Bruins Are Good and Fortunate

UCLA combined some very good early play and then some fortunate bounces to beat Washington, 41-31. There are many Hollywood-type elements developing here, and the primary one is Myles Jack...

UCLA got a huge win against Washington Friday night, beating the Huskies, 41-31, and staying alive in the race for the Pac-12 South Championship.

It was truly huge in terms of the importance to the program, the season and probably Jim Mora.

From a pure football standpoint, it wasn't a clearly satisfying win. But from a program/season/Mora standpoint, we're sure it is.

It's satisfying that UCLA is now 8-2 and, again, has a chance to win the Pac-12 South. It has a chance at a 10-win season. This is just in the second year of Mora being at UCLA.

Now, to put how satisfying that is in perspective we don't have to go far for comparison. Hold up that against the Huskies. They're 6-4, and out of the Pac-12 North race. In the three seasons of the Pac-12 Championship, they've never sniffed the championship game. The Washington coach, Steve Sarkisian, in his fifth season, is looking destined toward another 7-win season. He's been in Seattle for four seasons and he's posted a 7-6 record in the last three consecutive years. His first season, he didn't even get to that level of mediocrity, going 5-7. That means hot seat.

It's apropo and a bit Hollywood-script-esque, that it's Mora, who is a Washington alum with some connection to the school, who actually was the coach so instrumental in cementing Sarkisian in his mediocrity for this year.

Why is it that so much of what Mora does at UCLA has a Hollywood script element to it?

So much of what happened on Friday at the Rose Bowl was Hollywood-script worthy. Myles Jack is a walking sappy movie. Has there ever been a defensive player that scored four touchdowns in a game in college football in the modern era? Jack has become the poster boy for the program, putting a national face on UCLA. It has showcased Mora's innovativeness on a national stage, and his ability to play true freshmen but feature them as a star, which, obviously is a gem of a recruiting tool (Juju Smith and Adoree Jackson, come on down). We probably, too, have to mention that Jack, of course, is from the Seattle area and was the highly-prized local-hero recruit that got away from Washington. It's funny, even though the University of Washington isn't really deserving of the role, it is almost the bad guy in the Hollywood script, just because of the beatdown element the heroes have bestowed on them. (Hopefully there's a little bad-guy-beatdown-bestowing left in the script in two weeks time).

Now, of course, when you're lost in your Hollywood fantasy movie, you tend to not see some of the issues and problems. But of course, that's what we're here to do.

On the field, for the actual game, it wasn't a great performance. There were definitely some great individual performances, and some good coaching moves, but overall not a stellar performance. It wasn't horrible by any means. We'd call it good, not great. If we had to give the overall performance a grade, it comes in with a pure B.

Both UCLA's offense and defense faltered in this game. On one hand, you'd have to expect that since Washington is a solid-to-good team. You could easily make the case that UCLA got extremely fortunate that Washington's starting quarterback and leader, Keith Price, missed the second half with an injury, and that redshirt freshman quarterback Cyler Miles just wasn't up to the task of winning this game. You could make the case that, with Price, Washington probably keeps its momentum and wins this game.

On defense, UCLA looked vulnerable, and then surprisingly good in one area you wouldn't have been able to anticipate. It was vulnerable against Washington's passing game, and really did a great job of limiting its high-powered rushing game. Go figure.

Going into this week (and in our game preview) we pointed out pretty emphatically that the way to keep Price from being consistently effective is to pressure him. UCLA, for a great portion of the game, didn't do that, and didn't really attempt that. When they did, it was resoundingly successful, except perhaps for one good play result against a blitz, but for the most part when UCLA sent more pressure at Price he struggled. UCLA's defensive strategy for the season has been to predominantly rush 3 or 4, hope UCLA's pass rush, specifically Anthony Barr, is good enough to pressure the quarterback, and then put more men back in the zone coverage. It's a bit of a passive approach, but we couldn't for the most part argue with it since it had been successful a majority of the time this season. But it wasn't against Washington. Price isn't a greatly accurate quarterback, but when you give him time that accuracy greatly increases. In the first quarter, Price went 6 for 8 for 101 yards, pretty much throwing with impunity. Washington, too, has some pretty dangerous skill guys who have a chance to get behind a defense, if you give them and the quarterback enough time, and that happened.

We give a great deal of credit to UCLA Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos. He has done things sometimes in ways we wouldn't think would be successful and they have been. But we find it a bit inexplicable, with the athletes on UCLA's defensive roster, that some effective blitz packages can't be part of the repertoire. UCLA did get a sack from a nice interior blitz by Eric Kendricks in this game and the question is – why isn't there more of that? We know they're trying to protect the young secondary, who looked a bit exposed against Washington, but the aggressive – and often times common – resolution to protecting a vulnerable secondary is to put pressure on the quarterback, and to do that consistently, you need some creative blitzes.

One Washington drive, the one at the end of the first half in which the Huskies got a field goal, is a good example. Washington went something like 50 yards in about 45 seconds with UCLA rushing 3 or 4. Then, in the redzone, the Bruins blitzed three consecutive times and completely took Price out of his comfort zone and shut down the UW offense, forcing them into a field goal. We're not advocating blitz all the time, but this was a good example of how a well-conceived blitz -- or three -- can be so effetive.

UCLA's defense was outstanding against Washington's running game. A team with the #3-running back in the country that was averaging 229 yards per game (17th in the nation) was held to 102 yards, and just 2.8 yards per carry. Bishop Sankey was held under 100 yards (91) for the first time this year when he had more than 20 carries in a game. It was truly a stunning defensive performance. UCLA coaches did cheat up some guys a bit here and there, not too drastically, but it was enough to make a difference. UCLA's defensive line, too, had its best game against the run this season. Cassius Marsh had perhaps the best game of his UCLA career. Linebacker Eric Kendricks showed, again, he is the most critical element of this defense, stopping up running lanes and making sure tackles. It's not coincidental that UCLA's rushing defense this season has been very good when Kendricks is healthy, and struggled some when he's not. When you're going up against a pretty potent offense like Washington's you pick your poison. It was clear UCLA decided to try to shut down Sankey and make Price beat them, and the strategy worked. It wasn't perfect, by any means, but it got the job done.

Offensively, too, UCLA faltered. UCLA was looking the best it had offensively in many games early on against Washington. When it was up 27-7 early in the second quarter, it had already amassed about 250 yards of offense, had been successful both on the ground and in the air, and the playcalling was dynamic. Hundley was looking pretty sharp, starting 7 for 10, and scrambling for about 30 yards. UCLA's rushing game was looking potent, with Malcolm Jones and Paul Perkins both running effectively. UCLA had opted for its heavy formation, and Myles Jack was enormously effective, scoring three of UCLA's four touchdowns. UCLA went to the pass first, and utilized more short timing patterns and short drops, and that resulted in completed passes and the chains moving. That emphasis on the pass first definitely looked like it opened up the running game. Then there was the Heavy Jack formation folded into all of that, too, and UCLA's offense had some serious dimensions.

In fact, give a great deal of credit to the UCLA rushing game. Even though you have to concede that UW's rushing defense isn't stellar, the Bruins ran the ball collectively the best they have in a while. They gained 222 yards Friday night, and the offensive line opened up some of the best holes this season.

At 27-7 it appeared that UCLA had a real chance to rout the Huskies, with both the offense and defense performing at a very high level.

But then there were a few pivotal plays, and the entire tone, momentum and approach to the game by UCLA changed.

The first huge play that changed momentum was Malcolm Jones' fumble on UCLA's own 10-yard line. UCLA was up 27-7 and had just shut down another Washington possession. There with about 9 minutes left in the half, and UCLA had the ball at its own 1-yard line. Everyone in the stadium thought it was Jack time, but UCLA opted for its conventional offense. We can't necessarily second-guess this completely; it's not fair to speculate that if the Heavy Jack formation were employed this wouldn't have happened. Jack, himself, fumbled in this game (but, since the heavens smile down on Jack for some reason, the ball was recovered by UCLA 15 yards down the field and Jack got credit for that extra yardage).

Okay, so UCLA stumbled. It conceded a stupid touchdown to the Huskies and it's now 27-14. The second big blow to the momentum was on UCLA's next possession. The Bruins were moving the ball, picking up two first downs. If it drove the field and scored, and made the score at halftime, 34-14, that very well might have snuffed out the Huskies and their hopes and dreams. UCLA gets penalized (Caleb Benenoch personal foul), but Perkins rushes for 10 yards and it's second-and-15. Hundley drops into the pocket, steps up well and Devin Lucien is wide open for a potential first down, but Hundley misses him badly. Hundley had a little backside pressure, but not much. That play was a harbinger of future things faltering. UCLA gave back the ball, Washington drove the field in in a little over a minute, kicked a field goal and the Huskies are back in the game on the scoreboard, 27-17, and in the game of momentum.

Then, the play that really hammered home UCLA giving away the mojo: Darren Andrews fumbling the second-half opening kick-off and handing a touchdown to Washington, making it 27-24. We can definitely second-guess this – in time where you are just about to lose complete grasp of a game's momentum, it might not have been a good idea to put a true freshman on kick-off return. At this point, at 27-24, the feeling was that Washington was rolling, UCLA was reeling, and either the Huskies were going to glide on past the Bruins or UCLA would have to find something to change the tenor of the game. The tenor was changed, mostly, in a massively fortunate development for the Bruins, when Price then got injured.

UCLA then got a rare score that the Heavy Jack didn't influence, when, against the "run of play," Hundley hooked up with Lucien for a game-clinching, fourth-quarter touchdown.

You knew that UCLA had the good-fortune light shining on it Friday night when just about every call from the notorious Pac-12 refs went their way.

Credit also has to go the those uniforms. You have to think somehow they affected the game. UCLA, when it's at home in the dark blue or black, has literally looked like a different team at times. Give props to Bruin fans, too, for coming out en masse in black, when the UCLA Athletic Department didn't pull the trigger and make the game an official black-out.

Of course, the big issue about the offense -- that perhaps has the biggest impact on the remaining two regular-season games -- that needs to be pointed out is: Why not more Myles Jack? We know Mora keeps saying that you can't overdo it. But in terms of Jack in this game, it might have been a bit underdone. UCLA's offense in this game, when it mixed in Jack in the Heavy Jack formation on short-yardage, had a huge effect on Washington's defense, both seemingly physically and mentally. Mentally, it's something that tells Washington: We're going to do this, you know we're doing this, but you can't stop us anyway. Physically, it has to wear down a defense to be pounded straight-ahead like that. But you take out the Heavy Jack and the UCLA offense goes to Bruin Lite. UCLA should use the Heavy Jack on just about every possession, and not exclusively on short-yardage. It would punish defenses both mentally and physically having to contend with that on every third play or so. I thought the basic tenet of coaching strategy was use something until the opponent stops it. Let's see someone stop the Heavy Jack.

We can concede the argument that there would be a great deal of preparation and risk trying to incorporate Jack into the base offense. Jack, did, however, get two carries at the beginning of the second quarter in the standard offense (actually, in the Pistol, which UCLA used some Friday), and he looked devastating. Perhaps with more time in practice, Jack will get more incorporated into the base offense. There might not be another option, with how UCLA's running backs are getting nicked up. Jones got popped and went out with what appeared to be a concussion. Perkins had some gingerly moments. Mora said they expect Jordon James and even Damien Thigpen back this week but we can't expect they'll be completely rust-free.

It's time to risk overdoing Jack. The national spotlight is set for Jack to step up, be the program's poster boy, and in pure Hollywood-script style, lead the team to a 10-win season, another berth in the Pac-12 Championship game and the Rose Bowl.

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