Strategically, Coach Mora made a few really smart moves when he was hired a few years ago. One was understanding the message UCLA needs to sell to recruits. That message (and I’m paraphrasing) is for kids to come in and develop into NFL football players by playing in an NFL system, learning NFL techniques, taught by coaches with a lot of NFL experience. If the kids commit to the program they’ll be NFL-ready when their time is up here, and they’ll have an elite degree from an elite institution. Pretty simple.
The 3-4 defense is predominantly an NFL defense; over half of the NFL’s current teams are running some variation of it. In the college ranks it was less common until the usage of spread offenses caught fire a few years ago. Since the proliferation of the spread offense, the 3-4, when run correctly, has given defenses the most success in defending the varied spread concepts that exist in college football.
UCLA is committed to running a 3-4, and has recruited specific 3-4 personnel for 3 years now. Personnel-wise, the front 7 is critical to running a successful 3-4 and all 7 positions up front have to be able to do their job for a 3-4 to be successful. In order to play a 3-4 you have to have a nose tackle who is big, strong, long and can eat up blocks. Kenneth Clark is perfect for this role. The 3-4 ends need to be bigger than 4-3 ends and they must be able to command double teams and be able to hold up and beat these double teams. Eddie Vanderdoes is the perfect example of this role. Ideally the three down linemen in the 3-4 eat up four or more blockers on the offensive line, allowing the linebackers to run free to the ball on run plays and short passing plays.
UCLA's 3-4 has struggled because it hasn’t been able to stop the run in the two losses this season. Further, the run defense has struggled in particular far more due to issues at linebacker than along the defensive line. Last year all four of UCLA's 'backers could perform the functions required to play a 3-4 defense. They could all shoot gaps, pass rush, blitz when needed, and drop into coverage. That was a very rare group. This season UCLA doesn’t have that same number of guys who can do all those things at a high level, and it doesn't have the depth to rotate guys in for specific downs and function.
This year, needless to say, UCLA doesn't have a guy who can do those things on an every-down basis. What the Bruins did have coming into the year were Hollins, Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace, who, as a unit, could do what Barr did as one guy. The plan was to rotate them in for each other given match-ups and down and distances.
The best example of this scheme was against Arizona State. Schematically UCLA committed to stop the run against D.J. Foster and ASU, so it used a mix of all three guys in that game (although once ASU went full passing attack, Hollins got the majority of the snaps). It worked perfectly because UCLA could seal the edge on their fly sweeps and wide zone runs and force them back in to the teeth of the defense. Foster ran for 30 yards on 9 carries and ASU was held to 138 total yards on the ground. Unfortunately, Orjioke tore an ACL late in that game and since then the defense has been forced to go with two guys to fill the Barr role, and neither is great against the run, primarily because they’re just too small to play every down.
Look at the Utah game. What Utah did was run right at that outside 'backer, and the gap coverage out of the middle linebacker position was atrocious that game. Utah identified that the scheme was to have the ‘Will’ linebacker (Kenny Young primarily) play with a 2-gap responsibility. Utah ran right at the outside linebacker (typically Hollins) and forced the inside 'backer (often Young) to pick a gap and then they ran through the other one. That sounds simple, but it really was that simple of a game plan.
UCLA's counter was to go nickel (drop a linebacker to add a fifth defensive back), which isn’t necessarily the wrong scheme. Utah countered with a fourth wide-out and forced the fifth DB to line up in coverage and outside of the box. So UCLA was back to playing disadvantageous numbers in the box (6 versus 7). Utah continued to run down the defense's throats through those gaps (B and C or C and D) and eventually controlled the line of scrimmage long enough to pull out the game. Schematically, there wasn’t much more UCLA could do other than to respect the pass less and load the box. I don’t put the blame for that game on the staff as much as I do UCLA's offense's inability to score points and protect the QB, which resulted in a defensive touchdown for Utah.
Remember, defenses are as vulnerable to a poor offensive performance by their own team as they are to a good offensive performance by their opponent. In virtually every game UCLA HAS lost over the last two years our own offense has given the other team’s defense points.
In the Oregon game, UCLA had different issues defensively, but macro-wise its struggles were based on more of the same. Oregon ran right at that same spot early in the game that Utah exploited and UCLA's defense couldn’t stop it. But because they saw UCLA cheating to that side of the defense using poorly disguised shading from the linemen and middle 'backers, they ran more counter plays to take advantage of poor gap contain later in the game to blow it open.
The basis of a 3-4 is every guy doing his job and playing his gap responsibilities up front. If one position is a weakness, the other six guys need to cheat or shade to protect that hole and it creates two-gap responsibilities all over the front seven. Oregon is masterful at running their spread, and with the best player in the country at QB it was a very difficult match-up for UCLA to play sound gap control given its personnel.
Oregon’s game plan offensively was to win first and second down using runs to that weak spot of the defense or short passes to space, the accumulation of which would allow the Ducks to avoid third downs and force the UCLA defense to take risks on first and second down. That’s a death sentence for a defensive coordinator. Once UCLA started to take risks (add guys to the box, bring run blitzes) they took advantage and countered with screen passes, wheel routes and Mariota keeping off the zone read and running to daylight. Oregon executed a big play on almost every one of UCLA's blitzes, which is a testament to their ability to take advantage of UCLA taking risks. If you can’t stop the run without blitzing, you can’t beat Oregon, period.
Luckily, there aren’t a lot of other teams on the schedule you’d say that about.
So, from my perspective, to summarize why UCLA lost those two games: IT can’t currently stop the run using the scheme IT employS with the personnel available. That’s a generic comment, but it holds true in those two games. The reality was the UCLA defense couldn’t stop Utah’s running game and they didn’t pass enough for the defense to have to respect it as much as UCLA did, so schematically UCLA failed more there than against Oregon. Against Oregon, the Ducks probably could have scored 80 if they wanted to because UCLA's defense couldn’t stop anything they wanted to do. UCLA just doesn’t have the personnel or depth at this stage to stop what Oregon does and the athletes to do it with.
The next question is, given the state of UCLA's personnel and the scheme it's committed to playing, how does UCLA match up versus its upcoming opponents, namely California?
Cal is a tough one to diagnose because we haven’t seen anyone like them offensively. The closest comparison would be ASU, although I think ASU runs the ball better than Cal and I think Cal throws the ball better than ASU.
With ASU, UCLA committed to stop the run and I’d expect the same thing with UCLA's game plan for Cal. In Cal’s four conference games, they’ve averaged 111 yards per game on the ground, and last week against UW they only gained 62 on the ground.
The biggest issue for UCLA defensively in this game is the lack of a pass rush. You don’t need to worry as much with Cal gashing UCLA on the ground as they did with ASU, which should allow the fourth lineman/backer to be able to get up field and hopefully get some pressure on Jared Goff, who is basically a pocket guy. Maybe this is the game where UCLA rotates Takkarist McKinley in more at that rush linebacker spot and try to get a bigger guy against a tackle.
What is good for UCLA is that Cal is very one-dimensional, especially when playing from behind, and my sense is UCLA is better against the pass than it has been against the run. So this match-up should favor UCLA defensively more than Oregon and Utah, especially if the UCLA offense can score. If the offense can put up points, and they should be able to, the UCLA defense will be fine even though they probably will give up a lot of yards.
The rest of the schedule presents some real challenges for UCLA unless it finds a personnel solution to plug the hole in the scheme. Changing the scheme isn’t an option, so solving for the personnel hole is the only path. McKinley might be a part-time option as the rush 'backer. Moving Kendricks or Myles Jack over there isn’t a net gain because it opens an equally big hole at their current spots. Needless to say it’s really hard to figure this one out and I have no idea what direction the staff goes with it.
Having said that, I do think the staff is on the right path. They're 2 ½ years into what was basically a total program rebuild. They've recruited great classes each year, and they’re beginning to harmonize in the scheme. To unwind that right now wouldn’t be wise.
Jeff Ulbrich has taken a ton of heat for the performances of the defense in the last two games, and really all season, and that’s misguided criticism. He’s a young defensive coordinator, and all coaches go through growing pains. He’s a monster recruiter who played 10 years in the league as an All-Pro. He knows defense and has the energy to recruit the best talent nationally into this system.
What he doesn’t have is the institutional knowledge of other coaches in our conference, but if given the choice between the two, I’d much rather have a young, energetic, former player who wants to be a great coach over a guy who has a bunch of experience but lacks the energy to recruit. And before you laugh at that comment, name me one defensive coordinator in the country who is both a plus coordinator and a plus recruiter.
While I don’t condone the tantrum he threw on the sideline last game, I think beyond a doubt that Ulbrich is the right guy for UCLA's DC job going forward. While this defense won’t improve overnight, or drastically by the end of the year, UCLA returns almost everyone next year and has a terrific schedule, trading out Oregon for what will be an abysmal OSU team and Washington for what will be an equally bad Washington State team. Throw in what seems to be another terrific recruiting class with, from what I’ve seen, the best high school quarterback in the last 10 years in Southern California, and brighter days are on the horizon.