Perhaps expectations for this team are a bit high.
Because UCLA’s win over UNLV, 37-3, wasn’t a thoroughly satisfying one.
You expected the Bruins to completely crush the Running Rebels, in just about every phase. But while UCLA was dominant in many ways, there were a few aspects to the game where it just wasn’t.
As coach Jim Mora said after the game, freshman quarterback Josh Rosen was just a little off throughout the game. As we said last week after his spectacular debut at home in the Rose Bowl against Virginia, Rosen wasn’t good on the road in a hot climate for fall camp in San Bernardino, and it seemed like the same effect against UNLV in Las Vegas. A number of throws were just a little off the mark or a bit late, and that was enough to stall the offense consistently, especially for most of the first half when the Bruins held a 10-0 lead until it streched it to 17-0 right before half with Kenny Young's pick-six (which, even though it looked easy, was a great play showing some considerable instinct).
But the offensive woes weren’t entirely Rosen’s. The running game couldn’t really get untracked until mostly the second half. It looked to be a combination of a number of things – UNLV stuffing UCLA’s inside zone runs with more Rebels than Bruins; the UCLA offensive line not doing a great job of run blocking; Paul Perkins seemingly off in finding holes, and UCLA really emphasizing the pass. It loosened up in the second half, like UCLA’s rushing attack usually does, after it’s worn down its opponent. More off-tackle runs were utilized, which enabled Perkins to get in a much better rhythm in hole-finding. UCLA gained 273 rushing yards, and that sounds like a dominating performance on the ground, but it really wasn’t. It was perhaps the least dominating 273-yard rushing attack you could watch. UCLA’s running game has definitely established a pattern of starting off sluggishly and then, after wearing down an opponent, finding running room in the second half. Of course, that’s great; you’d rather have that than a running attack that never loosened up its opponent. But not being able to immediately run the ball well in games has been, perhaps, one of the most limiting element of UCLA’s offense in recent years. It’s a bit excusable when you’re playing a decent Power-5 opponent, like Virginia, and they’re trying to stack the box against your green quarterback, but UCLA should just flat-out steamroll a team that is probably one of the worst in college football in UNLV – and steamroll them on the ground from the first snap. It should look like the UCLA rushing attack is moving downhill, that if a ball carrier just fell down it would be for 7 yards.
We have to point a bit at the playcalling in this one. It was a bit head-scratching, particularly in the first half. Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone tends to go in spurts one way or another – run, run, run, or short throw, short throw, short throw, etc., lacking a balanced approach to playcalling in specific series. It looks like UCLA’s offense is balanced when there’s 273 yards on the ground and 253 yards passing, but it happens in trends, not through series balance. UCLA threw the ball 15 times in the first quarter. There’s also a trend that the playcalling is excellent in the first series of the second half, and that happened Saturday, too. Perhaps because Mazzone has a chance to assess and regroup at halftime, but it’s a shame the entire game can’t be called the way it is many times in that first second-half series. Against UNLV, on that series there was a very effective blend of run and pass, with the pass featuring a variety of throws to receivers and running backs. And it seemed like it was the first series that UCLA had some tempo, too, that it got off the snap quicker -- and that also tends to happen in the first series of the third quarter often. It put Rosen in a rhythm, like it did many times with Brett Hundley, too. That first third-quarter series was, really, besides the game-opening series, the only one where UCLA's offense was really clicking on all cylinders.
There was a consistent attempt to throw long, with at least 10 balls thrown deep on streak patterns, utilizing a number of receivers, none of which clearly got a step on their defender. There was, for the most part, a lack of an intermediate passing game – mostly just the short type of throws we know from this offense or over the top. It looked like there were some soft intermediate spots in UNLV’s zone, and UCLA’s pass protection was giving Rosen plenty of time in the pocket, but they weren’t exploited. The slant was emphasized early, to great effect (to Jordan Payton twice in the game’s first series, one for the touchdown), but it didn’t get called much throughout. Payton, too, seemed like the guy to really ride in this game, refusing to go down on first and sometimes second contact, while many of the other receivers – Eldridge Massington, Mossi Johnson and Devin Fuller– weren’t seemingly on their game. UCLA’s offense likes to spread the love to its receivers, but two guys – Payton and Nate Iese – looked like they completely out-leagued UNLV’s defenders -- so why not keep going to the Payton/Iese well until it dries up? We are obligated to point out how Iese trucked a couple of UNLV defenders, and how it's bitersweet since it makes you wonder why UCLA hasn't had Iese doing this for some time.
Many of UCLA’s offensive issues were crystalized in UCLA’s first possession of the second quarter. Having thrown 15 times in the first quarter, it’s as if they realized they’d better go back to the run, and ran the ball five times in row. Then a couple of passes created a third and short, and UCLA inexplicably put in Sotonye Jamabo for it. No matter what the fans on the BRO Premium Message Board might want to believe, Jamabo is not the man for a short-yardage job, and he proved it by running passively and falling short of the first down. With a long fourth-and-two, UCLA rushed a quarterback sneak, as if trying to catch UNLV off-guard. Well, that rushed QB sneak works when the defense is, indeed, caught off-guard and when it's inches away from a first down, not a long two yards, and neither was the case here.
So, really, it clearly wasn’t just Rosen who was a bit off Saturday.
And again, UCLA should be good enough that, even if it’s a bit off in its offense, it just physically steamrolls through a defense like UNLV’s. It should be able to fall down and get 7 yards.
Besides the usual suspects – Perkins, Payton, and Thomas Duarte – having good games, the one offensive revelation was freshman running back Bolu Olorunfunmi. The BRO message board denizens questioned last week when we asserted that Bolu should be getting carries ahead of Jamabo, but he proved out our assertion in this game. He slashed for 66 yards on 9 carries, and showed explosiveness and considerable vision in doing it. He looks like UCLA's starting tailback of the future, so get used to many announcers completely butchering his name.
Bolu Olorunfunmi (Steve Cheng, BRO)
Defensively the Bruins were much better, obviously, almost pitching a shutout. But we hate to do this, to you, Bruin fans: perhaps the glowing takeaways from a near-shutout should be a bit tempered. Keep in mind UNLV has a putrid offense, and then it lost its starting quarterback and replaced him with, strangely, a guy who can’t throw. If there was a game it should be expected that UCLA shut out its opponent it’s this one. So, yeah, the UCLA defense, for the most part, lived up to expectation, but had a few cracks in it, too. Those cracks were, in fact, literal cracks in its running game, that allowed UNLV to gash the Bruins for a couple of big gainers on the ground (one for 41 yards and another for 30) that really were the two big blemishes on the defensive performance. You could say that, if you’re expecting UCLA not to yield a couple of big plays anytime throughout this game that expectations are too high – but again, remember: A horrible offense with a quarterback who can’t throw. When UNLV rattled off those two big runs, it wasn’t UCLA’s first-string on the field – but again, UCLA’s second string should smother UNLV’s offense.
Freshman offensive lineman Fred Ulu-Perry made the much-talked-about jump from offense to the defensive side of the ball, and his performance was exactly what you’d expect. It flashed some considerable talent, but also showed his lack of experience, which opened up some running holes for UNLV. Overall, though, the defensive line’s performance on its first outing without Eddie Vanderdoes was a very good one. His replacement, Eli Ankou, not only physically looks very impressive next to Kenneth Clark, but played well. It was also another example of why UCLA could definitely use more Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Yes, it was against UNLV, but they were very disruptive, especially on passing downs. UCLA didn’t get a great deal of pressure on the UNLV quarterback – at least as much as you’d think it should, given the mismatch in talent – but again, like against Virginia, it utilized a four-man rush for most of the game. When it did throw another body at pressuring, UNLV picked it up pretty easily, too, which creates a bit of a concern. Again, shouldn’t a UCLA blitz just overwhelm UNLV like a tsunami?
It was interesting -- and what we speculated -- that Myles Jack played exclusively outside, and Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge alternated inside next to Young, displacing Aaron Wallace among the starters. As the game wore on, Brown seemed to settle in to get most of the reps. This resulted in what looked like UNLV blatantly deciding to operate its offense away from Jack, going to the side of the field he wasn’t throughout the game. It was pretty effective, too, in limiting Jack’s impact on the game. He actually was used quite often as essentially a nickel back, and he did it effectively because the ball wasn’t thrown his way very often, if at all.
Jack did impact the game, though, with another personal foul call.
While it was only in second-half mop-up time, we liked the play of linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea inside also – seemingly being in the right position consistently. It resulted in Savaiinaea sharing the lead in tackles (4) with Ankou and Young for the night.
The secondary had a pretty good day, even though Fabian Moreau needs to do something about keeping his helmet on. It was okay for Denzel Fisher; with Moreau having to sit for the next play after his helmet came off repeatedly, Fisher got the most playing time of his career. UCLA’s effectiveness in defending the pass was, for the most part, due a great deal to UNLV’s quarterbacks' inability to throw. It did seem like the refs were allowing some pass interference, too, on both sides of the ball.
Overall it was a game in which everything just didn’t quite click well. Mora said it was Rosen, but the entire experience was a bit off. Playing in 97-degree heat at 7:00 at night was strange, and Sam Boyd Stadium has more of a high-school game feeling to it than a college-game experience. So everything felt a bit off, and on one hand you’re grateful that UCLA can come away with a 37-3 win on a strange, off-kilter night, but UCLA lacking that steamrolling feeling on offense – that it should have just rolled over UNLV’s much-smaller and less-athletic defense on an off night and, really, didn’t – presents some concern.
It won’t take long to see how that concern translates against a real FBS team that consists of grown men the same size as UCLA when BYU comes to the Rose Bowl next Saturday.