It's Now Mostly About Hundley

OCT. 26 -- This year's UCLA team is a frustrating one, collecting another unsatisfying victory against a team they should have pounded in Colorado. Of course, there were other issues in the too-close win, but it looks like the UCLA season will come down to its quarterback...

No matter where you are in the Crank and Blue spectrum, or whether you’re even a UCLA coach reading this, you have to admit: This is a strange team and a strange season.

Even if you remove the pre-season expectation, it’s strange.

Saturday was a very typical game for this season -- with UCLA barely edging an opponent they should seemingly beat easily, this time outlasting the far-less-talented Colorado Buffaloes in overtime, 40-37.

Of course, there are the classic two ways of looking at the Colorado game: 1) The ol’ a-win-is-a-win theory, that UCLA won the game and it’s 6-2, or 2) UCLA barely beat what is the worst team in the Pac-12, and did it in unconvincing fashion (In fact, UCLA probably should have lost the game if Colorado had managed the clock better at the end of the first half).

But if you keep doing this every game, dividing your emotions in such a dichotomy, the feeling of unfulfillment you take away from all of the games is cumulative. Five of UCLA’s six wins have had the same unfulfilling feeling to it, so the ASU game stands alone as the only one game in eight that you could say you came away with some satisfaction.

That leaves you with some considerable seasonal angst.

Good fans, too, and even pretty objective sports writers, still end up thinking every week that this UCLA team is on the verge of putting it together. There have been times they looked like a top-ten team in the country, and all they had to do is play like it consistently for most of one game. If there was ever a game where just about anyone thought it’d be the one in which UCLA put it together it’d be against Colorado.

But no. UCLA used its same modus operandi.

Well, not quite. They did it slightly differently against Colorado. The Bruins actually started the game with guns blazing, jumping out to a 17-0 lead with about 5 minutes left in the first quarter. If you watched just those first 10 minutes, then went away and came back at any point in the rest of the game you probably would be wondering if it was the same game, and if it were the same two teams on the field in those uniforms.

In those magical 10 minutes, UCLA’s offense was explosive and efficient – at the same time. The defense was aggressive, getting pressure on the Colorado quarterback, and severely limiting Colorado’s decent offense, with four good stops to start the game, and three of those being three-and-outs, and allowing just one first down.

Then there was a major sea change.

Eric Kendricks on the interception.
From the time of the Eric Kendricks interception, which was just about at the 5:00-minute mark of the first quarter, Colorado was the better team the rest of the way.

In the post-game interviews, the media asked the coaches and the players what happened, what changed. What did Colorado do, what adjustments did they make that forced this seismic shift?

They all were dumbfounded to provide an answer.

But that’s what Bruin Report Online is here to do.

It happened pretty much because of three factors:

-- UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley had a particularly off day.
-- UCLA’s penalty bugaboo made a comeback, in a big and particularly impactful way.
-- UCLA’s defense got out-played, out-worked and out-schemed from that point of the game, and mostly because it went conservative.

Put all that together, and figure in that Colorado just isn’t very good, and UCLA is on the road, you have a Bruin victory, but an uninspiring one typical of the season.

Hundley’s “off day” was perhaps the game’s most influential element. It’s what happens when you’re a quarterback; you’re going to deservedly get a great deal of the credit for many wins but you will – deservedly – get a great deal of the blame for some losses.

Last season Hundley went into a mid-season lull, one in which he seemed oddly out-of-sync, in most of the facets of being a quarterback. Hundley’s game against Colorado very much could have been picked up and dropped right in the middle of last season’s mid-year lull. He missed some critical throws, like the for-sure touchdown to Nate Iese, missed seeing some open receivers, and fumbled again. He was pretty directly responsible for UCLA leaving quite a few points on the field.

Here’s the thing, too: He doesn’t have any excuses anymore. It used to be he was under attack every week from a swarming pass rush, and you gave him the benefit of the doubt much of the time. Yeah, he tended to dip his eyes when there was a bit of pressure, but there was consistent pressure throughout many games. Remember Virginia? You used to be able to place some blame on Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone’s playcalling, because he regularly made Hundley take deep drops when he had little pass protection. But now, in the last two games, with UCLA’s offensive line set in its optimum use of personnel and providing Hundley the best pass pro of his career, Hundley is still struggling. He, many times, has a great deal of time to throw and can’t find a receiver. Sometimes there isn’t an open receiver, but many times there is. Also, after just a little pressure, he panics. There are times that if he stood in just a little longer he’d get the throw off and have to take a hit, but he looks skittish about allowing that to happen. If he hung in the pocket a split second later and made the throw many times he’d get a completion. Many times when he ditches the ball out of bounds he’s not really under specific pressure, he’s just nervous since he’s been in the pocket so long, and then throws the ball out of bounds over the head of an open receiver.

Last season, here at Bruin Report Online, during Hundley’s mid-season lull, we brought up many of these elements – that he lacked composure, vision and superior decision-making, and we were called out a bit on it (in one instance by some local L.A. radio jocks). Hundley then finished off the season better, and then in the off-season the Heisman Trophy campaign took off. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and was picked for the Heisman by ESPN pundits. We enjoyed the fact that UCLA was getting some national love, but a bit bewildered about the heaping – and what we thought was a bit delusional – praise over Hundley. Don’t misinterpret this – we think Hundley does enough well that he’s a good college quarterback. But Heisman Trophy winner? Through spring practice and fall practice, we saw the same player from last season, one that hadn’t made any significant leaps of improvement. We even qualified our season previews by saying, basically, “If Hundley can dramatically improve and live up to the hype, UCLA could have the season many expect.”

We admit, too, we were susceptible to the hype – even though we were the authority that knew better. We succumbed to the idea that Hundley had to have improved from last season. It just purely made logical sense and, if he had, UCLA would be destined for a very successful season.

But Hundley hasn’t improved, at least significantly. And he’s now exposed, since you now can’t blame the lack of pass protection.

It’s absolutely certain Hundley will go pro after this season, from what we hear. It’s already a done deal. And it’s going to, now, be very interesting how the NFL views him. It wasn’t like last season, when not too many observers were clued in about Hundley; after this season, with the spotlight having been on him, he’s exposed. We’re not advocating that Hundley return to UCLA next season, and that that would be a better idea. Perhaps he’ll fall under the tutelage of an NFL team with a very good quarterbacks coach who has a knack for developing him. But it’s going to be very interesting to see, now with Hundley’s foibles in plain view, what the NFL actually thinks of him.

The penalties. It’s been Jim Mora’s bugaboo for 2 ½ seasons. And just when you thought the program was improving, it perhaps had its worst game of penalties under Mora. It might not have been the most penalties (14) or the most penalized yards (121), but easily the most devastating. Colorado had a drive where it drove 50 yards to a touchdown – and UCLA provided Colorado 30 of the yards in penalties. Yes, some of the calls are questionable, but UCLA is definitely doing its part in the penalty problem. At this point, we have no explanation for it; perhaps it is just a matter of the program being pretty young and the problem will evaporate as Mora gets more upperclassmen on the field. We believe, however, if Mora’s program is ever going to be deemed a success the penalty problem is going to have to be resolved.

In today’s college football, offenses dominate the game, and defenses are mostly there to just hold back the eventual tide. With the spread offense and teams playing it with pace, college defenses, made up of non-professionals, just can’t keep up, and will eventually wear down. So, there is a caveat here that many college football fans are expecting too much many times from defenses in college football.

But playing a game against the worst team in the conference, it’s reasonable to expect the UCLA defense to hold back the tide far more than it did.

Again, we asked the players and coaches in the post-game interviews for an explanation of what happened to the defense after the first quarter – and they didn’t have much of an explanation.

They mostly cited the concept that UCLA has a knack for taking its foot off the gas – or off the neck of an opponent that’s on the canvas.

It could be a contributing factor, definitely. But we also think a factor – perhaps the one with the biggest influence – is that the playcalling tends to take its foot off the gas. In college football, when defenses have to face so many spread offenses, the critical element to being even moderately effective is to get pressure on the quarterback. If you don’t, you’ll perish, probably through a slow and agonizing death. In the first 10 minutes of the game, UCLA got four straight stops, and three three-and-outs, and one big reason was that UCLA got consistent pressure on Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau. It stacked the line, and contained the edge against Colorado’s running game, and then got in Liufau’s face and hurried his throws. There were the safety blitzes that had become part of the arsenal against Cal the week before. There was more movement with UCLA’s DL. When UCLA went up 17-0, it noticeably backed off its aggressive approach. It didn’t completely go bend-and-not-break, but just took its foot off the aggressive pedal a bit. Now, when you have a team that mentally is backing off a bit, and you expect the opposing offense to eventually get a bit on track, it’s even more critical that UCLA pressures the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. Getting a little conservative might not even be a conscious tactical move, but seeps into the gameplan from 17-0 and on; it’s just one more passive defensive call per every first down, perhaps.

The primary defensive personnel issue for the game was the lack of Takkarist McKinley. He didn’t see the field much, in a game (again) when UCLA was lacking a pass rush.

There is some credit that needs to be given for the game. The offensive line has now put together its two best games of the Mora era. Hundley consistently had the most time to throw in probably any game in the last 2 ½ years. The OL allowed zero sacks, and UCLA ran for a whopping 309 yards. It can’t be said enough how the addition of a very effective left tackle in Conor McDermott can ripple through the entire OL.

The offensive playcalling, for the most part, was good. For Mazzone, who always called a game like he had pass protection, when he actually does, the playcalling is effective. It seemed, too, that Mazzone made some adjustments when he realized that Hundley was off. After a fantastic offensive first quarter, it started to sink in during the second quarter that Hundley wasn’t sharp. UCLA was dramatically out-gained from that 5-minute mark of the first quarter through halfway through the second half. But with about 6 minutes left in the half, Mazzone called a great series; with Hundley struggling, Mazzone gave him more shorter throws to get him in his comfort zone, and opted for the outside zone run after Colorado had put a clamp on the inside run. The Bruins went 6 plays in 75 yards and went up 24-7. Overall, in the game, there were a few series when the playcalling went pass-run-and-obvious-pass, but, again, when the UCLA offense gets pass protection, the playcalling isn’t the problem.

Paul Perkins on the 92-yard TD run.
Paul Perkins is the clear MVP of this year’s UCLA team. He is a special running back, even if he doesn’t necessarily look like it at first glance. He doesn’t have that eye-popping speed. He doesn’t even have great explosion or acceleration. But he combines great vision with some considerable strength and balance. Other running backs use their speed or explosiveness to get upfield, but Perkins sees holes that seemingly aren’t there. The 92-yard run in UCLA’s first series was breathtaking. Even if you take away that 92-yard run, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry for the game. He finished with 180 yards on 19 carries, and an average of 9.5 yards per carry. He now has 996 yards on the season.

Linebacker Eric Kendricks had one of his Herculean efforts, collecting 16 tackles, and an amazing 15 of those solo, and the interception. He was everywhere on the field, seemingly, and many times was the guy in the open field that was left between a Colorado ballcarrier and the end zone. In one series he ranged to one side of the field and made an open-fiel d stop, and on the very next play ranged to the other side and made another open-field tackle. It’s frightening to think what UCLA’s defense might be without him.

So, at 6-2, where are we with this team? Well, at this point, that impulse of believing UCLA is close to putting it together in any given week has been exhausted. And the best opportunity for UCLA to put together a complete game was against last-place Colorado. The Bruins have a tough schedule ahead of them, looking down Arizona, Washington, USC and Stanford. With this brand of inconsistent play UCLA has forged for this season, and being so dependent on the play of its inconsistent quarterback, the remainder of the schedule could conceivably result in four losses or four wins. It could very well result in UCLA being 10-2 by the end of November, with four more unfulfilling, agonizing wins -- but at this point most UCLA fans would be greatly satisfied with that type of unfulfillment.

While the defense needs to find some consistent answers, mostly from more consistently aggressive playcalling, and the penalties are, again, a worry, with the UCLA offensive line now giving its quarterback plenty of time to throw, the season will almost certainly come down to Brett Hundley. All the Heisman hype is now out of the way. All the pre-season delusional expectations are gone. Hundley is now exposed and he has a four-game schedule to prove, with everyone watching, just what type of quarterback he is.

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