No doubt there will be a fair amount of national media types who write that this was just a freshman game for Josh Rosen, and UCLA took its lumps because of it, but watching the game over again only reinforced the idea that very little, if any, of UCLA’s ineptitude on offense was a result of poor play by the freshman quarterback. He was actually very good most of the night, and considering that he had pressure in his face on the majority of his drops, it’s impressive that he was able to put up the numbers that he did. He had a couple of poor decisions, including another throw across his body across the field that was nearly picked at the beginning of the third quarter, and then an interception where he just didn’t see that the linebacker was in a zone rather than man coverage, but other than that, he was about as effective as you could expect given the game plan and play-calling he had to deal with.
On the safety, that was only Rosen’s fault in the sense that he probably should have realized that the play call wasn’t going to work as soon as he saw six ASU defenders at the line of scrimmage just before the snap and should have either checked out of it or thrown the ball immediately out of bounds after the snap, but that might have been a play he was unable to check out of.
In any case, Rosen’s second touchdown throw to Thomas Duarte was sublime, and the type of thing you can get with more consistency if you get Rosen comfortable early in a game. Despite the offensive line inexplicably leaving Demetrius Cherry unblocked for about the 12th time in the game, Rosen was able to side-step the nose tackle and uncork a beautiful rope to Duarte over the middle off of his back foot.
Rosen’s comfort level in the second half, despite being down by 19 points, was a sight to see. It would have been really interesting to see what would have happened if Duarte had hung on to the 1st down pass on the final real UCLA drive. At this point, UCLA has to be ecstatic with what its seeing out of its freshman quarterback.
Running Backs: B-
This is really more of an “incomplete” than anything, but that’s a copout grade. The running backs were thrown into a stacked box basically all night, so you have to grade them on a heavy curve. Even with Paul Perkins consistently getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, I still got the sense watching the game that he ground out more yards than he reasonably should have. Nate Starks did the same in limited time. It was just that the unimaginative offense led to both players having to rush directly into the teeth of a defense that was designed specifically to stop them.
Nate Iese’s drop was a devastating blow in third quarter, when UCLA was down 15-10 but driving. Iese came free over the middle, and it wasn’t completely apparent on TV, but watching live, he had at least 20 yards and possibly a touchdown if he caught the ball cleanly. He seemed to know it, too, since he didn’t look the ball into his hands and seemed intent on turning up field immediately. It was one of a few backbreaking drops in the game.
Offensive Line: D
ASU stacked the box and blitzed a ton all game, but this was still a poor showing for the offensive line. Even when ASU didn’t blitz, the interior of UCLA’s offensive line was really poor in both run blocking and pass protection. There seemed to be really poor communication between Jake Brendel and the guards, since Demetrius Cherry, ASU’s nose tackle, would often go unblocked, as if Brendel thought one of the guards was going to pick him up, and one of the guards thought Brendel was going to pick him up. The thing was, that issue basically didn’t get fixed all game — Cherry was unblocked at points in the first quarter, and then he was the one who flew in basically unblocked on Rosen’s touchdown throw to Duarte in the 4th quarter. Alex Redmond also seemed to have a poor game, and got beaten one-on-one too many times. His hold on Rosen’s throw to Payton in the first half was a necessary hold, since otherwise Rosen would have been shelled, but the fact that it was necessary was concerning. The ASU player basically just juked him, taking a quick step left and then quickly moving to his right, and Redmond couldn’t move his feet quickly enough to keep up.
Kenny Lacy wasn’t quite as bad as we thought live, it just looked like he was asked to do a little too much in the run game. He was pulled, though, and Kolton Miller came in at right tackle, which slid Caleb Benenoch down to Lacy’s spot at guard. Miller had a couple of struggles, but he also made some nice plays, including a great block on Thomas Duarte’s first touchdown catch, and it’s easy to see him fitting into the starting group in a year or two.
The tackles were generally good. Very little of ASU’s pressure seemed to come purely from a one-on-one win on the edge. More often, when ASU got edge pressure, it was due to a complete overload that should have either resulted in a change of play or a change of protection. There seemed to be poor communication across the board for the offense, with little of what was going on on the field seemingly translating to changes in the blocking assignments or play calling. How much of that is on the offensive line itself is debatable.
Wide Receivers: D
So. Many. Drops. Mossi Johnson, Duarte, and Payton all had big drops in this game, with Johnson and Duarte’s probably right there with Iese’s as complete backbreakers. Johnson has now shown a clear propensity to drop the football in games, and there’s no way UCLA can play him with any consistency if that keeps up, despite his play-making ability and ability to gain separation. Duarte’s drop was obviously unfortunate, since he was having a great game up to that point, but he needs to catch that ball.
We’ll get into this a bit more in our next, very long section about the offensive coaching, but way too often, the receivers were running essentially four verticals against significant ASU pressure, and no receiver was breaking off of his route to come back to Rosen to help. Maybe the receivers just absolutely have to run the plays as called, but it didn’t seem like they were giving Rosen a ton of help when he was constantly in motion having to avoid the rush.
Offensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: F
As many have said, this was a poorly called game, and a poorly conceived game plan against ASU. The Sun Devils had shown basically everything they did against UCLA the previous four weeks, and it wasn’t altogether different from what ASU has done for the last three years under Todd Graham. They stacked the box, blitzed a ton, and disguised their pressures with a lot of pre-snap movement. UCLA, oddly, came into the game clearly with the plan to establish the run against ASU — and, as we wrote in the preview, the interior of ASU’s defense and particularly its run defense was the fundamental strength of that unit.
So, first, UCLA had a poor game plan in place to take advantage of what ASU does poorly. UCLA had very little chance to run inside zone against that defense, with how aggressive ASU was playing, but it took until midway through the third quarter before we got any sense that UCLA adjusted. Too many times in the first half, UCLA ran into a stacked box on first or second (or first and second) downs, and then was faced with a third and long where the ASU defense could just blitz Rosen at will. With how aggressive ASU was playing, UCLA needed to throw early and quickly, getting the ball either out to the edge for wide receiver screens or over the middle on quick slants. Instead, UCLA was often forced to pass in 3rd and long situations, which necessitated Rosen staying in the pocket longer, which led to him being under fire basically all game.
The Rosen safety was really bizarre. It was a 3rd and 6, and ASU showed pre-snap that it was bringing six, and UCLA had four-wide with Paul Perkins in to block. You’d probably expect at least one shorter outlet for Rosen, given that he was backed up against his own end zone, but instead, UCLA appeared to go with four verticals, and when Rosen was finally throwing the ball from the end zone, it didn’t appear that any of the receivers had even turned back to the quarterback yet. Just from a down and distance perspective, it was a really strange call.
UCLA had a couple of interesting fourth down decisions to dissect in this game as well. The first, the 4th and 3 from the 43 where UCLA punted, is an obvious situation to go for it. There is no statistical analysis that supports punting the ball there, and even the gut instinct stuff that so many people rely on would dictate going for it. Offense isn’t playing well? They might not get this far too many more times — go for it. Trust your defense? They should do as nice a job from the 43 as they’d do from, say, the 10 — go for it. Throw in that UCLA has a poor punter, and it just adds more weight to going for it.
The other 4th down call was a little more gonzo, but down 6 with a 4th and 6 from your own five or so yard line with 4 minutes and change to go and all three timeouts with a bad punter is probably a good time to go for it as well. UCLA elected to take the safety and give ASU a free two points and the ball back, and we completely get the reasoning — at that point, it’s still a one-score game and if UCLA’s defense stops ASU, the Bruins get the ball back with time to tie it up. But the thing is, adding those two points to ASU significantly changes UCLA’s chances of actually winning the game — instead of just scoring a touchdown, UCLA essentially has to score twice, with a touchdown and a two-point conversion, and that’s just to tie the game. And that’s not taking into account that UCLA has to get the ball back without ASU scoring again, while also driving down the field probably 80 yards with no timeouts. There are just a ton of variables, and the odds of UCLA actually having them all turn in the Bruins’ favor is not good.
On the flip side, UCLA could have gone for it on 4th and 6. It’s probably about a 50/50 probability (UCLA averages just over six yards per play offensively) that UCLA converts. So, there’s a 50% chance UCLA extends its drive and has the ball with 4:00 to go and 80+ yards to go for the win — in other words, plenty of time, and with the way the offense had played most of the 4th quarter, a decent enough shot to win. There’s also a 50% chance that ASU gets the ball back right there and then scores after burning through all of UCLA’s timeouts, but then UCLA gets the ball with still about 4 minutes to go and down two scores — again, not an impossible situation, just a desperate one. Perhaps Alex can get to it in his statistical review, but I’d bet that if you rule out punting as an option, which I agree with, the more statistically defensible move would have been to go for it.
But, honestly, it shouldn’t have gotten that far. UCLA was done in by a miserable first half of play-calling followed by a second half that saw too many missed opportunities by the receivers and coaches alike.
Defensive Line: B+
The UCLA defensive line was, in large part, the reason this was even a game at all in the second half. Kenneth Clark was a monster all game, but especially in the second half, when he basically took over the game for a stretch, getting a tip on Isaako Savaiinaea’s pick and then blowing up play after play in the backfield. He undoubtedly made himself a lot of NFL money yesterday, and he seems to be really shouldering the load in the last few weeks with Eddie Vanderdoes out, and has played his best football as a Bruin in the last two weeks.
Takkarist McKinley gets some blame for the zone read issues, especially at the beginning of the third quarter, but in the first half, he was really active, and he also had a really nice deflection to set up UCLA’s ultimately failed attempt to go 99 yards for the score. He’ll need to be a little more disciplined against the zone read with the lack of speed in the back seven, but it’s hard to just blame the defensive end when a quarterback who isn’t a runner runs for a 34 yard touchdown.
Eli Ankou had another solid game in the middle, holding up well against the run and even getting a sack. Matt Dickerson also did some nice things when he came in, putting pressure on Bercovici on one throw where Bercovici actually made a nice read to throw just over Dickerson’s head.
We’re going to start including Deon Hollins with the defensive line again, since he’s basically just playing defensive end. Hollins was much better than McKinley on the edge against the zone read, and single-handedly stopped a few plays before they really got going. He’s gotten so much better, and he adjusted well from a slightly sub-par game last week to stay home and play with more discipline this week.
Against the run, the linebackers were mostly pretty good — by which we mean Isaako Savaiinaea. Savaiinaea was usually in the right place, and did a very good job tracking down ball carriers and making plays. He has shown great instincts so far this season, and seems to have that nose for the ball that you want in a middle linebacker.
The linebackers were exposed a little bit more in pass coverage. Bercovici was able to hit a few throws over the top of the linebackers where they just didn’t have the foot speed to keep up with the receiver. Savaiinaea was beaten by Kody Kohl on one throw in the third quarter where he had to hold to even keep up, which isn’t good against a tight end.
Kenny Young continues to struggle quite a bit, and was out of position and playing on his heels many times. Savaiinaea helped to disguise his issues by cleaning up on a lot of tackles, but Young really needs to rebuild his confidence during the bye week, as he really appears to be struggling out there.
UCLA was definitely at an athleticism deficit at linebacker with Myles Jack and Jayon Brown out, and if Brown is out for an appreciable amount of time, we’ll be interested to see if Cameron Judge starts to get a little more work to provide some more athleticism.
The defensive backs seemed to play pretty well early, especially Ishmael Adams, but as the game wore on, they started to settle back into off coverage and began to give up some plays. ASU basically walked into the end zone on its first touchdown because Adams and Jaleel Wadood were playing behind the sticks and nearly backpedaled into the end zone on a simple wide receiver screen.
Randall Goforth struggled a little bit on the edge, particularly in run support. He didn’t tackle well at all in this game, which is admittedly a challenge when matched up against one of ASU’s 220+ pound running backs, but Goforth didn’t appear to be going for the wrap-up, instead trying for the big hit. He also dropped another near pick, which would have been a critical play for UCLA.
Jaleel Wadood was again out of position on a long quarterback touchdown run. McKinley didn’t play it well, but Wadood over pursued and got himself covered by an offensive lineman when Bercovici ran past him. Wadood was the last line of defense, and just was too aggressive trying to pursue the running back.
Tahaan Goodman had some nice moments, including a good breakup in the end zone on D.J. Foster, and as we said, Adams had a really nice start to the game, so those two help to save the grade a little bit.
Defensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: C
Based on the first few series, this grade would have been significantly higher, but it seemed like UCLA got a little more conservative as the game wore on. The first series actually saw UCLA pressing the corners and using a little single high safety look, and the Bruins were able to get some pressure on Bercovici and stop the run as well. As the game wore on, though, UCLA backed its corners off of the receivers, and in some key spots, that proved costly.
The first spot was on the first ASU touchdown that we talked about above in the secondary section. The receiver just had too much time and space before he was even touched by a player in the secondary. The second really brutal conversion was on a 3rd and 11 in the 4th quarter after Clark had single-handedly stymied ASU’s offense. On the third and 11, though, UCLA’s secondary went soft, playing well off the receivers, which allowed a relatively easy conversion right at the sticks. If UCLA stops ASU there, suddenly Rosen has to drive maybe 75 or 80 yards for the winning touchdown, not 99, and he has considerably more time to do it.
Overall, though, we give the defensive staff much more of a pass. Without five starters, and with Jayon Brown out and McKinley ailing, UCLA’s defense did more than enough for UCLA to win this game. They just got very little help from the offense or from special teams for most of the game.
Special Teams: D-
This was one of the first truly bad games for UCLA special teams under Jim Mora — the only thing remotely saving it was Ka'imi Fairbairn’s career-long 53 yard field goal. Other than that, UCLA’s kick coverage was worse than its been at any point in the last three years, and the punting situation, which we were worried about prior to the start of the season, finally came to a head with a miserable showing. You know it’s bad when UCLA wasn’t even willing to punt on its final real possession, instead electing to take a safety.