Photo by Steve Cheng

Statistical Review: UCLA vs. BYU

Sept. 22 -- What did we learn about UCLA's offense and defense in the win over BYU?

Battle-tested BYU gave the Bruins their best shot, but Paul Perkins, Nate Starks, and the UCLA offensive line were too much for the Cougars in the end. We had some questions about the UCLA offensive line after the first two weeks of the season, but zero sacks and 7.8 yards per rush against what had been a very good front seven was a fantastic answer. This was a gritty game in which the Bruins probably outplayed the Cougars, but a few too many three and outs and red zone turnovers meant Jim Mora’s charges had to leave it late. Just as well—the Bruins are undefeated going into Pac-12 play. Let’s take a closer look at the stats:

As always, we use:

  • Yards Per Stop to measure efficiency
  • Yards Per Play to measure explosiveness
  • Points Per Drive to measure scoring
  • Points Per Trip Inside the 40 to measure drive finishing
  • Field Position Margin to measure field position
  • Turnover Margin to measure turnovers

Ranking Buckets

BYU Game Report Card

Offense

Throughout the Mazzone era at UCLA, the offense has been marked by great efficiency but only mediocre explosiveness. Against BYU, however, the script flipped. The Bruin offense was far less efficient than it had been, earning only Top 50 level Yards Per Stop. Three three-and-outs and a 2 play drive that ended in an interception really hurt that number, though for the season the UCLA offense is still at a Top 25 level. The two red zone interceptions were killers for the normally solid Bruin scoring efficiency, as for the second week in a row the Bruins were at the mediocre Top 100 ranking level.

Now the good news—the Bruins were pretty explosive, averaging 6.6 Yards Per Play with 5 plays going for over 20 yards. Against a BYU defense that doesn’t know the meaning of bend-don’t-break, the UCLA offense did what it has often failed to do against other aggressive defenses, punishing the Cougars with long plays and lightning strike drives. The longest UCLA drive of the day was just 2:13, with other scoring drives clocking in at 1:45, 1:55, and 1:20. None of the scoring drives was more than 7 plays long. It will be interesting to see if the new pattern of the quick strike Bruin offense holds throughout the year.

Defense

This column has stressed since its inception that the UCLA defenses of the Mora era have all tended towards bend-don’t-break principles, and that, while unquestionably annoying to watch, it is a solid concept. It is hard for college offenses to sustain long drives without making a drive-killing mistake or two, and most college quarterbacks simply aren’t good enough to sit in the pocket and pick a defense apart for 10 plays in a row. It took a while, but the Bruin defense succeeded in its approach. It continued its incredible Yards Per Play run, holding the Cougars nearly 2 yards beneath their season average (a season average that had come against Nebraska and Boise State). It’s maddening to watch at times, but the secondary did what it was designed to do, holding the Cougars to 5.2 Yards Per Pass Attempt (a very low number), while the front seven held the Cougars under 4 Yards Per Carry (though we frankly would have liked to see a more dominating performance against the not-great BYU run game). The defense also did a very good job of stiffening up when the Cougars approached scoring position, allowing only two touchdowns in 7 trips inside the 40 yard line.

Now the bad news—the Bruins allowed the Cougars to be a little more efficient than we would like even despite our general acceptance of the bend-don’t-break philosophy. The 40.5 Yards Per Stop allowed is in the Top 50 tier, but only just. For a defense that was pretty dominant for the first two games, this was not quite a vintage performance (against much better competition, but still). The Cougars managed 4 drives of over 11 plays, including a 16 play monster that ended in a field goal to put BYU up 6 late in the 4th quarter. That BYU only managed a touchdown and two field goals on those four long drives shows why bend-don’t-break can be effective, but it isn’t much of a surprise that 3 of the 5 Cougar scoring drives came in the last 4 BYU drives of the game. For the season, the Bruin defense is still in elite company going into its showdown with Arizona, against whom the UCLA defense had perhaps its finest performance of the Mora era last year.

General

Besides the fantastic running by Paul Perkins and Nate Starks, UCLA’s athleticism advantage shines through in the special teams coverage stats. The excellent Ka'imi Fairbairn boomed three of his five kickoffs for touchbacks, with the Bruins averaging 43.8 Net Yards Per Kickoff. Fairbairn’s BYU counterpart was unable to reach the end zone, and averaged over 5 fewer Net Yards Per Kickoff. That’s 25 hidden yards for the Bruins right there. UCLA’s advantage was even more dramatic in the punt game. Despite Matt Mengel averaging 2 and a half yards less per kick than the BYU punters, UCLA enjoyed a +11.8 Net Yards Per Punt advantage. All this added up to a very solid +3 Average Field Position Margin against a team that was trying to win by dominating that stat. The turnovers were killers of course, taking at least 6 points off the board and turning what should have been a somewhat close, hard-fought game into a 1 point nailbiter. Let’s not do that again, Josh.

For the fourth time in the Mora era, the Bruins went undefeated in the nonconference schedule. Up next is the always interesting Arizona game, and the ESPN College Gameday spotlight.

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