Steve Cheng (BRO)

Rosen Starts Off in Spectacular Fashion

Sep. 6 -- It was a solid win over Virginia, that was punctuated by a stunning performance from UCLA's true freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen...

Question answered.

The burning question about UCLA going into the 2015 season was whether it could get some efficiency at its quarterback position, enough to, at least, not hurt an extremely talented team from reaching its potential.

And the big question mark was whether true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen could do that. 

Laugh out loud.

In UCLA’s fairly easy victory over Virginia, 34-16, of course, the headline was that he did it in spades, turning in a stunning performance, not just for a true freshman in his first college start, but for any quarterback, at any age and any level of experience.

It was a remarkable show, the 18-year-old going 28 for 35, for 351 yards and three touchdowns. The stats, too, don’t even represent the performance well. The most impressive aspect of it was his poise and composure, conducting himself like he was a three-year veteran.

While Rosen might not always have this type of performance week by week this season, and is bound to have some letdowns and less-than-stellar moments, the question was answered: UCLA has a quarterback.

But we’ll get to Rosen later, and we’ll gush about him in a few other analyses, too.

For the true UCLA fan who wants to dig deeper than the headline, there were a few other aspects of the Virginia game worth noting.

The new defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, generally called a good game, even if a little conservative, especially early on. But it was understandable, and maybe expected, even if, as a UCLA fan, you were hoping for jailhouse blitzes from the outset. Virginia’s offense isn’t very good, and UCLA did a solid job of holding them to a total of 336 yards, and just under 100 yards rushing (98) on the day.

Myles Jack, UCLA’s star linebacker, was a bit of a concern. In stepping into the middle to replace departed Eric Kendricks,  Jack had a volatile day, a couple of times making some good plays but at others continuing to show a lack of discipline and composure that can tend to get him in trouble. He got called for two horse collars, which pretty much granted Virginia two field goals, and there were a few other moments when he got into pushing incidents and such. His play also lacked discipline, overrunning some plays, or shooting gaps rather than staying home. 

Let’s just get this out of the way early: The linebackers as a whole were probably the biggest disappointment Saturday. Kenny Young started off too jacked up also, being out of position and with the same kind of play overruns, while missing tackles.

In the third series of the game UCLA switched out its entire linebackers group and, even though they said it had been planned, it seemed to come a bit early.

Young settled down and played much better in the second half. He made a nice backside stop on a critical third-down screen, and was playing far more disciplined and staying in position.

But we’ll say this also to get it out of the way: UCLA will miss not only the stellar play of Eric Kendricks but his steady composure. It’s a big challenge for Jack, whether he can step into those shoes. He, of course, has the talent, but has a penchant for being a hothead, as we saw in San Bernardino, and a big key to the season is whether he can get under control, and play under control, and provide that linebacking crew the Eric-Kendricks-like stability it needs.

The big question of the season, actually, has gone from whether UCLA has a quarterback to whether it has a quarterback on defense.

After a spring and fall of the defense showing us so many different kinds of pressures, it definitely wasn’t on display in the first half of Virginia. There were a number of third-and-longs where UCLA sent just four. In the second half, it changed a bit, with more bodies being sent and more pressure on the edge, and it had a big impact on the game, with Virginia’s quarterback Matt John’s really struggling to execute. We’ll see if this was just a case of Bradley wanting to start off a bit conservative, just to dip his toe in the water first, and not give away the pressure schemes against a Virginia team when it didn’t necessarily need to.

Even though it gave up just 98 yards on the ground, UCLA didn’t completely overwhelm Virginia’s running game, which we kind of expected them to do. The Cavaliers got an easy 5 to 7 yards on first down a number of times. In looking at it closer, UCLA’s defensive line did generally an excellent job, not only holding the line but beating their blocker; it was the linebackers many times that were out of position. The DL, in fact, had a very good game, with Kenneth Clark early making a number of plays and then Eddie Vanderdoes  later doing the same. Clark ran down a couple of screens from behind that were very impressive plays (and showed some really soft hands on his touchdown reception). Back-up tackle Eli Ankou also had a good game, and looks like he’s a very usuable back-up.

Eddie Vanderdoes (Steve Cheng, BRO)

The gameplan on offense was a pretty good one, and it helped make it look pretty good that Rosen executed it so well. Virginia clearly dedicated some bodies to trying to stop UCLA’s run game early, and it worked. It also had UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s dink-and-dunk offense well-scouted, being in position to stop down the horizontal passing game. When a team flashes more bodies into the box, UCLA’s simple run game that consists mostly of an inside zone running concept out of the spread just can’t hold up.

But what it does do is open up passing lanes. And what you need is some pass protection and a composed, accurate quarterback to calmly exploit it. UCLA definitely had that Saturday.

The offensive line was lights out. That was an offensive line performance that was about as rare at UCLA in the last couple of decades as it would be seeing someone wearing a parka in August in San Bernardino. It was almost a balletic work of art. Virginia lived up to what it claimed it would do, and that’s send pressure to try to disrupt UCLA’s true freshman quarterback, and the offensive line, as well as the tight ends and running backs, picked it up with precision. Virginia tried to stunt, delay and do all sorts of pressure stuff, but the offensive line switched off seamlessly and had it contained like they could do it in their sleep. Nothing Virginia did took the UCLA offensive line by surprise. And they created that beautiful little pocket for Rosen to step up into and make throws. You have to give UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm credit for building and developing this offensive line, but not being on the sideline to serve his two-game suspension, it’s pretty clear what Caleb Benenoch said in a recent interview is true – basically, We’re veterans and we know what we’re doing.

Seriously, if you want to watch something beautiful, re-watch the game and isolate on the pass protection. Not just the OL either, but Nate Iese blowing back an offensive lineman, or Paul Perkins knowing exactly where the blitz is coming from and shutting it down.

The offensive line was out-manned in the running game, with Virginia dedicating more bodies to the gaps, and that shut down UCLA’s running game early. But it opened up. Freshman running back Sotonye Jamabo had a couple of big runs where he picked his holes well, but they were huge holes and he really benefitted from a softened-up Virginia defense in the second half, which we think Perkins deserved to exploit, but no matter.

What really helped, too, in wearing down Virginia was Mazzone going to the faster-paced offense in the third quarter, which made Virginia’s D begin to drag.

UCLA’s receivers had a good performance on the day – except for one very high-profile drop. Guys like Thomas Duarte, Jordan Payton, Eldridge Massington and Iese were just too big and talented for Virginia’s secondary. Duarte, again, showed some amazing pass-catching talent. It was one of the most satisfying elements of the game that UCLA utilized the previously very-under-utilized Iese. If we had to nitpick, we still don’t understand the love affair with Devin Fuller, especially over the more talented Mossi Johnson. After a spring and summer when Johnson earned the starting slot position, Fuller started this game and was the featured receiver. He was solid, but we think UCLA is leaving some game-breaking type talent on the sideline when it opts for Fuller over Johnson. The most unfortunate aspect of the game was Kenny Walker's drop of Rosen’s first college pass, a perfectly thrown deep ball that he laid in Walker’s hands. Everyone in the press box was speculating that Walker might never see the field again, but it was great for UCLA’s offensive coaches, particularly receivers coach Eric Yarber, not to hesitate to use him again, and Walker responded with a nice catch on a seam route later in the game to set up a touchdown. UCLA needs Walker’s speed to stretch the field, so it’s important to keep him involved and engaged.

A few others players who flashed on both sides of the ball:

-- Outside linebacker Kenny Orjioke came in, made two great plays, and then came out. He played sparingly throughout the game, but really showed some considerable athleticism and range at that outside linebacker spot.

-- Safety Jaleel Wadood showed great instincts in stopping down some running plays.

-- Safety Adarius Pickett picked up where he left off in fall camp and picked off a pass.

-- Freshman running back Bolu Olorunfunmi looked like college ball isn’t too big for him, the same way he’s looked in fall practice. With Nate Starks out for an undisclosed reason (sitting in the stands in street clothes), and for an unspecified amount of time, Olorunfunmi gets our vote as the back-up to Perkins.

-- The entire offensive line. It just needed to be repeated.

And then there’s Rosen. Of course, you have to concede that the freshman quarterback had some great protection, so he had time to throw. But having said that, he was spectacular. He was accurate on the bread-and-butter throws. He made a couple of incredible throws – the touchdown to Duarte and the throw from his back foot on the wheel route to Perkins while under pressure. His feel for the pocket – being able to dip under some pressure from the edge, step into space and look downfield – was uncanny. The touch on some throws, being able to get some air underneath the ball, was the stuff of a veteran. In fact, you came away with the feeling that Rosen didn’t really even unleash his arm, that he never even put it into fifth gear. And then there’s the composure way beyond his years.

One thing we’ve thought of: What this did, in one day, for UCLA wide receiver recruiting. Westlake’s Theo Howard was tweeting about Rosen during the game. Yarber is probably fielding phone calls this morning.

We don’t want to overhype the kid. He’s going to experience some adversity. Utah in November. The Coliseum. Heck, in two weeks against a team of adults in BYU. He struggled some on the road in San Bernardino so we expect some bumps when he’s away from home this season. And even at home, there’s no way he can continue to perform and execute at the level he did against Virginia. Right now, you have to concede the possibility that this was the top-end of Rosen’s performance capability, and we just happened to get it on his first start, even though that’s unlikely.

Or, on the other hand, this is just scratching the surface.

It’s amazing to think that Rosen is stuck playing college football for three seasons. He has no go-pro-early option. Unless he sues the NCAA to change the rule. Perhaps he can get his law degree in three years at UCLA and conduct the suit himself.

While we’re afraid of hype and how it impacts, especially impressionable college-age players, let the hype begin. He’s J Chosen. It’s the Rosen Bowl. Etc., etc.

Rosen is the second quarterback in the last 10 years to throw for at least 350 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against a Power-5 opponent in his first career start. The other was Jameis Winston in 2013.

This is a story that’s just teed up for the national media.

But perhaps Rosen is worthy of it and UCLA has, in fact, found the considerably missing piece to the puzzle for the season. And for the program.

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