Rescued by Rios

OCT. 19 -- UCLA wins in Berkeley for the first time since 1998, and there were some encouraging signs on both sides of the ball from a schematic standpoint...

UCLA broke the curse Saturday night, pulling out the first win in Berkeley since 1998 thanks to a critical interception by Marcus Rios, the cornerback who sat out last year with a life-threatening fungal infection. It was a strange, strange game, which combined so many of the elements of UCLA’s issues in the Bay Area over the last 16 years: critical turnovers, questionable officiating, and various misplays. But in the end, the Bruins pulled out the win in the most improbable of ways, with Rios picking a ball off and sealing the game.

It was an incredible moment for Rios. To go from where he was a year ago to making the game- and season-saving interception in a critical game on the road in front of his family and friends is unbelievable. There’s no better symbol for “mental toughness” on this team than Rios. Yes, the call on the field may have been a bit generous, but we’ll take it as the football gods owing one to Rios.

As we wrote earlier this week, this week was going to be an incredible challenge for Jim Mora. Losers of two straight, with the most recent being effectively a blowout against Oregon, this week was going to be a challenge unlike any other week in the Mora era: how do you manage a team’s psyche when their main goals for the season are gone six games in? This weird game against Cal may not have confirmed or resolved much for us, but it emphatically answered any questions we might have had about the team’s mental makeup. The team was clearly engaged and ready to play from the opening snap and, really, aside from some odd turnovers, should have rolled to a fairly comfortable win over the Bears.

We have to give some credit to the defense. Though the final point total might be a bit ugly, with the Bruins giving up 34 points, it’s a really deceiving number. First, this Cal offense was averaging well over 40 points per game coming into Saturday. Second, three UCLA turnovers put Cal in good field position to start drives, all of which ended in touchdowns. Even as it was, the defense allowed just five yards per play, which is an excellent number against a pretty prolific offense.

There was obviously a critical personnel change that helped: Takkarist McKinley, who played sparingly over the last few games after transferring in from junior college, was a significant contributor for UCLA on Saturday, playing somewhere in the vicinity of 50 snaps and making a big impact. While he might not have a perfect feel for where he needs to be at all times, his natural strength and athletic ability made him a real threat to Cal’s passing attack. He was a big part of why Jared Goff was never able to get fully comfortable in the pocket, and his presence seemed to help Owamagbe Odighizuwa come alive. Odighizuwa had likely his best game of the season in terms of the pass rush, and UCLA’s coaching staff used him in more diverse ways, often rolling him inside to take advantage of his interior moves against Cal’s guards. The defensive line in general stepped up in a big way, with Kenneth Clark also looking like a physical force after a slightly sub-par performance last week against Oregon.

Brett Hundley & Conor McDermott.
UCLA clearly had a more aggressive game plan against Cal than it had against either Utah or Oregon. There were more blitzes, seemingly more stunts up front, and a variety of different looks to keep Goff confused. There were a few times where UCLA showed blitz and actually still only rushed three or four, but even that has real value – it’s not so much about always putting pressure as it is making sure the offense doesn’t know what you’re going to do every down. We love the addition of a little bit of deception, and those kinds of wrinkles will make UCLA much harder to attack.

Of course, with this UCLA team this year, the issues are almost like whack-a-mole: whenever they knock one down, another pops up. In this game, with the defense actually playing pretty well, for the most part, the offense had some significant problems. UCLA turned the ball over three times, and the fourth-quarter interception was a critical mistake that came as a result of very poor vision from Brett Hundley. The fumble by Paul Perkins was very uncharacteristic – about ten minutes before the fumble, I texted Tracy saying that Paul Perkins was a more reliable Johnathan Franklin without his top-end burst, since his hands have been so good (so I jinxed it).

But UCLA’s main issue as an offense was the play of Hundley. He didn’t show great vision against the Bears, missing a few open receivers and breaking down a bit in the red zone. He’s now made a really worrying habit of turning the ball over on UCLA’s side of the field, which has given opposing teams plenty of momentum and points this season. He put up some good numbers, but that was more a product of the game plan being much improved and well-suited for what Cal wanted to do defensively. Once again, though, his ability as a runner helped the offense significantly, so it’s difficult to accurately weigh the negative against the positive.

But we should say this: UCLA’s offense on Saturday, and especially in the first half, was exactly what we’ve been advocating for a long time. The Bruins emphasized the short passing game to devastating effect, putting up 24 points despite turning over a couple of drives to the Bears. That half was a return to some of the better offensive performances from the 2012 season. It’s such a forgiving scheme, when the play-calling emphasizes shorter passes and quicker drops, that it allows for video-game numbers when the quarterback isn’t even playing well. We also have to acknowledge the personnel switch of putting Conor McDermott at left tackle. He looked completely natural there, and we didn’t see him get beaten, if it did happen. There were several times where he looked like a veteran, chipping one blocker just enough and then turning back inside to seal an interior lineman, opening up a hole for the running game. His addition, if he can stay healthy, could be huge for the offense.

For the record, we loved the decision to go for it on fourth down to open the half. In fact, it was one of those pretty obvious situations where all coaches should go for it: on the opposing side of the field, out of field goal range, with less than a yard to go. It was a no-brainer, and that Hundley didn’t get enough for the conversion is simply bad luck; most of the time, even a conservative call will get the bare inches there. We really hope that the lack of success on that call doesn’t lead to more conservatism. While it didn’t work, let’s not be results-oriented – it was an excellent decision, and well over half the time you can expect to convert there.

In looking at the final score, it’d be easy to say that it was another incomplete performance from the Bruins, who have made a habit of putting out incomplete performances all year. But we’re a bit more hopeful than that. From a schematic standpoint on both sides of the ball, we thought it was the best-called game of the year. UCLA clearly had a game plan, on both offense and defense, to take advantage of Cal’s weaknesses, and the Bruins made some personnel switches that were thoughtful and timely, moving McDermott to left tackle and McKinley into the starting rotation on the defensive line. Again, even with Hundley playing a poor game, and even with some of UCLA’s issues in the secondary becoming more and more obvious, and even with some odd turnovers, the Bruins were able to pull out a win thanks, in large part, to some changes in personnel and with the play-calling. That’s coaching.

So now the Bruins have five more games to make their case for the Pac-12 South. In some respects, this game against Cal was one of the tougher ones in that slate because of the swirling emotions after losing to Utah and Oregon and getting knocked out of the national championship hunt. With that obstacle now hurdled, and with UCLA making several positive coaching moves on Saturday, there’s some real hope for the last five games of the regular season – and hope is something we didn’t see a great deal of one week ago.

Bruin Report Online Top Stories