If you were looking for a sign either way you'd have to say UCLA's performance was enormously inconclusive.
It definitely wasn't a decisive win, with Colorado, perhaps the worst team in the Pac-12, looking better than the Bruins for extended periods Saturday. If not for a few plays that happened to bounce UCLA's way, it very well could have been a case that the difference between the two teams was one score in the fourth quarter, and Colorado might have had a chance. The Buffaloes, by no means, should feel they were legitimately bested by three touchdowns, and that they weren't competitive in this game.
So where does that leave our opinion of this UCLA team in relation to the remainder of the season?
In a quandary.
The biggest issue going into the game was Brett Hundley and what kind of performance he'd put in after struggling for a number of weeks. You wouldn't say that Hundley was bad in this game, by no means, but his performance didn't enable you to feel more confident about the quarterback, and that he's clearly out of the slump. The stat scouts might come away from this thinking Hundley took a step forward, since he went 19 for 24 for 273 yards, while throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions. But you have to remember: this was Colorado, with one of the worst defenses in the country. UCLA and Hundley should get right against the Buffaloes, and in a much bigger way than it did Saturday. There is no way you can emphatically declare that transpired. On one hand, Hundley did hold the ball again quite a bit, which is an indication that he can't make the read and find a receiver. On the other hand, he completed a few more passes, but again this was Colorado. He made a few more plays, but this was Colorado. He completed his first long ball in a long time.
But, again, this was Colorado.
Perhaps you could make the case that Hundley having some success and not horrendously struggling could be something to build on. The Colorado game could be a stepping stone for him.
But that's all speculative. Going just by this game you'd have to say it's inconclusive just where Brett Hundley is in his development and whether it's likely he performs at a level the rest of the season to make UCLA successful.
One of the issues we had cited in previous weeks was that the playcalling had been limited and conservative, probably in an effort to enhance Hundley's performance, but it seemingly had worked for an opposite effect. This game certainly began mostly in that manner, but there were some subtle changes as the game went on. We had thought a good tactic to help Hundley out of the slump and to give the offense more dimension would be timing patterns, like outs and digs. This way he doesn't have to make a complicated read or check-down and you're still throwing the ball vertically, instead of an over-emphasis on horizontally and the swing pass. As the game progressed, we saw more timing routes, and Hundley looked by far the most comfortable he had in weeks executing those types of plays. There was also a screen, which Hundley executed well, and the long-missing drag route to Devin Fuller, which resulted in a touchdown. It's probably difficult putting together a game plan from your playbook that keeps the attack multi-dimensional but also gives the struggling Hundley the best chance to succeed. Even though, again, this was Colorado, the game plan this week seemed to be far better in accomplishing that.
In fact, if UCLA could generate any kind of running game, it might have appeared like a good game plan and even a very well-called game. But without that dimension the offense looks, well, one-dimensional. UCLA's running game is definitely in a rut itself. It really hasn't had a successful rushing performance since New Mexico State. You could possible count Utah, since the Bruins did run for 182 yards and Paul Perkins gained 93, but it's clear that the UCLA rushing attack has sputtered for at least four games. It could be that it just merely looked better when it faced worse non-conference competition. The slump did coincide with the loss of starting tailback Jordon James and the offensive line being hit by injury. It might be a combination of all of it. Perhaps even moreso than Hundley getting "right" against Colorado, the hope was that the running game would get back on track, and you'd have to conclude that didn't happen. The team ran for 146 yards, against a defense that had allowed an average of 343 yards against its last three Pac-12 opponents. And, if you take away Hundley's 72 yards rushing, UCLA's true running game only gained 74 yards. In fact, you have to give a great deal of credit to Hundley because, at this point, he is the UCLA rushing game. And, for a quarterback who's slumping a bit, it really doesn't make it easier on him that he has a rushing attack that is almost completely shut down. While we're speculating, it's probably not a coincidence that Hundley's slump coincided with the UCLA running game's slump. It's clearly a huge factor in Hundley struggling. You could say that Hundley's slump has contributed to the rushing game's slump, and that's probably true to an extent. If opposing defensive coaches perceive Hundley is faltering they can stack the box, try to take away UCLA's run and make Hundley beat them. Cal did that, and Stanford and Oregon did it to an extent. But it's also plainly clear that the rushing game's struggles aren't predominantly about having to play against stacked boxes. The attack is just flat-out struggling, and in this game, against Colorado, it struggled quite a bit more than Hundley did. In fact, while it's been obfuscated a bit by the higher-profile Hundley struggle, you could make a case that the running game's doldrums could be at least as big a factor, perhaps even bigger, in the offense's struggles. And, if you're trying to do something to help it out of its slump, it's probably a bit more futile. Yes, the playcalling could expand and diversify some. UCLA's read option, now, is clearly being defended well. But there just aren't that many holes and the running backs aren't generally hitting them explosively. If you're looking for hope, it might be in the form of Damien Thigpen, who brought some of his explosion to this game, picking up 38 yards in 4 carries, for a 9.5-yard average per carry, while the rest of the tailbacks averaged 1.85 yards per carry.
The biggest worry takeaway for the Colorado game was easily the UCLA defense. The unit had been the stalwart through the Stanford and Oregon games, holding up its end up by playing stoutly while the UCLA offense sputtered. But that wasn't the case Saturday against Colorado. Here's a stunning stat: UCLA's defense gave up 419 yards on the road against Stanford, while it allowed a relatively-equivalent 381 yards against Colorado at home in the Rose Bowl. It allowed the Buffs to run for 143 yards, an offense that was averaging just 99 yards per game. It allowed a true freshman quarterback, Sefo Liufau, to have generally a successful day, going 25 for 36 for 247 yards. It was very successful if you consider it was only the second start for the true freshman. The UCLA defense, clearly, wasn't on its game against Colorado, looking a bit sluggish and unfocused, against both the run and the pass. Jim Mora, in his post-game interview, said the team had a bit of a "hangover" from the last two weeks it had to overcome, and it seemed like the defense was the unit primarily with the headache, and it's debatable whether it actually shook it off against Colorado.
You have to note that UCLA was without middle linebacker and the leader of the defense, Eric Kendricks. It didn't appear his replacement, true freshman Isaako Savaiinaea, played poorly, but it could be that just taking away one of the unit's strongest elements is enough to make it misfire. The defensive tactic, too, that was a bit curious, and probably stemmed a bit from over-confidence, was, for most of the first half, utilizing Anthony Barr in coverage rather than pressuring the quarterback. It could be that UCLA's coaches thought its ability to rush the quarterback would be effective enough without him, but it clearly wasn't. Barr went back to his rush-end type of role more in the second half, but he wasn't in the same groove he usually is, and the Colorado tackles, for the most part, did a good job on him. UCLA's blitzing schemes just aren't very effective, too, being very basic, with pressure coming from points that are pretty easy for opposing offense to pick up. The one memorable blitz in this game came at the beginning of the second quarter, on a third-and-11, with UCLA sending extra rushers through the interior gaps, which was picked up easily, and then Liufau found Tony Jones for a 38-yard completion that set up the touchdown that put up Colorado, 10-7.
If we're going on hope here, you'd have to say we now are hoping this defensive performance was an aberration – just a hangover, and that the aspirin will kick in by next week in Tucson.
Dave Woods said, for the first time in two years under Jim Mora, the game felt a little Dorheiselian. It was a feeling of under-achievement, of playing down to the competition, combined with some conservative play-calling to compensate for a struggling quarterback, bad tackling, defensive breakdowns and that all-too-familiar feeling of the bend-and-don't-break defense. That's chilling, like how you would imagine it feels like a ghost to past through you.
But if there is a takeaway feeling you get from this game it is truly one of a quandary, of inconclusiveness. In now eyeing the remainder of the season you'd have to say that every game is a pick ‘em. This team could go anywhere from 4-0 to 0-4, conceivably. And there is so much riding on this four-game season. It literally is the difference between the clear perception of the program being on the right course with Jim Mora at 9-3 or better, or it being, well, inconclusive, after a 7-5 finish or worse. The gauntlet is thrown down. We can safely say how well UCLA does in the next four games will have the biggest impact on UCLA's effectiveness in recruiting the 2014 class. We know that the program is on the right course under Mora because we've witnessed it. There's a difference in every layer of the program, and a huge difference in the leadership from the head coach and the coaching staff. The culture has clearly been changed. There is no question that this program is on the right path, and it's actually doing well this season, given how many freshmen its playing and the injuries, and the tough schedule everyone anticipated before the season. Mora is only in the second year of a re-building process and it's probably ahead of reasonable expectations. But it's a matter of whether the public – and recruits – conclude this from the win/loss record of the 2013 season.
There's also the huge issue of whether UCLA can get at least to seven wins and satisfy the season bet of UCLA going over 6.5 wins that, hypothetically, a couple of BRO writers might have put their money on in Las Vegas in July.
So, that sets the scene for some considerable drama over the next month. It's almost like a Hollywood script. We're just about in the third act, and the hero, who has suffered some setbacks, is facing some considerable odds and a very challenging situation to overcome. Mora has those Hollywood-esque heroic qualities, so he's cast perfectly as the head coach. Will Hundley end up the hero? Perhaps Thigpen? Maybe Kendricks returns and lifts up the defense in pure heroic style.
Hopefully the program from Hollywood follows the script.