UCLA Gets Cathartic Win over Cal

Oct. 23 -- It's all about match-ups and timing, and UCLA matched up well against Cal at a time it really needed it...

UCLA was in need of a catharsis, and it’s great when you can rely on your sibling to provide you one, with UCLA beating Cal handily, 40-24, Thursday night in the Rose Bowl.

College football is all about match-ups.  UCLA matches up well against Cal in scheme and type of player.  UCLA’s defense is primarily built to shut down the exact type of offense that Cal runs.  UCLA's offense is designed to exploit a lesser-talented defensive unit. 

And it’s great when everything goes by design.

Cal, also, obliged.  Well, Cal’s quarterback Jared Goff obliged.  Goff was off.  Yes, UCLA’s defense pressured him into some bad throws and decisions, but there were some instances where he wasn’t touched or hurried and he just simply made a bad throw.   Goff has gotten beat up a bit over the last several weeks and it could be the hits are taking its toll on his composure. 

So, it’s not only about match-ups, but timing.

It was good timing for UCLA to face Cal, a team perfectly conducive for UCLA to do well.   You could sense that UCLA was mentally ready to put the last three weeks behind it, but a little tentative, too. It was almost like, “I want to go back in the water, but it’s been so cold lately.”  But once UCLA put its toes in it was clear they were the better team than Cal, and then you could see their mental and emotional confidence surge.

And again, UCLA matched up well against Cal.

You could see UCLA’s defense was in its schematic element.  This was a case where its scheme is designed to stop the the opposing offensive scheme, and it really comes down to 1) who has the best game plan, 2) who has the best athletes and players, and 3) who executes.   While Cal’s offense is a very good one in terms of this scheme, UCLA was clearly better in all three elements Thursday. 

Offensive coodinator Noel Mazzone’s game plan was a good one.  It was clear that he’s gone more to an establish-Josh Rosen-first approach. Even against a defense like Cal in which there was every indication that UCLA would be able to run right over it, the game plan emphasized the passing game. Rosen set a school record for completions, going 34 for 47 and 399 yards and three touchdowns.   UCLA threw the ball on first, second and third down. There were times when you were probably saying to yourself, “Run the ball,” but Rosen threw.  Obviously that tactic worked.  Mazzone clearly saw some softness in Cal’s secondary, particularly down the middle of the field, going time and time again to the slant game – really until Cal actually adjusted and stuffed the middle of the field with bodies.  Then, and appropriately, you could see a shift to UCLA’s passing attack to pick apart the sidelines.  Paul Perkins ran for 45 yards on UCLA’s first possession, but then UCLA never really emphasized the run on a possession like that again, until garbage time.  It could be, also, that there was further emphasis on the passing game when Perkins went down with a knee injury late in the first half.   Regardless, it was truly a case that, no matter what UCLA emphasized, it was going to be able to move the ball on Cal’s defense.   UCLA put points on the board in each of its first seven possessions. 

So much of the credit goes to UCLA’s offensive line and the offense’s overall excellent pass protection.   The game plan worked simply because Rosen had time to throw.   Even when it was clear UCLA was going to throw and Cal would try to bring pressure, UCLA’s pass protection picked it up.  Or Rosen adeptly stepped around it.   But it has to be really emphasized: This game and this win were greatly predicated on pass protection.  Give credit to Kolton Miller, the redshirt freshman who had his first start at left tackle in place of the injured Conor McDermott.  He had a few lapses, but for the vast majority of the time was very good in pass protection.   We’ve known that Miller was going to be a good one, but it’s always good to see the production and just not the potential on the field, in a real game. 

Rosen, though, was pretty good, too.  He had some lapses himself, throwing into seemingly triple coverage at times, and was very lucky that Cal’s secondary just couldn’t hold on to what should have been a couple of picks. But there are some things that really stand out about the true freshman QB, particularly in this game:  1) He’s very efficient.  He executes the bread-and-butter plays very well.  2) He has a great feel for the pocket, and a great sense of how to avoid a rush and reset to find a receiver down field. 3) He’s more advanced in looking off and finding a secondary receiver than any other UCLA quarterback in recent memory, and only as a freshman, and 4) he’ll sprinkle in some quite spectacular plays and throws in this machine of efficiency.   His one scramble on a third-and-long in the second half in which he then found Jordan Payton for a first down was truly a fantastic play, among at least a few in this game. 

If UCLA keeps providing Rosen time to throw, he’s going to be difficult to stop the rest of the season, as he continues to get smarter – like a computer that keeps learning.

It’s clear, too, that he might have a favorite target in Thomas Duarte.  The junior Y receiver had 10 receptions for 141 yards and one touchdown. His huge game was a bit a product of the game plan – to throw down the middle of the field – but there is enough flexibility in the offense for Rosen to make some decision on his own, and he seems to be deciding to find Duarte.  It makes a good amount of sense; in fact, we don’t really know why Duarte hasn’t been exploited at this level over the last three seasons.  He’s a mis-match nightmare.  He’s too big for a defensive back, and he’s too quick for a linebacker.  And then there is that great catch window he has, where he’s able to get his hands on just about anything thrown near him.  This was a great game to have for UCLA’s passing game, to get on tape for future opponents to watch – and potentially over-compensate in trying to stop Duarte. Because, if you do that, you’re going to have to make some adjustment that will open up another receiver or another part of the field. 

Give Mazzone a great deal of credit.  We think he had a bit of a self-realizing epiphany after the ASU game.  He tended to be pretty self-blaming after that game.  And since, against both Stanford and Cal, UCLA’s offense has looked balanced and the playcalling has been diverse, especially in terms of down-and-distance.  UCLA threw more on first down against Cal than it probably did collectively in the season’s first five games.   And he’s managing Rosen really well, giving him the kind of plays that are conducive for him to succeed. 

UCLA’s defense got back on familiar territory going up against the Air Raid spread of Cal.  It’s what UCLA’s defense is built to defend and, even given its depleted depth chart, it was still clear that UCLA had more talent on defense than Cal had on offense – which is what a good scheme is supposed to do: Give the talent the opportunity to win.  We had been clamoring for some changes in the defensive scheme, particularly that UCLA dedicate more bodies to putting pressure on the quarterback, and UCLA did that – not in a drastic change, but in a few tweaks and wrinkles.   UCLA’s defensive front stood up much of the time, and had a great deal more movement.  One goes hand in hand with the other; if the DL starts from a standing stance it can quite a bit more easily stunt and move – which is exactly what UCLA did against Cal. It blitzed a few times, not really anything dramatically more than it had previously this season. But the tactic of the DL starting from a standing position and moving around definitely helped the front four get more pressure on Goff.  There’s definitely an issue with UCLA’s pass rushes, though, getting home and actually completing the play with a sack.  Takkarist McKinley is very athletic, and very naturally good at getting around his blocker, but he struggles to finish.  He was moved inside some, like UCLA used to do with Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and that helped, too, in keeping Cal’s offensive line off-balance. 

Linebacker Aaron Wallace stepped in for the injured Deon Hollins at that defensive end/linebacker spot and had the game of his career. That position, especially Thursday against Cal, is mostly a defensive end, and Wallace might have inadvertently found his niche.  He was credited for 2.5 sacks on the night and, combining with McKinley, provided UCLA good pressure on Goff. 

UCLA’s linebackers, too, looked far more comfortable playing against Cal’s scheme.   Before Isaako Savaiinaea got hurt in the second half, he was having a very good game, in holding his gap and making the tackle but also in pursuit of Cal’s short passing game.  His inside linebacker counterpart, Jayon Brown, had one of his best performances, also being in position for a great majority of the game.  When Savaiinaea went down in the second half, Kenny Young, who has struggled this season, stepped in and played well.  He looked far more poised, and perhaps it’s a matter that Young gets a bit too hyped when he starts and coming in off the bench contributed to a better, more under-control performance. 

Another tweak that had an impact was stepping up safety Tahaan Goodman to play essentially a linebacker role.  Injecting that speed and athleticism into the pursuit in the running game, and then being able to use Goodman to match up in coverage rather than a linebacker was a significant factor in the effectiveness of UCLA’s defense. Perhaps the UCLA mini-linebacker role is back.

The secondary had one of its best games, if not its best of the season.  Goff many times didn’t recognize an open receiver initially, and that was completely due to great coverage by UCLA’s secondary.  Most of the time, too, when Goff threw it seemed he was trying to force it into a tight window because of UCLA’s effective coverage.  Ishmael Adams had a number of great stops to keep a receiver from the first-down sticks.  Randall Goforth had a good game in coverage, and give some credit to Johnny Johnson, stepping in to start at cornerback and, for the most part, holding up against Cal’s very good receivers when it appeared that Cal’s offense was trying to go right at him.

Jim Mora reacts to Fairbairn's record-setting field goal (Steve Cheng, BRO)

If we’re talking catharsis, or redeemable moments, there probably wasn’t one better than Ka'imi Fairbairn's 60-yard field goal, which set the UCLA all-time record for longest field goal (beating Chris Sailer’s 56-yard mark).  Fairbairn has been much maligned, and we think unfairly.  He has, too, steadily improved, particularly with his distance but also with his accuracy and consistency.   It was fantastic, then, that he had a chance to display it in a game.  It’s funny, because before the game, in watching warm-ups, I mentioned to Dave Woods that Fairbairn was routinely knocking in 60-yarders.  There was probably nothing better to see his pure joy and, the joy of his teammates, after he made that kick. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mora so elated either. 

There was a pall over the Rose Bowl, though, Thursday night.  UCLA has been beset by injuries this season, losing some of its NFL-level talent and key starters.  We thought, though, that UCLA still had enough talent – and probably more talent – than its remaining opponents. But if UCLA loses Perkins, Savaiinea and Devin Fuller for a significant amount of time that could be what tips the talent balance away from UCLA.  Perkins is irreplaceable at tailback, and Savaiinaea had become UCLA’s anchor in the middle of its defense. Combine that with the other injuries and it’s truly too much to expect UCLA to not now be deeply impacted.

It is all about match-ups and timing, though. UCLA’s upcoming schedule is against Colorado, Oregon State and Washington State, the three worst teams in the conference, so UCLA might not exactly need all of its talent to beat those three.  But it will need Perkins, Savaiinaea, Hollins, and McDermott back in time to match up against Utah on the road and USC at the Coliseum.  Hopefully an 8-2 UCLA team will have some of its most talented players healthy again when it travels to Salt Lake City November 21st.

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