Season on the Brink

The loss against Stanford confirms many of the concerns we've had about this UCLA team over the last few weeks. The biggest one: Can Brett Hundley get his mojo back? So much of whether the season is successful depends on it...

All of the potential concerns that we didn't want to face but were having about this team in the last few weeks were exposed Saturday when UCLA lost to Stanford, 24-10.

Very simply, first: It's not quite ready to play with the big boys. It's not that the team isn't talented enough. You could easily make the case that UCLA is more talented than the Stanford team it faced Saturday. But it just wasn't as good as Stanford was. So many little aspects of the team broke down Saturday, in a big game when you need them not to break down. The execution was very poor. There were mental mistakes. UCLA just doesn't seem quite mature or experienced enough to sustain a consistent level of play. Stanford is a vastly experienced team, while UCLA is a greatly inexperienced and young team.

The team showed that it's not quite there yet.

It got to the #9 ranking and knocked on the door of being considered an elite national team.

But the door was slammed shut.

The question now is: Can this team continue to improve this season and go back and approach the door and knock on it again?

And we have to admit. We don't know the answer. It's not answerable. It's something that simply has to play out.

But we know this: Some things will dramatically have to change if UCLA hopes to go back to that door this season. Some things will have to develop. The Bruins will have to come of age and get significantly better.

We said this week on the message board that there were three primary elements to this team that were limiting its success. And we asked the question if any of those three could improve during the remainder of the season. That comment, and question, was prophetic in relation to the Stanford game.

The three elements were:

-- Brett Hundley's lack of great vision and decision-making.

-- Penalties

- The Playcalling.

Hundley had the worst game of his career Saturday. And it wasn't one of those performances like last week that belied his stats. This week his stats (24 of 39 for 192 yards and two interceptions) weren't good and they reflected his play. But, as stats always do, they didn't grasp the entirety of the performance. We've said consistently that Hundley is a talented player with some great potential, but the two areas of the quarterback position that don't come naturally to him are vision to see the field and decision-making. It was again very evident Saturday against Stanford. The Stanford secondary was perhaps the most challenging he's faced, doing a good job in coverage, and it clearly made it even more difficult for Hundley to find a receiver. He had time, which was a credit to the depleted-by-injury offensive line. But Hundley was consistently frustrated in finding an open man. To compound the poor performance, he threw the ball poorly most of the day. There were even simple throws, just easy dump-offs, that he missed. By the end of the game he looked like his confidence had been considerably rattled.

This has been building with Hundley for the last several games. He hasn't played particularly well since the first half of the Utah game, and the offense, it follows, also hasn't been very good. So, at this point, it's not an aberration but a trend, and concerning. We guessed that it could be a result of losing his starting left tackle, Torian White, and it very well might be undercutting his confidence. But even with all the injuries to the offensive line Saturday, Hundley wasn't under attack from the left side. He also hasn't been the same since he was shaken up and had blurry vision against Utah. Perhaps there's something lingering from that incident and he has some residual issues. At this point, since it is a clear trend, we think it's valid to question whether Hundley is going to be able to execute the position at the level the offense needs for it to be successful. Yes, just about the only offense UCLA could muster Saturday was because of Hundley's legs, but that doesn't diminish that he's not getting it done with his arm and his brain.

So the question remains. Can Hundley turn it around, and thus turn around the offense, for the remainder of the season? We're asking this as a question because it certainly is one at this point.

UCLA committed 7 penalties, which is on the considerably low side for the Bruins this season. But in a close game against a very good opponent, penalties can make a huge difference, and there were some in this game that were particularly deflating. There were at least two that were drive-killers, and one that greatly enhanced a Stanford drive.

The playcalling, again, was strangely inconsistent, and that's being nice. It really was only good for one drive, the one right after UCLA got down 17-3. It forced Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone to call a game that would be more effective against Stanford, and that was using mostly a perimeter passing attack. It worked for Arizona State against Stanford, and it worked last week for Utah against Stanford. But UCLA didn't seem to emphasize it until the end of the third quarter. That, then, stretched and opened up the field a bit and Hundley was able to find some open receivers in the middle of Stanford's secondary. We, though, can't blame the playcalling too severely, because it very well might be that Mazzone is trying to compensate for Hundley's problems, trying to find some plays Hundley might be able to execute at this point.

We have to add one more element to the Primary Problem List: Jake Brendel's snaps. It's to the point that something has to be done about it. It's putting Hundley at a deficit on about half of UCLA's plays, and when you have a struggling quarterback the last thing you want him to have to do is field snaps at his knees. Against Stanford it consistently robbed Hundley of one beat, which is critical when he's struggling to see the field.

The UCLA defense, for the most part, has to be given some considerable credit. They were on the field for an overwhelming 37:11, trying to physically hold their ground against the pound-it-in-your-face, physically-draining Stanford offense. The defense pretty much limiting Stanford's ground attack for a majority of the game, until the flood gates relented in the second half. Even though UCLA didn't pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan very much, and it gave him a great deal of time to find open receivers, the strategy, for the most part, worked, since Hogan, really, isn't very good, and you'd like to make the game be about him beating you. Bottom line: The defense easily made enough stops in this game for a team with an even slightly effective offense to win.

Not to be melodramatic, but the team, and its season, are on the brink. The problem is, which brink is it? Does Hundley not get his mojo back, and the team spirals through November after getting run over at Oregon? Or does Hundley pull it together, makes some progress, the offense starts moving the ball again, and the team takes steps forward, instead of falling off the precipice? With Oregon next week, and then after a respite against Colorado, UCLA has a challenging November, with a road game against Arizona, and then tough games at home facing Washington and Arizona State, and then the brawl across town against USC. At this point, it truly could go either way.

As we said, though, something is going to have to change. UCLA, and Hundley, can't play the way they're playing right now and come out of November ultimately with a successful season. A good team, and a good program, would step up to the challenge, fight off the bad mojo, and do what it takes to get back on track.

We can only wait to see which way this goes.


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