There’s little doubt in our minds that Thursday marked Brett Hundley’s best game as a Bruin. His stats were great, clearly, with four touchdowns throwing, one touchdown rushing, and only five incompletions (three of which were drops of some variety or another). Beyond the stats, though, he was masterful in his pre-snap reads, picking up blitzes effectively and identifying coverages early on. He was protected better than he’s been this year, yes, but even still he looked to be more patient in the pocket, often times dropping down to a third or fourth read to get the pass off.
Where it gets interesting is this: before the year, we said one of the major swing factors for this season would be Brett Hundley’s improvement as a quarterback. At the time, he looked like, more or less, the same player as before. But as we said, if he made a significant leap, it would drastically raise the ceiling of both the offense and the team, and could help to mitigate some of the other issues on the team.
Well, that leap might be happening. Against Memphis, he was close to flawless aside from one jumped slant for a pick-six. Against Texas, he looked like he was in an absolute groove before the elbow injury. And now, against ASU, he had what was, at the very least, in his top two or three games as a Bruin. If the past three games are an indication of the type of passer Hundley is becoming, that’s the most significant development on the team this year.
Running Backs: B
With Hundley playing so well, and the offense scoring on such explosive plays, there really wasn’t much need for a rushing attack, but Paul Perkins was again pretty consistent as the starter. Even if you hate joy and discount his 81-yard run as some sort of fluke, he still had 13 carries for 56 yards, which is a good enough average. And really, you can’t discount the 81-yarder, because it showed off all of Perkins’ best, Johnathan-Franklin-esque qualities: balance, vision, strength, and enough speed to get to the second level. Yes, if he were a little bit faster, he probably scores on that run, but as he is, he’s a good college back.
Nate Iese continued to be an effective force out of the backfield, both as a blocker and as a receiver. He has caught three touchdowns on seven career catches, which is a pretty good ratio.
Offensive Line: A-
In their most important job on a night when Brett Hundley was the star of the show, the offensive line was excellent, protecting Hundley virtually all night from a variety of blitzes and pressures from the Sun Devils defense. Despite all of the pressure, the OL allowed just one sack. Given the issues the unit had coming into the game with pressure, it was a very good performance.
We have to shout out Kenny Lacy here, who was pressed into his first significant duty when Alex Redmond went down with a lower leg injury. Lacy played really well, and actually did a nice job of getting to the second level on running plays, looking very mobile. Not to speak ill of the hurt, but Redmond didn’t have a good first quarter, when the offense was struggling, but once Lacy came in, the offense seemed to pick up a bit. We’re not implying that correlation equals causation here, but it looked like Lacy did help some in the overall offensive production.
Malcolm Bunche, playing a bit hurt after what looked like an ankle sprain against Texas, had probably his best game of the season, particularly in pass protection.
Caleb Benenoch played pretty well, aside from the two penalties. Really, the hands to the face didn’t look like much of a penalty, but he probably should be a bit more disciplined there. He does need to correct his false starts, though, since that’s been a bugaboo this season for him.
Scott Quessenberry again looked a little outmatched, particularly in run blocking where he struggled to find guys to block when he’d pull. It’s a shame the injuries pressed him into duty, because he looks like a guy who could have used a year to get stronger.
Wide Receivers: A
Hundley would have had an impressive stat line regardless, since he was clearly at his sharpest on Thursday, but the receivers made some exceptional plays that made his stats look even better. Jordan Payton, Eldridge Massington, and Thomas Duarte treated the ASU secondary like their own personal pinball machine, bouncing off tacklers and proving that they were just too big, strong, and physical for the smaller Sun Devil secondary.
Payton, through four games, has been the best player in the unit, and looks like a potential All-Pac-12 player at receiver. When you consider that Noel Mazzone’s offense is designed to spread the ball around to multiple receivers, and that UCLA actually runs a pretty deep receiver rotation, it’s all the more astonishing that Payton has averaged over 100 yards per game this year. Much of that is due to his own playmaking ability — he’s not super fast, but he has enough speed, and his size, strength, and overall toughness allows him to get significant yards after catch on virtually every throw. He’s averaging almost 18 yards per catch this year, and it’s hard to find how many yards after catch he’s averaging, but we’d be willing to bet it’s 8+.
Duarte is a surprising athlete for his size, which makes him a huge mismatch over the middle of the field, with not many linebackers or safeties having the size or athleticism to cover him effectively. Of course, against ASU, he was largely wide open over the middle of the field due to some questionable blitz strategies from Todd Graham (or a mistaken impression that, even given 5 seconds to throw, Hundley still wouldn’t throw over the middle). Duarte made the most of his opportunities, though, and is clearly developing into a major receiving threat.
Massington’s touchdown helped to spark the team to go on a 42-3 run, and it showed off his best assets as a player: strength and physicality on the initial catch and then his very good deep speed (once he gets going, he’s hard to catch, but he doesn’t have an elite burst — if you can remember, think of it like that weird Joe Cowan speed). He might even have been a bit gimpy too, which makes it more impressive. He should have had another touchdown as well, if the ball from Hundley had just been an inch or two shorter.
Devin Fuller was OK, but we’re still waiting to see some of that burst we expected from him. There was a swing pass in the second half where he had open field in front of him, but got caught on a shoestring tackle. He also had one good block in the game, to help on Payton’s first touchdown, but needs to get more consistent there (mostly picking who to block, but then also being strong enough to hold a block for a second or two).
Kenny Walker obviously had the two drops, and they were both pretty clear drops. The first ball wasn’t perfect, but it hit him in the hands on a slant. The second was inexplicable, with the ball flying straight through his outstretched hands, perfectly thrown. He’s a weapon with his speed, but if he can’t catch the ball, it’s difficult to use him.
Offensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: A
UCLA had a good game plan against the pressure defense from ASU. Though it failed, the first screen pass that was blown up due to some poor blocking from Alex Redmond (among others) was a good indication that UCLA was anticipating the pressure. Once the coaching staff realized UCLA could protect against ASU’s blitzes, the game plan clearly shifted to attacking the soft spots left by the blitzing players.
It was the best offensive performance of the season, and, aside from that 66-point explosion against Arizona in 2012, the best offensive showing for UCLA in the Mora era. Even if you quibble with a play call or two (we’re looking at you, shovel pass to Nate Iese into the interior of a blitzing defense), it was a well-called game with imagination and real scheming to attack the weaknesses of the defense.
Defensive Line: A-
Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes plugged up the interior of the Arizona State line so well there was virtually nowhere to run. If you’re wondering why every successful run attacked the edges of the defense rather than the middle, that’s why. Vanderdoes looks like he’s made his way completely back to full health and fitness, and is playing much more like the player we expected coming into the year. Clark, who’s been an irresistible force all year, was also an immovable object on Thursday, breaking Physics.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa had a good first half, but bit a little too hard on one of the big screen passes for ASU in the first half. He sat for most of the second half, but we’ve yet to hear why. In his place, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner filled in, and had some ups and downs on edge containment.
Deon Hollins obviously had the huge sack of Mike Bercovici, which more or less signified that the rout was on. He showed great individual effort and tenacity to get the sack. He does need to be a bit more disciplined in his timing, though, since he was called for two offsides penalties.
Takkarist McKinley played about 10 snaps, and looked like he has natural ability as a pass rusher. Even though he has only had a crash course in the defense at this point, he was able to generate some push and nearly got a sack in the fourth quarter. We’ll actually throw Kenny Orjioke in here as well, since he seemed to be playing mostly end. He had a really good day and looked comfortable when he had his hand down.
Eric Kendricks had a mostly excellent game against the Sun Devils, filling his gaps well and playing with more discipline than he showed against the last tricky offense UCLA faced in Memphis. He missed one critical tackle on a fourth down, and also got toasted a bit in coverage against Demario Richard (thankfully, the pass was dropped), but mostly played really well.
Kenny Young was better than he’s been, and looks like he’s getting a little more comfortable playing inside linebacker.
Defensive Backs: C+
This is a bizarre unit to grade. Arizona State had a lot of success in the passing game, frequently getting UCLA so mixed up that there were players wide open deep. We also have to acknowledge that Fabian Moreau has shown poor ball skills, and really struggled to make plays against the Sun Devils.
On the flip side, we also have to adjust the grade for Ishmael Adams’ momentum-swinging pick-six, his other two near-interceptions, and Anthony Jefferson’s sublime interception against Jaelen Strong. In the end, we weight it a bit more heavily toward the positive, since Adams’ and Jefferson’s plays were so significant in swinging the momentum.
Jefferson had a great game against Strong, despite the protestations from the TV announcers that he was interfering with him. He showed good physicality off the snap and held his own when it came down to pure coverage in the open field. It’ll be interesting to see if he stays at corner going forward, because going back to the spring of 2013, we’ve thought he has a chance to be a very good one.
Jaleel Wadood had another big game in run support and in coverage. He’s a little inexperienced out there, which showed a couple of times, but his natural instincts are incredible.
Moreau’s issues are inexplicable. He might be a little nicked up, but he looks so much more passive than the player we saw in spring and in San Bernardino. We’d like to see a little more press coverage for him, since that looked to be his strength in camp, but it’s bizarre that he’s struggling as much as he is.
Priest Willis had two very good coverages on Strong that turned into two catches, but to his credit, he didn’t follow those plays up with bad ones, which shows some of the strides he’s made in the mental side of the game since that ASU game last year. His progress in the last few games has been a real bright spot.
But the story is Adams. He now has scored three times this year, twice on defense, and is dangerous every time he touches the ball. He’s clearly playing with a massive amount of confidence and swagger right now, and it seems to help him.
Defensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: C
This grade is mostly for the first half; it’s hard to really judge the second half too harshly when UCLA was clearly gassed in the heat, and UCLA had such a substantial lead. But looking at the first half, the defense just seems too passive. We’re not even necessarily talking about blitzing, though there was little on Thursday. But UCLA rarely presses its corners on the outside, which not only left receivers open for short gains, but also allowed those sweeping runs from ASU to gain some serious momentum before a UCLA defender was even in the vicinity.
The blitzes, when they came, were pretty obvious, and showed a team that’s inexperienced in running them. Ishmael Adams had one corner blitz in the first half where he showed blitz a full 15 seconds before the ball was eventually snapped, which allowed Bercovici time to audible into a play that would run toward Adams’ side for a big gain.
Just generally, going forward, we’d like to see UCLA trust the athleticism and speed of its secondary more. If the Bruins are not going to have a blitzing defense, which looks likely, then we’d like to see a bit more aggression on the outside at least. Putting the corners 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage doesn’t really do them any favors.
On the positive side, after biting hard on every screen in the first half, UCLA made some adjustments in the second half and played much more disciplined against the screens, which bottled up much of Arizona State’s short game.
Special Teams: A+
Now that Adams has his kickoff return for a touchdown, we’d have to imagine teams will start to kick away from him. He’s averaging almost 30 yards per return on the year, and has been within inches of breaking one or two more (not to mention the touchdown that was called back in the opener due to some silly penalty).
Ka’imi Fairbairn was excellent for the second straight game, and it’d be huge if this consistency is a sign of things to come.
Matt Mengel and Adam Searl both did a nice job punting the ball, pinning ASU deep a few times and looking more comfortable as a group than they had in the previous three games.
Return coverage was excellent, as it usually is. If UCLA’s punting game can perform similarly to Thursday all year, the Bruins should once again have statistically excellent special teams.