Solving the Oregon/Stanford Problem

Dec. 4 -- UCLA has lost all six games against the Ducks and Cardinal under Jim Mora -- how can UCLA turn the tides?

It’s accepted and true that Jim Mora has led UCLA to an unprecedented run of success in his first three years in the program. At 28-11 through his three years, he’s put together the best three-year stretch since at least the late '80s, and seems poised, as Tracy wrote yesterday, to put together even more success through the near future.  

But there has been a major bugaboo, one which struck again last week, and that is the performance of his teams against the powers in the Pac-12 North, Oregon and Stanford. Against those two teams, Mora is 0-6. In other words, those two teams have accounted for more than half of his losses in his three-year tenure at UCLA. It, of course, makes sense that UCLA has struggled more against what have been consistently the two best teams in the conference over the three-year stretch, but to get to where UCLA wants to be, breaking through against those teams is a critical step that needs to come sooner rather than later.   

We went back through those six games to see if there were any common links between the losses, and whether there was anything to build upon when UCLA is faced with those two programs going forward. We discovered that while those six losses have come over a period of three years, which have involved a variety of different personnel for both teams, there have been a few common links, and perhaps a broader philosophy issue, that have contributed to the losses.   

To quickly recap, these were the losses: 

2012 Stanford 35, UCLA 17 

The Bruins lost in the final game of the regular season having already locked up the Pac-12 South. The offensive game plan was very conservative, with virtually no running from Brett Hundley. Hundley played generally poorly, taking some unnecessary sacks. The offensive staff opted for one really poor punting decision on 4th an 3 early, electing to go with a Hundley quick-kick when the score was 7-7 at the end of the first quarter with UCLA on the Stanford 38. On the subsequent UCLA drive, the Bruins again opted for a very poor punting decision, electing to kick on 4th and 2 at the Stanford 39. The defense wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible, UCLA just got nothing offensively.   

2012 Pac-12 Championship Stanford 27, UCLA 24 

Brett Hundley.
UCLA opened up hot, but on the first drive of the second quarter, with UCLA moving the ball well, Hundley throws a near pick-six to Ed Reynolds at the Stanford 19 that is intercepted and taken to the UCLA 1.  The subsequent touchdown by Stanford ties the game up at 14. With UCLA down 27-24 with about 7:00 to go in the game, UCLA is faced with a 3rd and 13 at the Stanford. The Bruins attempt to get all 13 yards at once, throw incomplete, and then are forced to punt on 4th and 13 on the Stanford 45 (and end up gaining just 25 yards of field position). Hundley (and the offensive staff) then makes a very questionable decision to spike the ball on 1st and 10 at the Stanford 39 on the next drive with just under a minute to go when downs, not time, were at a premium. UCLA gains just five more yards and then is forced to attempt a field goal by Fairbairn from 51 yards in the rain with 34 seconds to go. The defense was good and got some pressure on Hogan. This was by far the best game UCLA has played against Stanford or Oregon.   

2013 Stanford 24, UCLA 10 

  The offense was completely unable to sustain any drives. In the 2nd quarter, UCLA is on Stanford’s side of the field at the 35 and elects to punt on 4th and 6, down 3-0. After Stanford goes up 10-3, Brett Hundley throws a bad interception on the ensuing possession, and then Stanford scores again to go up 17-3. With 2:57 to go, UCLA is down 17-10 after a Hundley touchdown drive, but Hundley throws another interception to Jordan Richards, which gives Stanford the ball back in UCLA territory. They score again, making the score 24-10 with under two minutes to go, effectively ending the game. It should be said that the offensive line was basically a pile of tissue paper for this game, with three different left tackles throughout the game. The defense was great, but the offense was dreadful.   

2013 Oregon 42, UCLA 14 

  It was a very conservative offensive game plan, with 52 runs vs. 19 passes. UCLA is tied early 7-7, but punts on 4th and 5 at the Oregon 46. Brett Hundley was not sharp at all, throwing two pretty ugly picks — one early, when UCLA was driving in the Oregon red zone down 14-7 and another later in the 4th quarter when UCLA was down 21-14 and still competitive. The last interception led to the Oregon deluge. The defense was very good in the first half, but wore down late.   

2014 Oregon 42, UCLA 30 

  Hundley played a pretty mediocre game. He fumbled in UCLA territory at the 20, which led to a Mariota touchdown on the next play to put Oregon up 8-0 early. UCLA on 4th and goal at the Oregon 2 on the following drive elects to kick a field goal, going down 8-3. At the next UCLA opportunity, the Bruins attempt another field goal on 4th and 3 at the Oregon 23 and miss, leaving them down 15-3. On the following drive, Oregon scores a touchdown, putting them up 21-3. Hundley then throws a crippling interception on UCLA side of the field which is returned by Ekpre-Olomu to the UCLA 10, setting up penultimate Oregon touchdown, putting the Ducks up 35-10. The defense was not great, but the offense’s inability to put up touchdowns dooms UCLA.  

2014 Stanford 31, UCLA 10 

Hundley isn’t at his best. UCLA goes up 7-0 early, but doesn’t score another touchdown thanks to overall shoddy play across the board on offense. Defensively, UCLA can’t stop any of Stanford’s big sets, and gets very little pressure on Hogan. On a 4th and 5 from the Stanford 30, UCLA attempts a fake field goal pass rather than go for it with the conventional offense. The game is marked by several wasted downs on offense, with Hundley (or the offensive staff) opting to throw deep into double-coverage, low-percentage looks.  

Of those six games, only one has had a really close final score (the Pac-12 Championship against Stanford, where the Bruins probably outplayed the Cardinal). You could make an argument that Stanford and Oregon in 2013 were both closer games than the final score might have indicated as well, even if they did end in 14 and 28-point shellackings anyway. But no matter how you judge it, the Bruins have lost by double digits in five of six losses to these two teams over the last three years, and three of those games have been nowhere close to competitive.  

So what gives? UCLA is talented — you can’t produce three consecutive nine-win seasons in the Pac-12 without being talented. The Bruins have also been able to put together some blowouts of their own against credible Pac-12 competition, putting a beatdown on 9-3 Arizona State this year (62-27) and doing something similar to 8-4 Arizona in 2012 (66-10). Given that Stanford and Oregon have both lost to a few Pac-12 teams in the same timeframe that they’ve mostly taken UCLA to the woodshed, it’s odd that they’ve so readily handled the Bruins.  

When looking at those games again, a few things do stand out, though.  

First, in each of the games (save the Stanford Pac-12 Championship game) Brett Hundley played below his average level. That doesn’t mean he was outright horrible in each game, but he was below average to poor in each of the performances, and made several crippling plays throughout the six games (the back-breaking interception in the Pac-12 Championship game to Ed Reynolds, the two picks to Jordan Richards last year in the Stanford game, the two picks against Oregon in 2013, the last of which set up Oregon’s flood of scoring in the 4th quarter). In 2013, when UCLA’s defense was probably the most competitive its been in the series of games, Hundley was at his worst, clearly going through a major midseason funk that seemed to force Noel Mazzone to some of his most conservative play-calling at UCLA. This year, the Stanford and Oregon games were among his worst performances of the year. In games against those two teams over the last three years, Hundley has six passing touchdowns against seven interceptions. In all other games, he had 68 touchdowns and just 18 interceptions. This is an obvious point, but to beat two of the best programs in the conference, UCLA needs to get better than average play out of the quarterback position.  

Jordan Payton.
Second, and this is the fixable issue for the future, UCLA has not valued downs and possessions the way it needs to against both teams. Against Stanford in particular, UCLA has had an unhealthy propensity to punt, or otherwise make an odd 4th down decision, on Stanford’s side of the field. In the first Stanford game of 2012, UCLA punted twice on 4th and short from the Stanford 38 and 37 yard lines. In the Pac-12 Championship game, UCLA tried to convert on 3rd and 13 on Stanford’s side of the field late, attempting to get all of the yards at once rather than getting six or seven and then going for it on 4th. In 2013, UCLA is at Stanford’s 35 on 4th and 6 and elects to punt, down 3-0 in the second quarter. And then, last week, UCLA has a 4th and 5 on Stanford’s 30 and opts for a fake field goal that had only one downfield option. Against Oregon, the decisions weren’t quite as egregious in 2013 (there was one lone punt on 4th and 5 at the Oregon 46 that probably should have been an opportunity to go for it), but in 2014, UCLA elected to attempt two field goals on 4th and short, with one make and one miss. The first was on 4th and goal at the 2-yard line and the second, which was the miss, was on 4th and 3 at the 20 yard line.  

Now, UCLA hasn’t made really aggressive 4th down decisions under Mora — it’s just not a hallmark of what they do. That’s fine against most teams, since UCLA is more talented than most teams they’ll play, but against these two teams, you have to make perfect, and aggressive, decisions on 4th down. Against Stanford, you can count on a very limited number of opportunities in Cardinal territory throughout a given game, meaning that you have to maximize every chance. Turning the game into a field position game plays right into Stanford’s style (which we’ll get to in a second). Against Oregon, it’s even more obvious — you need to take absolutely every opportunity you can to score touchdowns, since the Ducks are more than likely going to score on 75% of their possessions. That means you have to take an aggressive approach to 4th down, and ensure that you’re constantly giving yourself 3rd and 4th down situations with manageable yardage to gain. Instead, in the games against Oregon, UCLA has seemed to try to almost play a field position game, and essentially try to play them like Stanford plays them, but the offense has just not been up to the challenge.  

Third, and this is a bit speculative, but there is perhaps a philosophical issue at play. Let’s be honest for a second. Oregon has been a buzz saw for many years for many teams in the Pac-12 and nationally. UCLA is good, and certainly better than it’s been for the last decade and more, but the Ducks have a devastating offensive scheme, excellent playmakers, and the best player in the country at quarterback. UCLA could have been more competitive this year, for sure, and there’s a chance that the Bruins could have pulled off the win, but to get blown out by the Ducks is not such a huge worrying sign. That happens to plenty of teams.  

Stanford is different, though, and UCLA’s issues against the Cardinal have been a bit more worrying. We think that, perhaps, part of the reason UCLA may have difficulty with Stanford is that they’ve been too reactive to what Stanford does differently than other Pac-12 teams. In 2012, UCLA actually ran Owamagbe Odighizuwa out there as an outside linebacker to try to combat Stanford’s size, and it didn’t work all that well. In 2013, UCLA seemed readily content to play a ball-control, slow-down, low-possession-count game against the Cardinal, which played right into their hands. And then, this past week, the Bruins basically played an exact mirror image of the first game in 2012 against Stanford, only this time without a pending rematch.  

Stanford, and Oregon, have their identities, and that may be the issue right there. Those two teams know what they are, and they do what they do extremely well. Stanford is a ball-control, defensive juggernaut, and the two sides of the ball marry together perfectly. Oregon, obviously, is an explosive offense that runs at a high tempo and puts speed at a premium. Matching up against those two teams, UCLA, and every other Pac-12 team, is faced with the issue of how to combat those identities, and the Bruins have largely been unsuccessful. So, maybe it’s time to flip the board a little bit.  

Maybe UCLA is losing these games, and losing them badly, because it’s being too reactive. While Stanford and Oregon have been building and polishing their identities for the last 6+ years, UCLA has undergone a coaching change and a significant culture change. But now, three years into the Mora era, it’s not readily apparent what UCLA’s on-field identity is — where you could describe what Stanford or Oregon does in a few words, you can’t really do the same for UCLA. Perhaps it’s time to establish what that identity is going to be. Is this going to be an up-tempo, spread offense with an athletic, aggressive defense? Is this going to be a grind-it-out, ball-control team with a stout, extremely sound defense? Is it going to be a balanced attack that can run and pass equally well, that keeps defenses completely out of rhythm, with a defense that can blitz from anywhere at any given moment?  

From what we’ve seen over the last three years, UCLA could go pretty much any way it wants to in terms of an identity. But to beat the Stanford and Oregons of the world, the Bruins are going to have to pick one, and start developing a brand of football that marries the scheme, game planning, and personnel use with the mental toughness that Mora has already instilled in the program. If UCLA can do that, perhaps the Bruins can start making the Oregons and Stanfords of the world react to what they do.

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