It Wasn't Entirely Pretty but Take a Snapshot

Jan. 3 -- UCLA wasn't flawless in beating #11 Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl, but UCLA fans should still savor the win, how far the program has come and the coach that has made it possible...

You wouldn’t call it an ugly win, since there was some considerably pretty aspects of UCLA beating Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl, 40-35.

There were some elements of it that were ugly, however, too. The thing is, when you’re playing against the #11 team in the country it ain’t going to be easy.

It was one of those microcosm games, for sure. If you have been stuck in a cave for the last four months and you wanted to get a quick feel for how UCLA’s 2014 season went, all you have to do is watch the Bruins in the Alamo Bowl and you’d get the picture.

The game contained just about every aspect of this year’s UCLA team. It was like watching a Spark Notes version of the season.

It had all the highs and lows. Some impressively good plays and then some really inexplicably bad ones. Too many frustrating penalties that practically were a third team in this game, one definitely on the side of K-State. The opposing team seemed to commit a hold on just about every play that wasn’t called. The UCLA offense was explosive at times and then sputtered lifelessly at others. Brett Hundley couldn’t find receivers downfield but made some simply incredible plays with his legs. Paul Perkins was a hero. Eric Kendricks was a warrior. Myles Jack is a stellar talent with a hot head. Some inconsistent and head-scratching play-calling. The team looked like it had the talent to blow out its opponent but then suffered a massive letdown and made the game, well, interesting. There were moments that were surreal. But the Bruins, alas, were ultimately successful.

One poster on the BRO message board said essentially – “Great win, great to get 10 wins again, the program is clearly trending upward, but I’m almost glad that the season is over because it was just too stressful.”

All in all, you do have to step back and get a bigger perspective, one of appreciation for the season. The team posted its second consecutive 10-win season for the first time since 1998. Mora has now won 9, 10 and 10 games in his first three season, the most of any coach in UCLA history.

The program, indeed, is trending upward.

It almost seems unnecessary to review the game in detail. Anyone who has been watching this team and reading BRO all season knows pretty much what happened on that field. After this entire season of analyzing UCLA games it doesn’t seem like that game needs to be explained or analyzed. It pretty much just stands on its own as its own analysis.

There are probably some things that need to be emphasized a little, however.

UCLA did beat the #11 team in the nation. While it might seem KSU wasn’t that good since UCLA looked so dominant in the first half, they actually were a very good team. The Bruins were a bit of victim of their own success – that they made it look so easy in the first half it was disappointing in the second when some things got away from them. But you’d have to expect that things will get away from you when you play a top-11 team in the nation. When UCLA played against Cal or Colorado and made it close, some strong criticism was far more warranted; when you’re playing against a clearly good team and beat them in one of the top six bowl games of the year it isn’t.

Brett Hundley (Steve Cheng, BRO)
We’ll admit, though, that element of this game that made it difficult to get through at times were the penalties. It has been the bugaboo of Mora’s program and it seemed like this year’s team had turned a corner a bit with them. But the penalties returned with a vengeance in this game. Quite simply, if UCLA had played a more disciplined game it wouldn’t have been close. The personal fouls are inexcusable, especially two from Myles Jack. But it has to be said, too, that there were a good number of penalties in the game that were pretty questionable. And this is no excuse because a good team should have composure, but K-State was also a fairly dirty team that provoked the UCLA players. And that it was fairly evident that K-State wasn’t getting called for at least as flagrant of holding than the holds UCLA was getting penalized for.

Probably the other most frustrating development in the game was K-State’s ability to move the ball in the second half but, truly, we’d have to chalk this one up to the fact that K-State was actually just pretty good offensively. It has an All-American at receiver in Tyler Lockett, a distinction he showed was deserved. There wasn’t much we’d have to nitpick in terms of UCLA’s defensive playcalling. In fact, Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called perhaps his most aggressive game of the season in sending pressure. It was actually very fun to watch UCLA blitz as much as it did and how it did it – with extra bodies coming from the corners and safeties, and sometimes very deep safeties. It was also very effective, too. If you compare this game to the beginning of the season, Ulbrich is clearly now utilizing a very diverse array of pressures, with many of them disguised very well. It makes it very exciting to think that this might just be the birth of a more pressure-emphasizing defense and that Ulbrich is developing a really aggressive style. UCLA might be getting a little “exotic” in its aggressiveness.

It’s also great to see Deon Hollins have such an impact on a game with his ability to pressure the quarterback, and it’s very exciting to consider his potential development in this defense over the next couple of years.

In that Kansas State third-quarter drive that took up over 7 minutes of clock, K-State did uncannily convert four third downs and a fourth down. It did it when UCLA was throwing a great amount of pressure at K-State quarterback Jake Waters. He quite simply made some pretty good plays in converting those first downs. Should UCLA had doubled Lockett? Perhaps, or perhaps not. The game plan was probably sound – and that was to try to limit Lockett by not allowing Waters to get a clean look. That’s probably a better plan than doubling a guy like Lockett, which would give you one less man in the box and rushing the quarterback, giving Waters more time while Lockett would probably beat the double anyway. It’s arguable either way, but I don’t ever have a problem with any game plan that has a great deal of pressure on the quarterback as its cornerstone, and this definitely was it. If we’re nitpicking, perhaps the game plan wasn’t quite aggressive enough, actually – that the Bruin defensive backs might have pressed KSU’s receivers a bit more to try take away the quick-hitters. It might have been disastrous, though, since UCLA doesn’t have a really standout cover guy, and going up against Lockett and Curry Sexton might have resulted in some burns. So, all in all, I have no problem with how that all went down and even though it was frustrating to watch K-State drive the field and covert those 3rd downs, I think the strategy was a sound one. Plus, if you just take away the penalties, again, those second-half drives don’t happen.

On the other side of the field, the offensive playcalling was, for the most part, good. UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone came out with a few new wrinkles that were very effective, like the triple option – obviously catching K-State by surprise. UCLA, really, once K-State adjusted, didn’t sustain a drive after that but the offense became completely made up of big plays. So, it was pretty critical that Mazzone did install those new plays, used them early effectively and got so much out of them. If we were to nitpick it would be in the fourth-quarter drive when UCLA needed to kill some clock and Mazzone went to some low-percentage deep throws. That drive took up just two minutes. I understand perhaps going deep when K-State would be anticipating a run-dominated, clock-consuming approach, but K-State was keeping 7 deep and the longer throws weren’t there for much of the game. And, as we know, it’s not as if reading downfield is Hundley’s strength, either. I think I’d rather put the ball in the hands of the Pac-12 rushing champ and UCLA’s strong run-blocking offensive line. At that point, running the clock was probably more important than another score.

But like I said, that’s probably nitpicking.

it was very fitting, for the last game of the season, and in a game that epitomized it, that the two game-saving plays in this game were 1) a spectacular 40-yard scramble by Hundley when UCLA needed to turn around the game and put some points on the board and 2) a spectacular 67-yard run by Paul Perkins that iced the game (Well, really, there was a third play that really iced the game, and that was Perkins fielding the onside kick). Perkins has made those kind of runs all season, and made one of his best in the first half on that 32-yard touchdown run. Hundley has been doing it for three years, going back to his very first touch as a college quarterback against Rice two years ago. What Hundley has done running the ball over the last three years is truly magical and it will be a dimension of the UCLA offense that we’ll really notice more once it’s gone next season.

The offensive line had some down moments in pass protection in this game, but they did an overall good job, mostly in run blocking. While you give credit to Perkins for that game-changing, fourth-quarter 67-yarder, Perkins pretty much wasn’t touched because the UCLA offensive line was perfect in its run blocking.

UCLA clearly had more talent and athleticism on the field. K-State is a program that does so much with the talent it has. So it was, again, encouraging that UCLA now has this kind of talent in the program, where it can out-talent the #11 team in the nation.

Eric Kendricks (Steve Cheng, BRO)
The UCLA coaching staff, too, was very well prepared for this game and did their homework on K-State. There were some moments in which UCLA’s defense looked like they knew where the K-State play was going to go before the Wildcats did. Eric Kendricks, though, can make it seem that way some times.

There were quite a few sequences in this game when I decided to just isolate on Kendricks. It’s like when you’re at Disneyland when your kids are young, or a great Christmas morning, or you’re standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower with your wife, you want to take a mental snapshot to remember the moment. That’s pretty much the caliber of impact Kendricks has had on us – he’s made it into the family mental photo album. Being one of the most consistent players to be this good we’ve ever seen at UCLA, it was very fitting that he had a game that was worthy of being the Lott Impact Trophy and Butkus Award winner.

It was a game that, to fully enjoy it, you had to take a step back and get a perspective. Perhaps it’s similar to taking a mental picture – just so you can appreciate the season and where the this program has come in just three short years under Jim Mora. This isn’t a State of the Program article, but the last game of the season, when UCLA beats a good team in one of the better bowls, a bigger perspective about the program is key in considering the game. Yes, there were some things in the game that you would like to see cleaned up – namely the penalties. And we’ll officially put the program on a short leash of tolerance for penalties next season. But UCLA fans should take stock of the fact that you now have the privilege to belabor and bemoan your team beating the #11 team in the country and being 10-3. Bruin fans, you’ve now taken your place among the elite fans in college football when you can do that. You’re just a few Fire-Mora posts on the message board away from being in the realm of Alabama fans.

It’s a game in which fans need to step back and simply appreciate that Mora has the program on the best footing in the last 17 years. And there’s a very good chance we’re just starting the upswing here under Mora, that this is the beginning of a very golden era in UCLA football.

In fact, everyone should take a mental snapshot of this game – of Kendricks making a sack, of Hundley’s 40-yard scramble, and of Mora, looking stressed and strung out all week because he had put so much pressure on himself and this team to win this game. He took the loss against Stanford pretty deeply, and he truly had been working himself relentlessly to ensure that the season ended on a winning note.

UCLA fans, take a mental snapshot of the program and the coach – and of the season – because it deserves an honored place in your UCLA memories.

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