Brett Hundley picked a fine time to play his best game of the season—and there was little doubt that Saturday night marked his best game of 2013. Just looking at the stats would not give you an understanding of how he managed the game, handled the rush, and made good decisions. He was so much more decisive, which was particularly impressive given that within the first 15 minutes of the game, he was without his starting right tackle. You have to remember that, based off most of the analysis heading into the game, this was supposed to be one of the best front sevens UCLA has faced all year. Just last week, Hundley struggled greatly against a similar defensive front, looking skittish in the face of the pass rush. To go from that to this in just a week's time is a testament to some mental strength that should serve him very well heading into the offseason. His legs were a huge weapon against the Trojans, with various draws and scrambles keeping drives alive throughout the game. His final run, which put UCLA's last scoring drive inside the 10 yard line, was a thing of beauty, with Hundley recognizing the gap in USC's defense immediately and taking off without hesitation. For a guy who's had an at times difficult sophomore season, it was an excellent capper.
The question remains whether there will be a junior season. If you watched Jim Mora's interview on the field after the game, it certainly appears as if there have been some conversations between Hundley and the coaching staff that point toward him returning for next year. In addition to that, from what we've heard, it's likely that Hundley will return for next season. We think, overall, it'd be the prudent move. The coaching staff clearly got a look this year at situations where Hundley struggles vs. situations where he does well, and it's a fair bet there'll be a good deal more playing to his strengths next year.
Running Backs: A
Speaking of "playing to strengths", Noel Mazzone did a great job Saturday of playing to the strengths of his running backs. Too often this season, the running backs have been used on slow-developing zone read plays that more often than not went directly up the middle without much misdirection. Saturday, Mazzone used a variety of screens, counters, swings, and off tackle runs to get his running backs in space, and the move paid off. Paul Perkins had easily his best game as a Bruin, with several big receptions, including a beautifully designed screen pass that got Perkins a 30+ yard reception. Perkins, as he showed earlier in the year, can be deadly on the swing pass. He's not an exceptionally fast runner, but he gets up to his top speed very quickly.
Jordon James made his return and looked very good. He ran for just 54 yards on 16 carries, which are fairly pedestrian numbers, but if you watched the game, his impact was obvious. His presence seemed to make Hundley more comfortable, likely because he trusts James' ability to pass protect. As with Perkins, he did a nice job of catching passes out of the backfield. If he'd been able to return a week or two earlier, you have to wonder if the outcome against Arizona State would have been different, since it may have allowed Myles Jack to remain on defense.
Speaking of the Jack man, he did a nice job of pushing the touchdown in on his loan goal-line carry. The star of the defensive-offensive package was Eddie Vanderdoes, though, who took the fullback handoff with a head of steam and looked like he could have plowed through a wall of defenders if necessary. There are so many neat wrinkles out of that defensive package, given UCLA's athletic ability on that side of the ball, that you have to think it'll be a staple of the offensive scheme for a long time.
Offensive Line: A+
As if to increase the degree of difficulty for the offensive line, which was already raised incredibly high after the Bruins lost their three best tackles by the midway point of the season, Caleb Benenoch took a swing at a Trojan player early in the first half and was ejected. While we could break down all the ways in which that was a really effective punch (did you see the way the USC player staggered immediately afterward?), the upshot is that it put UCLA in a very tight bind, with Ben Wysocki, who started the year as a third string guard, thrust into duty at right tackle.
Naturally, to make the night even more surreal, Wysocki played very well, looking as if he'd been readying for this moment for the last two years. He wasn't perfect, but he generally did a very good job of slowing down USC's rush on the right side long enough for Hundley to make a decision. He and Alex Redmond were actually the lead blockers on Myles Jack's touchdown run that put UCLA up 7-0 early. Adrian Klemm said after the game that he was surprised how well Wysocki played, given that he really hadn't gotten many reps in practice.
UCLA was actually very good on the interior as well, a week after looking very poor against Will Sutton of Arizona State. You have to give a ton of credit to Scott Quessenberry, who was abused by Sutton last week, and seemed to be playing with a chip on his shoulder against USC. He had the block to spring Perkins on his screen, and also had a key block pulling to his right on Brett Hundley's first touchdown run. With Jake Brendel still in school for the next two years, it's going to be interesting to see what UCLA does with Quessenberry next year. The question might boil down to whether or not you redshirt a guy who might be one of your top two or three guards next season.
If there's an offensive game ball, you'd probably have to split it between some combination of Paul Perkins, Brett Hundley, Ben Wysocki, and Devin Lucien. Lucien continued his second half surge with another very good game Saturday night under the Coliseum lights. You could make an easy argument that his reception in the red zone that he nearly brought to the end zone was one of a few key plays in the game. If he doesn't step into the throw, and cut off the Trojan defender, it was easy to see that USC could have had a pick-six, which would have made it a completely different ball game. He was also within about a half-inch of making a spectacular touchdown catch on the side of the end zone. His play over the last few games is one of the most important developments for the team heading into the offseason because he provides big play ability that is somewhat lacking among UCLA's receivers.
Jordan Payton played a huge role on offense, seemingly be design. Virtually every time Payton was lined up in man coverage with no other defensive back in sight, it seemed like Hundley had an automatic he was supposed to throw to Payton on a stop route. Payton is perfect in that role, with the physicality to beat a single defender to the ball, and then the ability to generate yards after the catch through contact. He also did a nice job blocking downfield. Shaq Evans, who didn't generate as much in the passing game with Josh Shaw covering him most of the game, also did a good job blocking. At one point, it looked as if the coaching staff flipped him into the Payton role, and he responded with a similar stop route around Shaw, which set up another first and goal.
Offensive scheme, play calling, and game plan: A
It's no secret that we've been critical of the offensive game plans and play calling for much of this year, so we have to give credit when it's due: that game plan, against that team, was masterful. After inexplicably going away from a quick tempo offense for much of the season, UCLA returned to it in a very big way against USC, using their superior quickness and depth to wear out the Trojans defenders. The combination of a quick tempo offense and a greater emphasis on quick pass plays and faster-developing runs made the offense look much more like the version we saw for most of last season, and through the first few games of this season.
You have to give Noel Mazzone credit for some of the wrinkles he added to the scheme as well this week. After using the motion man primarily as the pass catcher on the swing pass this year, on Saturday, he motioned Jordan Payton a few times where he was used as the lead blocker for the running back who caught the swing pass instead. We already mentioned that it seemed like he built in a few automatic plays for Hundley, where certain looks in the defense merited certain automatic throws (like the many short routes to Payton). In the big defensive package, he has added several wrinkles, with Eddie Vanderdoes getting a carry, and Brett Hundley also getting a designed bootleg, which he took in for a score.
On the 4th and 2 from around the 10 yard line, we completely agree with the decision to go for it. Mathematically, it's actually a pretty easy call, with a greater opportunity, on average, for more points if you go for it than if you kick the field goal. We could easily quibble with the play call for being conservative, but that formation has been effective doing that very thing so many times that we can understand why the coaching staff thought it would work. For those who have been looking for signs that UCLA will start to make some positive expected value decisions, the decision to go for it was a really nice development.
The only complaint we have, honestly, is that the offensive game plan we've seen the last six or seven weeks didn't look like this one. If UCLA had gone similarly up tempo against Stanford, Oregon, or ASU, even with the losses on the offensive line…well, that's something to think about for next year.
Defensive Line: A
Just for a second, let's all sit down and mull this one over: Kenny Clark, prior to the start of the season, was thought to be a redshirt candidate. By Jim Mora's own words, Clark was good, but was probably going to be buried on the depth chart behind Seali'I Epenesa and Ellis McCarthy. Fast forward to the end of the season, and Clark was probably UCLA's second best defensive lineman against USC. He had one play where he forced the center back about five yards into the backfield and then nearly pulled down the ball carrier with his left hand while STILL pushing the center back. He plays with simply incredible leverage.
We said he was the second best lineman, though, so I guess we'll talk about that Cassius Marsh guy. To steal a line from the message board, holy hell. Marsh had two consecutive sacks at a very key moment in the game, but easily could have had a few more if he hadn't been aggressively held on an easy third of all plays. His quickness and hand technique has improved so much from two years ago. He was in on so many plays in addition to those sacks as well. Combined with Anthony Barr, the pressure those two applied was a complete game changer for UCLA's defense.
Keenan Graham had a nice saving tackle during the game, and finished up what must have been a very nice final season after bouncing around between so many different positions throughout his UCLA career.
Anthony Barr is a freak. He was held constantly throughout the game, to the point where even when he was making a play, it was obvious to anyone watching, save Glasses Ref and his crew, that he was being held. His lone sack of Cody Kessler, after the forced fumble, was impressive because it came immediately after he was pushed into the ground, and he essentially pulled Kessler down one-handed by his ankle. That's just silly. The forced fumble was similar to other plays he made earlier in the year, but it goes to show how unselfish Barr is. Given a different kind of player, with a different mindset, it would have been easy to attempt to lay the wood on Kessler much the same way he laid it on Matt Barkley last year. To go for the strip instead, which gave UCLA possession in the 4th quarter, was further representation of Barr's mindset.
Eric Kendricks has developed an uncanny knack for knowing where a play is headed and getting there before the ball carrier. He made so many plays in space over the last few games that it's difficult to count them all. Against USC, he had several tackles where he was the last player before the play broke into the secondary. While we don't expect that his leaving for the NFL is a real possibility, his return will be one of the keys to making sure the defense takes another step forward next year.
Jordan Zumwalt didn't have his best game in his final regular season performance. Myles Jack, though, looked good in his return to defense, after looking a little rusty to start the game. It was somewhat fitting that he made the last major defensive play of the game, slicing into the backfield to come up with the tackle on the Trojans' 4th and 2.
Defensive Backs: A
Man, if there was one area where we might have thought about giving a B+, it's this one, but we're going to cheat and say that, with the degree of difficulty of losing Fabian Moreau for the game, this was an A performance. Ishmael Adams has developed, over the season, into a very good cornerback, and has shown the ability to body up bigger receivers in space and actually out-physical them. It's exciting to think that UCLA gets him for three more years, especially given his return ability, which we'll get to in a bit.
Brandon Sermons obviously got burned a couple of times, but his pass interference, whether or not it was pass interference, was a great play, because it saved a touchdown. Randall Goforth continued his excellent play this season with another shining performance, narrowly missing an interception for a touchdown on USC's last drive when he dropped down to cornerback. Judging from just the last couple of games, there's an argument to be made that he could be a high level corner as well as a high level safety. Anthony Jefferson had one or two issues in coverage, but was good as well on Saturday. The shocking thing is that, although it feels like Jefferson has been in the program for five or six years already, he still has a year of eligibility left after this one.
Defensive scheme, game plan, and play calling: A
The game plan Lou Spanos and Jim Mora devised for the USC game was, essentially, the perfect one to use against the Trojans. With a combination of pressure and mixed zone coverage, UCLA was able to minimize its troubles in the secondary while also forcing Cody Kessler into tough decisions. Generally, Kessler didn't play well, and so much of that is due to the extra pressure UCLA brought throughout the game.
Having Jack back on defense also was significant. With Jack in the game, UCLA doesn't have to change personnel as much when trying to accomplish different things. Jack was, more often than not, matched up against USC's slot receiver, and did a good enough job that it was generally unnoticeable when he was covering him. Watching this game, it's a little painful to think about what would have happened if UCLA had opted for Jack on defense last week against the Sun Devils. Even though we weren't opposed to the decision to switch him to offense, it seems pretty clear now that UCLA probably would have had a better chance in that game with Jack on defense.
Special Teams: A
Ishmael Adams is the answer to virtually all of UCLA's return game worries over the last few years. Adams has that rare ability to take a solid hit and bounce off of it like nothing happened, which reminds us a little bit of the way Maurice Drew returned punts when he was at UCLA (though Adams is, of course, not as explosive as Drew). With three more years of Adams returning kickoffs and punts, it's an easy thing to say that he's going to generate more than his share of special teams touchdowns. Through just two games, you can point to several moments where he could have had his first.
UCLA did a nice job of neutralizing USC's potent return game on the other side. UCLA's kickoff and punt coverage this entire year has been excellent, and, when grading special teams coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, that's where most of the weight should be placed. Yes, UCLA was beaten by two too many fake punts throughout the season, but special teams were easily a net positive for the Bruins throughout the year, which is a rare thing given the last decade of incompetence on that side of the ball.
Ka'imi Fairbairn didn't have to attempt a field goal, and Sean Covington kicked a good deal better USC's punter. All in all, it was a very good game for the specialists.
USC Unit by Unit Analysis
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