Tactical Bruin Breakdown: ASU

Oct. 6 -- We break down the tactical aspects of UCLA's loss against ASU, and go in-depth with what went wrong in the playcalling against the Sun Devils defense...

This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla. 

UCLA’s Offense vs ASU’s Defense…..Stubborn vs Stubborn

The Arizona State defense presented a very difficult match-up for UCLA’s offense coming into this game.  ASU has a lot of veteran players on defense, guys who have been in the ASU system for a while and have played against the UCLA scheme several times.  ASU also moves around a lot pre-snap and disguises their pressures very well, which, with a freshman quarterback like Josh Rosen, should create confusion. 

Todd Graham is known for his blitzing emphasis, but what he doesn’t get enough credit for is his ability to neutralize zone-blocking schemes.  His defensive philosophy is to over-commit and take away something on every play.  There is no sit-in-base-and-keep-the-ball-in-front-of-us in their defensive scheme.  They bring heat, penetrate gaps and commit on every play.  When ASU loses, it’s usually lopsided and almost always because the aggressive nature of the defense buries the ASU offense and creates a hole they can’t climb out of.  Graham’s coaching philosophy is rooted in playing a very aggressive defense and making his offense keep up.

In this game, the sole focus of the defensive game plan was to stop UCLA running back Paul Perkins and in particular stop the zone-blocked run plays that UCLA has consistently gained chunk yardage on all season.  The UCLA zone-blocking scheme is based on pulling a guard to get out in front of Perkins while the tackle and fullback push blockers in opposite directions.  When executed, this scheme creates multiple holes for the guard to lead the back through.  Because of Perkins’ exceptional patience he usually finds a one-on-one with a second-level defender in space and thus can create a big play in that match-up.

From UCLA’s first offensive series, every time UCLA went to this type of run play, the gap vacated by the pulling guard was flooded.  ASU clearly saw something in UCLA’s pre-snap look or communication that triggered a linebacker up to the line and allowed for the flood.  This isn’t a pure run blitz schematically, but it creates the same unbalanced equation of ASU having more bodies on the line than the UCLA offensive line can block.  Because UCLA’s quarterback is no threat to keep the ball on a zone-read play, Perkins was running into defenders in the backfield early and often in this game.

The first quarter was entirely about ASU taking away UCLA’s ability to zone run, but the rest of the game was about UCLA’s failure to adjust.  After UCLA’s third series, which resulted in a three-and-out and punt, UCLA should have made a couple of adjustments.  As a coach, when you have offensive guards who are confused on whom to block or where to block, you have to simplify the play call.  That means man-blocking and simple reads with the goal of moving the linebackers back off the line of scrimmage

An example is on UCLA’s fourth series.  The first-down play was a man-blocking run play, where left guard Kenny Lacy was asked to stack-block the 3-tech lineman, then go get the middle linebacker while Perkins was given the ball on a dive through the A-gap.  Lacy missed the second block badly because the linebacer was playing at a 4-yard depth, but that’s just the wrong blocking scheme in that situation and resulted in a loss of a yard.  This run play was designed to set up a man-blocked screen pass on the second-down play, but again the guards didn’t get to their block in time because the linebackers were at short depths, and the screen play was blown up.  So UCLA faced a 3rd-and-long and ASU was able to dial up the pressure and create a situation where they brought more than UCLA could block and the result was a safety. 

This series and the next two series were a microcosm of the battle between UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Todd Graham, two of the most stubborn coaches in college football.  Mazzone should have begun throwing on first down, specifically screens horizontally or vertical routes on first down to force the ASU linebackers to get depth.  Graham hates to adjust his defensive scheme, so you have to force him to deepen his linebackers because if he doesn’t there will be chunk plays available.

The next series UCLA tried exactly that strategy.  Vertical pass on first down to stretch the field, a man-blocked run on the second play, then a slant to Thomas Duarte on the next play, setting up a cross to Jordan Payton on the next play, which was negated by a hold.  So facing 1st-and-20 UCLA should have kept to the script of moving the linebackers around but UCLA shot itself in the foot.  The first-down play was a missed block by center Jake Brendel, resulting in an incomplete pass.  The second-down play was a terrible play call by the coaching staff, another zone-run play where the linebackers met Perkins in the backfield for a loss.  The third-and-long play was a coverage sack where no wide receiver bothered to get any separation.  Result of the drive was a punt after what looked like a sure scoring drive early on.  The key down was the 2nd-and-20 run play to Perkins.  The linebackers were playing inside the 5-yard depth, which is a huge mental mistake for them.  Playing that close to the line in that down and distance is literally giving UCLA yardage outside, deep or over the middle.  The play call wasn’t a check option for Rosen either, as he looked at the sideline and got a red-light call from the bench, which is UCLA’s method of telling the QB to run the play as called.  Running on 2nd-and-20 is just inexplicable, but given that ASU was finally starting to be forced to move around their linebackers and the safeties are the weakness of their defense, makes it even more dumbfounding.  That drive was one of several where I felt UCLA could have gotten points and changed the flow of the game, but due to poor coaching decisions came up empty.    

The next series started out properly, screen to the sideline for seven yards to Devin Fuller, but stalled again.  A run play on second down for nothing set up a third-and-2 play where UCLA again had favorable linebacker depth against a 4-wide set.  Rosen was signaled from the sideline to use a single-read pass to the slot, which was a poorly run route and an even poorer thrown ball.  The result was an incomplete pass, a punt and another drive where points should have been scored.

Stephen Jonson (Steve Cheng, BRO)

UCLA scored on their next possession with a better play sequence.  The drive began with a horizontal screen to Eldridge Massington, a slant to Payton and a zone run for 3 yards with Perkins.  Then a short completion to Payton off a 3-step drop against pressure and a horrid play call on a run play to Perkins where he just made a man miss to get the first down set up a Rosen connection with Stephen Johnson on a bomb that put UCLA inside the 10.  The next play was a play-action crossing route to Duarte for the touchdown.  So to summarize the drive, it started horizontally, used a slant effectively, a short hitch effectively, went horizontally again to set up a big vertical play, which opened up the crossing route.  Pretty simple progression but simply astonishing that it took until 6:42 left in the second quarter to make those adjustments.

The half closed with a field goal, but coming out of halftime the things that worked at the end of the half were almost completely abandoned until UCLA trailed by three scores.  The zone run was used again too much on first down to start the second half and was just as ineffective as it was in the first half.  The horizontal pass to set up the vertical pass and the middle of the field was forgotten as well, until it was too late.  Combining the ignorance of what worked in the first half with a lack of effort from the receivers on a huge third-down play drop and an interception on the ensuing drive, and it looked like UCLA was done for the night.   Eventually UCLA mounted a comeback by going back to the same sequence of moving the linebackers around, but it was too little too late. 

The final drive from the 1-yard line was almost comical.  Zone-run play on first down and play-action on second- and third-down was way too predictable.  Play-action is useless if the defense doesn’t respect the run game, and in that down and distance I’m pretty sure ASU didn’t care if UCLA ran the ball out of their own end zone.  UCLA should have used a 4- or 5-wide receiver set to stretch the ASU defense or, better yet, forced them to bring pressure to create openings for routes.  Yet the predictability resulted in a punt with UCLA giving the ball away when they had possession and needed a score to win.  Credit the ASU punter for pinning the UCLA offense all night long, but that drive could have resulted in something more than what it did.  This somehow seemed a fitting end to the game for the UCLA offense.  The defense does its job and gets ASU to give the ball back to the UCLA offense with time on the clock, down a score.  But the offense goes quietly into the night.


Noel Mazzone runs a very good system, statistically there is no question about that.  But at this stage of his career there appears to be a high level of familiarity with his system from defenses and he has really become set in his ways and refuses to adjust to what the defense is taking away.  ASU was literally daring UCLA to throw wide, deep and over the middle, the areas Mazzone’s system historically struggles with.  As a coach you have to adjust and evolve and we’re just not seeing that from Mazzone.  When a team forces you to play backward, i.e. pass to run, you have to do it or else you’re going to struggle.  This game to me can be boiled down to that simple element: Todd Graham forcing Noel Mazzone off script and Noel Mazzone refusing to accept it.

Rosen got a lot of the blame for the offense struggling when I watched the broadcast, but that’s misguided.  This wasn’t Rosen being a freshman as much as it was Mazzone refusing to play the way the defense was dictating.  Rosen was actually very good for the majority of this game, but the play calling wasn’t. 

The offensive line had a bad night, but it’s very difficult to do something you’re physically not capable of doing.  Zone blocking against a stacked box doesn’t work.  There are just too many bodies to block and not enough blockers.  Man blocking using stack concepts where guards have to get linebackers doesn’t work when the linebacker is inside 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.  There needed to be more communication between the line and the center, and the center and the quarterback pre-snap, and that didn’t happen.  But ultimately the scheme can’t work when it calls for players to do something they’re not capable of doing. 

I know this all sounds like a broken record, so I’ll stick with that theme.  UCLA needs a legitimate deep threat, period (Theo Howard, are you listening?)  Stephen Johnson made a great play on a deep ball, but that was one of the few times UCLA has hit that all year.  As I said, ASU was daring UCLA to go deep and knew it couldn’t hurt them there consistently.  UCLA might have found something with Johnson, but the commitment to trying to go deep has got to be there.  Without even an attempt to stretch the defense vertically we’re going to see more defenses daring UCLA to throw deep as the season wears on.

Lastly, it’s very evident that Mazzone’s system needs a quarterback who can be a threat to keep the ball on the zone read if UCLA is going to be successful running zone blocking schemes.  Given the depth at QB, or lack of, Rosen keeping the ball just isn’t in the cards.  So UCLA has to start running more using man-blocking schemes.           

ASU Offense vs UCLA’s Defense….Adjustments Win

ASU doesn’t have much personnel outside to stretch a defense, and while they run the ball ok, in each of the two losses their inability to go vertically eventually led to the opponents (Texas A&M and USC) bringing the safeties up, stacking the box and making them play inside 15 yards.  To me, Mike Norvell the ASU offensive coordinator, is as good of a coordinator as anyone in the country.  But as good of a coach as he is, the personnel issues have slowed down his attack this season. 

So UCLA knew that for ASU to move the ball through the air it has to come from back shoulder throws against man coverage, or over the middle routes against zone coverage.  USC played almost exclusively zone-coverage nickel against ASU and completely suffocated them.  Texas A&M played man on the outside against ASU and zoned up the middle of the field and beat them with a pass rush, but the pass rush of A&M was greatly helped by the coverage.

UCLA went from predominantly nickel against Arizona to a lot of base in this game.  UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley stuck to his script of trying to take away what ASU could hurt UCLA with the most, and in this matchup that was the inside run game. 

Losing Marcus Rios and Jayon Brown this week really impacted the game.  UCLA wanted to man up on the outside and bring the safeties up to help with run support.  Losing Rios took away a physical corner and forced Ishmael Adams to line up at corner.  Losing Brown forced UCLA to use both Isaako Savaiinaea and Kenny Young together inside, which exposed UCLA in pass defense when one of them was covering a slot or tight end over the middle.   

Isaako Savaiinaea (USA Today)

ASU tried to run inside a lot early on in the game, and as frustrating as it was watching UCLA’s offense continue to try something that wasn’t working, ASU was doing the same thing.  ASU couldn’t block Kenneth Clark with one guy, and when they double-teamed him it opened up a hole for UCLA to plug with a linebacker.  Many of Savaiinaea’s and Young’s tackles came from filling the gap against the run.   Unable to run inside, ASU was forced to play horizontally and vertically, and Norvell recognized that a lot quicker than his counterpart Noel Mazzone did. 

In the second quarter, when ASU started to move the ball consistently, it was really the play calling and formational changes that allowed them to move the ball easier using the same plays.  ASU started lining up their “do-everything” offensive player D.J. Foster in the backfield, which forced a middle linebacker to match up with him.  When they motioned Foster around, they motioned the middle linebacker out of the box, opening up the middle of the field.  This adjustment being made before halftime forced UCLA to deepen their middle linebackers coming out of halftime, which opened up the inside-zone running of ASU and eventually put pressure on the outside linebackers in the zone read.  ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici took a zone read to the endzone to start the second-half scoring, but it was set up well before halftime with the motion progressions from Mike Norvell.

After the touchdown run from Bercovici, UCLA came out in a nickel, dropping an outside linebacker for a safety.  ASU handled that adjustment masterfully, running almost exclusively zone read where Bercovici was reading a defensive end instead of having to deal with an extra linebacker.  Creating that mismatch again forced the UCLA middle linebackers to move, this time up to the line of scrimmage.  On cue, ASU dragged a tight end behind them for a big gain to the red zone, and followed that play with a double slant behind them for a touchdown.  These two series, and the set-up of them in the late second quarter, are great examples of Mike Norvell’s willingness to adjust.  Yes he’s dealing with personnel issues, but schematically he really checked his ego and made the necessary calls to get points.

As for Tom Bradley and his defense, I said last week I thought our linebackers were exposed for being thin as a unit, and would struggle defending a balanced attack.  ASU isn’t exactly a great team, but it’s pretty clear that our linebacking group without its full complement of players is going to struggle.  In games against spread teams usually the linebacker play determines the success of the defense.  In this game, even though Savaiinaea had an outstanding statistical game, the linebackers as a whole were exploited in coverage, which led to being exploited in the run game.  This will be an ongoing theme as the season goes along.  A defense simply can’t lose five starters and still produce at the same level.  Schematically there isn’t a lot you can do either.  Yes, you can press the corners more, something that I’ve been advocating for a few weeks now, but Bradley seems content to play moderate levels of risk schemes, in hopes the offense produces more than his defense gives up.  That may or may not be the right approach, but given the personnel shortage I’m not sure what else he can do.  UCLA has more offensive talent than almost anyone they will play, so being too risky defensively could bury UCLA’s offense -- like what has happened to ASU a few times this season.  I think you’ll see more aggression out of Bradley’s scheme as the offense finds its footing, if the offense finds its footing.  


The defense was on the field a lot in this game.  I blame the offense as much for that as I do anything that Tom Bradley did or didn’t do in this game.  I would imagine ASU’s yards-per-play statistics were about average in this game.  ASU was a lot better on third down in the second half against UCLA, which was a byproduct of being better on first down as the game wore on.  The zone read eventually took its toll on UCLA when they went nickel, and that’s an example of where UCLA misses Myles Jack and Brown the most.  Versatile linebackers who can run are a luxury most good defenses have and, right now with both of them out, UCLA just doesn’t have that.

Kenny Clark almost took the game over in the second half.  He was outstanding almost by himself in the fourth quarter when UCLA mounted its comeback.  He eventually just ran out of gas as the offense went away from him, but it was a truly outstanding effort from that kid.

ASU makes it hard to get pressure on their quarterback due to a lot of three-step drops and motions out of the backfield.  About the only way you can create negative plays against them is to press the corners and force the third and fourth reads from the quarterback.  UCLA has shown no interest in pressing its corners, presumable out of some fear they will get burnt deep.  To me, that just wasn’t a risk in this match-up and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why UCLA didn’t play more bump-and-run or press coverage as the game wore on.  The back shoulder throw is something ASU does as well as anyone in the country, but they aren’t going to kill you with that given their personnel this year.  At some point, the UCLA defensive staff has to say “beat us deep” in exchange for being able to create negative plays in the backfield.  This seemed like the game to do that in, but UCLA never committed to it.

Conclusion: We’re About To Find Out What We’re Dealing With

I disagree with some folks who have said ASU is a good team or a quality opponent.  From my vantage point, they’re not a good team, rather a very average team with significant limitations personnel-wise.  They absolutely don’t have the same level of talent as UCLA, so losing that game at home, in particularly the way UCLA lost it, is all on the coaching staff. 

I mentioned last week I thought complacency was a risk going into this game, and coming out flat was something that the staff had to guard against. But it failed, because this was one of the flatter performances I’ve seen UCLA have under this coaching staff.  Yes, coming out flat was enabled by drops and missed blocks, but also just as much by the offensive game plan.  A poster asked me after the game on the BRO Premium Message Board why I thought this continued to happen in the Jim Mora era and I truly have no answer.  My guess is that it’s probably something that has to do with this specific group of players and coaches, but that’s just a guess.

Regardless of why, the UCLA staff has to better prepare the team to play at a high level week in and week out if UCLA is ever going to take the next step nationally.  Losing games like this one, to me, is much worse than losing to Utah or Stanford last season, because this wasn’t a good ASU team and they weren’t overly physical.  ASU just out-worked, out-coached and out-played UCLA and ultimately wanted it way more than UCLA did.

This loss feels like Groundhog’s Day -- different season, same outcome.  However, different than years past where a loss ruins the national championship hopes but doesn’t derail the season entirely, this loss feels like it has the potential to do so.  On a day where UCLA played a very beatable opponent at home, where the #3 and #6 teams in the nation that were in front of them lost, and the #1 and #2 teams looked especially vulnerable, UCLA completely choked.  How UCLA responds to that now is critical.  UCLA has 12 days until it takes on a very physical, very fundamental Stanford team.  This might be the most important 12 days of the Jim Mora era.  Every deficiency UCLA has is now on film and every schematic nuance is out there.  This is where coaches make their money and, in my opinion, we will know a lot more about this staff’s coaching chops after the road trip to Stanford.     

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