Euphoria of Driving 100 MPH

SEP. 26 -- UCLA lived up to some of its pre-season expectation Thursday, blowing past its Pac-12 South rival Arizona State, 62-27...

The UCLA football team made its season Thursday night in beating Arizona State, 62-27.

That’s a pretty big statement, usually reserved for games in November, or even December or January.

And yes, we’re aware that the Bruins could lose every one of their remaining games and end up 4-8.

But for a team that started the season with so much expectation, the way it had beaten its first three teams was under-whelming, kind of like it was idling in neutral.

Thursday night the Bruins put it in gear, really for the first time, and put the metal to the floor.

After the game you actually have that kind of euphoria, of being in a car that was doing 100 MPH down the highway. In fact, during the game.

You can call it a “statement game,” or a “signature win.” But that implies the team was always worthy of praise and just had to make a statement so that the rest of the college football world was aware of it. With this UCLA team, it needed a win like this so the team itself was aware of what it could do, and its fans were aware, and to pay off at least some of the pre-season expectation.

For a team that is supposed to be top-ten in the country and vie for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s supposed to go to Tempe and put up 62 points, the most ever in Sun Devil Stadium by an opponent in its history, by the way.

So it was a statement and signature game, but not just for the rest of the country, but for the UCLA community itself.

There you go, Bruins. Enjoy that euphoria of driving at 100 MPH for a while.

Now, we have to play our role of being the BRO Reality Check, since that’s what we’re here to do. It has to be said that it’s entirely possible, and probable, that Arizona State was over-rated at being ranked #15. They had one of the easiest schedules heading into this game that didn’t provide a realistic impression of the team (despite Todd Graham saying it was the best team he had ever coached). ASU, in fact, lived up to realistic expectation – at least realistic for people not wearing a Sparky t-shirt – that their defense, when facing a real college offense, would struggle, having lost 9 starters from a year ago and forced to start too many inexperienced, young players; and that it would be good offensively behind a strong offensive line and some skill talent, but also miss the injured starting quarterback, Taylor Kelly. Even with Kelly, ASU would be over-rated at #15.

The Hundley Hurdle.
There were some of the biggest, wide-open swaths of grass UCLA’s receivers might ever see Thursday night. Brett Hundley had time enough to re-adjust his elbow brace in the pocket. When you have a combination of that it’s bound to lead to some huge gains through the air. Even when UCLA was shooting itself in the foot with 6 penalties in the first quarter, and fell behind 6-17, it was obvious the Bruin offense was going to be able pick up big chunks of yardage against ASU’s defense. It did, in fact; it scored 28 straight points, and did it so fast it was almost like someone hijacked the scoreboard. The score went from 6-17 to 34-17 in just about the equivalent time of one quarter (from the beginning of the second quarter to the beginning of the third quarter – in fact, the first play of the third quarter).

Driving at 100 MPH.

In fact, once UCLA got its almost requisite penalties out of the way, and spotted ASU that initial lead, UCLA out-scored the Sun Devils 56-10.

Now, being the BRO Reality Check, it also has to be said that the UCLA defense allowed some huge chunks of yardage itself, mostly through the air. It allowed the back-up quarterback, Mike Bercovici, to throw for 488 yards, which is probably a record for a back-up quarterback against UCLA, if that stat is actually a stat.

Even in the 100-MPH euphoria, the more level-headed of us has to recognize that the UCLA defense has some problems with pass defense. It clearly stems from a lack of pressure on the quarterback combined with a passive and sometimes faulty coverage scheme and execution. Not getting enough pressure on the quarterback combined with a non-aggressive, cushiony coverage is a recipe for disaster, one the UCLA fan community is very familiar with over the years. You can maybe see why this happened against ASU, with UCLA Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich wanting to protect his young guys in the secondary, but it was over-estimating – again – how much pressure UCLA’s pass rush could provide. Bercovici got hurried a few times, but for the most part had plenty of time to find open receivers, and he actually missed a few with some back-up-quarterback-quality throws. UCLA didn’t dedicate many bodies to blitzes, and even when it did they weren’t very sophisticated or executed particularly well.

It’s now fairly obvious that there are two things that should be at the top of UCLA’s fix-it list: pass defense (primarily pass rush) and our old friend penalties. Get those fixed and this team has a chance to really be flying down the road.

This game, however, was an instance when the offensive game plan didn’t over-estimate the UCLA offense’s ability. If you had to narrow down UCLA’s offensive sputterings so far this year to one thing (which is probably an exercise in over-simplification), you’d say it was over-estimating its own ability to provide pass protection. It was the biggest bugaboo of the Virginia game and a thorn in both the Memphis and Texas games. But UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone completely nailed it in estimating how much time his quarterback would have to throw against ASU. The conventional drops were fine, with UCLA”s offensive line doing an excellent job of protecting Hundley. Now we see what the offense can look like when Hundley has protection.

You then also see what the offense can do on the ground when it has a defense on its heels trying to defend a potent passing attack.

UCLA gained 580 total yards, and averaged a ridiculous 10.0 yards per play. UCLA had four touchdowns that went for 80 yards or more. To put it in perspective, in our bi-weekly statistical analysis, if you look at the pretty Color Code, it’s considered top 10 in the country if you average 6.6 yards per play. Averaging 10 yards per play would be historical. It’s not too often a team scores more points than the amount of plays it conducted in the game – with UCLA scoring 62 points on just 58 plays. ASU scored 27 points in 105 plays.

When handing out the game balls there were some heroic performances. The UCLA offensive line had perhaps one of its best performances in recent years, primarily by providing Hundley time to throw. Even with starting guard Alex Redmond out of the game with an injury, Kenny Lacy replaced him and played very well. While we’re a bit reluctant to say the offensive line has turned a corner, since it achieved this against what will probably prove out to be a sub-par front seven from ASU, it does seem the UCLA offensive line is making strides. It has steadily improved since Virginia, with far more organization and effectiveness in picking up pressure. ASU is known for sending extra pass rushers, and it did so consistently throughout the game and, while it might prove out that ASU just doesn’t have very good pass rushers, UCLA’s pass pro picked it up like a champ.

A game ball, of course, should be nestled comfortably in the left elbow brace of Hundley. You could arguably make a case that that was Hundley’s best performance as a Bruin, given the circumstances. He went 18 for 23 for 355 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. He was poised in the pocket, stepped up away from pressure like a veteran. And, it might be just an illusion, but it seemed the elbow brace made him a little reluctant to tuck and run, which made him more apt to stay in the pocket and find a receiver. It’s not that he didn’t run, because he did, very effectively (gained 72 yards) – and scarily, too, when he’s hurdling a would-be tackler. Perhaps we’re just projecting something that isn’t really there, but it seemed that Hundley had the mentality that he wouldn’t be able to tuck-and-run as readily and resigned himself to finding an open receiver. Perhaps even after the elbow is completely healed he should wear that brace. This kind of performance, though -- coming back from injury, playing with a brace, hurdling tacklers -- is the type of glossy, heroic one that gets you Heisman attention.

Jordan Payton
Jordan Payton deserves a few game balls, in fact. He had 5 catches for 151 yards and 2 touchdowns. And he needs a nickname – like Jordan “YAC” Payton, since he is one of the best ever in a Bruin uniform of getting yards after the catch. We knew he was like this after watching him in spring and fall practice, but he’s doing that uncommon thing of translating his practice play into game play.

It appears, too, that UCLA has really found its best rushing rotation, with Paul Perkins getting the starter’s reps and Jordon James providing an explosive, second-half change-of-pace. Perkins is the man, breaking off another big gainer (81 yards) to finish with 137 on 14 carries (9.8 yards per carry).

On defense, it’s fun to see that, even when Eric Kendricks had a very good night, getting 10 tackles, there was another name alongside him at the top of the tackle totals – true freshman Jaleel Wadood, with 10 tackles himself. UCLA has clearly found a future star in Wadood.

But if there was one game ball it has to go to the little man, Ishmael Adams. Just to put it in perspective, Adams is about 5-8.5 and he actually isn’t blazingly fast. So to do what he does is a real indication at just how vastly talented a football player he is. He had 296 all-purpose yards, without gaining one yard on offense. He scored two touchdowns, on a 95-yard pick-six, and 105-yard kick-off return. He had one hiccup, a defensive holding penalty on a critical third down in the second quarter, but Adams always has the knack – and opportunity – to quickly and effectively make up for his mistakes. You can’t stay mad at Adams for too long when he’s returning a interception 95 yards for a TD just a few moments later. It baffles that opposing teams keep kicking the ball to him on kick-offs, but if they continue to do so Adams is a season difference-maker. His punt return to set up the winning touchdown against Texas and his two scores against ASU were plays that not only literally won games but change the tenor of games. There isn’t a more valuable 185 pounds in college football.

Now, our instinct is to back off the gas pedal a bit here and not get too swept away with the win. After all, as we’ve said, it could prove out that Arizona State isn’t very good. They were missing their starting quarterback and they turned over the ball four times.

But with that being said, it’s something to go into anyone’s home stadium and put up 62 points on that opposing score board.

So, heck, let’s put the pedal on the floor, sit back and, at least for the weekend, bask in the euphoria of going 100 MPH down the open highway.
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