This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
Stanford’s Offense vs UCLA’s Defense…..Ground and Pound
Everything that Stanford does starts with running the ball. Stanford plays power football out of heavy formations and forces the defense to play smash-mouth football. As a defensive coordinator, you know that you probably won’t stop the run entirely. The goal of the defense needs to be to minimize the damage the run can do on early downs and ultimately force passing situations. Teams that can run like Stanford can minimize your offense’s possessions by 6 or more a game, so you have to do whatever you can as a defensive coach to stop the run damage.
David Shaw has historically been a much better playcaller at home than on the road, where his conservative tendencies have hurt the Cardinal. At home, for some reason, he’s a terrific playcaller and tends to find the defenses weakness early and exploits it.
This match-up for UCLA was a complete nightmare from the opening kickoff. UCLA has not played the run well since Myles Jack went out and there is no better running team in my mind than Stanford.
Stanford began the game by running inside, then tried unsuccessfully to throw off the inside power, which set up their first 3rd down of the night. Stanford came out in a heavy package and tried to run wide with a toss, which UCLA defended well and forced a punt on the first series of the game. This series represented the only time all night where David Shaw tried to run wide on a third down conversion. It took one series for him to see that UCLA could use their speed sideline to sideline and slow down Stanford, so he largely played off the inside power runs and just wore down the UCLA defense as the game went on.
Stanford’s third drive was a great example of this adjustment. Leading 14-10 and needing to control the ball to keep a hot quarterback in Josh Rosen off the field, Shaw put together a 14-play drive that ate clock and began the wearing down of the UCLA defense.
On that drive there were two 3rd-and-long conversions that Stanford picked up on passes over the middle. UCLA has shown no interest in blitzing this season, and this game it was especially evident. On both conversions the UCLA defense rushed 4 and 3 respectively, and dropped 7 and 8 in coverage. Unfortunately for UCLA, the zoned-up linebackers lost track of the tight end for Stanford and the seam route came open twice. Quarterback Kevin Hogan was able to find his tight end on both conversions. After the second conversion, Shaw went to a steady diet of power runs out of heavy, jumbo or BALCO packages and ran the ball down UCLA’s throat. The scoring pass was a one-step drop slant to the wideout, but the drive was made by the power runs and UCLA’s inability to adjust to it. This was a theme Stanford used the rest of the game.
Later in the second quarter, up 21-10, Stanford had good field position thanks to the poor punting game of UCLA. Hogan connected with Devon Cajuste on a coverage bust by Aaron Wallace that took the ball down to the 20 yard line. From there, Stanford went to the good old Wildcat with Christian McCaffrey and UCLA couldn’t defend it. In two plays, which were the exact same play each time from Stanford, they finished off the drive using the Wildcat, pulling a guard and putting 8 blockers on 7 defenders. That made the game 28-10 and the rout was on.
Tactically, Stanford ran inside on UCLA the rest of the game. Stanford had 310 yards rushing as a team and McCaffrey had a career high 243 on his own. Stanford can chew up a 3-4 defense when they’re rolling, and going into this game they were certainly rolling. They like to use heavy sets, which puts more lineman on the line of scrimmage, and forces more gaps for the defense to account for. This is old-fashioned football in a sense.
In a 3-4, some of the front’s defenders are responsible for playing what’s called a 2-gap technique, while others are responsible for only 1-gap. Stanford’s philosophy is basically to force the defense to make all front defenders play 2-gaps, or force the defense to commit more defenders to the line of scrimmage. As a defense, if you don’t have guys who are versatile and skilled enough to play 2-gap technique, then you have to commit more defenders to the line of scrimmage and that involves either blitzing or changing the scheme.
Run blitzes out of a 3-4 historically have worked at slowing down Stanford’s power running game. Whether a dog type of blitz where the defense blitzes the back, or a formation blitz where the defense run blitzes an area, either can force the offensive lineman to move and leave a gap unblocked. Oregon did this to them a few years ago out of a 3-4 and really slowed down Stanford’s running game. However, I saw almost none of that adjustment from our defense in this game.
Changing the scheme is the other option at a defensive coordinators disposal to stop the run. At this stage of the season, I think UCLA needs to look long and hard at changing up the scheme. UCLA switched to a 3-4 defense when it had a legitimate 3-4 end in Datone Jones, a very good Mike linebacker in Eric Kendricks and a prototypical 3-4 rush end in Anthony Barr, although Barr was converted to that spot by the staff. Today when I look at UCLA’s personnel, minus Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack, (and even minus Ellis McCarthy), I just don’t see the personnel to play a 3-4 up front with much effectiveness. To make matters worse, playing a 3-4 without any pressure packages or risk-taking exposes the personnel deficiencies even more. And when you play good teams you get hammered, which is essentially what happened against Stanford’s offense.
There isn’t a lot of tactical analysis to this game defensively. Stanford took about two series to figure out they could run the ball inside and there was nothing UCLA could do to stop it, and UCLA spent the rest of the game getting bludgeoned by the run.
-- Kenneth Clark played very well despite taking a pounding. Stanford began double-teaming him virtually every down about mid-way through the second quarter. He held up well and once again showed how versatile, strong and valuable he is to this team. He’s the one guy I consistently see on every play going hard and to the whistle. I know the injuries and missing players must be tough for him to go through, but I really admire this kid’s effort.
-- UCLA’s middle linebackers continue to struggle with their reads, which gap to fill, which spot to get to for maintaining leverage. The linebacking crew as a whole had a terrible game against Stanford, but the middle linebackers didn’t show any signs that it might be clicking for them and this should be a huge concern for the coaching staff going forward.
-- Tom Bradley was billed as a guy who ran a varied, multi-faceted defense that showed different looks and played fundamentally sound technique with pressure packages that were well designed. That is not the guy I’ve seen through 6 games. UCLA blitzed one time in this game from what I could tell, and that was late in garbage time. I could be wrong on that, but that is what I counted. When you absolutely should blitz as a DC – on 3rd and long -- he didn’t bring pressure once, and that continues a theme we’ve seen all year from UCLA and for four years now from this staff. I have no idea what the logic could be in this regard, but it needs to change. UCLA got run over in this game, and when they did have a chance to keep it close in the first quarter they chose not to take any risks on 3rd and long and to me that’s criminal.
UCLA’s Offense vs Stanford’s Defense….Precision Required
Offensively against Stanford you need to be almost perfect. You can’t turn over the ball, you can’t give away first down and you have to convert on third down and minimize penalties. Stanford runs the ball so well that as an offense you know you’ll have 5 or 6 less possessions in a game against them, so you need to make them count. Last year, drops, wasted downs and penalties cost UCLA. I thought going into this game that Josh Rosen’s skill set would give UCLA a chance to move the ball, especially through the air, and if UCLA played clean they could stay in this game. But the first two series of the game offensively for UCLA embodied what you can’t do when playing against Stanford.
Stanford began the game in nickel, which is something they’ve played a lot of this year because they lack the personnel they had a year ago at a few spots. UCLA had a terrific game plan from what I could tell, using designed throws to get Rosen into a rhythm. The first UCLA series was a shame how it ended, because Rosen was really good up until the pick 6. The first three plays were high-percentage completions on a slant, a swing and another slant to move around the linebackers and take advantage of the corner’s cushions. Two of those completions were designed throws, and the slant to Thomas Duarte looked like a package play where Rosen got the key he wanted and made a read. The penalty on Jordan Payton was a huge call. Not only did it take away a first down, but it pushed back the third down conversion to a longer one and forced a designed throw from Rosen. On that play he just locked in to his single wideout to the far side and never came off him. The result was a pick 6 and the type of score you can’t give Stanford. Up to that point, Rosen looked really confident and I liked the game plan this week from offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to use designed passes to open up the run.
On the next drive, UCLA marched right back down the field using the same formula, designed throws to get the offense in rhythm. The rhythm created some tempo, which kept Stanford in nickel and allowed UCLA to move the ball down to the 9-yard line on a Paul Perkins highlight reel run. Then the wheels came off the drive. After the first down run by Perkins, UCLA couldn’t get the right personnel group in the game and was forced to call timeout. What followed was a series of plays Caleb Benenoch would probably like to forget. On first down, he was pulling and was called for too many men in the backfield, trying to cheat on the get-out for the pull. The next play Nate Starks ran into Benenoch for no gain. On second down Benenoch got beat on an inside move that flushed Rosen out of the pocket and caused a holding, which sets up 3rd-and-goal from a mile. UCLA got a bad read from Rosen on a package play and settled for 3. This series is a great example of what you can’t do against Stanford. You have to be near perfect offensively. If UCLA finishes off the first two series of the game, it’s at worst a 7-7 game. Even with the special team gift UCLA gave to Stanford on the ensuing kickoff, it still would be a one score game. Stanford forces you to execute and be precise, and the offense, although productive, wasn’t as precise as it needed to be in this game and it started on the first two possessions.
As the game wore on the rest of the offense let down Rosen, from what I could tell. There were two key third-down drops from Kenny Walker and Duarte that were well-thrown balls that should have been caught. There were more drops in the second half, one a sure touchdown by Soso Jamabo. Rosen did throw two interceptions and probably had a few plays where he tried to do too much, but all in all when he’s put in a rhythm he looks much more comfortable. Putting up 35 points and 520+ yards of offense against that Stanford defense with a freshman quarterback should be enough to have a shot to win. Obviously that wasn’t the case in this game, but UCLA has to be pleased with what they got from Rosen and the progress he’s making.
-UCLA’s offensive linemen are really struggling on their pulls these last few games. Most of the offense’s package plays require great timing from the linemen and the backfield in order to be executed properly, but the linemen seem to have slowed down getting into their pulls and the down blocks on the vacated defenders are slow as well. When UCLA uses designed runs and designed throws they seem to be blocked more effectively, but the packaged reads are giving this offensive line trouble. Jake Brendel was twice called for being ineligible downfield on these types of plays, and I saw a few other times it could have been called on Kenny Lacy and Alex Redmond. This is something UCLA needs to clean up to effectively execute the offense going forward.
-At some point UCLA needs to start cycling in some of the younger receivers. Darren Andrews had a spectacular touchdown reception in this one, but still is under-used. Stephen Johnson took the top off the defense against ASU, and didn’t see the field until late in the fourth quarter against Stanford. Kenny Walker has had more drops than catches in his career, so using him on third down instead of players like Austin Roberts or Alex Van Dyke doesn’t continue to make sense. Eldridge Massington is a ghost out there. I have no idea what guys like Roberts, Van Dyke or even Jordan Lasley can do, but it probably will be at least what Walker, Tyler Scott and Logan Sweet can do. There is no reason to have them continue to sit when they could be developing trust with Rosen in game reps.
It was said that this game was probably the most important of the Jim Mora era, and I agreed with that statement. UCLA had twelve days to clean up things that hampered them against ASU. UCLA had twelve days to build a game plan to beat Stanford, and put themselves back on the fringe of national playoff talk. Obviously that didn’t happen, Stanford ran right over UCLA and with it ran over any hopes of playing in a national playoff this season, however remote those were going into Thursday night. Now the focus needs to shift to getting better, finding a rhythm and getting back to execution. UCLA has a very good team, even with the injuries, and they absolutely can win the South by winning out and getting a little help along the way. It’s not an insurmountable task on paper. What might be insurmountable is overcoming the mental anguish the loss to Stanford can cause. When you’re physically dominated it hurts more than losing other ways. It demoralizes you and wrecks your confidence. This conference presents some real challenges, no doubt challenges that Tom Bradley has never had to deal with week to week. Cal comes in next with their Air Raid attack, which couldn’t be further from what Stanford just used to beat UCLA. It’s another must-win for UCLA, not only on paper but mentally, especially for the defense. You can’t beat Cal without blitzing, so let’s all hope the defensive staff changes up things before next Thursday night.