It’s completely understandable to feel a little bit of consternation after UCLA’s loss to Arizona State on Saturday.
After all, ASU had struggled for most of the year coming into the game, and even with some injuries on UCLA’s side, the Bruins are a more talented team. Of course, that’s probably the element that is causing the most unrest among UCLA fans — that the Bruins are clearly more talented than ASU, but lost pretty handily to the Sun Devils at home.
We’ve gone into great depth about why UCLA lost, but it mostly boiled down to a really poor first half offensively that kept the Bruins from building a lead while UCLA’s defense mostly held down ASU’s offense. And that poor half offensively was mostly due to unimaginative play calling and what seemed like a game plan that did not take into account the strength of ASU’s defense.
That’s an obvious issue, of course, and it’s one that we’ve talked about more than a couple of times over the last few years. Against Stanford seemingly each year, against Utah each year, and against Oregon the couple of times they’ve played them, UCLA has gone to a very conservative, unimaginative offensive plan, and an almost perfectly predictable first down strategy (in the nine games against those three teams in the last three years, UCLA has run the ball on 92 first downs and thrown the ball on 36 first downs in the first halves of those games — a better indication of the game plan than second half statistics). Probably the most worrisome aspect of each of those games is a pronounced inability to adjust away from the plan before it’s too late. UCLA has beaten the Utes two out of the three times they’ve played, but each of the games was a complete slog, and the Bruins, in our estimation, mostly won the first two because they simply had significantly more talent than the Utes.
So, the ASU game looked pretty similar to those games from years past, and that’s obviously a concern. Given what we just saw, UCLA fans who are concerned about how or whether the offense will adjust this year against Stanford in a week are completely legitimate in their feelings.
But so much of the conversation on our message board and throughout Twitter has been about this season, and whether UCLA’s loss to ASU spells an end to UCLA’s hopes for a Pac-12 South title and potentially greater prizes. And, while it might very well turn out that UCLA doesn’t win enough games to contend for the South, there was nothing about that ASU game that presented unfixable issues for the Bruins.
Again, UCLA’s talent is very good. In terms of raw talent, even with all the injuries on defense, the Bruins are probably just a step below USC among Pac-12 teams. UCLA has a very good group of running backs, some consistent possession receivers, a good offensive line, and a burgeoning talent at quarterback. On defense, UCLA’s defensive line has played well despite the loss of Eddie Vanderdoes, and at linebacker, UCLA has found something in Isaako Savaiinaea that it was lacking at the beginning of the year, a true replacement for Eric Kendricks as a tackler. The secondary isn’t great, but it wasn’t at the beginning of the year either. There’s some lack of speed in the back seven, but the talent across the board is good enough that UCLA’s defense should be able to stall more than a few opposing drives per game, and a handful of stalled drives per game should be enough for UCLA’s talented offense to gain an advantage.
From a talent perspective, UCLA has the ability to beat every team remaining on the schedule. USC is probably the most talented team the Bruins will play, but the Trojans are still young-ish in some key spots, including on the offensive line.
The issues in that game stemmed more from a game-planning/play-calling perspective, and as such, those issues are eminently fixable -- which means that this season is completely salvageable. You can’t fix your players — they are who they are, and UCLA has some pretty good ones. But you can fix your play-calling and game-planning, and projecting forward, there appear to be some issues with what UCLA is trying to do on both sides of the ball to some extent. If the Bruins can fix those, then there’s no reason to think they can’t contend for the South title.
On offense, there’s been a clear switch from the beginning of the year to now, with UCLA becoming a predominantly run-first team on first down over the last three games. ASU definitely keyed on UCLA’s running game and that’s now the blueprint for dealing with the Bruins, who have gotten much more run-heavy since the beginning of the year. In the last three weeks, UCLA is running the ball on first down almost 70% of the time in the first half, which is a marked tendency at this point. If you go back to UCLA’s offensive struggles against Utah, Oregon, and Stanford the last few years, that’s been the M.O. for the Bruins in the first halves of those nine games as well, with an approximately 71% run-on-first-down rate -- and the UCLA offense has been pretty bad in all but one of those games. And the thing with those games is that that’s 71% including a lot of Brett Hundley runs, which at least presents a different look. With UCLA’s current play-calling, the runs UCLA is calling are almost exclusively handoffs to the tailback. Now, if you go back to the beginning of the year, against UNLV and Virginia, UCLA ran the ball on about 36% of first downs in the first halves of those games. That might not be the ideal mix either, but UCLA simply doesn’t have the kind of offense to run a tailback on 70% of downs into the front of a talented run defense. It’s a spread offense without a true running threat at quarterback, and it’s not a particularly deceptive or complex running scheme. So, throwing the ball a little more, especially early in games on first down, would seem to be one immediate fix, since it would theoretically force defenses to back off and free up the running game later in the game.
The second item offensively would be to, perhaps, remove more restrictions on Josh Rosen’s ability to check out of plays at the line of scrimmage. One of Rosen’s best attributes is his advanced acumen and understanding of the game, and, aside from the assistants in the booth, he probably has the best vantage point for seeing what the defense is doing pre-snap. Yes, he’s a freshman, and he’s almost certainly going to make some mistakes, but it might also lead to a more dynamic and less predictable play-calling sequence.
On defense, it might be time for a philosophy shift. When UCLA had Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack, and Fabian Moreau, it was understandable to run a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense, since eventually one of UCLA’s talented playmakers would make a play. And if they didn’t, the Bruins were good enough to make every opponent drive a long slog. The issue is that UCLA simply isn’t as talented as they were at the beginning of the year -- the Bruins lost a generational talent in Jack, their best run-stopper in Vanderdoes, and their best corner in Moreau. A risk-averse strategy can work when you have Vanderdoes blowing up one running play in every four, or Jack taking the slot receiver out of the equation on 3rd and 6, but it doesn’t work as well when you don’t have the playmakers to do those kinds of things, and, instead, the bend-but-don’t-break defense eventually bends right into the end zone while also tiring out the defense.
So, why not take some risks? Now, we’re not suggesting that UCLA should suddenly turn into ASU and blitz on 80% of downs. Perhaps pressuring a little bit more would be a good strategy, but the main thing we’d like to see is a little more aggressive play on 3rd down from the secondary. Against ASU, there were two critical plays where UCLA noticeably backed off in coverage (ASU’s first touchdown and the 3rd and 11 conversion in the 4th quarter) and allowed ASU an easy conversion. And the thing is, ASU doesn’t have a great offense, and lacks offensive playmakers. If UCLA attempts the same strategy against teams like California or USC, the Bruins could get run off the field. With a more pressure-oriented strategy, there’s definitely the risk of giving up a big play, but there’s also the reward of occasionally forcing turnovers and creating havoc in the backfield that could stall drives.
UCLA smartly came into the year with the idea of relying on the run game and the defense to hold the team steady while Rosen got his feet wet, and it completely made sense as a grand plan. With the defense depleted now, and teams really scheming to shut down UCLA’s running game, it’s probably time for a shift away from that grand plan. UCLA has the potential for an elite offense -- any time you have a quarterback as talented as Rosen, you have the potential for an elite offense, and the potential becomes even greater with a good offensive line in place, a good running back corps, and some talented possession receivers. If UCLA can vary its play-calling a bit more, and become a little less predictable on first down, we really think that will go a long way toward making the offense more consistently effective. And if that happens, a defense that is geared toward getting the offense back on the field as quickly as possible (through forcing turnovers some of the time, creating sacks and negative plays at other times, and even giving up quick scores occasionally) would be the ideal fit.
The season is still completely salvageable, and UCLA still has the talent to win the Pac-12. Gauging the league and remaining schedules, Utah and USC are probably the two teams to beat in the South, and it’s likely that both will have at least one conference loss by the time UCLA plays them (USC already has its loss to Stanford, while Utah could very well lose to California this weekend or USC in a few weeks). As such, the Bruins can probably afford one more loss this season, as long as it doesn’t come against either of those teams. Stanford remains a horrible matchup for UCLA, especially for UCLA’s defense, and the Cardinal is playing at a high enough level right now that it’s probably fair to call it a loss for the Bruins right now. But if UCLA can get through that game without completely imploding, and then can beat California, there’s no reason for the Bruins to not be 8-2 heading into the stretch against Utah and USC. And if UCLA sweeps through those two, the Bruins would likely win the South at 7-2 in conference.
ASU was an ugly loss that exposed some issues with the offense that seemed to mirror issues we’ve seen from the last three years. The defense’s talent is a little depleted, and UCLA probably can’t run the defense it wanted to run at the beginning of the year. But the issues are fixable, and there’s plenty of reasons to think that the Bruins should be able to right the ship and still contend for the conference championship.