Anytime you go across the country, are playing in one of the most hostile environments in the country, in 95% humidity, you have to be thankful for a win.
So, UCLA got out of Alabama with the season-opening win, which is, bottom line: Mission Accomplished.
How they won isn't necessarily important, and since it was the first game and it was under pretty unusual circumstances, it's premature to draw any conclusions.
But heck, that's what I'm here for, right?
The UCLA defense has the potential to be a very good defense. There is so much talent, combined with experience, and it makes for a potentially dominating defense. If you take away the yardage gained on the TD passes where coverage was blown, Alabama would have gained only 312 yards – while possessing the ball for the majority of the game.
The defensive line looks to be very good. The depth is truly phenomenal, with good performances coming from back-up tackles Anthony Fletcher, Steve Morgan and Sean Phillips. Starter Rod Leisle played very well, and, before he went down with what is believed to be a broken collarbone, Ken Kocher was the most dominant player on the field. His status is completely unknown, but if it is indeed a broken collarbone as preliminary reports suggest, that would sideline him for at least half the season, which might lead him to redshirt for the year. It's truly tragic that Kocher suffered another injury; when he's healthy, he's shown that he has potential All-American ability, but it doesn't seem like he's remained healthy for longer than two games at a time in his four-year career. In the game, while the line played well, it seemed to lose some aggressiveness and penetration after Kocher went down.
Kenyon Coleman was not spectacular, but played solidly, which is what we should probably expect from him.
The linebackers looked like they were a little out-of-sorts trying to understand Alabama's offense, but given that, played fairly well as a unit. Robert Thomas was nicked up a bit, and didn't really have the opportunity to show the Robert Thomas of old. Ryan Nece had a mixed game; he was in position to make a tackle many times, which is good, but then missed the tackle a few times, which isn't. Brandon Chillar, while getting sealed off a few times around end, was very active, and all around the ball. As a unit, they swarmed well, and more or less contained the Alabama running backs and did well in pass coverage. The linebackers, if you might have noticed, will have a bigger responsibility in passing downs this year. UCLA won't use a nickel or dime defense, but when an opposing offense goes to four wideouts, they will use their linebackers to cover. The linebackers did well in passing situations. In fact, a few times, Thomas blitzed and hurried Tyler Watts, which again supported the new theory that he should be in the game in 3rd-and-longs.
The defensive backfield gets a mixed review. Jason Stephens was probably the best player on defense for the game. He made quite a few tackles, many assists and was always around the ball. That's particularly satisfying since the strong safety position, and Stephens himself, were considered question marks going into fall practice. Marques Anderson had a solid game, but it doesn't seem like he gets the opportunity to shine as much at the free safety position as he did last year at strong. Ricky Manning had a mixed game. He made some nice plays, but he was part of the blown coverage that led to some Alabama points. He also didn't have a great showing returning punts. You can't expect Matt Ware to have had any other kind of game than the one he did in Alabama. He and Manning were both experiencing some pretty bad cramping due to the humidity, and the game had to be overwhelming for the true freshman. Joe Hunter got quite a bit of time at corner, probably more than Ware did, and played well. He was saved a couple of times when he was beat by bad passes from Watts. Another true freshman, Matt Clark, also saw action, which is surprising, since you would have thought that sophomore Keith Short might have gotten the call before Clark.
The defense looked like you would have expected – good up front but questionable in the secondary. The big test will be when this defense has to face great passing teams that can really air it out, like Oregon or Oregon State.
It was interesting to watch the adjustments the defense – and the UCLA coaches – made to Alabama's offense. Early in the game it appeared that Alabama was seeing some room to gain yardage, but once UCLA's defense adjusted to Alabama's offense, there wasn't much daylight.
A worry could be containing a running quarterback. Watts hurt UCLA a few times with his ability to scramble. UCLA generally did a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback, but once flushing him out, didn't contain him well.
Third-and-longs weren't the scary situation it was a year ago, with the defense generally shutting down Alabama in that situation.
The defense, to its credit, came up big when it counted. It kept Alabama scoreless for over 30 straight minutes. In the second half it got out of the block quickly, forcing Alabama into three-and-outs in its first two possessions. In its third, UCLA forced Alabama into a third-and-15 when Ricky Manning intercepted a Watts pass. On another drive, Rod Leisle shut down an Alabama drive when he caused a fumble that he recovered. Both of those turnovers turned into six points, which was ultimately the difference in the score. The defense also stopped Alabama at the 2-yard line on fourth down. With only a yard to go for a first, Alabama went for it on fourth down, and Ricky Manning strung out the play and forced Ahmaad Galloway, the Alabama running back, out of bounds, short of the first.
Offensively, there were some signs that this offense could be very good, and then some other signs that hopefully things will change. This was perhaps one of the poorest offensive showings by a UCLA offense in quite a while. It might have been a completely different story if UCLA receivers had held on to just a couple of the balls they dropped, though. In the first half alone, dropped balls (and a couple of poorly thrown passes) prevented a number of easy first downs. This led to a few three-and-outs, which led to Alabama's offense having the ball far too much.
Perhaps the best performance from the offense came from the offensive line. While it didn't open gaping holes for the UCLA running backs, and the running game never really got completely on track, UCLA did rush for 168 yards and average 4.4 yards a carry. And, most importantly, Cory Paus generally was protected all night, and had good time to throw the ball.
But after that, the offense had a relatively poor showing. Coach Bob Toledo said he intendedly had a very conservative game plan going into the Alabama game. He wanted to run the ball, eat up clock, and shorten the game. The strategy was completely successful and, as was stated above, it's huge to get a win at Alabama for a season opener when there is so much hype over a new coach.
With the entire Alabama defense keying on DeShaun Foster, just about anything that UCLA ran that used Foster as a decoy worked very well. There was a sweep with wideout Craig Bragg off a fake dive to Foster. There were a couple of nice runs for Ed Ieremia-Stansbury, one for a touchdown, that were made possible because the Alabama defense was caught keying on Foster. While Foster is a great weapon, it almost seemed as if in this game he was more of a weapon as a decoy.
Foster ran fairly well for the game. He tended to bounce around rather than hit a hole – but then again, that style of running was the reason behind the best runs of the night for Foster. And it must be hard when the defense is keying on you and the ball just keeps getting put in your hands.
UCLA didn't ever really open up its offense and throw downfield. It attempted to use its passing game to only complement the running game and it probably would have done that quite well had it not been for the dropped passes.
There also seems to be a feeling that Toledo believed his offense was good enough to beat Alabama without really unleashing the passing game, almost as if he wants to keep that aspect of the offense mostly under wraps. There were a few times, though, in this game, after the offense had stalled a couple of times, that you would have liked to have seen Paus air it out, since he was getting pretty good protection. But there was also some receivers open that Paus also didn't see, that would have opened up the game considerably if he had spotted them. Perhaps the biggest was, with UCLA in a third-and-eight from Alabama's 17in the second quarter, Brian Fletcher open in the end zone.
Perhaps the biggest question concerning the offense after the Alabama game is: What do you do with Brian Poli-Dixon? The kneejerk reaction would be to bench him. But Toledo should definitely support Poli-Dixon and give him more opportunities to prove himself. Yes, he had probably the worst game of his career against Alabama, but he is too much an integral part of the offense to put out to pasture at this point. It would probably serve the team better to stick with him, give him the opportunity to prove himself over the next couple of games and hopefully get in a rhythm. But, on the other hand, it would also serve UCLA well to maybe make some adjustments to take advantage of the fact that Tab Perry is probably the team's most talented receiver.
Paus generally looked a little nervous and tight, as did, actually most of UCLA's offense. The thing about Paus (well, about most quarterbacks), if you don't get him in a passing rhythm, it's awfully hard for him to get comfortable. After coming off a season of multiple injuries that kept him out for many games, it's critical that Paus get comfortable, and he definitely didn't in the Alabama game. I would suspect that UCLA will use the next couple of games to warm up its passing game and get Paus comfortable.
Overall, it's difficult to draw any conclusions from the Alabama game. It's probably not difficult to suspect, though, that Alabama is not a very good football team. Perhaps by mid-season, when they're more comfortable in their new offense, they'll be improved. But they hurt themselves repeatedly with very untimely penalties. Their offense seems well conceived, but they just didn't execute it very well. And, to be candid, Alabama just doesn't have the talent on offense to be very good. Defensively, it appears that Alabama does have some talent. And who knows? This might be the best defense UCLA faces all year.
Considerable props have to go to the team for not being penalized once during the game. It is a phenomenal stat, giving the noise at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The MVP of the game for UCLA was punter Nate Fikse. After shanking his first punt trying to keep it away from Freddie Milons, Fikse then found his rhythm and the boom in his leg. He boomed a couple in the first half that put Alabama in a hole, and put a few punts inside the Alabama 20-yard line. The most critical was, with a few minutes left in the game, when he hit a 46-yarder that went out on the Alabama eight-yard line.
So, UCLA will take the win. But if it hopes to be successful for the rest of the season, it will have to sustain drives better to keep the ball out of the hands of opposing offenses. While you would think this would mean that UCLA needs to run the ball successfully, the Alabama gamed showed that, like last year, opposing defenses will be keying on Foster and making UCLA beat them through the air. To sustain drives, UCLA is going to have to throw the ball, and throw the ball successfully. The thing is, UCLA looks like it will get the pass protection that it didn't have last year. So, hopefully the UCLA passing game will come out of hiding against Kansas next week…