UCLA, as we all know, came up short in its dramatic, comeback effort, losing to Arizona State, 38-33. It's a loss that, of course, stings. The loss shapes the season in a profound way – not only snatching away a potential Pac-12 South Championship crown and placing it on the head of that Sun Devil, but defining the 2013 Bruins as what they are. There are a few games a season that do that, and this definitely was a defining game. With one game remaining, 9-2 sounds so different than 8-3.
Bruin fans are, naturally, in their post-big-loss funk and ready to dole out blame, and there's plenty of it to legitimately go around. But it doesn't seem appropriate to hammer home so many of the same points we've been making throughout the season that came to such impactful fruition in this game.
Now, on the other hand, if I wrote this review at halftime, it would have been scathing. And I started to write it in my mind. But the second-half comeback showed so much about this team and the program, and not just character and toughness, but a sign that what Jim Mora said after the game was true – that the program isn't there yet but it's definitely on the right road. It just came up a little short in getting there yet this season.
As a Bruin fan, if you shake off the bitterness, you're left with a morass of observations and emotions over this game. On one hand, you have to acknowledge how the team and the coaches were, for the first half, out-manned, out-played and out-schemed by Arizona State. On the other, you have to acknowledge UCLA's youth and injuries and marvel a bit that they were able to play this competitively, not just in this game but this season. UCLA played three true freshmen on its offensive line for a big stretch of the season and in this game. A few years ago, I was skeptical that one true freshman could play on the offense line, on any college football team's offensive line, and be even remotely successful. Last night, UCLA was using its true freshman linebacker as its tailback because it had suffered so many injuries at running back. Myles Jack had learned much of the plays in a run-through in a hotel room ballroom a few weeks previously. UCLA's secondary last night consisted of a first-year starting safety who was playing cornerback, because UCLA's first-year starting cornerback was injured, a redshirt freshman and a true sophomore. The coaching staff is still so much in the getting-to-know-you phase with its young players that it discovered its kick-off and punt returner – 11 games into the season. UCLA was without its #1 receiver.
Contrast that with Arizona State, which was a senior-laden veteran team, starting nine seniors. The difference in experience and age between ASU's front defensive seven and UCLA's offensive line is startling. ASU's defensive front averages a little more than a fourth-year senior (they have three redshirt seniors), and UCLA's offensive line averages just a little more than a true freshman. ASU's offensive line also averages a little more than a fourth-year senior (all of its starters have benefitted from a redshirt year), while UCLA's most-used defensive front-seven from last night averages a redshirt sophomore or true junior. As we've always maintained, in college football experience is such a key factor.
On the BRO message board, I don't think I've ever seen more reasons provided by posters on what this game came down to, what was the reason for the loss. So often fans want to do that, whittle it down to just one thing in their mind that made or didn't make the game. But this game was, as I said, a morass of different factors. There's no way to whittle it down to just one what-if. There was Ka'imi Fairbairn missing two field goals, which is the difference in the score right there. But UCLA's injury woes even stretched to the starting holder, with Jerry Neuheisel injured, so Fairbairn was working with a new holder who, clearly, didn't spin the laces. You could point out Stan McKay being unable to hold up a block on one of Ishmael Adams' electric returns that would have led him to a touchdown, and the decisive points. There's Brett Hundley's grossly horrendous interception, which gifted ASU six points. There's the issue of the defense being flat in the first half, and almost non-existent on a 40-second ASU drive to end the half. There were the holding penalties at the end of the game that put the offense in a massive hole it couldn't escape.
This is like therapy – you just have to talk about it and it helps you recover from it.
Tactically, there are a number of issues required to be pointed out.
If you're going to move Jack to running back, and absorb the loss of him not contributing on defense, it stands to reason he should touch the ball on offense more than 16 times.
We've been harping all season on how the playcalling wasn't compensating for Hundley's weaknesses, and not putting him in the best position to succeed. Hundley struggles with reads and decision-making, and the best thing for him are quick hitters. You need to sprinkle a good amount of them into the game plan each week. UCLA's offensive playcalling so often goes away from that for long stretches – like the entire first half of the ASU game. It then started going to the philosophy in the second half, with more short timing routes being utilized that Hundley could execute, and the offense moved the chains and put up points. But then, when it needed to gain the most critical yards of the season, in the last couple of drives of the game, it abandoned the tactic again and went back to traditional drops and more difficult reads for Hundley.
The playcalling moment and opportunity of the season was when UCLA had a first-and-10 at the ASU 11 on the potentially game-winning drive with a five minutes remaining. If you want to talk about defining moments this is it. Paul Perkins ran for a solid five yards, so it's second and 5 at the six yard line. Admittedly, all season long, Hundley has used a quarterback draw effectively in the red zone, but you know ASU would be looking for it. Here's a chance to be dynamic, not fall into predictability, perhaps call a slant or a bubble screen, something we haven't seen all game (or all season for that matter). UCLA pitched the ball a couple of times earlier in the game, for what might have been the first time this season, and it resulted in positive plays – why not even go to that? The drive before UCLA had put Hundley in a great position to succeed when it used Shaquelle Evans on a quick underneath route – a route Hundley didn't have to read the field much to complete –and it resulted in a touchdown. But the most predictable play in the playbook in that situation is called, the quarterback draw, and Hundley loses a yard. Now, on third and six at the seven, with the season essentially on the line, and another chance to call a dynamic, creative play, Hundley goes into a standard drop and needs to read the field. Sack. It pushes UCLA back to the 20, and makes the field goal a far riskier proposition. If you want to whittle it down to a moment that decided the game – the season – that could be it.
But like I said, you just can't place the entire blame of this game on one moment. UCLA wouldn't have been in a position to have to pull out the game if the defense – and the defensive playcalling – were more effective in the first half. The passive, prevent defense on ASU's last series of the half, in which ASU cut up UCLA for 62 yards in 4 plays and a touchdown, was truly huge. And there was the game management on the UCLA series before, when UCLA had the ball within the ten-yard line with about a minute left. UCLA snapped the ball quickly on each down, when it could have easily run down the play clock and milked away a huge portion of those 40 seconds it then gave to ASU for that devastating drive and touchdown.
Again, though, there was some coaching redemption in the second half. The offensive playcalling was far more dynamic, giving Hundley reads and throws he can make. On defense, UCLA got more aggressive, put more pressure on ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, went away from the nickel it used mostly in the first half, stacked the box a bit and took away ASU's running game. The Sun Devils gained a whopping 208 yards on the ground in the first half, and just 15 in the second half. ASU helped out by going immensely conservative themselves offensively in the second half, but UCLA adjusted to ASU going predominantly to its running game and shut it down.
The comeback UCLA staged in the second half was truly a beautiful thing. It out-scored ASU 23-3 in the second half. The offense was humming, the defense had adjusted and was answering ASU's challenge to stop its running attack, and even some balls bounced UCLA's way, like with the punt return that was called back, which then led to the blocked punt and a quick touchdown. It, again, was the kind of thing that makes college football so great.
The game ball easily goes to Adams. His punt and kickoff returns were the only thing keeping UCLA in the game in the first half. Three of them led to UCLA's first three scores. Without Adams, UCLA would have been down 35-0.
So, as a UCLA fan, how do you process this game? You want to affix blame, try to find the defining reason why UCLA lost – and subsequently took a big hit on its season – but with so many factors in this game swirling around, it doesn't really coalesce.
Perhaps the strongest takeaway from Saturday night at the Rose Bowl was the look of the faces of the UCLA players as they left the field. That was devastation. Senior receiver Darius Bell looked ashen. That same pall was on the face of Jim Mora, and the emotion was very evident in his post-game interview. It's clear that the players truly care about their team, and that Mora is deeply invested in his players and the program. For the last two seasons, we've been talking about how different the program feels, and this was another indication of how the program feels different – in the clear manifestation of how Mora, his coaches and his players have bought in to the UCLA football program. In the recent years of UCLA sports – in both football and basketball -- that has been a fundamental question, and it is definitely a question that has been answered in Mora's program.
The issues of the game, then, fade away a bit. The bigger picture tends to come more into focus. You can see that UCLA was a vastly young, inexperienced team set back by injury, playing against a veteran ASU squad. You start to imagine what this team will be like when the likes of Jack, Adams, Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch, Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenneth Clark, Randall Goforth, Devin Fuller, Thomas Duarte and so many others are like ASU's players – juniors and seniors, and veterans. You want UCLA to be good right now, and this year's team teased you in raising expectation, but playing against ASU, which clearly benefitted so much from its experience, really illustrated that Mora's program is still just starting out, and the future is bright.
If you were one of the many recruits at the game you had to come away with: "Hey, I like the heart the team showed in the comeback; they have a lot of great young talent, which bodes well for the future; they play many young players, and all they need is me."
And let's be real: the season will be considered a clear success with a win next Saturday.