The Loss of Expectations

OCT. 12 -- UCLA's loss to Oregon on Saturday puts the Bruins most likely out of the playoff picture and now the Bruins will need to refocus and recalibrate for the back half of the season...

All photos by Steve Cheng

Look on the bright side: at least we don’t have to worry about how the Bruins will do with the pressure of so many national expectations weighing on them.

With the 42-30 loss to No. 12 Oregon on Saturday, UCLA is more than likely out of the realistic playoff picture, barring an incredible winning streak that doesn’t seem possible at this juncture.

The Bruins were out-played and out-schemed against the Ducks on Saturday, and it was disconcerting for a variety of reasons. While Oregon is good, it’s not the juggernaut that it’s been in the past. The Ducks have a deeply flawed defense and an offense that had struggled to run the ball effectively against two bad defenses the previous two weeks. Yet, through non-junk time, Oregon was able to limit UCLA’s offense to ten points while running the ball virtually at will against UCLA, to the tune of 6.3 yards per rush on 41 attempts for an ugly 258 total rushing yards. It wasn’t even as if there were a few big plays that artificially inflated that number — the longest run was 23 yards. No, Oregon was just able to consistently gain five to ten yards a carry, and the Ducks were able to do it virtually all game.

Many of the same issues that UCLA had against Utah were very much present and, really, at the forefront in the game against Oregon. The Bruins once again went with a nickel 4-2-5 defense, with Deon Hollins often playing the role of the fourth lineman. Once again, especially in the second half, Oregon attacked his area. Even when the Ducks didn’t attack the matchup, Hollins was so rarely involved in the play that Oregon didn’t even have to devote an offensive lineman to block him, instead freeing up a lineman to get to the second level to block one of Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, or Kenny Young.

Offensively, UCLA opted for the same run-heavy game plan the Bruins used against Utah last week and against Oregon last year. While the choice to run was obviously successful (the Bruins racked up 328 yards on 54 carries), the offense broke down in the red zone at what turned out to be a critical juncture early in the game, and then had a couple of crippling turnovers on UCLA’s side of the field.

And then, in probably the most worrying sign, the body language of the team went bad in the second half, with players looking disengaged and defeated when Oregon went up 35-10 after the opening second-half Ducks blitz. The argument between Jeff Ulbrich and Jim Mora on the sideline (and, for the record, the defensive coordinator taking off his headset and making as if to leave the sideline is something we’ve never seen at any level of sports), the punch from Eddie Vanderdoes, and the inability to play disciplined, gap-sound defense at any point over the last three weeks would give the appearance of a team that needs to refocused from a mental and emotional standpoint.

As we said up top, the pressure of the playoffs is gone — the refocusing can start.

And, really, this coming week becomes probably the most important week of the Mora era, and likely a significant inflection point. Having watched UCLA and college football for many, many years now, there’s a very real chance that the team could start to spiral downward now — being 4-2 right now has to be incredibly deflating, and the fashion in which UCLA has both won and lost the last six games has not given the Bruins much to build on, one anomalous offensive performance against Arizona State notwithstanding.

We’ve said it for a while now, though — Mora has instilled a sense of mental toughness at UCLA that didn’t exist prior to his arrival. The last three years have seen UCLA teams rebound from tough losses and play very well afterward. To put it in other words, if this were a Toledo-coached team, or a Dorrell-coached team, or a Neuheisel-coached team, we’d be getting an early start on our packing for the New Mexico Bowl. With Mora, there are plenty of reasons to think that the team can realistically rebound from these two straight losses and play a solid second half of the season.

This week, though, is likely going to be the greatest test of that mental toughness. Aside from some late game absurdities, UCLA was just blown out at home by an Oregon team that will more than likely still lose one or two more games this year. The Bruins have now lost two in a row in the middle of the season for the second straight year, but don’t have anything obvious to point to like they did during those games last year (the Bruins haven’t suffered an inordinate amount of injuries in specific spots, they didn’t just play arguably two of the top five teams in the country, and they didn’t have to go on the road for either game). And now the team needs to refocus and commit to, essentially, a lesser goal than it had coming into the season, whether it’s simply playing better and more consistently or something specific like winning out and finding a backdoor route into the Pac-12 Championship game.

Jordan Payton (photo by Steve Cheng).
Like we said, this week will be a big test for Mora and the coaching staff, and not just from a standpoint of refocusing the team. As we said above, and have said throughout the year, there have been some question marks from the standpoint of scheme and personnel usage. Going forward, UCLA’s coaches need to make a decision: do we commit to the idea that we just need to have the players play better in the schemes we have drawn up, or do we need to reevaluate our schemes and personnel usage?

Look, we’re not football coaches, so it’d be more than a little silly for us to go on and on at length about what specific issues or non-issues there are in the scheme. But we spend time evaluating talent literally every day, so we can talk from a position of expertise there. And, simply put, UCLA has some adjustments to make in terms of its personnel usage. First and foremost, if UCLA is going to use a 4-2-5 defense, Deon Hollins is a liability as an every-down (or nearly every-down) defensive end. He doesn’t have the strength or size to hold up against the run, and doesn’t have the varied moves to consistently beat a tackle off the edge. He is a very good speed rusher, and has some real value in spot work, but for two straight weeks, teams have exploited him.

Offensively, there have been a few issues cropping up in terms of personnel usage. This past game, the most obvious was the decision to use Logan Sweet on what turned out to be a critical play at the beginning of the third quarter. Sweet tripped on an out to the sideline and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu jumped the route perfectly for what was almost a pick-six. Sweet and Tyler Scott have been used frequently throughout the year, and it’s a bit inexplicable. While we like both players, and have said repeatedly they have some talent, and the ability to play in a pinch, the key words there have always been “in a pinch.” As it stands, UCLA has players like Mossi Johnson, Alex Van Dyke, or even the maligned Kenny Walker sitting on the bench, and those players are simply more talented, as Johnson, for his part, showed during the closing moments of the game. On the offensive line, in the last three weeks we’ve seen Kenny Lacy come in for Alex Redmond and play better than Redmond. Then on Saturday, we saw Conor McDermott come in for Malcolm Bunche at the end of the game and, though it was a limited sample size, play better than Bunche.

And then, from a schematic standpoint, we see the main issues as this: the defensive scheme is far too passive, and the offensive scheme plays against its strengths far too often. Defensively, UCLA rarely blitzes, and rarely puts more than six guys in the box, often leaving at least one safety 20 to 25 yards off the line of scrimmage. Against Oregon, it was odd to see UCLA still playing with high safeties well into the second half when the Ducks were simply running the ball or screening at will. We understand why this scheme was drawn up going into the season, to a certain extent — there was some faith that with the athleticism and talent of UCLA’s defensive players, the Bruins would be able to play more of a coverage-based scheme and still be able to rush the passer and stop the run. We’re now six games in, though, and that has yet to happen, so it might be time to reevaluate.

Offensively, Tracy has gone into the issues at length before, and they are still present. Where it crystalizes for me, though, is with this: whether you point to the offensive line having issues protecting him, or Brett Hundley having issues reading the field, one of those two, or a combination of the two, is the primary issue with the offense. But, here’s the thing — we’re now three years into this, and Brett Hundley has always had issues reading the field, and the offensive line has always had issues protecting him. At this point, would it make sense to make some significant adjustments to the scheme? We saw a little bit of that Saturday — wider splits on the offensive line gave Hundley bigger running lanes, and UCLA has obviously opted for a more run-heavy game plan over the last two weeks to take some pressure off the quarterback. But, to our eyes, it’s been clear over the last three years that Hundley is most comfortable as a passer when he can take a short drop, read one side of the field, and make a quick throw. We haven’t seen that sort of offense with any consistency since the end of the 2012 season, and while the offensive staff is probably making an effort to give Hundley more opportunities to look like a professional quarterback with the downfield reads and deep drops, the effort has been unsuccessful. So, why not reemphasize the aspects of the offense — short passes, quick drops, constant tempo — that made it look so effective in Hundley’s first year?

And then, with special teams, there is the one issue: the use of Ka’imi Fairbairn. He’s a junior now, and his strengths and weaknesses as a kicker are fairly obvious — in low pressure situations from 40 yards and in, he can be very effective. In high pressure situations, or from 40 yards and out, he really struggles. Going forward, we’d like to see UCLA be much more aggressive on 4th down. The decisions to kick field goals in both of the last two games have been questionable from both a mathematical perspective and from a more subjective, nuanced perspective. As it stands, going for it on 4th and short from anywhere within the 40 should be the rule, with various exceptions based on time and score.

So UCLA has six more games until the regular season is complete, and, really, it’s an opportunity for both the players and the staff to reevaluate and recalibrate. The expectations are gone, and when they departed they should have taken any residual pressure with them. UCLA can go back to having the underdog mentality it had the last two years, and that’ll probably help them from an emotional standpoint. But what we’d really like to see is a concerted movement to scheme to the strengths of UCLA’s players on both sides of the ball, whether that involves changing the scheme or moving players around within it.

There’s still a big opportunity for UCLA to right the ship and have an objectively successful season. Yes, the Bruins are likely out of the playoff picture. But with the way the Pac-12 South and the Pac-12 in general is heading, there’s every reason to think that UCLA is still very much alive in the conference race.

To get there, though, Jim Mora will have to weather the upcoming week, get the team refocused for Cal, and lean on the foundation of mental toughness that he has spent the last three years building in Westwood.

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