UCLA Plays Up to Expectation

Nov. 9 -- UCLA's 44-30 victory over Washington wasn't as close as the final score might indicate, and it showcased a UCLA team that may be peaking at the right time...

UCLA broke stride from the strange season Tracy referenced last week and put together its most complete win of the season Saturday night, beating Washington 44-30 on the road.

The game really wasn’t even that close of a contest; after the Huskies made the score 14-10 in favor of the Bruins, UCLA responded with a beautifully called touchdown drive to make it 21-10, and from that point on, the Bruins led by double digits. The Bruins might have easily blown the game open in the second half, but for a few odd plays (John Ross’ touchdown return coming with some obvious holds, Devin Lucien’s touchdown being negated due to one of the worst offensive pass interference calls of all time). As it was, the result was a sound drubbing that puts the Bruins at 8-2 and still very much alive in the Pac-12 South.

Myles Jack (Steve Cheng, BRO).
Brett Hundley’s performance was probably the most significant development from the game. After playing almost perfectly against Arizona State in the fourth game of the year, Hundley had put together a series of middling showings through the next five games, and seemed to be really struggling reading the field. On Saturday, while he didn’t do a complete 180 in that regard, he was vastly improved. He seemed to have a bit more faith in his pass protection, and, because he wasn’t feeling the heat from a good deal of pressure, he was able to look downfield calmly and make several solid throws downfield. He was excellent on virtually every intermediate throw, even hitting a few throws into tight coverage, which he has been loathe to do this year. The game plan called for a good amount of passes in the flat to set up more vertical passes in the seams, and he was on the money with virtually everything he threw. Even his deep bomb to Kenny Walker, while not a perfect throw, was plenty good enough to give Walker time to adjust to the ball and still waltz into the end zone for the touchdown.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Hundley’s performance, actually, was that he played so well while running so little. Hundley only had seven carries, of which two were short touchdown runs and one was a sack. That speaks to the protection he had and the job the receivers did in getting open, sure, but it also says a lot about Hundley’s pocket presence and discipline on Saturday.

As we’ve said, as Hundley goes, so goes the season, and against the Huskies, that was good enough for a near-blowout.

We have to say this: Myles Jack looks like a potential freak at running back. We've said it before, of course, but while he would more than likely be able to play linebacker in the increasingly spread-happy NFL, he looks like an Adrian Peterson- type at running back. His run against Washington last night was one of the most impressive 28-yard runs we've ever seen. It showcased everything that makes him an elite athlete -- his uncanny speed for his size, his incredible strength, his natural balance, and his fantastic feet. That he managed to stiff arm Budda Baker shows he has a natural flair for the dramatic as well. UCLA has Paul Perkins, so it doesn't necessarily need him at running back, but we have to figure Jack, with a year devoted to playing the position, would be one of those increasingly rare backs who is picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Right now, it looks fairly obvious that UCLA is peaking. The defense played at an elite level against Arizona last week and, while it wasn’t quite as good against Washington last night, was still much better than it had been through the early part of the season. Schematically, UCLA is playing with a great deal more aggression, and while Washington was able to burn the Bruins a couple of times with screens and misdirection, the pressure the Bruins were able to put on Cyler Miles had a clear and demonstrable impact on the game. By the final series, when Washington desperately needed to score quickly, it seemed the Miles had more than a little trepidation staying in the pocket and setting his feet. UCLA used a variety of stunts, safety pressures, and great physical play from its linebackers to make an impact on Miles, and though he and Shaq Thompson were able to generate some rushing yards, Washington’s passing offense was rendered virtually a complete non-factor for much of the game.

Offensively, UCLA has had a higher level of pass protection for weeks now, and this game was arguably a culmination for the unit. True, the matchup between Conor McDermott and Hau’oli Kikaha didn’t come to fruition for long due to an injury to Kikaha, but UCLA’s interior linemen did a great job against Danny Shelton, and McDermott and Benenoch held the edges very well, aside from Kikaha’s one sack early in the game. At this point, you have to imagine that Hundley is beginning to recognize that he’s getting a clean pocket on the vast majority of his dropbacks, and it seemed as if that recognition helped him stick in the pocket and make it through his progressions last night. UCLA also did a great job of devising a game plan to attack the weaknesses of Washington’s defense, opting for a variety of passes in the flat to force Washington’s corners to tackle in space, coupled with several passes in the seam to force them to make decisions in coverage.

We have to also mention the penalties, or the lack thereof. UCLA went the entire first half without committing a penalty, which is so astonishing that we have to figure the Pac-12 refs were told to cool it with the flags (at least for a half). There were, actually, a couple of instances where the Bruins might have been called for a hold or two, but seriously: UCLA was owed a clean half. Of the four penalties that did end up being called in the second half, at least one (the Devin Lucien offensive pass interference) was aggressive nonsense. While we’ll wait another game before saying that issue has been solved, it was simply nice to see a game without procedure penalty after procedure penalty, holding penalty after holding penalty, and interference penalty after interference penalty. So, kudos, Pac-12 refs.

Eric Kendricks (Steve Cheng, BRO).
So, where does this peaking UCLA team go from here? The Utah game clearly becomes more disappointing as the season wears on. When it seemed like the Bruins had some fundamental flaws, and Utah might just be the first in a string of three or four defeats, it wasn’t quite as significant, but now that it seems that UCLA has a fairly good shot at going 10-2 in the regular season, it stings unbearably. Given what we’ve seen of the defense the last couple of weeks, it looks like a couple of tweaks to the scheme and play-calling could have changed the complexion of that game. Without that loss, UCLA would likely be sitting a spot above Arizona State in the College Football Playoff rankings and in clear control of its own destiny.

Of course, that’s not the case, and instead, UCLA would need a pretty substantial series of events to take place in order to somehow make it to the Final Four. Most of the scenarios aren’t particularly realistic — it would involve, first, ASU losing another game and a lot of teams ahead of UCLA getting to three losses, or, second, the Bruins looking impressive enough through the last three games, including a pretty substantial beating of Oregon, to warrant leaping quite a few teams ahead of them. Assuming ASU wins out, as it will likely be favored to do, UCLA has no chance at the Pac-12 Championship, and thus likely zero shot at the Playoff. Them’s the breaks when you lose two straight at home mid-season.

There is still a great deal to play for, though. After last night, there’s reason to expect that UCLA should rise to about No. 14 in the new ranking this week, which would put the Bruins in striking distance of the Top 10. This is significant, because getting into the Top 10 makes UCLA eligible for one of the rotating New Year’s Day bowl games, which would mean a berth in either the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowl.

To get to that level, UCLA obviously needs to win out, whatever that entails. USC and Stanford both look completely beatable (because they are coached by Steve Sarkisian and David Shaw, respectively) and with this UCLA team peaking as it is, the Bruins will almost certainly be favored in each game. Winning out, of course, would give UCLA its first 10-win regular season since 1998, and a real chance at 11 wins, which would be the highest win total in program history. So, maybe even more important than making it to a New Year’s Day bowl game, winning out and getting a chance at an 11th win would be a clear sign that the UCLA program under Jim Mora is still on an upward trajectory, rather than the season being a maintenance year, like we thought it might be four games ago.

For our part, with the early season playing out the way it did, it’s simply good to see UCLA playing near the level we expected prior to the year. The defense looks much more like the very good unit we expected out of fall camp, and the offense, against a good defense, looked liked what an offense should look like with a three-year starter at quarterback. Fabian Moreau is beginning to play like the Fabian Moreau we expected in spring and fall camp. Conor McDermott is showing everyone why we thought he might be the second-best tackle on the team last fall. Mossi Johnson is looking like that fantastic option over the middle that we thought he might be coming out of spring. The defensive staff is showing what can be done with a little bit of pressure and variation in play-calling. The offensive staff is showing how good this offense can look when the protection is good and the play-calling adjusts for the defense. If the Bruins can win out and potentially get another shot at Oregon, that’d be great. But for now, we’re going to keep it simple and just be content that UCLA is finally playing up to expectation.

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