Down 20-10 to BYU with 13 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, you’d be forgiven if you thought UCLA was most likely going to lose.
After all, we’ve seen this story before, over and over for many years.
Big, physical team comes to the Rose Bowl. UCLA makes some early mistakes and looks immature and overmatched. The Bruins find themselves down by a couple of scores late, and then they mount a comeback, but it falls short. Heck, pretty much that exact scenario happened last year when Utah came to the Rose Bowl.
But if you needed any further evidence that this is a different, more mature UCLA team than those that came before, you need look no further than the Bruins 24-23 gut-check win over BYU on Saturday night.
A big, physical BYU team came to the Rose Bowl. UCLA true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen made some crippling early mistakes, with three interceptions, including two in the red zone. The Bruins found themselves down by 10 points in the 4th quarter. And yet, instead of falling just short, the Bruins calmly drove for two touchdowns over a ten-minute stretch, taking the lead over the Cougars. And then, when BYU was given an uncomfortable amount of time for a game-winning drive, the defense, which was porous for much of the second half, suddenly got stout, with Myles Jack making the game-saving interception just after BYU crossed over to UCLA’s side of the field.
If you’re ever looking for a game UCLA would not have won under a previous regime, this would probably be one of the first examples. This was a performance from a team that has finally come of age.
So much of that fourth quarter surge was built on the backs of an offensive line that is finally maturing after two years of growing pains. Despite BYU having a pretty strong defensive line and front seven, the offensive line was largely able to generate a big push and open wide holes for Paul Perkins and Nate Starks to run through. It was clear that the mandate at half-time was for UCLA to focus on running the ball more over the course of the second half, and despite BYU starting to realize that toward the end of the game, UCLA was still able to pick up chunks of yardage on every run.
But, to be clear, that was pretty much the case all game. UCLA’s running game, aside for two odd series when Sotonye Jamabo came in as the running back in the second quarter, was basically able to get whatever it wanted whenever it wanted, which is a huge credit to the offensive line and UCLA’s tandem of Paul Perkins and Nate Starks. UCLA had seven carries for 117 yards in the first quarter, and if you take out Jamabo’s runs, UCLA had six carries for 29 yards in the second quarter, which is plenty good enough. Aside from one of Jamabo’s carries, UCLA didn’t have a single negative rushing play until the Bruins were taking knees at the end of the game.
It’s just one game, but perhaps UCLA’s offensive identity is something to consider at this point. Josh Rosen is a special talent, notwithstanding his issues on Saturday night, but UCLA’s offensive line and running back group is a talented combination that was able to dominate what was a pretty good run defense throughout most of Saturday’s game. There’s something to build on if UCLA wants to move toward more of a run-oriented attack.
As for Rosen, this was pretty clearly one of those true freshman-type performances that we all likely should have expected. Two of his three interceptions were really bad decisions where he probably should have either run, taken a sack, or thrown the ball out of bounds, but instead tried to make a play over the middle. While we like the aggression, he still needs to learn what defensive players are capable of at this level. The third interception wasn’t a great throw, but Jordan Payton probably could have done a better job of boxing out the defender. He also had another near-pick on a deep route that he pretty clearly thought was a free play.
BYU threw a lot of different things at him. There were a couple of sneaky blitzes, where a middle linebacker would come all the way around the tackle to rush Rosen from behind. There were some really strange fronts, with pretty much everyone standing up, that were difficult to diagnose. UCLA’s offensive line once again did a pretty good job of determining blocking assignments to keep Rosen relatively clean in the pocket despite the diverse pressure BYU threw at him, but Rosen himself seemed to struggle to make quick decisions with so many different things happening up front. It’s a credit to Rosen that after struggling through a really rough first half, he was capable of leading a touchdown drive capped with a beautiful toss to Payton for the score. And the hope for UCLA is that this will be the first and last “true freshman” game of Rosen’s career.
Perhaps much of the decision-making is on Rosen, in terms of where to deliver the ball on every play, but we would have liked to see more of an emphasis on the lateral and short passing game. BYU, for all its size and strength up front, was a relatively slow defense, and quick-hitting plays to the sideline could have exploited the Cougars’ overall lack of team speed. We really didn’t see much attacking the edges of the defense aside from one wide receiver screen to Mossi Johnson and one jet sweep to Kenny Walker.
Defensively, UCLA had to deal with some adversity right from the jump. Kenny Young, the starting middle linebacker, was ejected on the first drive of the game for what was probably the most innocuous targeting penalty of all time. By the letter of the law, it was the correct call, but there was very little contact between any part of Young’s body and the BYU quarterback’s head. In any case, he probably shouldn’t dive at sliding quarterbacks in the first place, so there’s that.
Isaako Savaiinaea, coming in to replace Young, had a truly great performance. He was in position on basically every play, was in on two sacks, and looked very stout against the run. After playing defensive end, fullback, and linebacker last year, for Savaiinaea to be that ready to play in this game was impressive. UCLA gave up just 10 points in the first half, despite Rosen’s three turnovers, and much of the credit should go to the steadying presence of Savaiinaea. He looked good against UNLV as well, and it’ll be interesting to see if there’s some sort of competition brewing at that spot.
Then, in the first half, cornerback Fabian Moreau went down with an apparent foot injury. This forced some shuffling in the defensive backfield that caused some issues late for the Bruins. Denzel Fisher came in to replace Moreau and had some ups and downs. Early on, he actually had a couple of nice coverages, but as the game wore on, BYU started to attack him on the edge. After Moreau’s injuries, UCLA’s defensive backs started to give up a pretty big cushion to the BYU receivers, and it became far too easy for BYU to march down the field. Over the last quarter and a half, basically whichever defensive back was giving up the largest cushion would get attacked in the passing game, and oftentimes, that was Fisher. We get the reasoning behind giving a little bit of a cushion to BYU, considering how good the Cougars have been on deep pass plays, but UCLA’s corners were probably giving too much, and they weren’t reacting quickly enough to plays developing in front of them. If Moreau is out for an extended period of time, UCLA’s secondary is definitely a concern.
That was the one big complaint defensively, though. Aside from that, we loved what we saw from the first half, when UCLA mixed different types of pressure to rattle Tanner Mangum and racked up what felt like significantly more than 4 sacks. Takkarist McKinley gave Mangum a bone-rattling hit on a non-sack in that sequence, so maybe that’s why it felt that way. Even a four-man rush seemed to do an effective enough job against BYU. Later on in the game, UCLA played more coverage as the secondary started to collapse, but we feel pretty comfortable saying at this point that Tom Bradley has been a significant upgrade over Jeff Ulbrich.
Obviously, some issues presented themselves in this game — DB play being the most significant that we can think of — but, overall, it was a really good win at home over a BYU team that is probably going to finish the season ranked. We wrote in one of our seventy season previews that Rosen was probably going to have a freshman-type game at some point that UCLA could lose. This was that game, and UCLA was talented enough, deep enough, and, perhaps most importantly, experienced enough to withstand that freshman game to come up with a dramatic win.
UCLA’s young talent has finally grown up.