Tactical Bruin Breakdown: Arizona

Sep. 29 -- We break down the tactical aspects of UCLA's victory over Arizona, with UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone having a masterful game...

This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla. 

Arizona’s Offense vs UCLA’s Defense…..Taking Away The Fastball

There were some very interesting adjustments from UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley in this game.  After playing almost exclusively a 3-4 base defense in the first three games of the season, UCLA played almost exclusively nickel defense against Arizona.  Using three down linemen, a dedicated rush end, two linebackers and five defensive backs defines UCLA’s version of a nickel.  It makes sense to start that way against an Arizona offense that wants to spread you out to eventually stretch you up field.  Nickel schemes allow for the secondary to match up well with the wide receivers, while also allowing the freedom for the safeties to move around the field and make plays.  The downside to this scheme is that it puts a lot of pressure on your linebackers to make good reads and make a variety of plays.

Understand something else about Tom Bradley and his philosophy.  He is a coach who runs a defense to win games, not someone who will run a defense to completely suffocate the opponent’s offense.  In UCLA’s schematic philosophy, the defense is trying to take away the opponents fastball.  In this game, the fastball for Arizona, or thing that could hurt UCLA the most, was the sudden, big play.  UCLA didn’t want to get into a track meet in that stadium.  Using the nickel as the base defense against Arizona in essence took away where they can hurt UCLA the most.  Bradley made a living on this concept at Penn State, and as we’ve seen for the last two weeks now, our scheme puts a big emphasis on keeping the ball in front of you and making the offense earn their yards and points.

Arizona had essentially one sudden, big play in this game.  It came on the first drive, where after a few run plays to get the tempo going, UCLA allowed Anu Solomon to hit Nate Phillips for a touchdown on a coverage bust.  Arizona went 4-wide and caught Ishmael Adams and Tahaan Goodman in a miscommunication resulting in the bust.  Adams thought he had help over the deep middle, Goodman thought he had wide-third responsibility and the other safety, Jaleel Wadood, had deep-middle help responsibility.  As the play developed the seam route got behind Adams and there was no help over the top and Arizona took a quick 7-0 lead.

After that drive the UCLA defense settled in and Arizona began to make critical mistakes.  After a first down scramble from Solomon on their second drive, a snap above the quarterbacks head resulted in a UCLA recovery and a quick score.

Arizona’s third drive began with two runs for first downs to set up some tempo.  Arizona then started to throw the short and intermediate routes to keep the chains moving and the tempo up but, again, Arizona made a mistake that stalled the drive.  On 3rd and 1 the UCLA defense brought the safeties up and left the corners on islands.  Solomon took the bait, checked out of a run and threw deep incomplete down the sideline.  This wasn’t an interception or a turnover, but it was equally punitive as Arizona had to punt and give the ball back to the UCLA offense. 

That play illustrates better than any play in this game UCLA’s schematic philosophy.  Given the injuries and personnel issues, UCLA will have to play a defense that gives up something.  That particular play shows that, if a defense can dictate to the offense what you want them to attack, you can manage the percentages of success throughout the game.  That throw could have resulted in a touchdown and probably would have brought down the house.  But the percentage of that happening, given Solomon’s inability to throw deep effectively, how it was opened up on the short side of the field, and the corner knowing it was the hot read, was very low.  Incomplete pass, calculated gamble pays off, punt, scoring drive, 21-7 UCLA and the rout was on at that point. 

Arizona continued to sputter on offense for the next couple of series.  Solomon left the game with an injury and the back-up quarterback, Jerrard Randall,  albeit a very good runner, just wasn’t good enough to throw the ball.  Passing and chunk yardage was what Arizona needed to keep up with UCLA’s offense at that point.  The big play eliminated, UCLA seemed content to let Arizona run the ball and chew clock while playing from behind. 

I realize there will be people who complain about the rushing yardage total Arizona put up, ignore that stat in this game.  If an offense is going to run zone-read down 4 scores, let them.  Tom Bradley has never been a coach who cares about the statistical rankings of his defense, and I don’t expect him to start now. 

As the game wore on, the bad snaps continued for Arizona.  There were a few costly turnovers, several mis-reads by the back-up QB and a general lack of play-making on third down.  All of that combined in Arizona never being able to find an offensive rhythm and thus never really threatening UCLA in this game offensively.


UCLA has some very serious issues at linebacker.  Kenny Young really struggled in this game.  His reads were off the wrong keys, and his inability to shed blocks was a huge issue.  Isaako Savaiinaea played with Young for a while and the two of them together doesn’t equal great play in space.  Jayon Brown went down with an injury, which limited the linebacking group even more.  I know UCLA won’t replace Myles Jack with one player, but the defense was exposed at that position in this game.

Nickel will probably be the new base defense.  It’s the best scheme to take away something the opponent wants to do when you’re short personnel.  Adams played very well in this game outside of the first drive, and our safeties played very freely and aggressively.  The safeties will have to continue to play at a high level to make up for our deficiencies at linebacker.

Expect teams to run on us, but if UCLA can continue to make teams one-dimensional then the coaching staff will be pleased.  That appears to be the new goal of the defense: take away something and eliminate the offense’s balance.  If UCLA’s offense continues to hum like it did in this game then the UCLA defense will serve its purpose, but in games that are closer (i.e. BYU) expect the defense to try and eliminate a fastball and take calculated risks based on down and distance.

Lastly, I think the defense deserves a lot of credit, especially in the first half, for getting off the field and taking away tempo from Arizona.  It was exceedingly hot on that field, and the ability of the defense, regardless of how they did it, to get off the field made the heat an Arizona issue and not something that impacted UCLA.

UCLA’s Offense vs Arizona’s Defense….The World’s Most Famous 2-Star Looked like a 2-Star

Arizona runs their staple 3-3-5 defense.  This defense employs three down linemen who basically try to occupy four blockers in order to let the three linebackers fill gaps and make tackles.  It’s not much different from a nickel other than the roles and responsibilities of the down linemen.  As gimmicky as the Arizona offense is, the Arizona defense is equally unique.  A 3-3-5 was developed to defend the spread offense, but as time has gone on it’s become less and less used.  Programs are finding it hard to recruit defensive linemen who are willing to come in and play human shields for the linebackers to get the stats, so conceptually it’s dying with today’s player.  At Arizona, they just don’t have the personnel up front to run this defense effectively. 

Scooby Wright was terrific last season in this defense and, because of his performance, many of the issues and holes that existed in Arizona’s scheme were covered up.  But when Arizona played teams that could push them around up front (UCLA, and Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game to name a couple) they were run over. 

UCLA’s game plan was to push around Arizona and go right at the injured Wright.  After UCLA’s first three plays from scrimmage it was clear that Wright was not 100%.  UCLA took complete advantage of that. 

On UCLA’s first scoring drive of the game they ran at Wright, jammed Wright on a blitz attempt, ran a crossing route in front of Wright, put a guard on Wright and eventually ran double crosses in front and behind Wright, the route behind him resulting in a touchdown pass to Thomas Duarte.  After that drive it was clear that Wright was going to be a target all night.

On UCLA’s second drive of the game with a short field, Nate Iese made his first appearance in what would be an active night for him.  He absolutely blew up a blitzing Wright, which sprung Paul Perkins for the touchdown.  Iese was huge in this game as the UCLA fullback.  Using a fullback against a 3-3-5 defense forces the hand of the defensive scheme.  Because the offense, with the fullback in, has six blockers to match up with the six men in the box of the 3-3-5 it makes it really hard to defend the inside runs as the down linemen can’t occupy an extra blocker. 

Arizona’s defense was geared up to stop Perkins, so adding Iese and dropping a receiver forced Arizona to bring seven in the box and forced the safeties up closer to the line of scrimmage.  Adding Iese also all but eliminated any blitzing from Arizona because the gaps were filled by blockers, and bringing an extra man would open up too much space for UCLA’s athletes to get one-on-ones. 

Josh Rosen (USA Today)

Because Josh Rosen is so adept at reading defenses pre-snap, this nuance also appeared to help him define the coverages better and allowed him to begin to pick apart the Arizona defense. 

UCLA’s fourth drive, the most critical drive of the game in my mind, saw 6, 7 and 8 Wildcats in the box and UCLA used zone runs and very controlled route concepts to move the chains down the field.  Rosen threw single route concept passes over the middle, off play-action to the fullback, and a swing out to the running back, which put a fatigued Wright in space and resulted in big yardage.  Those routes, combined with a steady diet of Perkins, resulted in another UCLA touchdown.  As the first half wore on Rosen continued to make good reads and find the one-on-one, almost making it look easy.  By halftime it was clear that Arizona couldn’t defend themselves against UCLA’s attack. 

Jeff Casteel, the Arizona defensive coordinator, began the second half, with the game almost out of control, with what looked like ‘Jail Break’ style pressure.  That pressure took Rosen a few series to adjust to, but once UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone started to use bubble and slip screens to the sideline, the pressure was quickly alleviated.  It was great to see that progression from both the quarterback as well as the coaching staff as UCLA hasn’t faced much of that yet.  ASU will bring pressure every snap, so Rosen being able to see that even a little in this game could pay dividends next weekend.


The offense played very well, especially given the heat and the crowd noise early in the game.  Going down by a score on the road would wilt most of UCLA’s team’s pre-Jim Mora.  But this group stayed the course and, led by a great return by Devin Fuller to set up UCLA’s first drive, evened up things quickly.  By the time the game was 21-7 it was clear Arizona couldn’t defend UCLA and it was just a matter of making the right read and holding onto the ball.  A 3-3-5 is not an easy defense to produce against the first time you see it, and Rosen seemed to have zero issues with it.  That’s a sign of the potential this kid has.

The offensive line was terrific….again.  Against a small front the key to a zone-blocking scheme is to get a guard on a linebacker.  When an offensive lineman can get a hat on a second-level defender there tends to be a hole created.  In this game, Kenny Lacy and Alex Redmond were on a linebacker whenever they wanted to be.  Although Perkins’ yardage total wasn’t crazy high, the running game set the tone for the rest of the offense.  The line was dominant and as the season goes on if UCLA can get that kind of play from the offensive line anything can be possible.

Jordan Payton will be sorely missed next year.  He is such a polished receiver.  His ability to get his feet in bounds on the fade pass early in the second half was amazing, especially given that he has a sprained ankle and was playing in a double wrap.  He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but his ability to use his body and not tip off the defender when the ball is on him is at a pro level.  Jordan embodies what Eric Yarber teaches and how he develops players to be NFL caliber.

One thing UCLA needs to clean up is the personnel usage at the slot position.  Darren Andrews went almost the whole way against Arizona and, while he looked promising, he is not nearly as accomplished as Mossi Johnson or Devin Fuller.  I question the rationale of moving Johnson to defense with the freshman talent available there.  Johnson at times last season, and again in the Spring, was the best offensive weapon.  He has great hands and can run.  Fuller is a 3-year starter at that position and has some versatility to move outside as well.  I like Andrews, but using Johnson and Fuller has to be something we re-visit as the season goes on. UCLA needs those players to be a part of our offense.

Conclusion….Another Beat Down of Bear Down

Arizona is not good, we know that now.  Jim Mora definitely has Rich Rodriguez’s number, we knew that going in.  But to see the team respond to the early deficit and environment with such a complete beating in the first half was very impressive.  UCLA had a 42-14 lead at halftime, in a game where they were a 1-point favorite.  Put that in perspective for a second, especially against a backdrop where national programs struggled all day.  No, the second half wasn’t as pretty as the first half, but that’s to be expected.  Was the adjustment to the running quarterback smooth? No, but again that is to be expected.  What I saw was another great road performance from a team that has as much playable depth as anyone in the country.  UCLA will miss Myles Jack profoundly, and UCLA misses Eddie Vanderdoes more and more every game, it feels like.  But on Saturday night the Bruins put together an effort they and all of us should admire, and that’s something they can build on.

ASU will present some challenges, not necessarily more or less than Arizona, but challenges nonetheless.  The sheer fact the game is at home is a concern. 

Like Arizona, ASU doesn’t have the athletes UCLA does, so distraction again is the culprit to defend against this week.  My guess is the UCLA staff has learned from the multiple letdowns we’ve had at home after a big road win and they will have UCLA better prepared to play than in the past. 

UCLA got the first one of a huge four-game stretch.  Now they’ll try to own the State of Arizona again this year. 

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