Can UCLA Put the Pieces Together?

SEP. 7 -- After a second too-close win, this time over Memphis, 42-35, UCLA has under-achieved in two games, but the pieces are there, if they can put them together...

In the analysis of the Virginia game last week, we said it was premature to draw conclusions about this year’s team from one game.

It’s now been two games, and we have a little bit more information.

And it’s not good.

UCLA escaped from the Rose Bowl Saturday night with a far-too-close victory over Memphis, 42-35. Really no one could argue that it was a second week of UCLA showing, at least at this time, that they are over-rated and that expectations for the season might be a little too high.

The one caveat we have to mention: What if Virginia and Memphis are actually really good? We do think that both of UCLA’s first two opponents are better than they were billed, but it seems like it’s less of a case that both Virginia and Memphis are good enough to be that competitive with the #7 team in the country. It’s more a case that UCLA is not good enough to be the #7 team in the country and closer to the competitive level of Virginia and Memphis.

It has to be said, though, that there is still a great deal of season remaining to be played. It’s not out of the question by any means that UCLA puts it together and plays at the competitive level that so many expected of them this season. The pieces are there for it to happen.

But so many of the pieces would have to come together.

It’s pretty easy to see, too, what those pieces are.

Primarily, in the first two games, the thing that really jumps out at you is the scheme and game plan. Last week, the UCLA offense was clearly out-schemed by Virginia’s defensive coaching. In Saturday’s game against Memphis, the Memphis offensive coaches really got the best of UCLA’s defensive coaching.

Jim Mora said in the post-game interview that Memphis has an unorthodox offense that does some things that are difficult to defend. That looked to be true. But it seems that, given UCLA’s talent on defense, it should have had the firepower to better scheme against it, enough to be able to offset Memphis’ offense far more effectively than it did. The Memphis offense has most of the same personnel and the same scheme that it had last season, when it was ranked the #116th offense in the nation. So while you might concede that they’re a year better, you also have to acknowledge that many defenses were able to compensate for Memphis’ unorthodox offense last season far better than UCLA did Saturday. And yes, Memphis “threw the kitchen sink” at UCLA, pulling out all the stops with its playbook but, again, UCLA has enough talent on defense that it shouldn’t be this vulnerable to Memphis’ kitchen sink.

Memphis used quite a bit of misdirection and an efficient, short passing game that continually exploited a softness in UCLA’s coverage. Basically, the Memphis offense would look like they were going one way, and then the play would develop the other way, and UCLA’s secondary was consistently fooled. Paxton Lynch went 27 for 41 for 305 yards, and did it without having to avoid much pressure from UCLA’s pass rush and by easily and consistently hitting Memphis receivers as they were running through open swaths of Rose Bowl grass. After Memphis did it early, too, the significant element of the game was that, okay, perhaps Memphis is doing some things UCLA never saw on film, but then the adjustment you’d expect really struggled to take shape. UCLA regrouped a bit, and it was definitely more effective defensively in the second half against Memphis’ passing game, but it was a sluggish adjustment, which allowed far too many easy yards on its way to being able to limit Memphis’ passing attack.

And then, when UCLA finally got somewhat of a bead on Lynch and the Memphis short, efficient passing game in the second half, it was more vulnerable against the run. UCLA allowed just 3.61 yards per carry in the first half, but loosened up to an average of 4.8 in the second half.

Memphis’ offense had UCLA’s defense coming and going.

In a post-game interview, UCLA’s first-year Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich put it schematically on himself. And that’s a very refreshing reaction for a coach, one we haven’t seen of much over the years at UCLA.

So, last week it was UCLA’s offense getting out-schemed by Virginia’s defensive coaches, clearly, and this week UCLA’s defensive coaches, at least to a degree, as Ulbrich conceded, were bettered by Memphis’ offensive coaches.

As we said: So far a great deal of UCLA’s under-achievement has been due to scheme and game plan.

The offense was better against Memphis. There weren’t nearly the breakdowns in pass protection this week as there was against Virginia. So, give UCLA’s offensive coaches some credit; Brett Hundley had quite a bit more time to throw the ball, and he answered with 396 yards and three touchdown passes, going 33 for 44. The running game found it tough sledding – gaining 144 yards, but only 3.5 yards per carry on the night. So, yes, the offense was better, but beyond the statistics, you wouldn’t say that UCLA was really in a groove and that performance directly answered all of the offensive questions presented after the Virginia game. Hundley still was sacked four times. He had more time to throw, yes, but that was mostly due to Memphis blitzing far less than Virginia. When Memphis did blitz, UCLA picked it up better, but you wouldn’t say exceptionally well. There were a few simple Virginia-like stunts that still got a body into the face of Hundley pretty quickly. Often, too, Hundley, when he usually has just a moment in the collapsing pocket, looks downfield and is unable to find a receiver. Saturday night, most of the time he had some pocket integrity, and what that meant was Hundley merely had more time to stand there and look downfield longer while he couldn’t find a receiver. There were definitely instances when Hundley didn’t see open receivers, but there were some other times that there simply weren’t receivers open. Hundley, too, had some open field in front of him a number of times when he hung in the pocket. So, like last week, it seemed that he was trying more to be a pocket quarterback and not take off and run – the difference being that he had a great deal more time in the pocket this week compared to last. Again, though, Hundley’s effectiveness as a college quarterback is to be able to pick up big chunks of yardage by scrambling and, while he did have one big gain of 22 yards, it felt like he left some scrambling yardage on the table against Memphis, while opting to stay in the pocket. We don’t want Hundley scampering off at the first sign of pressure, but it has to be a case where, if Hundley has 15+ yards of land in front of him, he has to take it.

The play-calling, while better this week, is still a curious one. After watching Noel Mazzone call a game over the last 2+ seasons, we are getting it down. It’s almost as if the total playbook can’t be used on each series, that Mazzone has it in his mind what he’s going to narrowly attempt to do in each series and sticks to it. In one series, it’s going to be about throwing down the field. The next series it’s about the short passing game with tempo. And then have one new wrinkle, like the flip pass to Devin Fuller, that you incorporate each week. But it doesn’t seem that any one series can have a good mix of different plays. You rarely see a series that has a variety of short and long pass plays. You see a series that has many swing passes, and then you don’t see them again. You have another series that has Hundley taking deep drops and looking downfield, and then in the next series you don’t see that, but just short, quick throws. While we know UCLA’s plays have many various outcomes, depending on what the quarterback reads, it’s still either a deep drop or a short drop with a short pass, and you seldom see them mixed in a series. And then many times certain running plays will be over-emphasized in one series, like a read option or a quarterback draw, and then they’re never seen again for the rest of the game. Nate Iese, who has looked like a lethal weapon in practice, is a great example. Last week, it was clear Mazzone/Hundley had it in their mind they were going to go to Iese in one series in the second half against Virginia, and Iese caught two balls in that series. He didn’t have a series before or since when he’s had the ball thrown to him.

Jordan Payton
This really gets head-scratching at times when the series' play calls go against what the defense is giving you. In UCLA’s first drive of the game it was clear that the drive was designated to emphasize the short pass. To start the game, it was a great plan, since Memphis’ defensive backs were giving UCLA’s receivers a sizeable cushion, so it made sense for Hundley to exploit it, like he did, moving the offense down the field with quick throws to wide open receivers for short gainers. But then after that worked to get UCLA into Memphis territory, the plan changed, and Hundley went to deeper, conventional drops. Memphis, however, looked like it was still allowing a pretty good cushion, but the offense and Hundley went to deeper throws down the field, which goes against what you should do when the secondary is providing a cushion. It wasn't a matter of the plays being mixed, but a shift in the series emphasis -- mid-series. Hundley was then sacked and the drive was over. On the second drive of the game, with Memphis’ defensive backs a good eight yards deep, UCLA again went away from just simply taking the yards Memphis’ defense was giving it and looked again down field. UCLA scored on a 17-yard scamper by Paul Perkins, but the playcalling was making it more difficult than it had to be.

We have to give out some considerable credit, though, because in this game Hundley utilized a roll-out. Well, a small, quasi-roll-out, but a roll-out all the same. Hundley actually took the snap and made a few steps to his right to set up, and then looked back his left to see a wide-open Thomas Duarte down the left sideline, resulting in a gain of 52 yards. It was easily the best play of the game, mostly because it was the night’s most imaginative play call.

It’s amazing what can happen when you occasionally move the pocket, incorporate and mix a diverse set of plays and exploit the natural advantage of surprise the offense has. Pretty much exactly like Memphis did.

Now, some blame has to be placed on the players, naturally. The defense uncharacteristically didn’t tackle well. It’s probably mostly because they were running against the current of the play, but it’s still on them. The defense over-pursued. Eric Kendricks didn’t look close to the player he was against Virginia. The receivers, for a second week, had some dropsies. Not anything like Virginia, but there were a few significant ones. (The MVP of the two-game season, though, is Jordan Payton. When he catches a ball he is so sturdy turning up field that defenders bounce off him and he’s almost always good for some critical YAC). A few times the defensive backs were just plainly beat in one-on-one, man coverage.

So there are a few pieces that have to come together from the players standpoint.

But it’s not outlandish to assert that a good portion of the pieces that need a coming-together for this team to live up to this season’s expectations are coaching-based.

It would be a good start for UCLA to find a pass rush. It did get some pressure on Virginia, but not one sack, and it didn’t pressure Memphis’ Lynch much. In two games, UCLA has one sack. It seems, a bit, that Ulbrich may have over-estimated his front four’s ability to pressure the quarterback, and that more bodies or more stunts/delays might have to be dedicated to that.

It would also really help if UCLA could find a running game. Perkins is asserting himself as the primary ball-carrier, and he’s solid. And while there isn’t exceptional run-blocking going on, there are some opportunities that UCLA ball-carriers just haven’t taken advantage of enough. It’s two years later, but UCLA desperately misses a Jonathan-Franklin-caliber running back (It would also help if there was a little more variety in the running plays -- perhaps some misdirection and a pitch here or there).

But while some of finding a running game and a pash rush is on the players, most of it is on the coaches for being able to self-scout and know the talent and capabilities of their own players, and compensate accordingly. Take Deon Hollins, the linebacker/pass rusher. He has had moments in practice when he’s flashed, but the coaches have hyped him (and the hype is seemingly genuine, meaning they believe it), but he has yet to prove in a game that the coaches have evaluated him accurately, and perhaps that inaccurate evaluation and a few others like it have kept UCLA from blitzing much.

Let’s see a game in which it’s not so readily accepted the defensive or offensive coaches were out-schemed and then, if the team under-achieves, we’ll be more willing to place more blame on the players just not executing. For Ulbrich, there is a question that needs to be answered: Being a first-year Defensive Coordinator, is he worthy? For Mazzone, the question lingers: Can the scheme and playcalling be more diverse in every series, and exploit what the defense is conceding? As Ulbrich said, the coaches have to give the players “more opportunity to be successful.”

So, the defense was good and had a good scheme last week, and this week the offense was good and had a good scheme. Remember, one of the long-running axioms of UCLA football is that it could never put together a good offense and a good defense in the same year. If it schematically puts it together this year, there's enough talent on both sides of the ball for the team to perhaps live up to expectations.

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