its potential, beat someone by 46, and across town, USC mostly played up to its potential, eked out a win, 17-14, and the USC coach was clearly pleased at the end of the game?
Disclaimer: If you have a buzz on about the UCLA football program, and you don't want the buzz-kill of a balanced analysis, consisting mostly of points regarding how the Bruins didn't play well Saturday night, stop reading here.
It really is truly great that this is where the program is now. UCLA is ranked 13th in the country with a bullet, it scored 83 successive points in a row between two games without the opponent scoring, and it's averaging 53 points per game, but it still has yet to put together a clearly well-played game.
The team, of course, goes the direction of its quarterback. Brett Hundley is an exceptional talent. Remember when he came to UCLA and he was hailed the "savior" of the program? He's actually lived up to that moniker. Make no mistake, his talent is a huge factor in UCLA's resurgence, and has helped build the program.
But here are some cold, hard facts about Hundley that were very evident Saturday night.
He has yet to put together a good game this season. He didn't play particularly well against Nevada, played well for a half against Nebraska and, to be candid, had one of the worst games of his UCLA career against New Mexico State. Contrarians would say, "Dude, he went 23 of 35 for 280 yards and threw three touchdowns. How isn't that a good performance?" Easy. Here's why:
-- He threw two bad interceptions in the redzone while getting very little pressure.
-- He didn't see open receivers many times throughout the night.
-- He made poor decisions, many times tucking the ball to run when he had an open receiver; sometimes throwing on a scramble when he had plenty of room in front of him; at least one time throwing the ball out of bounds when he had plenty of room in front of him, and consistently made bad reads on the zone read option.
Because of Hundley's poor performance, UCLA probably left 21 easy points on the field. Off the top of my head, without looking at the tape a second time, in the red zone he, obviously, threw the two picks and threw once to the wrong, covered receiver when a wide-open receiver was about ten yards away.
Since he's been at UCLA, Hundley's biggest areas of improvement have been his vision and decision-making, and it had appeared both had improved in spring and fall practice. But that doesn't seem to be the case; in fact, he has looked a bit worse this year compared to last season. Perhaps it's because there are so many more receivers open this season and it illustrates his inability to see them more, but there are just too many plays when Hundley has blinders on. Everyone in the stadium is screaming for him to see the running back flared out, while he's one-mindedly looking downfield. We counted at least five times when he obviously made the wrong decision in the zone read; either he handed the ball to the running back when the defensive end tucked in, or he kept it and the defensive end stayed wide. Yeah, he completed 23 passes competently, but he had plenty of time and the receivers, for the most part, were wide open. Heck, Richard Brehaut could have completed those passes.
We'll leave the rest of the quarterback position analysis to Dave Woods in the unit-by-unit analysis.
You can look at this as a good thing, in many respects. Again, UCLA is so good, in terms of talent and scheme, that it can blow out an opponent thoroughly with a poor performance from its quarterback. If Hundley keeps turning in somewhat mediocre performances, hopefully it will not go unnoticed by the NFL scouts that he still has too much development ahead of him to be taken in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The funny thing, too, is: I came home last night from the game, and turned on ESPN's Sports Center. And when they got to the review of the UCLA game, the commentator said something like, "It's about time people starting mentioning Brett Hundley in the Heisman Trophy conversation more." This is how good the Bruin program is now: The UCLA quarterback can have one of his worst performances and the talking heads are calling for more Heisman hype for him. You have to love ESPN.
Okay, in terms of the team not playing well, perhaps we lingered too long on Hundley. Again, it has to be repeated: He's a vastly talented kid. We respect him completely, for his character and ability. But this all had to be pointed out.
The rest of the team didn't particularly play well either. See, and here's the thing: We're judging this team by its potential. Some past bad UCLA teams, if some of the receivers, say, had made some of those catches Saturday night we'd be hailing it as a major achievement. But that was back in the Karl Dorrell era when UCLA didn't seem to have, for instance, a decent receiver. But with this group of receivers they are talented enough that a game like they turned in Saturday night was, well – meh.
It's the same with most of the other units on the team.
New Mexico State ran for 187 yards against UCLA, when it had gained just 99 yards against UTEP, 133 yards against Minnesota and 104 against Texas. NMSU had been averaging 2.7 yards per carry and averaged 4.6 against UCLA. NMSU put together its best string of running plays this season so far to start the game against the Bruins. And this was with a true freshman quarterback who threw just one pass during New Mexico State's first couple of series, making them very one-dimensional – and predictable and easy to defend.
Against one of the worst FBS teams in the country, UCLA, again, couldn't mount a decently consistent pass rush. Yes, we know that UCLA wasn't blitzing and wasn't showing much in terms of its blitz packages, but this Bruin team should be able to create more pressure on the quarterback with just a four-man rush. It was lucky neither the freshman King Davis nor Andrew McDonald are very good, because a decent quarterback, with the time provided Saturday night, would have been able to do some damage against UCLA throwing the ball.
UCLA looks, statistically, like it ran the ball well, getting 298 total yards and its starting tailback, Jordon James, getting a career-high 165 yards. But really, UCLA's running game also left a good amount of yards on the table. There were some big holes unexploited. James didn't appear to be running with explosion, looking a step slow compared to his performances in the first two games.
And again, one of the biggest things UCLA needs to work on is playing optimally out of the gate. Against NMSU it again started slowly. You can count on one hand, perhaps even just a couple of fingers, the amount of games in 2012 and 2013 that UCLA has started the game playing well. It's not an issue against the Nevadas and New Mexico States of the world, but it certainly will be against Stanford, Oregon, and we'd have to say even Utah. We don't know if it plainly is coincidental that the Mora-era Bruins have started games slowly, or if it's something inherent to the coaching and scheme. We do know this: UCLA will struggle to win 10 games this season if it has to wait a quarter or more before it gets warmed up, or has to wait to do its notorious adjustments at halftime. Stanford, Oregon, Utah and Washington aren't going to probably let you back up from the mat the way Nebraska did.
Also, UCLA's second-string defense is a worry. With the talent it has, it shouldn't allow a New Mexico State offense to move down the field a couple of times in the fourth quarter and score so easily. Yes, our expectations have been raised: UCLA's second string defense, now, should still dominate NMSU's offense and shut them down. It raises a point of just how deep UCLA's defense is, and whether it has enough depth to consistently mount good defensive performances throughout the season, like in November.
And there were the penalties. 15 of them for 138 yards. Again, give up 138 yards in penalties to Utah on the road, Stanford, Oregon, Washington or Arizona on the road or even USC at the Coliseum, and UCLA is severely reducing its chances of wins in those games.
So, if you have that UCLA football buzz, and you skimmed through the last five or six inches of this article to get to here, that's fine. It's clear that UCLA is now very talented, and probably deserves to hang with the top dozen teams in the nation. This game was an indication of that. A great deal of the credit has to go to the offensive scheme, which probably doesn't get enough credit for making Mora's UCLA program what it is. It truly is a great scheme, amassing yards and points seemingly effortlessly, and it's very forgiving, being able to mask some failures and poor performances. It's the program's difference-maker; take it away, and UCLA might not be where it is under Mora right now.
And this is where it is: UCLA scored 59 points, beat a team by 46 points, gained 692 yards and didn't play well.
It certainly is a different era.