Brett Hundley was very forthright after the game, talking about how he somewhat limited himself earlier on in the year as a runner so he could show off his passing skills to NFL scouts, and how he has now decided to run more and use his natural athletic gifts to his advantage. Clearly, against Arizona, that was a very good choice, because without Hundley’s legs, UCLA’s offense would have been completely anemic. He’s turned so many 3rd and longs into first downs with his legs over the past three years that we’d almost come to expect it when he did it again on 3rd and 15 Saturday night. He ran very well all night, and it didn’t seem like Arizona had an answer at any point for Hundley’s athleticism. He ran on zone reads, scrambles, and designed draws, and was effective in all aspects.
Of course, he had to be, because as a thrower, he had some issues. In the first quarter, he threw too high on a swing pass to Paul Perkins, air-mailed an intermediate throw over the middle to Mossi Johnson, and led Jordan Payton out of bounds on three successive throws. That sequence was about as pass-heavy as UCLA got during the entire game, as it was pretty clear early on that Hundley was not sharp in the passing game. When he did drop back to pass, he looked like he was struggling a bit to see open receivers, and while it wasn’t a game where receivers were running wild and free with no one around, there were several missed opportunities where Hundley elected to scramble. So many of his scrambles came not from pressure but from not seeing open receivers.
As Tracy wrote, whichever way Hundley goes, so go the Bruins this year. His legs were enough to beat a pretty mediocre Arizona defense this week, but UCLA will need more contributions from his arm to beat the three remaining defenses on the schedule.
Running Backs: B+
Nate Starks had by far his best game as a Bruin, looking decisive and strong on several runs. His 21 yard run with UCLA’s back against the end zone on 3rd and long was a really explosive play, and probably made Kennedy Polamalu salivate thinking about Starks with a year of strength-training under his belt. Jordon James factored in more as a receiver out of the backfield than as a runner, but had a few nice plays intermixed with Starks and Perkins.
It should be noted, at this point, that one of the major perceived weaknesses of this offense heading into the year has become an obvious strength. Between Perkins, Starks, James, and leavening of Myles Jack, UCLA has a more than credible running game that has been consistent through virtually every game this year.
Offensive Line: B-
The tackles were once again very strong; Conor McDermott is very clearly playing the best of the five offensive linemen right now. He gave up one late sack that we saw, but otherwise did a very nice job of keeping his man in check and making good blocks in the running game (he made a very nice block on the Starks run, which opened up that gaping hole). It’s fun to think about how good he’s going to look when he gets to have a fully healthy offseason. Caleb Benenoch also looked good, especially in the run game. His hold was one of the few really obvious penalties of the night, though, and, before next year, he’s really going to have to clean up his propensity for penalties.
The interior of the line was a slightly different story. Jake Brendel didn’t have a great game for the second week in a row, and UCLA as a whole did not do a good job of picking up Arizona’s linebackers when they shot through the A gaps. Arizona really seemed to time UCLA’s snap count starting in the second quarter, and that would have been a good time to switch it up. Scott Quessenberry and Malcolm Bunche were up and down in the running game, making some good blocks (especially on the Perkins touchdown run) but also failing to get a push on other downs.
On the penalties: it really didn’t look as if Quessenberry held on his penalty, and the call on Brendel was absurd, so we didn’t factor either of those into the grade. On the whole, it was another decent performance for the unit that has performed so well since McDermott was inserted into the lineup.
Wide Receivers: C
The receivers didn’t have the greatest of days. Though Hundley was not sharp, UCLA’s receiving corps did not help him out as much as they could have. The receivers got open more than Hundley’s passing numbers would indicate, but not nearly enough to give him consistent looks when he stood back in the pocket.
Hundley’s really deep throws actually looked OK, but only one of three was caught. Devin Fuller dropped a deep pass that hit him in the hands, and Jordan Payton wasn’t able to generate any separation on a one-on-one later in the game. His touchdown hitch-and-go was great, though, and a deeper mirror image of his catch against Texas earlier in the year.
There were also too many penalties on this group, with at least two of the holding penalties going against receivers on what looked like semi-legitimate calls (about as good as we can hope for from Pac-12 refs!). UCLA’s receivers under Eric Yarber have taken a good deal of pride in blocking, but making sure those are clean blocks is even more important on the outside, where holding is much, much more obvious.
Aside from Payton, no other UCLA receiver caught more than two balls or gained more than 18 yards receiving. Mossi Johnson looked good again, and we think he could probably be used in a more versatile role down the road, potentially as an outside receiver, but that may have to wait for next year. In any case, he already looks like one of the most athletically gifted receivers on the team.
Offensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Plan: C+
We completely get the rationale behind the scheme and game plans at this point. When Hundley isn’t throwing the ball well, it’s a real challenge to come up with a dynamic scheme that keeps defenses on their toes, so we don’t even necessarily grade that aspect of the offense that harshly. UCLA actually did have some nice ideas at times, working in the Jack package for an extended series, hitting the deep play-action bomb to Payton after so many runs, and so on. The play-calling may have gone a little too conservative at times (a 3rd and 5 run up the middle by Paul Perkins comes to mind), but we get the rationale, with Hundley struggling in the passing game a bit.
With all of that being true, though, it becomes even more important that the offense maximize its chances when it does have an opportunity to get points or maintain possession. UCLA clearly had some issues in the red zone, struggling first to get the Jack package in the first time it came in (having to call a timeout), and then making some very conservative calls against a defense that seemed to have UCLA’s snaps timed starting in the second quarter. There’s an easy case to be made that UCLA should have won that game by 24 or more points.
As we said above, it’s also important to maintain possession, which doesn’t just mean holding onto the football. On 4th and 1 from the Arizona 44 yard line, after a drive in which UCLA had moved the ball decently well, the Bruins punted. Generally speaking, coaches at all levels of the sport punt way too much, so we’re not just picking on UCLA when we harp on this. Still, that was a very poor risk/reward decision. The risk, if you fail to convert on 4th down, is that you automatically give the ball back to Arizona marginally closer to your own end zone than if you punt; the reward, if you succeed, is that you maintain your ability to score points. With how efficient offenses are now, especially compared to the time period when coaches first decided that punting on 4th down was always a good idea, it’s usually a poor decision to take the ball away from your offense and give it to the other team’s offense. Too many teams can score way too quickly on short fields, long fields, medium fields, or any other kind of field position to make punting on 4th and 1 from the 44 yard line worth it. Always remember: a punt is just a long, semi-controlled turnover.
Defensive Line: A
UCLA’s interior linemen were lights out in this game, with Eddie Vanderdoes in particular having an excellent game. He was a dominant force up front, re-routing Arizona’s running backs and making plays on the ball carriers. He and Kenneth Clark are rapidly developing into one of the best interior duos in the Pac-12. Clark also had a nice game, and was a big part of the long Anu Solomon sack in the 4th quarter.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa did a nice job of making Solomon uncomfortable throughout the game with his pass rush. It seemed UCLA was using Odighizuwa in a variety of ways, occasionally even standing him up on the edge rather than in a three-point stance. Deon Hollins also had one of his better games of the year, holding the edge significantly better than he has at any point throughout the year. He actually made an excellent play on one Solomon zone-read play, which was very good to see.
Takkarist McKinley didn’t play much, but when he was in, he had an excellent pressure on Solomon, making a great inside move that led to a combined sack from Ellis McCarthy and Aaron Wallace. With how well UCLA was playing defensively, it probably wasn’t as imperative to get him in there to provide more of a pass rush.
Eric Kendricks had very few tackles, but that was more a product of UCLA’s secondary playing so aggressively on the edges and UCLA’s defensive linemen playing so well up front than it was anything Kendricks was doing. He actually was well-positioned for a few tackles, but didn’t have to make them because other players got there first, which was probably the first time in Kendricks’ career that has been true.
Myles Jack played mostly well and had one nice rush off the edge that pushed Solomon into an incompletion, but we downgraded the unit because of his penalties on the opening drive, and some lack of discipline that could have gotten flagged later in the game. He looked like he threw a punch in one scrum in the first half, which could have been his second unsportsmanlike penalty of the game.
Isaako Savaiinaea, playing that outside linebacker role again, actually had a nice tipped pass, and got into the backfield on another play for a good quarterback pressure. It’s odd seeing him playing that position, but he seems to be making the most of it.
Jaleel Wadood, after having a so-so game against Colorado, looked much better against Arizona. He had an excellent blitz off the edge that he just missed finishing, and followed that up a play later with a great pass breakup. For a true freshman to play the way he has played most of the year is very impressive.
Tahaan Goodman might have been the most impressive of the bunch, though. He was a missile most of Saturday night, laying the wood on any Arizona receiver that came near him. His hit on Austin Hill was probably a borderline penalty, but he didn’t go helmet-to-helmet, and it absolutely set the tone for most of the second half. The Wildcat receivers, who had been pretty sure-handed coming into the game, seemed to suffer an inordinate amount of drops in the second half, and we’d have to guess a big part of that was due to visions of Goodman dancing in their heads. If he can play anywhere near that level the rest of the year, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the starting lineup next year.
Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson were their usual reliable selves, with Jefferson looking natural again playing a good amount of cornerback.
Defensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Plan: A
Clearly, UCLA geared to stop the run early, and did that very well, limiting the Wildcats to 2.6 yards per rush and 80 total yards. UCLA seemed to be moving the defensive linemen around quite a bit to keep Arizona from being able to get a consistent picture of the defense. UCLA also got good edge containment, which forced so many runs into the teeth of the defense.
UCLA used a variety of stunts and blitzes to generate some pressure on Solomon, and did a very good job. Solomon never seemed entirely comfortable and didn’t seem to be able to get a clear picture of UCLA’s coverage. UCLA also seemed to press its corners more than it did earlier in the year, which forced Solomon to sit in the pocket longer as he waited for his receivers to get open, which, in turn, led to more pressure on him.
It was a well-devised game plan, and an elite defensive performance. If UCLA’s defense can put together three more performances like that, then I won’t look quite so insane for saying UCLA’s defense was going to be better than its offense this year.
Special Teams: B
There were some obviously poor moments — Ka'imi Fairbairn's latest missed kick, Ishmael Adams dropping that one punt out of bounds, the penalty on the punt return — but the positives probably outweigh them in this game. UCLA’s block on the Arizona field goal in the 4th quarter was a critical moment, effectively ending the game since it seemed very unlikely that the Wildcats could score twice in two minutes with just one timeout.
Matt Mengel is rapidly turning into a pretty good college punter. He kicked plenty of long kicks with good hang time against Arizona on Saturday, none of which merited a return, which is about all you can ask. Fairbairn also buried all of his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks.