The craziest thing about Josh Rosen’s impressive performance on Thursday is that it might have been his most inaccurate day throwing the football this season. His throws were a touch off, and there were three or four balls that easily could have been picked off (Cal corner Darius Allensworth had at least three of them bounce directly off of his hands). He seemed to be leaving most of the deeper throws a little short (which did give him a pass interference call late, so there’s that).
But pure accuracy aside, this was a really encouraging performance for Rosen because the speed of his decision-making has clearly improved. Half the time it seemed like his throws were inaccurate because he was seeing something so quickly that he didn’t have time to wait to throw the ball perfectly — one of these being an under thrown seam route to Thomas Duarte, where Duarte was open for maybe a second between the linebacker and the safety. Rosen sees the defense really well for a true freshman quarterback, but in this one, it seemed like he took it to another level.
Early on, UCLA used a lot of run/pass options, and it seemed like Rosen was making the simple decision to look at the defense, see which corner was sagging off, and then throw to that receiver. It worked for a series or two, and then suddenly Allensworth started to bait him a little bit, and he nearly threw a pick. After that, Rosen and the offense adjusted, it seemed, to more designed runs and passes, and it was just too much for Cal to handle. The way he choreographed the Jamabo swing pass was one of the most impressive things he’s done this year — it looked like he was pointing out which defensive backs the receivers needed to block on that play to free up Jamabo pre-snap. He also did an excellent job on the pooch punt.
Rosen is quite good right now, and at the rate he’s progressing, it’s a little scary to think about what he’ll look like in two weeks, let alone in two years.
Running Backs: B+
Before he was injured, Paul Perkins looked set for an easy 150+ yard day, and with the way he was seeing the field, we wouldn’t have been stunned to see him go for 200+. He was doing all the usual Perkins things, looking absurdly patient and balanced as he cut through the Cal defense. The collective hush that came over the Rose Bowl when he went down was a testament to the job he’s done the last two years, and it’s obviously a great thing for UCLA that his injury is just a bone bruise and not something more serious.
Sotonye Jamabo did a really admirable job in relief of Perkins. He had the one fumble late, yes, but he ran with a good deal more power and tenacity than we’ve seen from him this year. He actually moved the pile a couple of times to grind out first downs, and aside from a couple of mis-steps, looked much more comfortable getting North-South quickly. He was about a half step from breaking off a touchdown on that swing pass from Rosen. Kennedy Polamalu has done a tremendous job with him from game one to now, and it’s fun to think what he could look like with a full year of tutelage and strength training.
Bolu Olorunfunmi didn’t look quite as decisive as he’s looked in past games, and took a few bigger hits than he probably needed to. If his helmet hadn’t come off on his goal line drive, though, we imagine UCLA might have run it in with him on 3rd and 1 rather than attempting the pass to Jordan Payton and then kicking the field goal.
Obviously, UCLA needs Perkins and Nate Starks back for the bigger games against Utah and USC at the end of November, but we wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a larger diet of Jamabo and Olorunfunmi against Colorado and Oregon State, even if Perkins and Starks are available. Both teams have pretty poor run defenses, and it could give those two freshmen a good amount of confidence heading into the stretch run of the season.
Wide Receivers: A-
Don’t look now, but it appears Rosen has found his favorite target in Thomas Duarte. The big Y-receiver was probably under-utilized the last two years because UCLA didn’t want to the ball over the middle much, but Rosen seems to really enjoy throwing down the middle, and Duarte has responded with his best season as a Bruin. He is such a mismatch for defenses, with too much size for most defensive backs and too much speed for most linebackers, that it’s pretty obvious now how underutilized he really was previously.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention his two blocking issues on Thursday. First, the offensive pass interference was awesome — just so blatantly obvious, but it was probably the best block of Duarte’s career. The second missed block was on Rosen’s zone read carry. Rosen probably could have had six or seven yards on the play, but Duarte whiffed on his block, which led to Rosen taking a hit. So, that’s still a point for improvement for Duarte.
Darren Andrews has emerged, especially in the last couple of weeks, as a really nice option for Rosen in the slot. He did a great job on a pair of receiver screens to the outside where he raced up the sideline with some blocking in front of him. UCLA is doing a great job of getting more speed on the field with Andrews and Stephen Johnson, and they’re responding. Johnson, of course, should have had a touchdown on the little touch pass that got called back by a Kenny Walker hold.
Devin Fuller looked to be having his best game as a Bruin before he got hurt. He ran two excellent routes on his touchdown catches, and was playing with a ton of energy. On the play where he got hurt, he did the Jordan Payton thing, where he stiff arms directly forward to gain an extra three or four yards after contact. He has looked much better this year than last year, so hopefully his head/neck injury isn’t serious.
Payton was quietly good, and did a nice job preventing Rosen from throwing an interception on an under thrown fade route. Rosen, for whatever reason, reserved his most inaccurate throws for Payton, so he wasn’t quite as productive as he could have been, but he still did a nice job collecting first downs at various points in the game.
Offensive Line: A-
This was a really good rebound from last week’s game against Stanford, particularly for the interior offensive linemen. Alex Redmond, despite playing hurt, had maybe his best game of the season, looking really strong in the run game especially. Kenny Lacy also did a nice job of getting out and blocking downfield on a couple of Perkins’ runs early.
If you didn’t know that Kolton Miller had replaced Conor McDermott in this game, it wouldn’t have been blatantly obvious that UCLA had a new left tackle. Miller was very good in pass protection and good enough in the run game, and protected Rosen very well. The one time Rosen was sacked came because Jamabo actually chipped the guy Miller was blocking, and that guy used the chip to execute a spin move that put him right in position to hit Rosen, who had just stepped up into the pocket. Otherwise, Miller was great, and if McDermott is dinged up for another couple of weeks, the redshirt freshman probably assuaged a lot of concerns about his ability to fill in.
Caleb Benenoch also bounced back nicely from an uncharacteristic game last week. Aside from the holding penalty, where he needed to hold because Kyle Kragen (the Pac-12’s leading sack-master) got inside position on him, he was very good as well, in both pass protection and run blocking.
Offensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: A
I thought this was an obvious game for UCLA to just pound the ball against a bad California run defense, and, while that might have been true, it was also true that it was clearly a great game for UCLA to attack Cal through the air constantly. Noel Mazzone gave Rosen a steady diet of run/pass options early, and Rosen did a great job of diagnosing what the play should be. This was one of the more diverse games in terms of play calling we’ve seen this year, with a nice mix of interior runs, swing passes, receiver screens, slants, seams, and even a couple of deep shots that Rosen probably could have completed.
We loved the decision to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 50, and we weren’t too upset with the decision to kick the field goal from the 1 (the goal line is typically a relatively tough place to convert because it’s such a shallow field). The only thing we would have preferred would have been another run on 3rd and 1 rather than the attempt to Payton, but that’s nit-picking.
Defensive Line: A
UCLA’s defensive line came to play in a big way against California, and this was probably the most physical performance from the entire group this season. Takkarist McKinley was playing with some anger early, and he looked better against the run than he has in weeks. His speed is such a weapon off the edge, and he was inches from recording a couple of sacks in the first half. He could probably afford to slow down a little bit to make sure of the sack, since he’s so quick.
It’s really getting silly how well Kenneth Clark is playing. The big nose tackle was once again lined up off the line of scrimmage fairly often, but this time UCLA built some stunts out of it, which allowed him to get a serious pass rush against California. He was stout against the run, as always, and has now officially become a mismatch for basically any combination of interior offensive linemen in the league.
Eli Ankou and Matt Dickerson both did nice work against the run, and Dickerson also contributed to a couple of those big pass rushes against Jared Goff in the second half. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also was solid up front. It’s not altogether surprising that the defensive line looked much better in this game, given that they weren’t on the field forever like they were against Stanford.
Ainuu Taua saw some action in this one, and had a good contribution to a run stop and helped get some pressure on Goff late. UCLA went with a bigger rotation of linemen this week, and it seemed to help keep everyone fresh.
Aaron Wallace had the game of his life on Thursday, recording 2.5 sacks and making life tough for Cal’s backup left tackle. Wallace is so strong that he can hold up pretty well against a tackle in the run game, but is also relatively quick (at least compared to a tackle) and was able to actually speed rush a couple of times around the edge. He stepped up in a big way with Deon Hollins out.
Jayon Brown, stepping into the starting lineup in place of Kenny Young, had a really good game, and was very good against the run. He played a lot bigger than his size, and actually used his build to his advantage a couple of times, knifing through the big linemen up front to make a stop.
Isaako Savaiinaea, before his high ankle sprain, was having another very good game, and was noticeably better in coverage than he’s been this season. He had a pass breakup in zone coverage, and didn’t allow much for the running backs in the passing game when he was in.
Kenny Young came in after Savaiinaea’s injury, and given that he was coming in cold without having gone through a full complement of practices this week, he wasn’t bad. Cal did get a touchdown against him late, but he also made a nice stop at the sideline in the 3rd quarter, and was definitely better than he has been in recent weeks.
Defensive Backs: A+
I’m trying to think of a better performance from the UCLA DBs in the last four years and I’m having trouble. Given the degree of difficulty — Cal has some really talented receivers — this was tremendous.
Marcus Rios and Johnny Johnson were both noticeably excellent on the edge. Oftentimes asked to play pure man coverage against Cal’s talented receivers, both held up extremely well. Rios had a couple of breakups in the end zone, while Johnson stayed step-for-step with Bryce Treggs on a couple of downfield shots that weren’t completed.
Ishmael Adams, playing basically a nickel safety role, shined. He made a couple of first-down saving tackles, and was also mostly good in coverage (he had one deep ball completed over him, but that looked like it might have just been a breakdown in the zone).
Jaleel Wadood’s pass interference was pretty ticky-tack, and probably could have gone uncalled. He has had an up and down year, but he got better as this game went on. We’d like to see Randall Goforth wrap up a little bit more, but he put himself in position to make a bunch of plays in this game, which is what you want from a safety.
Tahaan Goodman made some nice contributions, especially late in the game, when he was playing basically a box safety role. His quickness and strength makes him very good against outside runs and the quick passing game.
Defensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: A-
This was a much more aggressive game plan from UCLA across the board. UCLA pressed the receivers a lot more on the outside, stunted a bunch more up front, and even blitzed a handful of times, with a couple of six-man pressures thrown in as well. It’s not coincidental that UCLA’s most aggressive play calling of the season yielded probably UCLA’s best defensive performance of the year.
We really liked the decision to stand up the defensive line on a bunch of downs, because it really helped to generate more of a pass rush. Against a team that runs the ball as poorly as Cal, it’s a good move, and it would probably be smart to do that again against Washington State in a few weeks.
It’ll be interesting to see what UCLA tries against Colorado and Oregon State, because both of those teams are more run-heavy teams than California, but this was a great game plan to stifle the Bears.
Special Teams: A
Ka'imi Fairbairn kicked a 60-yard field goal! That’s a thing that happened. The most maligned UCLA kicker in, what, 20 years just set the UCLA record for longest made kick. He made all four of his kicks and was great on kickoffs again. He’s been excellent this year.
Kenny Walker did a really nice job with his rugby-style punting. From seeing him good around practicing his punting the last few years, he doesn’t have the biggest leg, but his style of punting yields few shanks. At this point, just getting a consistent 40-ish yards from a punt is about all UCLA needs, so that’s great.
There really wasn’t much to note in either team’s return game, since both kickers were routinely belting the balls into the end zone.