UCLA under Jim Mora turned the proverbial corner a long time ago. But we did say a while back that the destination of the program under Mora is still undetermined.
That was very much on display Saturday night at the Rose Bowl when UCLA lost to Arizona State, 38-23.
UCLA went into the game ranked #7 in the country, with some pretty big expectations. Given a win, UCLA would have vaulted into a top-5 ranking at least, and actually lived up to those expectations. Winning a game like this is, so far during Mora’s regime, the type of win, though, the program hasn’t yet achieved – one that will deservedly put the Bruins among the best teams in the country. UCLA in the last three years has been right on the brink of this threshold, but just hasn’t quite been able to get past the velvet ropes. It approached it again with the ASU game, but was kept outside of the club.
The question with Mora’s program is: What level of success can it achieve?
First, let’s face that little dose of reality. Arizona State was easily the best team UCLA has faced yet this season, and it’s starting to become very evident that the four teams which UCLA beat to get to 4-0 weren’t very good. Virginia is 1-3, with its only win over William and Mary (and they won that game 35-29). UNLV is 2-3, with one win over a bad FCS team (Idaho State). BYU is 3-2, after getting destroyed by Michigan and, yesterday, needing a strong fourth quarter to pull away from Connecticut. And Arizona (3-2) was further exposed as a pretender yesterday, getting gutted by Stanford, 55-17.
UCLA being ranked 7th in the country was a bit of fool’s gold, especially so with the injuries the Bruins have sustained. And it took a modestly good opponent to expose the team – at least to knock it down a few pegs from the 7th-ranked team in the nation and a potential College Football Playoff contender.
ASU is exactly that, too – a modestly good team. Now that we’ve seen enough of college football this season, we’d say that ASU is probably deserving of a ranking in the lower fifth of the polls – but a team that the #7-ranked team in the country should be able to perceivably dominate at home.
UCLA didn’t do that by any stretch. In fact, if you didn’t know the hype coming into the game and watched the first three quarters you’d say the team in those strange grey helmets were the top ten team on the field.
So, the loss was attributed to a degree of UCLA being over-rated, and just not probably good enough to dominate and put away the first good team it’s faced this season.
Now, when we say “good enough” that encompasses the entire program – not just the level of talent, but the coaching, too. If you were that person who didn’t know the pre-game hype but you were good at talent evaluation, you’d also say that the team in those really good-looking blue uniforms was probably at least – if not more – talented than the other.
There were many elements that contributed to UCLA’s loss against ASU Saturday, as there always is in any game. But if we were going to simplify it, we’d say it came down to two factors: UCLA came out flat, and the offensive play-calling. It’s funny, because going into the game the main worry for UCLA was its defense (and rightfully so, after the performance against Arizona), but UCLA’s defense played relatively well, good enough against a modestly good team to win. The problem was the offense, clearly.
And the flatness.
It’s been a bit of a recurring M.O. under Mora – to win a big emotional game and then be flat the next week. There was a palpable difference between the energy of Arizona week and Arizona State week. And it’s not necessarily a reflection on Mora, or an indictment of his coaching approach. It happens to many teams and programs, and how it’s reoccurred in the last three and half seasons might not necessarily be directly attributable to Mora himself. We don’t know why it happens, in other words, but we do know this: For UCLA to get to the next level in college football it’s going to have to get over this. A team and program that are legitimately aspiring to College Football Playoff status doesn’t have such pronounced emotional ups and downs, but is more consistent in its effort and intensity from week to week. It flies right over trap games without getting trapped.
The offensive play-calling truly hamstrung the offense. UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone conceded in his post-game interview that he was “stubborn” in attempting to run the ball so much. That stubbornness definitely wilted the UCLA offense early, and made it difficult to get the offense untracked and to find a rhythm, or its footing on what would succeed against ASU. We’d say it’s not only just stubbornness, but a stubbornness that comes from a lack of good self-scouting, and then also not a very sophisticated level of play-calling itself. UCLA definitely went into this game with some arrogance about its rushing ability; it was evident it absolutely believed it was going to be able to take it right at ASU and run right down its throat, despite ASU being a defense that really pressures the line of scrimmage and stacks more bodies against you in the box – and would almost certainly try to take away UCLA’s running game and put the responsibility of the offense’s success on UCLA’s freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen. The only explanation for that is, well, arrogance. It’s a mindset that, despite all of those obvious elements, we’re going to do exactly what you think we’re going to do and you won’t be able to stop us. Clearly that was a huge over-estimation of UCLA’s rushing ability.
And the stubbornness really comes in when it’s pretty clear it isn’t going to work and you keep going to it doggedly.
Our real issue with the offensive playcalling, though, is the predictability. It’s one thing to be dogged in going to your running game, but it’s another thing doing it predictably on first and second down, and then putting your freshman QB in too many third-and-longs, against a defense, again, that sends a great deal of pressure. In its first three drives, UCLA ran the ball on five of six first and second downs. It put itself in a third-and-six, third-and-nine and third-and-eight. On its first four series, it ran the ball on first down every time. That’s not exactly designing a game plan to help out your freshman quarterback. And know that UCLA’s rushing attack is very simple and doesn’t have much deception in it to begin with.
If perhaps you really did want to be dogged in getting the running game going, it doesn't necessarily have to be done this way. Perhaps at the very least throwing some on first down might have been the very simple answer. But when it finally attempted that, in its fifth offensive series, the offense was so off-balance and out of sync.
In this game, UCLA's offense couldn't really sustain a drive well. It needed a big play, like the 50-yard bomb to Stephen Johnson that set up UCLA's first touchdown. UCLA got in some big pass plays down the middle of the field all night. In fact, it was pretty evident ASU's secondary had some softness down the field, and that was definitely on the scouting report going into the game. Perhaps a few attempts to throw down the field, on a first or second down when ASU wouldn't necessarily be expecting it and sending pressure, might have worked. When UCLA started to throw laterally on quick hitters to get around ASU's pressure, that worked too, and it got Rosen in a comfortable rhythm.
Yes, there were some big drops that were critical, and drive-killers. But when your offense is limiting itself in its playcalling there's going to be less margin for error and miscues that cost you more than they should.
The biggest priority of this offense this season in every game should be to make sure you get Rosen in a rhythm early, not establish the run, and that would mean calling pass plays when the defense isn’t necessarily expecting it, like on first downs. The first three third-and-longs clearly got Rosen rattled. And that set him back so far it took until the fourth quarter for him to really get comfortable.
The UCLA offensive line looked like they weren’t playing well and, admittedly, it wasn’t their best game so far this season since it was against probably the best defensive front seven they’ve seen. But they didn’t look great, too, because on every one of those first- and second-down running plays they were outmanned in the box. And they were again outmanned on those third-and-longs, on obvious passing downs when ASU was bringing bodies. So, the offensive line’s performance, too, was hurt by the dogged and predictable play-calling.
With Mazzone, when UCLA has a clear physical and athletic advantage over the defense, the playcalling generally looks good. But when UCLA’s offense is matched up pretty evenly with its opponents’ defense -- pretty much when you take away UCLA’s running game -- the playcalling gets exposed.
It comes down to this, again: If the UCLA football program is going to go to the next level in college football, it needs to go to the next level in every aspect, including playcalling.
The defense played pretty well, at least good enough to win. It might not on the surface appear that way, giving up 38 points. But the defense was on the field for a whopping 37 minutes, and having to hold off ASU’s offense when UCLA’s offense had handed it back the ball to start the game on four consecutive three-and-outs. UCLA’s offense didn’t get a first down until about halfway through the second quarter, and UCLA’s defense held ASU’s offense to only 7 points on its first seven possessions. The defense looked a bit beat in the third quarter when it gave up two touchdown drives but, heck, by that time it was amazing the defense didn’t completely fold. In fact, it came back toward the end of the third quarter and to start the fourth by shutting down ASU’s offense on four consecutive drives. So, even after it had been on the field for the majority of the game, and UCLA’s offense wasn’t holding up its side of the bargain, the UCLA defense still gave the offense a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
There were two clearly phenomenal defensive performances – by defensive tackle Kenneth Clark and linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea. Savaiinaea was credited with 14 tackles, but that was flat-out wrong. There were tackles he got that he wasn’t credited for; it was more like 18. He was very Eric-Kendricks-like at middle linebacker, always being in the right place at the right time and making the sure tackle. In the second half, when UCLA’s defense re-set itself after those two touchdowns and began stopping ASU’s defense, it was close to the one-man Kenny Clark Show. He registered tackles for loss, pass knock-downs and hits on ASU’s quarterback on play after play that single-handedly stopped ASU. That game probably made Clark quite a bit of money as an NFL prospect.
UCLA’s defense needed a stop in the fourth quarter, to give the ball back to UCLA’s offense one more time. The difference in ASU getting first downs when it needed them wasn’t UCLA’s defense buckling; it was ASU’s playcalling. ASU’s offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s playcalling was a huge factor, calling some plays (one quick-hitting pass on a critical fourth down in the fourth quarter really stood out) that were dynamic and unpredictable in critical situations.
So, Bruin fans, we’ve come back down to Earth a bit. Those lofty College Football Playoff aspirations were just that – lofty. And a bit undeserved. It’s not to say that UCLA can’t climb back up the mountain this season and get back to being on the verge again. It has the talent. Rosen will continue to improve, and the team will undoubtedly improve with him. Savaiinaea has emerged as the much-needed middle anchor of the defense. Perhaps this loss will contribute to relieving some pressure from the team, the coaches and the program, and they’ll be able to come from a different, looser place in trying to get back up the mountain.
No matter what, though, it’s clear that UCLA needs to take many elements of its program to the next level if it wants to make it to the next level.