What was most shocking about how well and truly UCLA blew out USC on Saturday (no matter what the final score indicated) was that Brett Hundley didn’t have one of his excellent games. He wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but he was nowhere near as sharp as he was against Washington two weeks ago. He threw a pick-six, nearly threw another one, lost a fumble, under-threw a sure touchdown to Devin Fuller, and seemed, especially in the first half, a little bit slow in his reads and decision-making. He clearly didn’t have his best stuff against the Trojans, but it didn’t matter — UCLA still had a comfortable 24-point lead just a few minutes into the 3rd quarter with the game firmly in hand.
Hundley does earn some real credit, though, for the way he bounces back from adversity. Like we said, he didn’t play a great first half. He hit a couple of big throws, including the play-action strike to Thomas Duarte for a 57-yard score, but it was mostly a scuffling first half performance, at least until the final drive of the half. Suddenly, Hundley got into a rhythm in the short passing game and started to make quicker decisions (it’s probably no surprise that this is when the tempo started to pick up as well). He finished off the efficient, clock-killing drive with a beautiful throw to Eldridge Massington for the score, stepping nicely into the pocket despite feeling some backside heat from Leonard Williams. For what it represented (Hundley trusting his blocking and making a big play with his arm rather than his legs), it was indicative of the biggest change in the offense over the last several games.
After hitting his stride to end the first half, Hundley came out in the second half still in that rhythm, one near pick-six aside, and put together another excellent drive to put the game nearly out of reach just a couple of minutes into the second half. Then, on the next drive, for just the second time all game, Hundley kept on a zone read at the 15-yard line to waltz into the end zone for his only rushing touchdown of the game.
It is interesting, though, that Hundley didn’t have a great game and yet the team was still able to dominate a pretty decent USC team. It makes you think that this team next year, with all its experienced talent on offense and defense, might even be able to get past a few scuffling performances from a new starter at quarterback.
Wide Receivers: A+
As Tracy wrote in his recap, the receivers might very well have been the most valuable unit of the entire game. Hundley wasn’t his sharpest, but the receiving corps made up for it with a variety of great catches. Mossi Johnson’s first catch over the middle was probably the toughest ball anyone caught all night, as Hundley rifled the ball right into Johnson’s tackler. Johnson caught the ball despite a small bobble, and then seemed to really hit his stride as the game went on. When he filled in for Devin Fuller at the F, he seemed to provide significantly more shake on those passes in the flat, and his big play that ended in a face mask set up UCLA’s final touchdown that effectively ended the game with 9:22 to play in the third quarter.
Duarte’s catch down the sideline was pretty spectacular, but his ability to run by USC’s pretty fast secondary on his 57 yard score was eye-opening. We had a pretty good idea that Duarte had some deceptive speed, but he showed off some real wheels for a guy who’s about 6’4, 225. We said it heading into and heading out of the Washington game, but when he’s in, it changes the complexion of UCLA’s passing game, and gives the Bruins a lot more options over the middle and down the field.
We have to mention the play of both Devins. Fuller was obviously a critical piece of the game plan coming in, with UCLA trying to get him the ball in a variety of spots, either on passes in the flat or on the deep ball that was just broken up by Jackson. He ran with much more physicality than he’s shown at any point in his UCLA career, and we’d conservatively estimate that he doubled his career YAC with his performance against the Trojans. Devin Lucien also shined a bit after having a tough start to the year. Even if the defensive back hadn’t fallen down, he would have been wide open in the end zone on his touchdown, since he ran a beautiful route and there was no safety over the top. Probably the more impressive play, though, was the route he ran on Jackson to come back to the ball and then break a tackle for a first down in the second half. UCLA has gotten by without getting much from Lucien this year, but if he can start to hit a rhythm, he provides another really good option for Hundley, especially in the red zone.
Offensive Line: A-
The improvement of the offensive line over the last five games has completely changed the tenor of the season. Inserting Conor McDermott at left tackle had a transformative effect on the pass protection, and it’s easy to see Hundley’s growing comfort level now that he knows he has someone more than trustworthy protecting his blindside. McDermott looked elite against USC, several times blocking his man so well that the defensive end would effectively give up while Hundley was still holding the ball in the pocket. It’s incredible to think what McDermott will look like if he gets a healthy offseason under his belt heading into next year.
The rest of the line was more than adequate, given the quality of defensive line they were facing. Considering they were matched up against likely top-five pick Leonard Williams all game, I thought Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch did a mostly nice job. They got blown into the backfield a bit more frequently than they have been in the past few games, especially on run plays, but they mostly gave Hundley a clean look on passing downs. Quessenberry also had an excellent pull on Paul Perkins’ touchdown run, sealing a defender to give Perkins a nice lane to the end zone.
Alex Redmond still has work to do on getting better playing in space, especially considering how much UCLA likes to pull its guards on those stretch and outside zone runs, but he seems to be getting better, and he had a few nice blocks. He doesn’t have the foot speed and agility of a guy like Xavier Su’a-Filo, so he can’t make those multiple-block plays that Su’a-Filo made with such frequency, but with the overall quality improvement on the offensive line as a whole, he doesn’t need to. He, too, helped greatly on Perkins’ touchdown run.
Poasi Moala came in frequently as a sixth offensive lineman, sometimes lining up on the line next to McDermott, sometimes lining up in the backfield as essentially a fullback. Despite the one holding call that looked legitimate, he played pretty well, and showed his athleticism on several plays getting downfield. Like we said before spring, if UCLA does ever want a guard that can pull and get downfield for multiple blocks, Moala + 25 more pounds could be an intriguing option.
Running Backs: B+
Man, what can you say about Paul Perkins at this point? Statistically, this won’t go down as one of his better days, but he made a couple of big runs out of next-to-nothing. UCLA’s right side actually wasn’t blocking really effectively on several run plays, but Perkins showed a great deal of patience and found cutback lanes, turning one specific play from a likely four yard loss to an 11 yard gain. It actually had the feeling of one of those games where, if UCLA had just kept running Perkins in the second half rather than giving the ball to Jordon James and Nate Starks, he was going to eventually break a long one.
Starks, by the way, was pretty darn good in his own right. He led the charge down to the goal line for what should have been UCLA’s final score of the day (but for a Hundley fumble) and looked good both catching the ball out of the backfield and running from scrimmage. It’s actually pretty exciting to think that UCLA gets another two years of Perkins along with another three years of Starks — not even counting any running backs UCLA gets in the 2015 class.
James wasn’t as effective as he’s been in the latter part of the season. It didn’t seem like he was seeing the defense very well, running into his own blocks a couple of times and just not demonstrating great vision at the line of scrimmage. With Perkins and Starks running the way they were, though, it didn’t really matter.
Offensive scheme, coaching, and game plan: B+
UCLA had a great game plan heading into this game, and it was very similar to the Washington game plan: attack the edges of the defense, force USC’s corners to make tackles in space, and then pick your spots on passes downfield. UCLA also worked in more runs to the perimeter than they used against Washington, clearly trying to run away from the strength and size of USC’s interior linemen, especially in the early part of the game when the result was still in doubt. It may have looked a little conservative, especially when it seemed that the only two plays in the playbook in the first half were the outside zone run to Perkins and the flat pass to Fuller, but it became more effective as the game wore on, especially once Hundley got in a rhythm toward the end of the first half.
If we had one nitpick, we would have liked to see a bit more tempo from the offense in the first half. UCLA was just going fairly slowly between plays, and it gave the USC defense time to set up and catch their breath, which you probably don’t want to do against a thin but talented group. It obviously didn’t matter much in the end, but nitpicking is what we do.
Other notes: we liked the wrinkle of throwing a swing pass to Myles Jack out of that package, but the wide splits of the offensive line have clearly been scouted, with USC defenders just sprinting through on Jack’s first carry. The biggest thing we liked was that Moala looked like he was in on all of those plays, which is simply better than using a bunch of defensive linemen. Moala actually knows how to block, and hold a block, for one thing.
Defensive Line: A
This was an absolutely studly game for the defensive line. For the first time this year, really, UCLA’s defensive line needed basically zero help in generating a pass rush. Owamagbe Odighizuwa had by far his best game of the year. He shed blockers, showed great strength and quickness on the interior, and tackled well in the backfield. He had two sacks but it felt like more, and he just kept making plays, including the 4th and 2 stop in the red zone. If he can put together another couple of games at this level, he’s going to start playing himself up some draft boards.
Speaking of draft boards, Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes will almost certainly both be on them after next year. Clark was a force in the middle, as he’s been all year, frequently eating up double teams and allowing Vanderdoes, Odighizuwa, and Deon Hollins good opportunities in one-on-ones and one-on-nones. Clark seems to have benefitted a great deal from the week off, as he looked a little more gassed than usual against Washington two weeks ago, and he looked completely energized against USC. Vanderdoes was used in a variety of ways, frequently coming through behind Clark on stunts, which really helped to disrupt Kessler because Vanderdoes has some deceptive speed and quickness for his size. Having those two on the interior for another year is going to make UCLA’s defensive line one of the best in the Pac-12 heading into 2015.
Deon Hollins, who we’ve counted as a defensive end for most of the year, actually played a bit more in space against USC, so we might have to move him back into the linebacker group at some point. But given that we’ve had to hit the defensive line grade for some of his poor play earlier in the year, we have to give that unit credit after he just put together his best game of the year. Hollins was a force on the edge, and we have to imagine USC’s tackles are going to have nightmares about him. He seemed to have USC’s snap count perfectly timed, and he was an integral piece of the Eric Kendricks interception, putting pressure on Kessler and forcing him to throw high. He did so many other things, including dropping into coverage and nearly picking a ball off as well as shedding a blocker to make a tackle for no gain, that he just hadn’t shown yet this year. We’ll admit, we didn’t think he could be an every down player, but if he plays like that going through the next couple of games, we’d be happy to be wrong.
Takkarist McKinley looked like he played a bit more than he did against Washington, and once again made a big impact, getting one sack and forcing at least one other hurry. He has such natural ability in pure one-on-one pass rush situations that it’s going to be increasingly hard to keep him off the field through the end of this year and into the next one.
The wide receivers, as a group, might have gotten the MVU (most valuable unit) grade, but Eric Kendricks was the clear MVP of this game, and we really don’t think it was close. He played as if he had been sitting in on Steve Sarkisian’s offensive meetings all week, looking like he knew exactly where each play was going before the ball was even snapped. There was one play in the second half where he had a screen pass read so well that you could almost see the resignation in Kessler’s body language as soon as he threw the pass — almost as if he knew how blown up the play already was. Kendricks was all over the field, making stops in the running game but also playing significantly in coverage, especially in the first half. He laid some big hits, put himself in excellent position for tackles, and might have played, in total, the best game of his very impressive career. Again, he’s another guy who probably saw his draft stock go up after a big game like this on national television.
Just looking at the stat sheet, you might think that Myles Jack had a so-so game. After all, he only had one tackle. Of course, if you were watching the game, you realized that he didn’t have many tackles because more of the time he was playing, effectively, nickel corner and was locking up a combination of Nelson Agholor and Juju Smith so well that the Trojans rarely threw at them. Consider this: Agholor had two catches on USC’s first drive and then, after Jack spent some time bodying him up at the line of scrimmage and covering him somewhat in man, Agholor had one catch total in the entire rest of the game. It was an incredible performance for Jack, who, in his UCLA career, has basically epitomized the word “versatility”. He can cover an elite slot receiver, stop a big-time running back, pursue elite speed to the sideline, and — oh, yeah — run the ball like an elite SEC running back. He’s a card-carrying member of the freaky elite.
Kenny Young saw the field a lot more against the Trojans as the Bruins seemed to run more base defense, and he was very impressive. We said it at the beginning of the year: it’s difficult to play inside linebacker in this scheme, and it took Eric Kendricks a long time to adjust, Jordan Zumwalt a long time to adjust, and we’d imagine it would take Young a long time to adjust. Well, it looks like Young has adjusted. He looked instinctual out there, making great plays to the sideline and playing as if the game has slowed down a bit for him. Many of the linebackers will tell you that one of Kendricks’ best attributes as an inside linebacker is his patience — when he’s at his best, he lets the play develop and doesn’t over pursue, accelerating to the play once he knows where it’s going, rather than guessing. We saw a little bit of that from Young on Saturday, and it makes us feel a bit better, though not completely comfortable, about him filling Kendricks’ shoes next year.
Defensive Backs: B+
Sure, the group got a large assist from the coverage stylings of Kendricks and Jack, but the defensive backs held up very well in their own right. Anthony Jefferson played really well early, breaking up one pass play that looked like it could have gone a long way. Considering the group as a whole was playing without Jaleel Wadood for much of the game (undisclosed why) and lost Ishmael Adams and Priest Willis in the second half, it was a very good performance.
Tahaan Goodman might have set the tone of the game early for UCLA, turning a couple of safety blitzes loose on USC that may have started the process of rattling Kessler. Goodman looked scary blitzing off the edge, and those safety blitzes from him and Wadood over the last few games have been a critical piece of the puzzle in UCLA playing more aggressively on defense.
The group did give up a few intermediate routes for decent gains, but aside from one pass to Juju Smith down the sideline where Kessler had about five seconds to make the throw, UCLA prevented what had been a big-play offense from making many big plays. We have to figure that was the strategy coming in, and UCLA’s defensive backs executed it more or less to a T.
Defensive scheme, coaching, and game plan: A
If you were going to be a little unreasonable and highlight a single reason for the struggles through the first six games of the year, you probably would have pointed at defensive scheme. The Bruins ran mostly a passive, coverage-based scheme through the first six games that let some mediocre offenses have pretty decent days. UCLA seemed reluctant to blitz or press its corners, opting instead to try to limit big plays. It wasn’t a horrible defense, but it was nowhere near the defense we expected heading into the year, and the scheme issues culminated with a demolition at the hands of Oregon.
UCLA’s defense has improved dramatically since then, putting together a near-elite performance against California and then a completely elite performance against Arizona before last night’s great performance against what had been a very good USC offense. The change has been mostly predicated on significantly increased aggression in several facets of the game. First, UCLA is blitzing more than it did at the beginning of the year, particularly with its safeties. The Bruins still aren’t a blitz-happy defense, but they’re good for a handful of well-designed pressures per game. Second, UCLA is stunting its linemen and moving them around a lot more, with Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Deon Hollins all coming from multiple spots throughout the game, which has confused several of the offensive lines UCLA has faced. Third, UCLA is pressing its corners more, which is keeping many of these quick-passing schemes from getting into a rhythm, which is allowing the defensive line time to get more pressure. The combination of these three things, along with the addition of McKinley to the pass rush, has dramatically changed the fortunes for UCLA’s defense.
Against USC, everything we just mentioned was as good as its been this year — the defensive line used stunts to devastating effect, USC’s receivers very rarely got a free release off the line of scrimmage, and UCLA used a variety of well-timed blitzes, particularly early in the game, to get Kessler rattled.
It’s exciting to think that Jeff Ulbrich has made these kinds of strides in his first year on the job, and it’ll be interesting to talk to him after the year to see if there’s anything he can take from what he learned this year in tweaking the scheme heading into 2015.
Special Teams: B
We’ll lead with Matt Mengel. Look, it obviously wasn’t great that he dropped the snap on the punt, but I understand. He’s in his first rivalry game, and a year ago he was probably playing in front of 150 people. But to then have the presence of mind to pick up the ball, run to his right, shuck a tackler, and get the ball off was really uncanny. It changed the complexion of the game, especially when USC didn’t score on the subsequent drive due to Sark being Sark. Mengel may never be an elite punter, but that was a good heads up play on what could have been a catastrophe.
UCLA’s kick coverage was excellent, and Taylor Lagace showed great awareness on Agholor’s fumbled punt. Ahmaad Harris made an excellent tackle on Adoree Jackson’s ill-advised return when the kick buried him about 8 yards deep in the end zone. Ishmael Adams didn’t have much to do in the return game as he didn’t get many good lanes, and then USC seemed to be kicking it away from UCLA on most punts.
Ka’imi Fairbairn nailed his lone field goal, though we’re still not totally sure he made his first extra point (seriously, look at that thing on replay). All in all, it was a solid, if unspectacular special teams performance.