Thomas Duarte (Steve Cheng, BRO)

UCLA Goes to the Desert for Healing

Sep. 27 -- After a tough week, UCLA goes to the desert for some healing, and gets the elixir it needed in beating up its punching bag, Arizona...

UCLA needs to schedule Arizona more. 

Because Jim Mora has Rich Rodriguez’s number. 

UCLA routed the Wildcats once again, this time 56-30 in Tucson. It was a great win for the Bruins, who went to the desert with some concerns, but Rodriguez’s Arizona team proved to be the elixir once again for this Bruin program.

Of course, we have to be the slight voice of reason here, as all BRO fans expect, and point out that Arizona was over-rated.  They hadn’t played anyone, beating UTSA, Nevada and Northern Arizona, and looked a bit sketchy in two of those wins. They were essentially without their best player, linebacker Scooby Wright.  So, there’s a question about really how good Arizona is, and whether they are even close to being worthy of the #16 ranking in the country.

And then Arizona handed over three turnovers in the first half that UCLA converted into 21 points.  So, there’s also that. 

But even so, after even putting Arizona in the proper perspective, it was still a very good, satisfying win for UCLA, and helped to salve some of the recent wounds UCLA had suffered, particularly the loss of its star linebacker, Myles Jack, which tended to put a bit of a pall over the program.   After the game it seemed like the first time Mora had legitimately smiled all week, and you could almost feel a sense of relief, of a decent amount of weight being lifted from the collective shoulder of the players and coaches.

How about just add Arizona to the non-conference schedule one game a year? Or maybe the Pac-12 would allow UCLA to play Arizona twice within the conference annually.

The Wildcats were exposed Saturday night.  Jason Sheer, the publisher of the Scout Arizona site, in the joint chat Thursday night, made some points about the team that resonated.  One big point: When UCLA loses starters to injury, it replaces those guys with some talented scholarship players, while Arizona, which had suffered some injuries of its own, replaces its injured with some walk-ons.   We’ve always advocated that college football, because of how injury can devastate a team in any given year, is so much about talented, playable depth, and while it might not have been the #1 element of the game against Arizona that jumps out at you, it was a significant factor.   

What did jump out at you is how good freshman quarterback Josh Rosen is.  He followed up the worst game of his career last week with his second-best, being very accurate in his throws, and savvy and measured in his decisions. It was almost as if he directly learned from his mistakes against BYU the week before.  It’s like you’re watching a sci-fi or super-hero movie about some guy who has the capacity to expand the use of his brain at a super-human rate.  The same situations last week against BYU where he threw a pick he didn’t against Arizona; in fact, he made a play, either with his arm or his feet.  There was clearly an awareness added to the repertoire to take what the defense would give him with his feet instead of forcing throws into thick coverage.  You do, though, cover your eyes every time he takes off for the first-down marker, as I’m sure Noel Mazzone, Taylor Mazzone and Mora do also.

Josh Rosen (Steve Cheng, BRO)

With Rosen on point, UCLA’s offense was a juggernaut.  It scored a touchdown on six of seven possessions in the first half.  It moved the chains in every way possible, on the ground, with grind-it-out runs but also with some bigger gains. It did it through the air, with a very effective short passing game but also with a few longer completions sprinkled in.  It did it with Rosen using the superhero brain to improvise and create plays.  It was really pretty to watch.  In the first half, UCLA gained 329 yards, and Rosen was 13 of 17 for 212 and two touchdowns, and the Bruins scored 42 points.  The only downside to that was there was 30 more minutes to ride out before UCLA could leave Tucson with a win.

The obvious offensive standouts were the offensive line, running back Paul Perkins and receiver Jordan Payton.  The offensive line provided some considerable holes for the running backs to run through, and while you want to give Perkins all the credit in the world and he does make the most of those holes, sometimes you think Westwood Bob could make big gains running behind UCLA’s offensive line.   They were also excellent in pass protection, allowing just one sack on the night (in the second half).  There were some plays when guard Alex Redmond or tackle Caleb Benenoch just literally pancaked their man to open a large swath.

No one runs through those holes like Perkins.  The first touchdown run was a thing of beauty, where he juked a would-be tackler coming in from the periphery without giving any indication that he even saw him.  Perkins very rarely goes down after initial contact and adds up yards because runs that should probably go for no gain end up being plus-three. 

It seems like the UCLA staff is shortening up its receiver rotation. In the last three years under this staff it’s used a deep rotation, and it hasn’t necessarily showcased receivers. Other programs have receivers who get a huge amount of receptions every game, and big receiving yards, while UCLA tended to always spread out the love.  That looks to have changed, and probably mostly because Payton is consistently the guy who can get open.  Against Arizona, he caught 7 balls for 136 yards, and all on a bum ankle.  A couple of his catches were bordering on spectacular, particularly the one down the sideline to keep the key second-half drive alive.  Thomas Duarte, of course, is the other featured receiver, and his one-handed touchdown catch was highlight-reel worthy.  The other guy emerging is Darren Andrews, who has shown a burst after the catch.  You also, though, have to give credit to the rest of the receiver group, and a guy like Eldridge Massington, who didn’t catch a ball but had some very nice downfield blocking, with one block that cleared an open path to the endzone for Perkins on his first touchdown run.

A couple other elements that made the first-half offense so good:  There was a key, significant play in every successful drive that demanded a few individuals make, and they did, and 2) it was a very well-called game by Noel Mazzone.   Rosen made some big third-down plays, particularly the improvised big-gainer to Payton, that kept drives alive, and Payton, Perkins and Andrews contributed to those drive-sustaining plays.  

Mazzone’s game plan and playcalling were excellent, mixing all kinds of passes with runs, and doing so with an element of surprise in terms of down and distance.  It helps when Arizona’s defense can’t get pressure on the quarterback, can’t stop the run, can’t cover and is generally not very good, but still, give credit to Mazzone for exploiting it all exactly right. 

While UCLA had six scoring drives in the first half, the key drive of the game was the one in the third quarter.  To begin the second half, UCLA’s offense was sputtering and the Wildcat defense was surging.  The Arizona coaching staff had clearly made an adjustment to pressure the line of scrimmage, to try to take away the UCLA running game and disrupt Rosen (curious as to why they didn’t do it as much to begin the game), and it was very effective in smothering UCLA’s first two possessions of the second half. Meanwhile, Arizona’s read-option offense was blowing through UCLA’s defense, scoring an easy touchdown in its first second-half possession. Halfway through the third quarter, momentum had clearly shifted and, despite being up three scores, there was a bit of concern; there was plenty of time left in the game and the way the second half was going three scores by Arizona could happen pretty quickly.  But UCLA’s offense then took ownership of the game, mounting an eight-play drive that featured some short passing to counter Arizona’s pressure and some misdirection in the running game.  The completion to Payton, in which he made that twisting catch while getting his feet in bounds down the sideline, was the key play in the drive, going for 39 yards and getting UCLA some breathing room for the first time in the half.  Rosen then did the honors himself, keeping the ball on a read option to run it in for the game-icing touchdown. It put UCLA up 49-23, and put the game essentially out of reach for Arizona with one quarter remaining.  The drive was, really, one of the best moments of this season so far, when so many elements – Mazzone’s playcalling, Rosen’s growing maturity, the Bruin offensive line, Perkins and Payton --  all came together to re-take the game. 

If you come away from this game with any concerns it would be about UCLA’s defense.  The stats are a bit ugly: Arizona ran for 353 yards, with two players gaining over 100 yards each.  There are plenty of qualifiers to point out, among them: 1) UCLA wasn’t prepared to play against Arizona’s running quarterback Jerrard Randall after Anu Solomon went down in the first half, and 2) UCLA’s D has suffered quite a few injuries, even during the game, and it was playing with some people in different positions, trying to find a combination that might work.  Even so, Randall sliced through UCLA’s defense almost at will, averaging 8 yards a carry.  If you were an upcoming opposing team, you’d definitely make a note that you have to use the read option against UCLA, because the Bruin defense really struggled against it and Randall.  It didn’t appear that UCLA tried to spy Randall, but let him run pretty loose at will. And it wasn’t just when the quarterback decided to tuck and run; Arizona tailback Nick Wilson ripped through UCLA’s defense, too.  The biggest negative takeaway from this game is a concern about UCLA’s rushing defense. 

Another injury to the linebacking group also was significant when Jayon Brown went out with a back injury during the game.  It was devastating, since the linebackers are a cause of concern, especially with the loss of Myles Jack.  In this game, too, middle linebacker Kenny Young didn’t play well, and it was consistently one of the reasons that Arizona was able to move the ball on the Bruin D.   Isaako Savaiinaea, when he was in the game, was quite a bit better, but with the potential loss of Brown, it doesn’t look like UCLA will have the luxury of playing Savaiinaea over Young, but have to use them both extensively. 

The UCLA secondary was a personnel scramble.  With the loss of cornerback Fabian Moreau for the season, as expected safety Randall Goforth shifted over to cornerback, with Tahaan Goodman slotting in at safety and Ishmael Adams returning to his starting nickel position.  Goforth looked a little out-of-sorts at times playing corner in UCLA’s zone, and Adams got burned for a touchdown over the top on Arizona’s first possession (even though Adams went on to have a good game). Receiver Mossi Johnson got some time at safety, and looked exactly like a guy playing a new position for the first time.   It was clearly an opportunity UCLA was using to experiment with some personnel, but coming away from the game there is a feeling UCLA will have to find some answers to the experiment for the rest of the season.

Given the feeling that surrounded the program in the wake of Jack’s injury, though, it was a win that the collective soul of this Bruin team needed.   It healed its defensive wounds with some offensive balm. If UCLA has to be an offensive juggernaut every game to win, so be it.  If Rosen’s super-human brain can keep adapting at this rate there’s a chance the UCLA offense, given all of its other strengths, could actually do it. 

 


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