Watching the game a second time, it was pretty clear that Brett Hundley made some strides from the Oregon game to the Colorado game. Yes, the quality of the opponent likely had something to do with his improved play, but there was, seemingly, a conscious effort on Hundley's part to stay in the pocket longer to let plays develop. There were maybe a handful of times where he had an open receiver that he missed, choosing instead to run the ball, but overall, his decision making in that regard was better.
The deep bomb to Devin Fuller was a fairly well thrown ball, probably his best deep pass of the season, and Fuller had to make only the slightest adjustment to come down with it. He was accurate on most dig patterns and crossing routes, and, as always, he hit the lateral passes very well. The game plan gave him more looks downfield and in the intermediate areas, which clearly helped him gain some confidence back.
Now that he probably trusts his offensive line a bit more than he did through the last two games, it's going to be interesting to see how much Hundley can build on this game going forward. At the very least, he and the offense were able to prove they can still move the ball when they need to.
Running Backs: C
UCLA wasn't able to rush effectively against Colorado, which is a bit of a worry, given that the Buffaloes aren't exactly world beaters on the defensive side of the ball. While the running backs have to earn some of the blame for the performance, it's not a situation where they aren't running hard or not hitting the proper hole. It seems to be the case that, generally, when UCLA has run the ball, it's been in predictable situations, which has allowed opponents to stack the box. Against Colorado, UCLA loosened the Buffaloes up only slightly after the Hundley-to-Fuller connection. To ensure that teams don't continue to put seven or eight in the box, UCLA will have to develop a consistent deep passing game.
Damien Thigpen had his best moment since coming back from the knee injury, coming within a little trip at the ten yard line from scoring on a 30+ yard run. He looked pretty close to 100%, and was easily UCLA's most effective runner, with a level of explosion that none of the other backs in the rotation possess. Jordon James also made his return, and played a considerable amount. He and Thigpen both did a nice job blocking in the backfield as well.
If those two are healthy, we'd like to see them get the majority of the reps going forward. Paul Perkins has played well in the absence of James, but you'd like to get him some more seasoning before he's really called upon over the next few years. Malcolm Jones doesn't provide much threat of a big play, which might be his one big drawback. With the way the offense has struggled to move the ball at times, it's become the case, unlike last year, where UCLA needs to err on the side of the big-play potential on offense, because 80 yard touchdown drives are harder to come by.
Offensive Line: C+
Whenever you isolate on the offensive line, they're not playing as poorly as the offensive statistics might suggest. Saturday, Jake Brendel clearly had some issues in both run and pass blocking, but generally speaking, the rest of the line played pretty well. Xavier Su'a-Filo missed one block that I saw, letting his man get a hand on Hundley which forced Hundley to run when he looked like he was setting up for a deep ball, but otherwise had his best game this year at left tackle. Caleb Benenoch continues to improve as a pass blocker on the right side.
Against a stacked box, the offensive line is inherently going to have issues opening up holes in the running game. UCLA was more effective running the ball later in the game after Hundley made some plays in the pass game. Going forward, given how the offensive line is holding up in pass protection, it might be better to opt for more of a pass-first approach than UCLA has shown this year. Rather than opening the game attempting to establish the run, which most teams have been able to game plan against, it might be better to open a game looking to pass to force defenses out of the box. Then, once teams have to respect the threat of a big play downfield, UCLA can work to establish the run a bit more.
Realistically, if you're grading on a curve, given the number of true freshmen playing the key injuries UCLA has suffered to its tackles, the offensive line has played very well this year. As with the defensive line, when you look at the amount of young guys playing, and the amount of experience that will return next year and the year after, the future of the offensive line certainly looks bright.
Wide Receivers: A-
Whether by necessity or talent, Devin Fuller has become the No. 1 receiving threat for UCLA this season. As we've written about since spring, Fuller has really developed as a receiver to the point where he can seemingly get open at will, especially over the middle. His 76 yard touchdown pass was impressive for many reasons, not least of which being that he had to adjust his route on the fly when the defensive back played him inward. Rather than run a post, he ran essentially a seam route, got behind his man, and then made a nice adjustment back on the ball to get it while still maintaining forward momentum. His second touchdown catch was also impressive as he had to reach back across his body to snag the ball, which was just a bit behind him. He also caught one of the long-fabled drag routes.
Shaquelle Evans, after having a tough time against Oregon, also had a pretty good game, showing an ability to get open near the sideline on dig routes.
On the negative side, you'd like Jordan Payton to be able to catch the ball he that hit him in the front corner of the endzone, even if he was falling down. Also, the ball to Devin Lucien on a crossing pattern could have caught, even if it was thrown a good bit behind him. Other than that, though, the receivers had a good game.
Offensive game plan, scheme, and play calling: B-
UCLA clearly had it in mind during the game to take more shots downfield. Fuller even told us after the game that it had been part of the game plan all week for him to run deep routes rather than the consistent motioning behind the line of scrimmage. UCLA was successful connecting on one deep throw, and had another two or three that were called but not thrown due to various protection/coverage issues.
We'd like to see a bit more variation on first down, since it seems that UCLA has become a bit predictable there, opting for the run the vast, vast majority of the time on first down. Opponents have been able to key on it fairly well. Like we said further up, we'd like to see UCLA pass to open up the run, rather than vice versa, since that would seem to be the strategy against the stacked boxes the Bruins are up against now. We don't even necessarily mean that UCLA needs to throw the ball deep. Instead, opting for a series of hitches, digs, and other short passes could be a good way of getting Hundley in rhythm to start the game while also opening up the center of the field for the running game.
Defensive Line: B+
Colorado kept six or seven blockers at home for much of the game, so there weren't many opportunities for big plays in the back field. That said, Ellis McCarthy, for the second consecutive game, was arguably UCLA's best defensive lineman, which bodes very well for the future. McCarthy has started to play with considerable fire, and his performance from play to play has been much more consistent. The light bulb seems to be turning on for him in a considerable way lately.
Kenny Clark also played well, generally pushing his man into the backfield and doing a nice job in the run game. He had a couple of plays where he was the first to get a hand on Christian Powell in the backfield and slow him down before he hit the linebackers. Keenan Graham also had an overall nice game.
The defensive line has been asked to play a good amount of contain this year, with much of the emphasis on creating a pocket vs. penetrating since that can create lanes for the running game. Given the number of underclassmen who are playing a significant number of snaps at this point, the future is particularly bright for the defensive line.
Not coincidentally, the linebackers had probably their worst game of the year in the same game that Eric Kendricks sat out. It's not that Isaac Savaiinaea played poorly, since he actually put himself in good position to make plays most of the time. Rather, it's that the entire defense, particularly the linebackers, just looked a little off kilter playing without the guy who makes most of the on field calls.
Myles Jack, who has essentially played like a senior all year, looked a bit more like a freshman on Saturday, missing a few assignments and over-pursuing at times. He has had such a good freshman year that it's shocking when he actually makes a poor play. Jack has already become so integral to the defense that when he has a subpar game, it affects the whole defense. Anthony Barr also didn't have his most effective game against Colorado's protection schemes. Part of the game plan was to drop him into coverage more, and he did well enough in that role. When you have a weapon like Barr, though, you'd ideally like to turn him loose against the quarterback as often as possible.
Eric Kendricks should be back this week, which should help the defense, and the linebackers, greatly. Even if he were to not return, we imagine the linebackers would look better than they did against Colorado, simply because Savaiinaea will have had a game of starting under his belt, and because Jack will almost certainly play better next time.
Fabian Moreau was just a touch off in this game, prior to the injury, and, with him matced up against Paul Richardson for most of the game, being a little bit off led to some big plays. It wasn't just Moreau, though. Ishmael Adams also had issues in coverage, and Anthony Jefferson took a couple of bad angles at both running backs and receivers. Brandon Sermons really struggled in coverage.
Moreau was also hurt late, as was Anthony Jefferson, although Mora said that Jefferson actually came back into the game. In their places, Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman actually got some time late, and Willis looked good through his handful of plays. It'll be interesting to see how things play out with the injury situation and whether Willis and Goodman factor into the defense a bit more going forward.
Defensive game plan, scheme, and play calling: B-
UCLA blitzed quite a bit throughout the early parts of the game, perhaps more than the Bruins have all year, but most of the blitzes came through the interior of the defense. Jordan Zumwalt hasn't had a great deal of success blitzing through the middle at any point this year, and on Saturday, it just seemed to open the defense up a bit more for the passing game.
Colorado started to put more guys back to block, which forced UCLA to more of a coverage based scheme, which didn't work as well as it has this season mostly because the secondary didn't play as well. Sefo Liufau was also very accurate Saturday, fitting the ball into some very tight windows.
It was a game plan good enough to beat Colorado by a considerable margin. With a healthy Eric Kendricks, and better play from the secondary, the game plan would have probably resulted in something close to our ten point predction.
Special Teams: B
There were some big highs and lows for special teams, but any time you force a turnover, that tilts the grade toward the positive. Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge have really embraced their roles on special teams, which is pretty cool to see. Given that both of the young linebackers likely could be redshirting right now, it's especially neat. If Jeff Ulbrich and Jim Mora can turn special teams into rookie ball for the incoming freshman linebackers every year, that'd be pretty fun.
UCLA did have two big penalties on special teams, though, including a personal foul on a punt return and another personal foul on a punt, which extended a drive. That knocks down the grade a bit.
Devin Fuller came within about half a foot of taking a kickoff return to the house, and he actually looked a bit more explosive as a kick returner than he did last year, with better acceleration. If he weren't currently the best receiver on the team, we'd opt for keeping him at the spot. Damien Thigpen said after the game that he's going to try to work back in at kick returner, depending on how the coaches feel, so that'll be interesting to watch.
Colorado Unit by Unit Analysis
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