In the moment, it felt really bad. The sun was hot, the stadium was half empty despite tickets quite literally being given away for free, and the Bruins only played offense for under a third of the game. We remarked that it was our least favorite experience at a game since that freezing (ok, 48 degrees) Holiday Bowl blowout to Baylor, and probably the worst we have felt after a win in recent memory. As we write this though, it’s Sunday morning, the sky is Bruin blue, the heat has dissipated, the coffee is boiling, and the advanced stats tell a really interesting story (seriously—we had as much fun writing this article as we have had with any other game review these last couple of years). Might Jim Mora have a bit of a Mike MacIntyre problem? Sure, but unlike what our guts told us, the stats show that UCLA was the better team on Saturday afternoon.
As always, we use:
- Yards Per Stop to measure efficiency
- Yards Per Play to measure explosiveness
- Points Per Drive to measure scoring
- Points Per Trip Inside the 40 to measure drive finishing
- Field Position Margin to measure field position
- Turnover Margin to measure turnovers
Part of the reason this game felt so jarring was that the offense was pretty much the exact opposite of what we have come to expect the Noel Mazzone offense to be. Whereas the Bruins have usually been able to grind out solid runs, quick passes to the boundary, and slants over the middle to stay on schedule and move the chains, they were mostly unable to sustain long drives in this game, with an 11 play drive to open the scoring in the first quarter being the only UCLA scoring drive of longer than six plays. The Bruins went 3-and-out on 1/3 of their drives, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you possess the ball for fewer than 19 minutes of game time.
The flip side to that, and the reason the offense was able to score 28 points despite struggling to move the chains, was that the Bruins were pretty explosive. Paul Perkins went 82 yards up the gut for a touchdown (did he hurt himself a bit when he decelerated in the end zone? From section 5 it sure looked like he lost a step the rest of the game), Jordan Payton caught a perfect 51 yard bomb, Darren Andrews accelerated by his man for a 24 yard catch, Thomas Duarte was uncovered over the middle and went 38 yards a key 3rd down conversion that set up the game-winning touchdown, and Perkins himself weaved 31 yards on a 3rd and long screen to score the opening touchdown. We’ll take 6.8 yards per play any day of the week, and this was the Bruins’ third most explosive game on offense behind Arizona and, if you can believe it, Stanford.
The Bruins’ mediocre efficiency meant that they didn’t have many scoring opportunities, but unlike Colorado they converted every single scoring opportunity into a touchdown for the second perfect Points Per Trip Inside the 40 number of the year. Eight games into the Rosen era, it is becoming clear that the dip in the team’s ability to take advantage of scoring opportunities without Brett Hundley’s legs that many feared did not materialize. Josh Rosen’s arm, Paul Perkins’ legs, and the UCLA receivers’ strength and route running is getting the job done near the goal line.
If the Bruins had to kick one field goal instead of a touchdown, they would have gone to overtime. This was clearly not a vintage performance by the UCLA offense—the efficiency was just not good enough—but it was explosive enough to be adequate.
With the the defense in absolute disarray due to injuries, heat, and Mike MacIntyre’s intriguing Stanford-meets-Arizona offensive gameplan, the UCLA defense put up the archetypal bend-don’t-break effort. Everyone has of course already heard of how the Buffs ran more plays in the first half than any team has in college football, yet from those plays alone, Ishmael Adams outscored the entire Buffalo offense 7-6. The Buffs averaged a terrible 4.2 yards per play in the first half, and only 4.9 yards per play for the game. How is it, then, that they were able to score 24 points despite such an anemic showing?
The reason Yards Per Play works so well to measure explosiveness is that the big outlier plays really skew it upwards. The Bruins averaged 6.8 Yards Per Play in this game, but on non-explosive plays they were rarely close to that number. The Buffs were the opposite. They managed 114 plays, and a grand total of 12 went for more than 10 yards, and only 4 went for more than 20. To put that in perspective, in just over half as many total plays, UCLA had 11 plays of more than 10 yards. That means that when the Buffs Yards Per Play was 4.9, they really were getting around 4-5 yards on every play. That kept their offense on schedule, the chains moving , and the UCLA defense on the field. The Buffaloes had FIVE drives of over 10 plays. From those drives, they scored 6 total points.
We may never see anything like that game again. Yes it’s bad that the Bruins allowed a bad offense to move the chains so consistently and this was by no means even an ok performance, but given the win, it’s ok to marvel that we just saw the game that should be on Wikipedia as the very definition of “bend-don’t-break.” We initially typed that we will probably never see anything like it again, but then we remembered what Utah’s offense looks like and…boy that looks like another opportunity for a similar game. But we’ll get to that in a few weeks.
Colorado’s ability to move the chains really tilted the field, giving the Bruins their second worst Average Starting Field Position deficit of the season (behind Stanford). This was a key component of keeping the game close, as this made it much tougher for UCLA to take advantage of its ability to score touchdowns every time it got within the Colorado 40.
Turnovers show up as a wash, and that’s probably a fair assessment on their impact on the game. Rosen’s freshman-mistake fumble became a Colorado touchdown, but Ishmael Adams’ 96 yard pick-six was a potential 14 point swing. Stephen Johnson’s fumble after a great kickoff return (he does look explosive, so we’re excited to see him keep that up as long as he does a better job of putting the ball away) robbed the Bruins of great field position that, given the way the offense had performed on the Colorado side of the field, would have probably led to points, but Nate Meadors’ interception near midfield clinched the game and stopped the ref-aided Colorado desperation drive.
It was not much fun to watch and it is kind of weird that UCLA has only outscored Colorado by 4 points total in regulation the last 2 years, but the Bruins survived and advanced in their (don’t laugh too hard) Personal Rose Bowl Championship Tournament. Next week, a road date at the worst team in the Pac-12 (that just happened to throw a bit of a scare at Utah this past week). Oh yes—they run the zone read.
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