Here’s the thing about Josh Rosen's performance on Saturday: it was about as close to perfect as you can get as a quarterback. He completed 80% of his passes, and it wasn’t like he was dinking and dunking down the field — at least half of those throws came with some degree of difficulty. He averaged over 10 yards per pass attempt, which, on 35 pass attempts, is pretty much insane for a true freshman in his first game. And here’s the truly insane part: three of his seven incompletions legitimately could have been completed. His throw to Paul Perkins down the left sideline, his throw to Thomas Duarte out the side of the end zone, and, of course, his deep bomb to Kenny Walker on the first throw. Each of those throws hit the receiver in the hands. That’s just freaky.
He made some truly incredible throws as well. The 30-yard touchdown to Thomas Duarte showed an uncanny combination of touch, timing, and, really, confidence. His wheel route to Paul Perkins and his outlet to Nate Iese both showed incredible recognition, as he threw off his back foot because he saw them flash open and knew he would miss his window if he didn’t throw right then. He also threw some balls with pure arm strength, like his first touchdown to Devin Fuller and his 37-yard laser to Walker late in the game. It was a complete showing from the freshman quarterback.
Now, before everyone gives Rosen three Heisman trophies, let’s pump the brakes for a second. We weren’t kidding when we said that performance was about as close to perfect as you can get as a quarterback. That kind of showing is just not going to happen every game. There are going to be days where defenses throw some weird things at him and he actually makes a few poor decisions. There were two or three times on Saturday where he locked onto his receiver, and against an elite secondary, that might lead to an interception. Just prepare yourself for the idea that Rosen might actually not throw 45 touchdowns and no interceptions this season.
But even tamping down the hype, this game answered the big offseason question for UCLA: can Josh Rosen perform at an above-average level for the Bruins this season? And the answer was a resounding “LOL”.
Running Backs: B
Virginia’s game plan early was clearly to stop Perkins at all costs, which admittedly helped Rosen get going in the passing game. The Cavaliers stacked the box and the safeties were playing fairly close to the line of scrimmage. As such, Perkins really didn’t hit any big run until the middle portion of the game, when the defense started to back off because Rosen was slicing them apart. He hit a few really tough runs, especially in the third quarter, and really had only one poor run, where he tried to bounce a run during the second series outside when he probably should have gone forward. Otherwise, he was effective catching the ball and running the ball.
Sotonye Jamabo had negligible gains on his first four or five carries, but then broke open for a couple of nice gains in the fourth quarter when Jerry Neuheisel came in at quarterback. He had some nice holes to work with, but, especially on the first run, he did a nice job of getting narrow between defenders and then keeping upright through some attempted tackles. We’d like to see him run with decisiveness a little more consistently, as he looked pretty tentative through the early part of the day. Even with this performance by Rosen, teams are still going to try to take away the run against UCLA, and that means stacked boxes. Right now, Jamabo is getting second-string carries with Nate Starks out, and getting a little more consistent production out of him would be great going forward. The fourth quarter was really encouraging, and hopefully he builds on it.
Bolu Olorunfunmi showed us literally the best and worst aspects of his game on Saturday. Best: he ran really tough, and showed surprising quickness and speed on his first two carries, rushing for 26 yards on those two runs. Worst: he badly bobbled a swing pass from Neuheisel in the 4th quarter, and if there had been a defender really close by, he could have bobbled the ball directly into the defender’s arms, since he kept batting it up. He’s going to have to continue to really work on his hands going forward. As a runner, there’s a lot to like here, though, and he runs with a little bit more of that consistent tenacity and decisiveness that Jamabo lacks at this stage.
Wide Receivers: B+
The receivers helped to make Rosen look very, very good, at least after that first drop. As a group, they generally did a nice job of getting open while Rosen did a good job of keeping the play alive in the pocket (as an aside, this was pretty seamless offensive football. The offensive line did a nice job protecting, but when guys would start to get free, Rosen did a nice job buying time in the pocket, and while he was doing that, receivers did a nice job finding open space). Thomas Duarte showed off his very soft hands on the touchdown pass from Rosen, and then turned the catch into basically a barrel roll to keep the ground from jarring the ball loose. Jordan Payton didn’t have his biggest receiving day, but he did a lot of little things well, including running effective routes and blocking, that helped to free up other players.
Devin Fuller got a ton of usage and looked the best he’s looked in a long while, catching the ball in the backfield, getting open over the middle, and looking quicker than we saw last season. It was interesting, though, that we didn’t see much of Mossi Johnson, after Johnson was the first-string slot through most of spring ball and all of fall camp. Fuller looked pretty good, though. UCLA really does have a lot of good receivers.
It was also really nice to see Walker back in the game after dropping the first bomb. He ran a nice route on his 37-yard reception and showed no problems catching the laser from Rosen. Hopefully he’s able to show more consistency in game, because his hands looked much better in fall camp than they’ve ever looked.
Offensive Line: A-
It’s hard to remember a time where UCLA’s quarterback got a cleaner pocket than Rosen received on Saturday. Yeah, there were the odd handful of times when a blitzing linebacker got somewhat free, but overall, this was a stunningly efficient performance from the offensive line in pass protection. Conor McDermott and Caleb Benenoch both looked very good at the tackle spots, and the interior was extremely effective as well. The one “sack” came on a play where the pass protection was actually perfect for Rosen’s deep drop, but then Rosen stepped up a little too far in the pocket and Benenoch was too deep to effectively block the end , who just had to move sideways to get to Rosen. Even then, it was actually nice to see Benenoch then not immediately go to a hold. Other than that, the pass protection was pretty much blemish-free.
Run-blocking was OK. Early on, there wasn’t a whole lot UCLA could do since they were wildly outnumbered at the line of scrimmage by Virginia. Later on in the game, when the numbers were a little more even, UCLA did a better job opening up holes. If we had one real critique from the game, we’d like to see a little bit better blocking in space from the offensive linemen as a whole. A few of the wide receiver screens and swings seemed to suffer from a lack of great blocking from the offensive linemen (whether a pulling guard or a tackle getting out wide). We should point out, though, that Kenny Lacy looked pretty athletic in space, and actually pretty much kept pace with Perkins on that screen pass during the second series. Hopefully he can provide a little bit of that athletic pulling guard that UCLA hasn’t had since Xavier Su'a-Filo left school.
Offensive Coaching, Scheme, and Game Plan: A
This was one of the most effective offensive performances in a long time for UCLA, with great balance shown between the run and the pass. The play-calling seemed to really be in-tune with the flow of the game, and there was very little delay between the offensive staff realizing that Virginia was stacking the box and them adjusting the game plan to accentuate Rosen more. To our eyes, it looked like they went in with the understandable plan of riding Perkins, but after he was stymied early, they didn’t just go back to him over and over again. It was really refreshing to see.
The screen pass during the second series that went to Perkins for the long gain seemed to really open up the offense. After that, Rosen seemed to get in a real rhythm, and the play-calling became fairly unpredictable. It didn’t seem that UCLA put any kind of limitations on Rosen or the passing game. In total, this was a very, very effective game for the offense, against a good defense, and bodes well for the future.
Defensive Line: A-
It’s almost sad to review the game now, given that Eddie Vanderdoes will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL. Both Vanderdoes and Kenneth Clark looked very good against the run, and they combined for 15 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Clark had a couple of plays where he just basically ran over two offensive linemen to collapse a running play before it began.
But now UCLA has to play without Vanderdoes. Matt Dickerson and Eli Ankou both looked good during Saturday’s game, with Ankou especially showing some nice ability to occupy blockers. Dickerson knifed into the backfield a couple of times, and if we had to guess at this early stage, we’d say he has the best potential to be an interior pass rusher of any of the interior linemen, which might make him an interesting play in Vanderdoes’s place.
Takkarist McKinley had a few nice moments on the edge getting into the backfield, and the edge rushers in general got a decent amount of pressure on Matt Johns as the game wore on. But getting an interior pass rush will be huge, especially with the issues that presented themselves behind the defensive line.
This was an up-and-down showing for UCLA’s linebackers, and the game did not answer the question of “who will replace Eric Kendricks?” particularly well. Pass coverage was spotty at times, and too often, if Johns got a clean pocket, there were wide open receivers over the middle, and many times it looked like linebackers were responsible for the coverage. Tackling also wasn’t great early, with Kenny Young missing a couple (he redeemed himself with a couple of nice ones late, so we’ll chalk that up to first game jitters).
Myles Jack’s penalties impacted the game in a negative way, and led indirectly to a couple of Virginia field goals. The first horse collar might have been a little ticky-tack, but we get how it was called. The second was obvious, and probably should have been a face mask instead, since that was the more blatant call. Jack didn’t have his best game, and we’re part of the crowd leaning toward the idea that maybe he’s a better fit outside -- more for how it would get Jayon Brown on the field more than anything.
On the bright side, we really liked most of what we saw out of Kenny Orjioke. The linebacker, who missed most of last season, looked very effective as an edge rusher and had a couple of nice sequences when UCLA did basically a hockey line change with its linebackers. He had one blown assignment on a Johns scramble, but it was kind of an odd formation where he was playing almost an inside linebacker position, so we’ll forgive him not really having a great feel for it. Compared to Aaron Wallace, who seemed to struggle in coverage on Saturday, we thought Orjioke had more positive moments.
Deon Hollins had an excellent sack and a few other pressures where he looked pretty good. He lost containment on Johns a couple of times, which allowed Johns to roll out and make a nice throw, but otherwise he played pretty well.
The secondary also had some issues, much like the linebackers, but most of it was centered around cornerback play. Fabian Moreau's pass interference was fairly inexplicable, since he had good coverage and there was very little reason to hold. Moreau also had a few of the same things happen to him as last year, where he let the receiver get just open enough at the last moment to make the catch, despite having good coverage to that point. He just hasn’t quite developed the ability to react well to the ball in the air.
Adarius Pickett was a bright spot. He had the interception, obviously, but he was also effective in run support and in coverage. He has made incredible strides since the beginning of fall camp, when it looked like he was on track to be about the fifth safety. Something clicked that second week of fall camp, and since then he’s been playing really, really well.
Tahaan Goodman and Jaleel Wadood both had some nice moments, with Wadood again playing way above his weight. Randall Goforth, prior to the neck injury (Jim Mora expects him back in practice tomorrow), was having a just OK game, and looked a little rusty after not playing in a game for basically a year.
Defensive Coaching, Scheme, and Game Plan: B
It wasn’t flashy, but it was an effective game plan that kept Virginia to nine points in non-junk time, so there isn’t all that much to complain about. We would have loved to have seen a little more pressure early, but we saw enough in the second and third quarters that it’s obvious there is plenty of pressure built into the scheme. UCLA just clearly wanted to see how the Bruins would look with a base pass rush, and honestly, it wasn’t horrible. Having McKinley and Hollins on the edges gives UCLA a decent edge rush on most plays. The issue that presented itself was very little interior rush, and toward the middle portions of the game, Bradley started to compensate for that with a little more designed pressure from the linebackers and safeties.
It’s hard to take too much from a game against an offense that really wasn’t very good. If we were trying to extrapolate, there were a few series where Virginia lined up in almost Stanford-esque sets, with extra offensive linemen, and UCLA did a nice job of dealing with it even in their base defense. But Virginia is not as talented or as practiced as Stanford, so we’re not sure how much of a significant data point that is.
Special Teams: B-
As we thought, the kicking game is hit or miss. Matt Mengel hit one really good punt and shanked another, which was about what we saw during fall camp. Ka'imi Fairbairn nailed one short kick and missed from 50, which was, again, about what we saw during fall camp. He was very effective on kickoffs, though, and that’s probably his strength.
UCLA’s kickoff and punt coverage were both excellent, as usual. If we were looking for a hallmark of the Mora era so far, uniformly excellent kick coverage teams would probably be it. Special teams is the aspect of the game that lends itself the best to the detail-oriented, so that probably makes sense.
Randall Goforth did a nice job on his punt returns. We are not sure about Devin Fuller getting a ton of reps as a kick returner, though. He has never struck us as an exceptionally explosive athlete, and from what we saw during fall camp, we’d like to see more of Mossi Johnson or even Stephen Johnson in that spot, if Ishmael Adams isn’t available.