The Bruins once again put a strange game on the field, but prevailed, beating the #12-ranked team in the country.
If you take away all the weird things in this game, and look through the bizarre haze, it was easy to see that UCLA was clearly the better team. Once you realized that both UCLA’s offense and defense were the two best units on the field – after just a couple of offensive and defensive series – you knew it would be a shame if UCLA lost this game. In that way, this team has changed; in other wins this season, there was a definite uncertainty if UCLA were the better team on the field that day, but in this game it was very evident.
It was just a matter of whether UCLA could get out of its own way.
Last week against Colorado, the three elements of the game that limited the Bruins were Brett Hundley, penalties and an ineffective defensive game plan and execution. You can say that UCLA is making progress since, a week later, it fixed the defensive issue, turning in its best defensive performance of the season, and perhaps one of the best of any Pac-12 team this year.
The Bruin defense was very effective in keeping Solomon and Co. off-balance throughout the game. It put pressure on the quarterback, enough to get him out of his rhythm, and it put pressure on the edge, containing Arizona’s running game from turning the corner. It did this while it maintained its stoutness on the interior defensive line. It disguised different pressures and alignments, utilizing safety and corner blitzes, and a great deal of movement on the defensive line, and it stayed home in its gap control.
It was pretty much the UCLA defense we had been expecting all season.
It was, also, probably even a better performance by the team and the defensive coaching staff than you might even perceive from a superficial, statistical perspective. In watching some of the defensive series, even the ones in which Arizona actually moved the ball and didn’t go just three-and-out, UCLA was excellent in getting different personnel packages on the field efficiently – from play to play. Perhaps one of UCLA’s best series was in the second half, when you thought it was inevitable that the Wildcats would break through, eventually break down the UCLA defense, march the field and get in the endzone. It was the series right after Jordan Payton’s touchdown catch that put up UCLA, 17-7. Arizona drove the field, moving from its own 25-yard line to the UCLA 22. It was really going up-tempo, snapping the ball about every 12 seconds, and UCLA was trying to shuttle in different personnel to disrupt and confuse Arizona. Arizona was clearly getting the better of it for about 50 yards, and as we said, it was inevitable that UCLA yield some yardage against what has proven to be a very good offense over the course of the season. It was a series that you could foresee – and almost understand – that the momentum could shift. UCLA, though, even conceding 50 yards of offense, which was among Arizona’s best drives of the day, was very effective in orchestrating the personnel moves and array of defensive looks and pressures. If you were watching closely, it was almost operatic in its orchestration – with a good number of bodies moving in out and out on each play, within 12 seconds of Arizona snapping the ball, and all done relatively seamlessly. The defensive series featured some good pressure on Solomon, particularly a sack by Takkarist McKinley and Ellis McCarthy. And eventually Solomon, after seeing so many different defensive looks, succumbed, and the drive stalled at the UCLA 22, resulting in a missed field goal, and UCLA essentially preserving its shutout (again, minus the Jack-enhanced touchdown).
Jim Mora, and the rest of the defensive coaching staff and every defensive player, has been reiterating and emphasizing gap control all season, and citing it as the defense’s problem. It sounded clichéd, but in this game you could clearly perceive a far more effective performance by UCLA’s defensive personnel of staying home, staying in their gaps and enabling the defense to function the way it’s designed.
There are, of course, some nitpicks, as always. The glaring one, of course, was Jack’s boneheadedness on Arizona’s initial drive of the game. It was uncanny that, after the Colorado game, in which UCLA almost killed itself with penalties, Jack committed a personal foul on a fourth-and-six, essentially away from the play after UCLA’s defense had stopped down Arizona’s drive. Even the writers in the press box were stunned – that the exact issue that had been UCLA’s bugaboo, that they had said was going to be a major point of emphasis all week, so easily came back to bite them, and so early. But then, beyond uncanny was the fact that Jack committed a foolish facemask three plays later. That, too, was on a play (3rd and 7 from the UCLA 29) in which the Bruins stopped the drive. We thought that after penalties had become the primary issue of this team last week that Jack should have been sat after the first personal foul. But it was beyond unbelievable that he committed the second personal foul, and considerably more justified that Jack should have been pulled from the game for at least a while. We saw that UCLA Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich had some facetime with Jack on the sideline after that series, an encounter that left quite a bit of room on the bench around them. Many didn’t see either, that on a play in the second half, when there was a bit of a scuffle away from the action, Jack threw a punch at an opponent that wasn’t noticed by the referees. Jack clearly needs to get some issues under control, especially in light of what has been UCLA’s most limiting bugaboo.
Overall, though, despite the Jack aberration, the biggest takeway of this game – by far – was the defensive performance. There are always sports clichés spouted by players, coaches and pundits, but this was a performance that the defense can actually build on. It provides the players a touchstone, a reference, now being able to know how to do it, and the realization that, if they do it correctly, what kind of result they could have. We expect UCLA’s defense to have some more bumps down the road of its last three remaining games, of course, but we also expect there to be a better chance for the defense to play well, now that it has this game as an experience.
The performance by the offense wasn’t what you would call a breakthrough, though, like the one the defense turned in. It was a strange one, mostly because Hundley looked much like he did against Colorado, befuddled in the pocket and missing some key throws. It was all evident in UCLA’s first few drives, particularly in UCLA’s initial drive of the game. Hundley missed an easy swing pass to Paul Perkins, and then missed a wide-open Mossi Johnson on what looked like would have been a huge play. Yes, Jake Brendel was called for a hold on that drive, but that wasn’t the drive killer. Hundley’s missed throws were.
If you want to talk about being stunned, it was at that moment, after Arizona’s first drive in which it scored a touchdown as a result of Jack’s penalties, and then after UCLA’s first drive when Hundley missed two easy – and potentially big – throws. Every UCLA fan in the building had to be absolutely stunned that UCLA was committing the same transgressions that had plagued it consistently, and was committing them so blatantly, as if it were an alcoholic stepping out of an AA meeting and going directly to a liquor store.
UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone then adjusted, to his quarterback not being on again. He went to the short passing game – really, the incredibly short passing game, mostly swing passes. And he put the ball in the hands of Hundley for him to run. Hundley ran the ball 24 times for 147 yards, easily being the leading ballcarrier in the game (Perkins was second with 81 yards). It was an effective strategy at times, opting to allow Hundley to do what he does best – run. And we applaud the adjustment, for the adjustment’s sake, but it might have been a bit excessive. There were very few plays called for Hundley to pass down the field the remainder of the game. Yes, he showed in that first series that he might not be on, but you have to give him at least a few more shots throughout the rest of the game than Mazzzone did to potentially prove that he’s made a recovery. It made for a pretty limited offense – swing passes, an occasional curl, Hundley tucking and running and a handoff to a tailback was pretty much the entire playcalling range for most of the game. With Hundley running the ball so much and his recent penchant for fumbles, you suspected one was coming – and it did, and it almost changed the game. That hast to be factored in as something’s that bound to happen, if you’re going to have Hundley running so much; you hae to realize that, when you have him running the ball 20+ times you’re pressing your luck, and that was another reason to perhaps attempt a few more non-swing passes. But we understand Mazzone’s move, as we said, and we, in the past, have always advocated that Mazzone needed to call a game that conforms to Hundley’s strengths, and it definitely was the case in this game.
We said in the post-Colorado game review that the remainder of the season would mostly be about Hundley, and this game only reiterated that point. If UCLA had a quarterback against Arizona who could execute a few more passing plays – that is, read the field effectively and find the open receiver – it would have blown out the Wildcats. Hundley’s inability to do that kept the game far closer than it should have been.
And just like last week, the real limiting factor in the game – the one that kept UCLA from blowing out Arizona more than any other – were the penalties. Never in the history of watching college football have I ever seen a situation where the yards from a team’s penalties were out-gaining its opponent’s offensive yards —and for most of the game. It was like that for most of the first half and into the second. UCLA committed 10 penalties for 108 yards by the half, while Arizona had gained 103 yards. Talking about uncanny and jaw-dropping, watching UCLA commit so many penalties in the context of last week, and the larger, macro context of UCLA being one of the most penalized programs in college football in the last three seasons, was surreal. It’s getting to the point that, after every good UCLA play you naturally expect a yellow flag to be somewhere on the field. If Ishmael Adams makes a great return there’s about a 90% chance there will be a penalty to negate it (Adams must have about 200 yards of negated yardage on returns this season).
The defense, though, as a unit was the star of the game.
Even despite the cliché, you have to hope it’s a game that UCLA can build on. Yes, we all know Arizona was a bit over-rated, and living off its win over Oregon (how the heck did that happen?). But there were some strides made in this game, in particular the defense finally playing like the defense we expected.
To build on this, and string together three more regular-season wins, UCLA is going to have to rid itself of the strangeness. That’s just the best description of it. It’s a strange season, and UCLA gets its win in strange ways. Now, of course, we’d all like the remainder of the season to consist of three strange-less wins, and much of the strange would be eliminated if UCLA could just get out from under its penalty problem. But at this point, with the way this team wins, most UCLA fans are coming around to the mindset that they’ll absolutely accept three more wins, strange or not.