Photo by Steve Cheng

UCLA's defense earned high marks for the near-shutout of UNLV on Saturday...

Sept. 14 -- UCLA's defense earned high marks for the near-shutout of UNLV on Saturday...

Quarterback: B-

Saturday proved it: not every throw Josh Rosen ever makes will be perfectly placed. After putting together a sterling performance against Virginia where maybe only three throws were a little off, Rosen was significantly less accurate Saturday against UNLV. Most of his deep throws were long, and even some of the passes of the swing and screen variety were thrown a little high or off just a tad. He had one particularly rough end to a series on the 4th series of the game, where he threw three consecutive incompletions: a long throw to Jordan Payton over the top of the defense, a contested throw to Thomas Duarte over the middle, and then an overthrown swing to Darren Andrews on the sideline. Watching live, the whole performance seemed like a freshman-type game for Rosen that helped to stall the offense.

Watching the game a second time over actually gave a significantly different impression. Yes, Rosen was off a little on his deep throws, but for much of the game, it seemed to be more a case that UCLA’s receivers struggled to get any separation. Last week, when Rosen rolled out or just moved around to buy time, a receiver would get open and he’d have an outlet. That really didn’t happen much on Saturday. Despite that, Rosen made very, very few mistakes. He showed good patience and rarely placed a ball in a location that could be picked off. He takes only a very small portion of the blame for his interception, since a missed block led to the pick. He also made a number of excellent throws again, including a few lasers on crossing patterns over the middle, and a great play-action throw to Payton for the touchdown.

Quarterbacks are going to have off games throwing deep. We don’t grade him too harshly for that. The thing we’d say is that Rosen will have to keep from getting greedy in the passing game. Many of those deep shots appeared to be run-pass options where Rosen could have either handed the ball off or kept it, and he chose to keep it. It led to 15 pass attempts in the first quarter. It’s understandable, since he had so much success passing the ball against Virginia, but UCLA doesn’t need to score a touchdown or get a 20-yard completion every time he throws the ball. Working within the strength of the offense – the short and intermediate throws – will lead to more production and better situations to throw deep throughout the game. Also, if UCLA is going to insist on so much read-option, Rosen will have to keep the ball more than once per game. He had a few opportunities for long gains on runs if he had kept, but instead he handed off.

Running Backs: A-

This was a uniformly excellent game for the running backs, with the only blemish being Nate Starks’ missed block that led to Rosen’s interception. Paul Perkins was phenomenal, looking much better on second viewing than he even looked live. He averaged 8.75 yards per touch and just looked so nimble on some of his runs. He almost looked like a dancer with choreographed steps on some of those runs, picking his way through masses of defensive linemen for positive yards. His 56-yard touchdown will get a lot of attention, but he had four or five better runs throughout the night where he picked up tough yards, or made great decisions to bounce runs outside.

Starks, in his first action of the season, looked about how we expected him to look this season. He has a little more burst than he had last season, but still is playing with good power, and he too looked really good running the ball, with one of his better runs negated by a penalty. He did whiff on the block, though, and that’s something he’ll absolutely need to work on.

On the freshman running backs, we’d really like to see Bolu Olorunfunmi get more carries earlier in the game. He runs with power that, actually, neither of the older guys run with, and he very rarely goes down at first contact. He might make the most sense as UCLA’s non-Myles goal-line back. He looked great in this game, even making a really tough catch out of the backfield. Sotonye Jamabo looked tentative again, and didn’t have any moments where he really flashed. He probably doesn’t make as much sense as a goal-line and short-yardage back at this point, since he just doesn’t run with a ton of power at this point of his career.

We simply forgot to mention him last week, which was absurd since we’ve been whipping the horses on his bandwagon for years, but Nate Iese has shown over the last two games exactly why we’ve been so confused about his lack of usage over the previous two years. Against Virginia, he was a great outlet for Rosen out of the backfield, but against UNLV, he showed why he’s a potentially dangerous featured weapon in this offense. He is just such a powerful athlete that it’s almost impossible to bring him down when he is at full speed in space. He flat-out trucked two different UNLV defenders Saturday night. UCLA is using him in a few different ways and he’s responding with great production.

Wide Receivers: C

Like we said above, this wasn’t a great showing for the receivers. Obviously, Mossi Johnson had a tough time of it, dropping a couple of passes, one on the second drive that led to a field goal and one on a strike from Rosen that would have gone for a touchdown after Rosen scrambled for a really long time. He has now had three drops through two games and doesn’t look quite like the confident, dynamic player we saw through spring and fall.

It wasn’t as noticeable last week since Rosen was doing such a great job of threading the ball into tight windows, but this receiving group still lacks a little bit of top-end speed. It showed in this game, since very rarely did any UCLA receivers get much separation from the UNLV defenders. Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller, and Eldridge Massington all were fairly well covered every time Rosen targeted them, and we didn’t see any obvious moments where they were wide open and Rosen missed them. Jordan Payton was better, which explains why he had the one pretty good stat-line with five catches for 70 yards a touchdown.

WR Stephen Johnson, Photo by Steve Cheng

It was good to see Stephen Johnson out there, and hopefully he’ll start to work in more to the offense going forward. At this point, it’s hard to count on Kenny Walker to be a true deep threat. He inexplicably slowed up on a Rosen try late in the game that seemed perfectly placed for either a pass interference or a catch. It seemed like he was almost trying to avoid contact with the defender. In any case, perhaps Johnson can start to take some of those deep routes.

Offensive Line: B

For the positive, UCLA was once again extremely clean in pass protection. Whenever UNLV got pressure, it was because they brought more than UCLA’s offensive line could block. As we said, Starks’ missed block is what led to the interception, not anything the offensive line did. Rosen had a ton of time to throw, so the lack of productive passing isn’t really on the offensive line much at all.

Run blocking was good, but not perfect. Like Tracy said in the post-game recap, UCLA had a very solid rushing attack against UNLV, but in that kind of game against that kind of team, you’d like to see more dominance, where UCLA’s big, athletic offensive linemen are all blowing the UNLV linemen three or four yards off the ball every snap. It didn’t happen like that, and with a lesser group of backs, the running game might have looked pretty average on Saturday.

Our consistent criticism through two games has been UCLA’s inconsistency blocking in space. In this offense, the linemen are often tasked with getting into space to block on screens, swings, and various outside runs, and so far, UCLA hasn’t looked good there. We saw every lineman besides Jake Brendel and Kenny Lacy miss blocks in space, and fail to even put a body on a defender. There was one outside run by Perkins where he had Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch both in front of him, and both of those guys whiffed on their blocks, not even slowing the defenders. Since Perkins is so nimble, he still managed a first down, but a couple of good blocks might have led to it being a score.

In a game like this, you want to see more than just Perkins’ one big run. There should be multiple times where the offensive line blocks so well that UCLA scores a long touchdown or gets a 40+ yard gain. Rosen didn’t connect on his deep throws to receivers, and UCLA’s offensive line didn’t block well enough to generate those huge holes necessary for long touchdown runs. That combination of factors made this game into a weird slog of a blowout.

Offensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Plan: B-

The offense was more than a little out of sync in this game. At times, they just looked a little disorganized. One really weird sequence was the quarterback sneak in the first half where UCLA rushed to the line to sneak it on 4th and 2+. We absolutely agree with the decision to go for first down there, but it seemed that UCLA thought the first-down marker was a little closer to the line of scrimmage than it was. Jim Mora pointed to himself as if to say “my fault” after the play. It was one of a few times where it looked like UCLA was almost working on things for future games.

On the previous play, Soso Jamabo was given the ball on a 3rd and 1 and was stopped well short of the first-down marker. Whatever you think of Jamabo at this point, he’s not a good short-yardage back right now. Perhaps UCLA just wants to give him reps in those situations so he’ll improve, but the main thing is he just isn’t strong enough in his lower body right now to drive through those situations. Olorunfunmi might be the better bet to get reps in those situations since he projects to be able to convert goal-line situations at a high level.

It’s hard to take much from this game. It seemed pretty clear that UCLA spent parts of the second quarter and much of the second half simply trying to work on things for the future, without a whole lot of regard for time or score. Also, there were a lot of funky plays that stalled good drives. Jake Brendel had a bad high snap on a third down, there was a bad uncalled pass interference on another third down, and then there was the weird jamabo – quick sneak sequence that led to turnover on downs. UCLA just had a lot of things go wrong that prevented this from being a much bigger blowout.

Defensive Line: A-

This was a mostly dominant performance from the defensive line in the wake of Eddie Vanderdoes’ injury. Eli Ankou had a really good game in his place, looking good against the run and then also driving into the backfield for tackles. He has made a ton of progress over the last two years, and especially this offseason.

Takkarist McKinley had a really good game, impacting in every phase. His rush led to the pick-six for Kenny Young, he blocked a punt, and he was really good against the run as well. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner had a similar type of game, tipping a pass, pursuing well to the sideline, and defending well against the run. He is a really, really good athlete.

Matt Dickerson showed why we said last week that he could be UCLA’s best interior pass rusher. He had what should have been ruled a sack in the first half where he knifed into the backfield with really good use of his hands and explosive first step and then pivoted to make the tackle as the quarterback tried to run past him. He gives UCLA a little more pass rush from the three-tech than they were getting out of Vanderdoes, though there is a legitimate drop off against the run.

Fred Ulu-Perry, for what was his first game as a college player in an unfamiliar position, looked pretty good. He had a couple of series where it looked like UNLV tried to exploit him, and at times the Rebels were able to. But he also had a couple of series where he looked really stout and tough to move on the interior. If UCLA decided to keep him at nose tackle long term, he would probably be a very good one.

Linebackers: B+

UCLA did some different things with its linebackers in this game. Aaron Wallace was de-emphasized quite a bit, and UCLA actually went to something approximating a 4-3 for most of the game, with Myles Jack playing a weak-side role, Kenny Young playing middle linebacker, and then Jayon Brown or Cameron Judge playing the other side. It actually worked pretty well, and got a ton of speed on the field.

Brown looked really good pursuing to the edge. He made a number of really good plays to string runs out further, and avoided blocks pretty well for the most part. He got a little over-eager on the first long run for UNLV in the second half, trying to push up to make a play and instead opened up a lane for the running back when he got blocked by an offensive lineman. Brown should trust his agility and eyes and play continue to play with patience. He did that for the most part, and had a really good game.

Kenny Young looked better than he did last week. He still had a couple of plays where he looked a little out of position, like on the run for Sam Decker where Decker suffered a leg injury. Young went up and inside a little too far and lost the backside containment on Decker. Other than that, Young looked pretty good, and got the defense into the right position on most every play. He also, of course, had the excellent pick-six, which was a great play and showed great awareness.

Jack also had some nice moments in this game, looking good in coverage and then against runs on the outside. He once again had a personal foul, which brings his count to three in two games. He is such a big part of why UCLA’s edge pursuit is so good, and you could see UNLV clearly trying to run away from his side, since he pursues so well.

Deon Hollins, who we might have to start including as a defensive lineman again, was great defending against the zone read. You can see how much progress he’s made in that particular area since his first year, when he was actively exploited by teams on the edge. He made some great plays, not least of which was the fumble he forced late in the game. He also had an excellent read on the fake field goal to break up the play and force the turnover on downs.

We also liked a lot of what we saw out of Isaako Savaiinaea, Judge, and Kenny Orjioke, all of whom played in stretches throughout the game. Savaiinaea actually led the team in tackles and looked pretty stout up the middle.

Secondary: B

UCLA’s secondary went pretty much untested in the passing game, since Decker went down so early. Before he got hurt, though, it looked like he might be able to find some success. He hit one deep ball over Marcus Rios down one sideline, and then also picked on Rios on a slant when Rios was in man coverage. Rios did not have his best game, as UNLV lined up its best receiver against him for much of the game.

Fabian Moreau had a couple of nice moments, including a solid stop in run support. He played well in coverage on a couple of reps, but probably could have been called for pass interference on the play where he rode the UNLV receiver out of bounds.

Denzel Fisher was probably the biggest bright spot for us in this game. He came on in the third quarter and looked really good both closing on receivers and in coverage. He had a great tackle on a swing pass, and then also had a pass break-up. He had a really nice fall camp, and it’s good to see it translate to games.

Defensive Scheme, Coaching, and Game Plan: A-

UCLA came within a Jerry Neuheisel interception of having a shutout, so there can’t be all that much to complain about. UCLA mostly was able to get pressure with four throughout the game, and in a bit of a concern, the one time we saw the Bruins noticeably blitz, Decker completed an easy slant since none of the UCLA defenders got pressure on him.

We liked the use of the nearly 4-3 look, and we liked the adjustment of using Judge to start the game and reducing Wallace’s reps. As with the offense, it did appear that UCLA was using this game as a testing ground for future opponents, so it’s hard to take all that much from this. UCLA has now allowed nine points in non-junk time through two games, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Special Teams: A

Ka'imi Fairbairn connected on all of his field goals and also was great on kick-offs. Matt Mengel punted pretty well, averaging 43.2 yards on four punts, including two downed inside the 20.

The return game was OK as well. Randall Goforth looked like he was interfered with on the one near-muff, and we have no idea what the refs were doing. Devin Fuller had a couple of good returns, including a nice punt return and a nice kick return. Even Myles Jack had a kickoff return, going 30 yards. If he gets consistent opportunities, we wouldn’t be shocked if he returned one for a touchdown this year.

Kick coverage was great as always, and, for the 14th time since 2012, UCLA blocked a kick. Overall, it was an excellent performance for the special teams.

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