Trapped in a Vine Clip

OCT. 5 -- UCLA had a chance to seize the day, and after ASU you thought the Bruins had made some advances, but the team and the schemes fall right back into some of their old bugaboos in losing to Utah, 30-28...

If there were ever a day when UCLA should win a football game, Saturday was it. Ranked #8, with the #2-, #3-, #4- and #6-ranked teams having lost, the Bruins would have potentially moved into the exalted air of the top four-ranked teams in the country. Across town, USC had lost on a heart-wrenching, Hail Mary by ASU. Everything was set up for UCLA. It was a seize-the-day kind of moment, to step into the national limelight and also decisively take its place as the #1 program in Los Angeles.

For years, we have talked about the UCLA program Turning the Corner, which it had already done under Jim Mora. But this was an opportunity for this team to take the program to the place you want to go once you’ve turned the corner.

The Bruins, though, didn’t have what it takes to seize the moment, suffering a crushing loss, 30-28, to the Utes on the hometown grass of the Rose Bowl, in front of one of the best Bruin crowds in recent memory.

Everyone was there to experience that moment, but it didn't come.

Mora has always maintained he didn’t believe in “trap games,” the games that psychologically can trap you that come before a bigger, more influential game. This was, however, the quintessential trap game – and it mostly trapped UCLA fans. The “trap,” really, was set by the ASU win, a game that convinced the UCLA community – BRO included – that UCLA had put together some things, that it was a team that had developed beyond some of the reoccurring issues it has had. When UCLA trounced ASU, it did it with what looked like a Heisman-Trophy-candidate quarterback; it did it with great pass protection, against a Sun Devil team that was supposed to have a good pass rush; it did it with a great game plan and imaginative playcalling; and it did it with championship-team-worthy focus and heart .

We definitely all were fooled – “trapped" -- because many of the concerns that everyone in the Bruin community has had for this team over the last couple of years – and this season – came back to horribly haunt the Bruins and spook them out of seizing the moment.

Last week, we were confident enough that UCLA had put some of the issues behind it that we said if UCLA could now fix penalties and find a pass rush they potentially were a team of that could compete for national attention. While penalties and a pass rush weren’t completely fixed against Utah, you could easily assert that they weren’t the culprits here.

After watching Brett Hundley have his best game of his UCLA career and look masterful against ASU, he had one of the worst games of his UCLA career a week later. Last week it wasn’t a great stretch to think Hundley had really developed – beyond the poor decision-making that had limited him from being one of the best players in college football. But the Utah game hammered it home that Hundley still has the capability of being dogged by those same decision-making problems. It wasn’t just the indecision in the pocket, the inability to find a receiver and then to decide when to get rid of the ball or tuck and run, which led to a mind-numbing 10 sacks. It was crystalized more in the horror-like mistake when Hundley threw a truly poor pass on a screen for a pick-six – points that ultimately made the difference in the game.

Watching Hundley in this game was as if someone had made a movie reel of some of his worst moments over the last couple years. In other words, we now have a huge amount of skepticism that Hundley has really made significant advances in his game. He, of course, is capable of having another ASU-like performance, but we now know he’s very capable of having another Utah-like performance.

We know there are many things that go into a play’s result by the UCLA offense, and sometimes it’s not the play call but the decisions made and the execution. So over the last couple of years we have tried to not entirely blame the playcalling when the offense has sputtered, since it wouldn’t be fair. We have, though, been forced over the last couple of years to place some culpability on the playcalling since, well, it at least has been responsible for some of the problem. We consistently over the last few seasons have described the offensive playcalling as head-scratching at times. But the UCLA community pretty much dug huge divots into its collective scalp Saturday night trying to figure out the playcalling against Utah.

In the past, we’ve analyzed it and analyzed it. We’ve pretty much concluded that the playcalling has faltered when the UCLA staff has over-estimated its own talent, and then not adjusted well but in a way that doggedly attempts the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result. The Utah game was practically a showcase for this.

We once didn’t think UCLA had roll-outs in its playbook, but we now know it does because we’ve seen it. In fact, we saw it earlier in the Utah game. We know there are quick-hitting throws that don’t demand a deep drop in the repertoire because we’ve seen them, and saw a few of them in this game. There are swing passes and quarterback draws, we definitely know that. In practice, too, we saw dynamic, quick dump-offs to Nate Iese, who looks like an athlete that would be tough to match-up against when he’s got the ball in his hand and turned up field. UCLA spends a great deal of time in practice developing those plays, but we don’t see them in games much. It’s not a matter anymore of whether we wonder if a certain play is in the playbook. And we, again, concede that many plays happen the way they do because of a breakdown in performance. But it has to be said: when you drop back your quarterback three times in succession on a fourth-quarter, critical possession after he’s been sacked 7 times in exactly similar drops, it defines head-scratching. It was exactly like watching a Vine clip of the same play over and over. Yes, you can put some blame on execution, perhaps the receivers aren’t getting open or Hundley just isn’t seeing them. But you have to make the point: After seven sacks, it’s pretty obvious that your offensive line is struggling in pass protection and Hundley’s struggling on conventional drops. Shouldn’t something else be attempted? Where is the roll-out? The one-step, quick throw? A quick slant? Heck, even the swing pass. Anything that doesn’t make Hundley or the receivers do the same thing they’ve done throughout the game and failed. Yeah, we know the team and Hundley failed in that pick-six screen pass, but does that mean there is nothing called that tries to offset the Utah pass rush ever again in the game? The playcalling went into a shell, is the best way to describe it. We said a few weeks ago at times it seems the playcalling gets tunnel-visioned, that it gets reduced to utilizing a very limited amount of plays and ignores a huge amount of the playbook. We’ve never been an offensive coordinator, but it doesn’t take that type of experience to recognize that the best playcalling exploits the offense’s natural advantage of surprise, and a good playbook is one that has a variety of dynamic plays in it that keeps the defense off-balance and guessing. It mixes runs and passes in unpredictable ways based on down and distance. In the Utah game, the playcalling would get grooved into one type of play and stick with it. It decided, clearly, that Hundley and the passing game was faltering, so it ran – and ran and ran. But then, when it goes back to the passing game, it does it on three successive plays – and does so in the conventional drop rather than mix in one roll-out or anything that changes Hundley’s launch point to relieve the Utah pressure.

There is, then, the issue of adjusting. Looking back on the ASU game, the offensive playcalling wasn’t much different than the playcalling against Utah, actually. It’s just that Hundley got considerably better pass protection and his receivers were wide open. But that’s the thing – the playcalling needed to be different. Okay, let’s concede that you are over-confident enough after the ASU game and assume that Hundley will be afforded some pass protection, and that he’ll make good decisions. We have to admit, as we have, we got over-confident that way ourselves. But when you’re, say, a couple of series into the Utah game and realize that the same type of game plan isn’t going to work and probably result in a sack, it calls for an adjustment. But the adjustment was to almost exclusively go to the same inside zone run play after play.

So, it’s a lack of dynamic playcalling that tends to use the same types of runs and passes and ignores a good deal of its playbook, and then when there is an adjustment it’s of the go-into-a-shell variety.

We’re talking in a head-scratching loop here ourselves.

Suffice it to say – the playcalling was strange.

The UCLA offensive line, it has to be said, got worked in pass protection. The UCLA tackles were beaten consistently. It wasn’t necessarily anything that Utah was doing to challenge the pass protection tactically, like in the Virginia game, it was mostly a matter of UCLA’s offensive linemen getting consistently beat. Again, we assumed UCLA’s pass protection had taken a few steps forward with the Texas and ASU games, but then it tripped and fell back a long ways against Utah. It now makes you have to question week by week, for the remainder of the season, whether the UCLA offense will be able to provide ample protection for it to have the kind of success it had against ASU.

If you add up Hundley's lack of awareness, the curious playcalling and the grossly poor performance in pass protection, the offensive display Saturday was stunning, given what it did just a week earlier.

The defensive scheme and game-plan doesn’t get a pass either. So far this season, under new Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, there has been a bit of a hesitation to use more means to generate a pass rush. There was a clear adjustment against Utah, with more blitzes called, sometimes to a moderately successful result. But when Utah switched quarterbacks, to the shifty Kendal Thompson, UCLA didn’t have an answer. Thompson was very good at running the read option, and UCLA wasn’t very good at defending it. With the Thompson dimension added to the offense, Utah got its rushing game on track, and gained a total of 242 yards on the ground, with Thompson himself running for 98 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. That opened holes for Devontae Booker, Utah’s good tailback, who ended with 156 yards. Now, many teams in college football aren’t good at defending the read option, and many aren’t good at making in-game adjustments. But for a team like UCLA that was aspiring to climb the College Football Playoff mountain, it needed to be Saturday. If UCLA struggled against Utah’s second-string quarterback, who the Utah staff was hesitant to use, it doesn’t bode well for when UCLA faces good running quarterbacks like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Arizona’s Anu Solomon. The defense, too, had a chance to win the game, up 28-27 with 4:50 remaining, but Utah gashed the clearly gassed UCLA defense for the game-winning drive.

It was a chance to show that championship-caliber toughness and resilience, and the defense didn’t.

UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbarn, though, had a chance to win the game – well, two chances, actually. In his third year in the program he’s had some issues, admittedly, and in this game he had the chance to erase any concerns. But if you’re blaming Fairbairn for the loss it’s misplaced.

So, yeah, it definitely was a trap game. But it was a different kind of trap – one in the sense that we all got lulled into thinking UCLA, with its performance against ASU (and even Texas), had made some strides and perhaps gotten over some of its bugaboos.

But the aftermath and memory of the Utah game, again, is like perpetually watching a Vine clip. That visual loop playing over and over in our head is now so indelible that it probably won’t allow us to be trapped again this season into thinking the bugaboos are behind this team.

So we now have a healthy degree of skepticism about the team. Perhaps in the same way we as fans won’t be trapped again, this team – its players and coaches – won’t be lulled into a false sense about itself again, and it will dig in and do what it needs to do each week to not get out-schemed or out-played the rest of the season.

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