It's a testament to the quality of the offensive scheme, offensive line, receivers and running backs (and, to be fair, a testament to how bad New Mexico State is) that Brett Hundley can put together what is probably one of his bottom five performances as a Bruin and UCLA can win by 46 points. In a sense, it's even a testament to the body of work that Hundley has put together in that a performance that included three touchdowns, 300+ yards passing, and a near 66% completion percentage also is somehow one of his worst games.
As Jim Mora went over in the Sunday teleconference, Hundley was at least partly responsible for each of UCLA's three turnovers, including the fumble credited to Jordon James on the second play of the game where Hundley simply held onto the ball too long at the mesh point. The first interception was a poor decision, and he badly underthrew Thomas Duarte, but it seemed to be an error of aggression, trying to fit the ball in a tight space where he probably shouldn't have thrown it. The second interception was a bit more worrying, because he clearly had tunnel vision on the right side of the field and completely missed the defensive back rolling in from the left in front of the play. Even making the decision to throw the ball into single coverage was questionable, but the worrying sign is that he didn't even see the other defensive back. He also missed wide open Devin Fuller twice on would-be touchdown passes before finally hitting him on what should have been his third touchdown of the day. There were a handful of other overthrows on relatively open players, and a few times where he made a questionable decision on whether to keep or hand off on the zone read.
On the bright side, Hundley did throw a nice fade to Shaquelle Evans for a touchdown, and hit the easy throws underneath really well. He's become very good on swing passes, leading Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro very well on the variety of swings they had on Saturday. His scrambling ability, though, might be where he's shown the most improvement from a year ago. His decision making in terms of when to throw the ball away is only marginally improved, but he's taking fewer sacks because his ability to escape from pressure is much better than a year ago. There were at least three times during the game on Saturday where he held the ball too long, was forced to scramble wildly out of the pocket, and was able to avoid the New Mexico State defenders. Against faster defenses, it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to do that, but it does appear that he's a bit stronger and faster than a year ago, which is making it harder for defenses to get him down.
Hundley has always been the type to play his best when the lights are brightest, so it's no shock that he had a relatively mediocre game against New Mexico State. It'll be very interesting to see how he bounces back against Utah in a couple of weeks.
Running Backs: B+
Jordon James continues to rack up considerable numbers through the early season, currently ranking in the top five nationally in yards per game. The shocking thing from Saturday, actually, was that you could see that, even with 160 yards, James left some on the table. There were a few times in the open field where it seemed as if he just made one cut the wrong way and got tackled where there were more yards to get by going a different way. It's a nitpick, especially when he averaged over 8 yards per carry on the day, but it's worth noting. His decisiveness seemed improved on Saturday, with much less dancing behind the line of scrimmage than he showed against Nebraska. His touchdown run to put UCLA up 45-0 in the third quarter was a thing of beauty. Overall, it was a pretty good game for him.
What was more encouraging for UCLA was the performance of his backups. Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro both did exceptionally well on Saturday, with Manfro standing out in particular. In all three facets—as a kick returner, receiver, and running back—Manfro did an excellent job Saturday. His ability to make one decisive cut and accelerate was devastating against New Mexico State, with few of their defenders having the ability to stay with him once he made a cut. As Tracy wrote in the season preview, he might be UCLA's best runner in terms of decisively going North-South. Perkins has shown through the last two games that he can make guys miss on the swing pass, easily taking a few one yard passes and turning them into first downs by making a defender or two whiff on the tackle. He's not blazingly fast, but he has enough wiggle and lateral ability to prevent easy tackles.
Malcolm Jones once again was impressive in the latter stages of the game, but it might simply be the case that the guys ahead of him are playing too well for him to get an increased load early on. With the way UCLA has been able to run the ball, it's hard to argue with the allotments of playing time. As a closer, actually, Jones might have even more value, because getting all 215 to 220 pounds of Jones running downhill at a defense could be demoralizing at the end of a long slog.
With news that Damien Thigpen may return by Utah, the running back corps may get even stronger, which could lead to even more interesting combinations for Noel Mazzone to play with. UCLA used much more two back set against New Mexico State, and we'd have to imagine with all the weapons that the Bruins clearly have in the backfield, we'll be seeing a lot more of it going forward.
Devin Fuller had his breakout day on Saturday, even if the stats don't reflect it. If Hundley had been just a touch more on target, Fuller would have had three touchdowns and somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 yards on Saturday. As we wrote about in fall camp, Fuller has a rare ability to get open on shorter passes, but against New Mexico State, he did a much better job of getting open deep. He's been very consistent thus far this year, with four catches in each of the first three games, but we have to expect there's a big statistical game on the horizon.
Shaquelle Evans continues to be the primary target for Brett Hundley, and with good reason. Hundley's connection with Evans has been the throw of the day each of the last two games, with this week's coming on a nicely thrown fade to the corner of the end zone that Evans did a nice job of grabbing. The one noticeable drop of the day was Evans', but you have to cut him a bit of slack, with the drop coming a few plays after getting rocked by an Aggie player on a similarly thrown ball. That ejection seemed justified, as Evans said after the game, since it was a clearly unnecessary hit above the shoulders.
Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien each caught two passes, and Lucien in particular made an impact blocking. So far this season, we haven't seen as much as we would have expected from either player in the pass game, but that might simply be a product of the spread system that UCLA is playing.
Darius Bell made a nice first down catch on UCLA's second drive, reaching back behind his body to snag a slightly errant throw from Hundley. As we've said many times, Bell has very reliable hands, to go along with some deceptive quickness that lets him get space over the middle.
Going forward, we'd like to see more of Darren Andrews, Jalen Ortiz, Nate Iese, and Thomas Duarte as UCLA looks to get more game breakers on the field.
Offensive Line: A-
True, the opponent was New Mexico State, but once again, the offensive line was arguably UCLA's best unit overall. Before the game, UCLA made the key switch, shifting Torian White to left tackle and Simon Goines to right tackle, a move we've been advocating since the beginning of fall camp. White has more athleticism and better mobility than Goines, especially with Goines still nursing a knee injury after hyperextending his knee in fall camp. White had a very good day on Saturday, looking very comfortable against the Aggie defenders. Goines, actually, had a bit more of a difficult time, and was replaced by Caleb Benenoch for a stretch (who did really well in limited time early). We've still never seen a fully healthy Goines in a game for UCLA.
On the interior, UCLA was once again excellent. Alex Redmond, despite the offensive facemask penalty, was once again UCLA's best or second best offensive lineman. Redmond's best qualities are probably his balance and the sheer violence with which he plays. He was equally good in the run game as well as pass blocking on Saturday.
Xavier Su'a-Filo was his usual self, pulling out in front of a couple of big Jordon james' runs and doing a good job of getting downfield. There's the occasional time when he's just not quite quick enough to hit a defensive back or linebacker on the edge, but generally, he gets out quick enough to get the running back at least a few yards.
Offensive scheme, play calling, and game plan: A
We can promise you this: there will never come a point where UCLA scores 59 points on offense and the grade for the offensive scheme is anything less than an A. The Bruins went swing pass heavy throughout most of the game, since NMSU decided to play off the line of scrimmage by about ten yards. The design of the offense is simple, with the aim of getting the player with the most space around them the ball. On Saturday, the player with the most space in front of him was, almost invariably, the running back on the swing route.
For a couple of nitpicks: on the swing passes, make sure the personnel is what you want. Thomas Duarte, for example, is probably not the ideal guy to shake and bake on the outside. Also, Devin Fuller isn't really that guy either, as we saw a few times last year. Fuller, actually, was the recipient of another one of those swing passes behind the line of scrimmage that we very much hate. Lastly, in terms of personnel, we'd like to see Andrews and Ortiz get a few more of the reps that Grayson Mazzone is getting, since they bring a bit more to the table in terms of game-breaking ability.
Defensive Line: B-
Watching live, it looked like UCLA was getting blown off the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the first half, but on the second viewing, it looked like the line only had really obvious struggles on the first drive for the Aggies. On that drive, Seali'I Epenesa and Ellis McCarthy had some real issues generating a push, and were in fact pushed back by the NMSU offensive line. When Epenesa can't generate a push, or at least hold the point, it creates far too many running lanes for an opposing offense, giving them several downhill angles to slice through the interior.
After that first drive, UCLA did a much better job holding up at the line of scrimmage, but, we have to admit, it's a bit of a worry that there were a few struggles against the Aggies' offensive line. On the bright side, Cassius Marsh had his biggest game in the backfield Saturday, even if he did get pushed around a couple of times.
Eddie Vanderdoes did some nice work from the end spot, and actually looked, again, like a bit of a game changer. When he came in, UCLA immediately got a stop on defense. Kylie Fitts looked a bit lost on a couple of plays, at one point trying to run off the field before the snap, getting told to come back, and barely getting set before the start of the play.
It's hard to tell much from a game against New Mexico State, since the Aggies are so bad, and it's a virtual guarantee that UCLA wasn't putting its full defense on display.
You might think we're being a bit harsh, considering the amount of big plays UCLA's linebackers made on the Aggies, but really, we have to grade this game on a curve since the opponent was so bad. Conceptually, the linebackers had some difficulties, especially defending against the New Mexico State zone read. Anthony Barr frequently spun out of position in the early going, futilely looking for sacks on zone read running plays. Deon Hollins continued to gun for the running back at virtually all times, but Eric Kendricks found himself out of position once or twice and let King Davis run for long gains. Even Myles Jack had a few issues against the read. It's almost like Jack and Hollins are a bit too quick against the read, getting into the backfield just as the mesh is happening, which allows the quarterback to make the read on where they're going and hand the ball off or keep it depending on the situation. If Hollins and Jack were a bit slower, they might actually have a better chance of getting a tackle for a loss since the ball would already be committed to one or the other. So, hey, get slower, guys.
Of course, Barr and Jack combined for about five of the biggest hits you'll see a quarterback take, with Barr providing the finishing blow on what was a perfectly clean hit that got flagged for being too perfect, or something. Jack's hit, on the next play, was actually later, and probably would have been a bit more flag-worthy.
We'd be remiss if we didn't devote a full paragraph to Jack's play on the interception by Ishmael Adams. First, Jack caused the interception, crushing King Davis in the backfield. Then, after gathering himself, he got in front of Adams on the return, blocked Davis into the ground again, and then pounded another offensive player out of the path. On that entire play, it's amazing how quickly every defensive player immediately transitioned into a blocking receiver (check out Fabian Moreau driving his player 15 yards downfield), but Jack's blocking really stood out.
Not to continue to babble about Jack, but he also has exceptional closing speed. There were a few times where he was deep in coverage, saw the play developing as a run, and closed very quickly, to the point where he'd meet Davis at the line of scrimmage.
Jordan Zumwalt didn't play all that much, and when he did, he didn't make much of an impact. Kendricks was out of position a couple of times on the zone read, as we said, but he also did an excellent job in open field pursuit, at one point making a nice tackle on a well-called screen pass from the Aggies. Aaron Wallace played well in limited time, doing a nice job against the run.
Randall Goforth put together his best game as a Bruin on Saturday, and has now played three pretty good games this season. We talked before the season about our worries that neither Goforth nor Anthony Jefferson had the necessary bulk to be the classic run stuffing safety you'd like to see. Goforth, though, has shown the closing ability on the outside to be an impact player in the run game.
He also had a couple of pass breakups, and in general just looked very instinctual. We wrote about Goforth quite a bit last year before the start of the season, saying that he showed natural instincts as a safety, and it seems that's finally starting to come out during games.
Ishmael Adams did a nice job of settling under the interception, even if it was caused by a linebacker. His return showed that he could probably play some spot offense if he needed to, looking like a good open field runner. Moreau, as we said above, did an excellent job blocking on the play.
In general, the secondary just wasn't tested that much. Priest Willis had the only noticeably bad play when he fell down on the first touchdown by New Mexico State. Other than that, there weren't any noticeable problems.
Defensive scheme, play calling, and game plan: B-
At this point, we have to question UCLA's strategy for defending the zone read, in a few respects. First, if the strategy for Hollins is really to hit the running back every time, it's not working, since the inside linebacker/safety assigned to the quarterback isn't staying in his lane. Second, if that's not the strategy, then there's some real coaching up that Hollins is going to need before he can be relied upon against teams like Oregon that rely on the zone read heavily. Third, any strategy that involves taking Jordan Zumwalt off the field for extended periods of times seems like it'd cause more harm than good.
Really, we get that UCLA wasn't really gearing their game plan toward stopping the Aggies , or else they would have blitzed most of the game, since those were working the entire time. Instead, the Bruins were trying to work on things they'll need in other games, like their nickel package and zone read looks. What's clear from Saturday is that both still need a considerable amount of work.
Special Teams: A-
Ka'imi Fairbairn made his one field goal, Sean Covington didn't have to punt (again), and the Bruins blocked two kicks, including a field goal and an extra point. So, the kicking game was pretty good.
On the return side of things, Steven Manfro opened the game with a 70 yard return down the sideline, where he showed really good acceleration. Evans looked good as punt returner, and even Darren Andrews got some work in the return game, showing some good quickness and acceleration.
The story for special teams was coverage, though. Jayon Brown and Steven Manfro laid some very big hits on the New Mexico State return men, with Brown looking exceptional as a gunner.
If there's one complaint, it's that two procedure penalties on kickoffs, with the team running offsides before the kick, are inexcusable. That's a focus issues, obviously, and you have to figure it had something to do with the opponent UCLA was facing.
NMSU Unit by Unit Analysis
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