It’s tough being a fan.
It’s mostly heartbreaking by nature. I mean, how often does your team actually win a championship? Being a fan is an exercise in futility. Actually it’s not the actual exercise, it’s being a helpless spectator in an exercise of futility. That’s supreme futility, then.
Most of the time, too, fans are looking for an escape in their fanship, into a world of black-and-white realities. Being a fan you either want to hate something or like it. You want simplicity, which we all know is exactly what life isn’t. Life is complicated nuance. And while we can deal with that in real life (because we have to if we’re going to function), we resist having to deal with it when we’re in our sports fan mode.
UCLA’s win over Colorado Saturday, 35-31, is a great example of a complicated, nuanced instance in sports that fans just aren’t going to be able to force into that black-and-white box.
If you’re a person that generally comes down on the black side of the equation as a UCLA fan, you’re just not going to be able to completely hate UCLA’s performance against Colorado. And if you’re more commonly on the white side, there’s no way you can ignore some of the issues from that game.
And it’s okay, because that was a game you could neither really like nor hate.
You have to completely understand the perspective of Jim Mora in his post-game interview, that he characterized the game as a gritty performance, given the ridiculous amount of injuries that have beset the team. We said a couple of weeks ago that there could be a tipping point with injuries, when they become too numerous and impactful that it makes this UCLA team unable to play at a respectable level. Most fans would have to admit that probably happened against Colorado. Mora listed the injuries with great accuracy in his post-game interview, and it’s truly amazing to think about. When you actually have to take a guy, Josh Woods, out of his redshirt year eight games into the season – a linebacker who probably weighs 200ish pounds – you know injuries are deep.
On the other hand, even given the injuries, the other side of your fan personality is probably thinking that UCLA should have done better against Colorado anyway.
So, you’re conflicted, right?
To reconcile both sides of our conflicting fanship as a result of that game we have to abandon the black-and-white impulse and just give into the fact that you’re going to both love and hate the UCLA football team that played against Colorado.
What's to love?
How about that pass from Josh Rosen to Jordan Payton on the fly route down the sideline? That ball landed so perfectly in Payton’s hands, it was sincerely a thing of beauty. How about Jayon Brown playing like a boss, collecting 18 tackles? There was Ishmael Adams' great, instinctual 96-yard pick-six. Paul Perkins, at times visibly limping in this game, so he was clearly still not back 100% from the knee injury, breaks off an 82-yard touchdown scamper where he out-runs the Colorado secondary to the goal line. How about Perkins’ first touchdown on the screen, where he displayed his pinball elusiveness? He gained 118 yards on 12 carries, for a 9.8 yard average.
You have to appreciate that the defense was on the field for a whopping 41 minutes, on a 90-degree day in October, playing a number of guys who are second- and third-string, and out of position. Even though Colorado’s offense pretty much dominated the game, there is a pretty interesting stat: Colorado’s O averaged just 4.9 yards per play. In the world of BRO statistician Alex Mokover, that’s good enough for national top-25 status, and it’s below Colorado’s average for the season.
So, why was that game so ugly? Well, here comes the black part.
UCLA’s game plan was one that didn’t put the team in the best position to succeed and, as the game wore on, was really just about the worst you could envision for this team on this day.
It appeared the overall gameplan was for UCLA to run the ball. Makes sense on the surface, if you look at the UCLA/Colorado game in simple terms. Colorado has the worst run defense in the conference, and UCLA has a good rushing attack. If UCLA, then, could establish the run, it would keep its offense on the field, and keep its depleted defense off – which would be especially key on a stupidly hot day.
But here’s the thing: While UCLA has a good rushing attack, it’s by no means a dominating one. Schematically it’s not a smash-mouth type of offense, obviously, and this season it’s not one that will be able to consistently gain 6 or 7 yards – when the defense knows you’re going to run. UCLA’s running game is more something like -- stopped for no gain, or gain 1 or 2 yards, then sometime during the course of a few series, break off a big run. It does tend to wear down defenses, and it generally runs better later in the game. But this, then, by nature, isn’t a defense that, from the game’s outset, is going to be able to run twice on every three downs and easily move the chains down the field.
The thing is, though: It seems the UCLA coaches do believe that is what UCLA’s running game is.
After such a great offensive gameplan against Cal, it appeared like UCLA’s offense had found itself a bit – and realized that it needed to emphasize the pass, early and often, for UCLA’s offense to really work on all cylinders. Rosen showed he was really good at picking apart an opponent’s defense, just taking what it gives him, with short throws of 7 yards or so. Thomas Duarte had a break-through game of sorts, and was unstoppable. And the chains moved.
But UCLA resorted back to the arrogant belief it can be an offense with a dominating run game, which it isn’t, especially on a day when your star running back isn’t completely healthy.
That assumption caused a ripple effect through the game that resulted in UCLA not being put in its best position to succeed.
If you have the gameplan of trying to keep your offense on the field and doing it by running the ball, and that doesn’t work from the outset, then that ripple effect will really hurt you. It especially really hurts you when you combine that with a bend-and-not-break defensive gameplan. So, this all manifested itself in UCLA consistently giving the ball back to Colorado, and Colorado churning out long drives against UCLA’s bend-and-not-break defensive approach, with a depleted defense on, again, a stupidly hot day.
And then, and perhaps the most regrettable aspect of the gameplan: there was no dramatic adjustment. There were attempts at tweaks, but nothing really substantial that could deter the game from going the way it was going.
It then didn’t help either that UCLA became a quick-strike team. Put yourself in the defense’s shoes. UCLA is up 7-0 toward the end of the first quarter. With UCLA’s defensive gameplan of bend-and-not-break, Colorado goes on a 16-play drive that covers almost 6 minutes. And then the Buffs miss the field goal! So, the UCLA defense succeeded, but was on the field for a long time. On UCLA’s next possession, it runs on first and second down for a total of a one-yard loss, and then doesn’t convert on a third-and-11. To begin the second quarter, you, the UCLA defense, are back out on the field. You get a stop, three and out. UCLA’s offense comes back on the field, and goes three and out. Colorado then goes on another 16-play drive, and you’re on the field for 6:35. The drive ends when Adams makes his 96-yard pick six. The defense, given the gameplan, does its job again. But, because of that defensive score, the defense is back out on the field. Colorado puts together an 11-play drive for 3:26. And it only gets a field goal out of it. Success again, given the game plan. On UCLA’s first down, Perkins’ breaks off his 82-yard touchdown run, and the ball is given back to Colorado, and you, the UCLA defense, are back on the field again.
Don’t forget: It’s a stupidly hot day.
Colorado puts together a 13-play drive to end the first half, and only gets a field goal. Given the gameplan, success again for you, the UCLA defense.
So, over the course of a quarter and a half, UCLA’s defense was on the field for almost a straight 19 minutes. At this point, the bend-and-not-break gameplan had essentially worked, holding Colorado to just 6 points. But at halftime there probably should have been some realization that those 19 minutes on the field were going to wear down the defense on such a hot day. And that it was pretty lucky, actually, that the Colorado receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, the Colorado field goal kicker missed a field goal, and instead of Colorado getting points from being within 4 yards of the goal line, UCLA got a pick six. It probably was logical to conclude, especially with how UCLA’s offense wasn’t moving the chains, and UCLA's defense getting worn down (At one point in the third quarter, Colorado had run 90 plays to UCLA's 30), that this might be a little bit of fool’s gold and that, if you continued with this strategy, the bend-and-not break defense would break.
If we were going to simplify it all, though, and go back to the beginning of what caused the ripple effect, it all rippled from UCLA’s arrogant assumption it could dominate on offense by running the ball, eat up the clock and move the chains down the field.
And then there was no substantial adjustments when that was clearly not the case and it also was putting far too much pressure on your defense.
And again, penalties were a bugaboo.
But again, there was so much to like in this game. Even though the defense was worn down in the second half, you could clearly see they were still playing hard with what they had left in their tank. Paul Perkins and Jayon Brown were men. We’ve never understood why Cameron Judge isn’t given more playing time but, as Mora said in the post-game interview, he played the Mike linebacker spot when Woods went down, a position he doesn’t know, and played well. The UCLA offensive line was a man down with Alex Redmond unable to play, and then lost second-string and now starting tackle Kolton Miller after a pretty illicit chop block, and true freshman Fred Ulu-Perry comes in and the offensive line keeps playing well without a beat. It can’t be emphasized enough that the key to this season is UCLA being able to provide Rosen good pass protection, and they did it again for the most part against Cal, allowing just one sack. You have to appreciate true freshman safety Nathan Meadors having to come in on a potentially game-winning, end-of-the-game drive for Colorado, and plug in at corner and make a great, instinctual interception to ice the game.
So, as a fan who wants a black-and-white world the Colorado game just doesn’t fit into that universe. You have to accept the conflicting sides of the equation. You can completely see what Mora was saying in the post-game interview, how gritty his players were to pull out this game. But you have to recognize that the gameplan wasn’t the optimum one for UCLA, given its personnel. We know that UCLA’s gameplan is trying to compensate for UCLA’s injuries, too, but it just didn’t work well in this game. In fact, we give even more credit to the players and their grittiness for their performance given the gameplan.
The nuanced, not black-and-white question now is: After UCLA seemed to show some great self-awareness and conceived of a gameplan that fit its talents against Cal really well, what does this gameplan regression against Colorado mean? Well, if the past three years under Mora are any indication, UCLA will probably unconvincingly win its next two games against Oregon State and Washington State (even though the Cougars looked pretty tough against Stanford), be 8-2 going into the Utah game -- and essentially put themselves in a position to win the Pac-12 South, again.