Virginia: Deja Vu All Over Again?

AUG 31 -- UCLA, despite all the pre-season hype, looked pretty much like last year's team in underwhelmingly beating Virginia Saturday, 28-20...

We always talk about expectations, and how it shapes the “success” of a season.

Expectations for UCLA’s season are so high that the vast majority of fans feel justified in being very disappointed in UCLA’s lackluster win over Virginia, 28-20. Even Jim Mora said that the team’s mood was a somber one, acting like they had lost.

I guess, then, if the team feels disappointed by its performance in Charlottesville it does justify the fan’s disappointment.

So, what happened?

It’s not difficult to analyze.

It was essentially the same team as last season that took the field at Scott Stadium. Well, essentially the same team but without Xavier Su’a-Filo and Anthony Barr. If you took Su’a-Filo and Barr off last year’s team and sent them to play at Virginia Saturday, the game was almost exactly what you would have anticipated.

A 9-3 season last year isn't, of course, a bad one. And that team, overall, was a good one.

But while there was plenty to like about last year's team, it wasn't worthy of being ranked #7 in the country, like this year's team is, and there were a number of consistent problems with it that limited its success.

Those same problems we saw on the field Saturday: The offensive line didn’t physically dominate, by any means, there wasn’t much pass rush, the offense lacked a running game, the quarterback struggled to make decisions, there were head-scratching offensive playcalling and there were excessive penalties.

Pretty much they were in mid-season form from last season -- the form of the mid-season lull from a year ago.

If you’re a fan, it is justified to be disappointed. Not only because of the hype were fans expecting a better team than last season but merely because you’d expect essentially the same team to be at least a little better a year later. Even if you were a fairly skeptical fan you would reasonably factor in that the same guys, a year later, would be more experienced, bigger and stronger – better. And that that improvement would compensate for the loss of Barr and Su’a-Filo, especially with the addition of Malcolm Bunche, Kenny Young, etal.

But that didn’t come to fruition Saturday.

So, why isn’t this team better?

Ishmael Adams on pick six.
First, it’s probably a little premature to conclude that this year’s edition of the Bruins isn’t better than last season. They certainly didn’t show it on the field Saturday, but it’s just the first game of the season and it wouldn’t be reasonable to draw any conclusions on this team from that one performance.

But it’s pretty easy to analyze what needs to happen for them to get better and improve on last season.

If there was a little surprise Saturday it was that the offensive line was so unimpressive. Yes, everyone might have anticipated that, without Su’a-Filo and missing Jake Brendel for the game, it might have turned out this way. But probably not to this extent. The OL was physically dominated at times, by what was probably an average Virginia defensive line. It was confused consistently in pass protection by Virginia’s stunts and timing on its blitzes – sometime that was very good scouting and coaching by the Virginia staff, by the way, realizing that they should try to exploit UCLA’s young interior OL. Even Malcolm Bunche, in a post-game interview, said there was some confusion in communication among the interior OL. Without Brendel, a two-year starter, and then basically adding Najee Toran, a true freshman, at guard, UCLA’s interior OL became very young and inexperienced and, well, very exploitable. It was clear UCLA thought it’d be able to get through the Virginia game without Brendel, for him to benefit from one more week of resting his MCL-injured knee. It was right – it did get the win – but not really in a way the staff clearly expected.

It will be interesting to see if Brendel returns this week to play Memphis – a team you would expect to not be as good as Virginia. It’s probably a good bet that Mora and OL Coach Adrian Klemm don’t want to witness another OL performance close to the one against Virginia and Brendel will be in the line-up. Klemm was absolutely fuming when he left the field at the end of the game Saturday.

If we’re talking about performances that were a bit surprising, you’d have to say that Brett Hundley’s performance, on one hand wasn’t, but on another it was. On the first hand, that was the same Brett Hundley as last season so it wasn’t that surprising. And don’t say we didn’t warn you: our reports through spring practice and fall camp were that Hundley was the same player, that we hadn’t seen any marked improvement in his game. On the other hand, isn’t it reasonable to expect that Hundley had made some improvement since last season? If you went by just the Virginia game, and were going to draw conclusions from it, you’d say he hadn’t. Now, like we said, you can’t judge this team by one performance, but it’s clear what’s going on with Hundley since it’s the same issues as last season – with a little bit of a twist. Hundley struggles to make decisions in terms of his receivers down field. While, in this game, like last year, you have to concede that the offensive line wasn’t exactly giving him time to set up a tea party in the pocket, he did many times have time to throw and didn’t. When you have an OL that’s struggling in pass pro you would need a quarterback that excels at reading defenses and finding the open receiver quickly and, as we’ve said for a couple of years, that’s Hundley’s weakness. Then the little twist: Hundley clearly in the first half of the game didn’t want to take off and run. Whether that was by choice or coach’s design we don’t know. Perhaps it was Hundley, wanting to look like he was more of a “passer” and not so much a guy who takes off and runs when he gets pressured. The thing is, though, that’s been his primary success as a college quarterback – creating big plays with his feet – and if you remove that from his game he’s a pretty average college quarterback. We’ve been consistently telling you that Hundley would have to make some considerable strides if he were to live up to the national and Heisman hype he’s been receiving and, if the Virginia game is any indication, it would look like that was a very wise bit of advice.

Here’s the thing, though: Should the offensive coordinator be taken in by the Heisman hype? Noel Mazzone said after the game that he intended to come out throwing the ball, and that was evident. But it appeared that was under the presumption that Hundley was much improved over last season, that he wouldn’t have much of the same issues in finding receivers like he did last season. In spring and fall practice we’re just observing from the sideline, we aren’t privy to what’s being said on the field and we certainly don’t get to watch practice film. But it was pretty clear Hundley was just about the same guy as he was last season, so it is head-scratching that a game plan would be called for the Virginia game that emphasized deep drops and what looked like complicated reads, especially with the state of the offensive line. It was almost as if the offensive coaching staff was taken in by the hype itself, that it was over-confident that its offensive line would easily be able to protect Hundley and that Hundley had developed to the point he would be a near-NFL quarterback, sit in the pocket and pick apart Virginia’s secondary. It wasn’t until nearly the fourth quarter that Hundley’s running ability was exploited and a read option was utilized. There were only a few series that it seemed the short, quick passing game was featured – the passing game that plays into Hundley’s strength. Since we’re drawing so many conclusions to last season, it does seem similar, if you remember, that once a game plan was conceived of that fit Hundley the offense did quite a bit better. There’s a pattern developing here of game plans not seemingly matching Hundley’s strengths, that almost are based on a hope of the quarterback Hundley could be rather than what he realistically is.

When it comes to the running game, UCLA has two plays basically – an outside zone run and an inside zone run. It didn’t run much in this game early on, and then it took a while to learn that the inside zone run wasn’t going to work with the state of UCLA’s interior OL, but that the outside zone run would be more effective.

It wasn’t just the plays that were called, but when they were called. It was a bit surprising that Virginia didn’t see the quarterback draw coming on Hundley’s touchdown, since that was used just about every time UCLA was in the red zone last season. Virginia, though, did anticipate it a series later on a critical third down. Like we’ve said previously on the playcalling, in games it seems to be coming from a very narrow list of plays, lacking a utilization of so many plays in the playbook that would seemingly exploit what the defense is giving you and the talent of your offensive players.

Offensively, there was a new, added issue from those of last season – dropped passes. You could make a case that if UCLA doesn’t drop the easily-catchable throws it did in this game the story line might have been completely different. It hasn’t been a trait of UCLA’s receivers in fall camp, so we’ll chalk it up to first-game jitters.

Eric Kendricks
The defense, of course, had a good performance, getting three scores on its own, which obviously won the game for UCLA. Its pass coverage was generally good, except for the two touchdown passes that weren’t bad coverages, just a couple of plays where the receiver out-worked the defensive back. The linebackers were exceptional, with Eric Kendricks getting a whopping 16 tackles and Myles Jack 13. In the press box, a reporter who covers Virginia repeatedly commented that the speed and athleticism of UCLA’s linebackers was a difference-maker – that that was the one aspect of the team he saw that lived up to UCLA’s lofty billing. The defensive line, too, had a good game in run defense, bottling up Virginia’s running game for the most part. A nose tackle (Kenneth Clark) isn’t supposed to get 8 tackles, but you do when you’re throwing people around and then running side to side like a linebacker. The defense, for the most part, looked like it had gotten one more year better. New Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich generally called a good game. There was, though, one disappointing aspect – and that was the pass rush. Virginia was in max protect quite a bit and UCLA would rush three or four most of the time, and that gave Virginia’s quarterback a little bit too much time to find a receiver. UCLA will clearly have to get more pressure on the quarterback this season and will struggle to be successful against many of the teams on its schedule if opposing quarterbacks are going to have that kind of time.

The other aspect of the Virginia game that eerily harkened back to last season were the penalties. UCLA was one of the most-penalized team in the nation last season. It simply isn’t going to compete at a high level – either nationally or in the conference – this season if it continues to commit as many penalties (12) as it did in this game. It’s probably the most dumbfounding aspect of Mora’s tenure at UCLA – that his teams would commit so many penalties. We’ve attributed it the past two years to UCLA’s youth, and admittedly this year’s team is still young, but it does have a good amount of experience and it feels like this is the season that it’s reasonable to expect UCLA gets its penalty-committing situation under control.

Again, it’s just one game, and you can’t draw conclusions on the season from it.

After the game was over Saturday, in fact, there were quite a few college football writers in the press box who said they thought Virginia’s defense is going to prove to be good this season, and that UCLA will look back on this game and see the result as justified.

Given expectations for UCLA’s season that seems unlikely.

Given expectations, It’s completely reasonable – for fans and players -- to expect that this team be better than last year’s team, but in this game it wasn’t evident. It’s plain that UCLA isn’t going to be able to put the same team on the field that it did last season and consider it a successful season.

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