This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
Colorado’s Offense vs UCLA’s Defense: Get Off The Field
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre inherited one of the worst rosters in the country when he took over the program in 2013. Not only had Colorado just come off a rough season in 2012, they lost a ton of players out of the 2-deep roster. Coach Mac and his staff were tasked with not only rebuilding the roster, but doing so while facing one of the most difficult schedules in the country in each of his first two seasons in Boulder. In year three of the ‘MacIntyre era’ the Buffs are starting to show signs of progress, albeit small signs. Colorado has improved along the offensive line, enough so that they can protect quarterback Sefo Liufau better than at any point in his career.
The offensive system Colorado runs is the epitome of the dink-and-dunk spread passing system. Almost everything Colorado does through the air is within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage and they use the backs in pattern out of the backfield frequently. Like most short-passing schemes, Colorado runs a shotgun-heavy formational attack, which gets the ball out of Liufau’s hands quickly. Blitzing Colorado isn’t really much of an option for defenses because of the quick reads, short drops and backs in pattern. Blitzing them has led to big plays, something UCLA is morally committed to avoiding under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
Liufau is a pretty average quarterback statistically, but he is a plus athlete that can extend plays with his legs. Colorado offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren really likes to move the pocket and change the launch point of his quarterback. He did a great job while coordinating at San Jose State with this concept, and has been effective with it at Colorado. While Liufau isn’t great at throwing the deep ball, he throws very well on the run. Liufau does have a pretty significant weapon at his disposal in record-setting wide receiver Nelson Spruce. With these two players in this scheme, Colorado has moved the ball between the 20s effectively all season long.
In this game, the Colorado game plan was to keep the UCLA offense off the field. Because Colorado is so light on skill personnel, they can’t really dictate to a defense how the game will be played. If a defense can win first down or get Colorado behind the sticks and force deeper throws, usually Colorado wears down offensively pretty fast. However, when defenses don’t win first down, Colorado will use tempo to keep the defense from getting organized and try to exploit the favorable one-on-one match-ups like any good spread team can. To me, that is the biggest difference between this year’s Colorado team and MacIntyre’s first two seasons: they have the ability to catch a defense in a personnel group that favors them, and can attack said match-up. In true NFL philosophy, UCLA had no interest in giving up big plays against Colorado, and thus the defensive game plan was about as vanilla as it could be early on, and it eventually cost UCLA as the game went along.
On Colorado’s third drive, the Buffs used a mix of short passes and runs to move the ball down the field fairly easily against the UCLA defense. The Buffs averaged 6 yards on first down, and stayed on schedule all the way to the red-zone by forcing UCLA to stay in their base defense. As the drive went along, the UCLA defense began to substitute in mass, and the freshness allowed the defense to keep pressure on Liufau and force the Buffs off-schedule. The drive resulted in a missed field goal, but it was a 15-play drive, and even though points didn’t come from it, the drive began the process of wearing down the UCLA defense.
A few series later, the Buffs put together a 16-play drive that resulted in a pick-6 from Ishmael Adams. Again, even though the drive didn’t result in points for the Colorado offense, the drive fatigued the UCLA defense. These two series sort of set the tone for the rest of the game because the UCLA defense was getting worn down and players were getting banged up.
On the next Colorado drive, the UCLA defense gave up a field goal, but what was really evident was the fatigue setting in for UCLA. The UCLA defense had huge issues getting organized along the defensive line and didn’t appear to know their assignments on a given play. Defenders were bent at the hips, and substituting was hard to come by because of the lack of available personnel for UCLA and Colorado’s usage of tempo. In the red zone, if Colorado receiver Devin Ross catches a wide open fade pass, Colorado would have put up a touchdown. As it was, the drive ended in points and the UCLA defense was starting to hit a wall. Immediately after the Colorado kick-off, UCLA’s offense put together a 1-play scoring drive. That meant the UCLA defense had to come back out onto the field with less than 1 minute having run off the clock. In the normal flow of a game, the defense would be thrilled at this outcome. But in this game, given the number of plays the UCLA defense had already played, I’m pretty sure that was the last thing they wanted to see.
Colorado’s last drive of the first half went 11 plays and resulted in another field goal. It didn’t seem like much damage was done on the scoreboard, but the drive really showed how little the UCLA defense had left in the tank at that point. There were two third-down plays where a blitz was needed, but UCLA was playing true freshmen or players at positions they had never played before, so a blitz wasn’t even an option. Fatigue had set in and it was pretty clear the second half would be a challenge for the UCLA defense.
Colorado ran 61 plays in the first half, and would eventually reach a Pac-12 record 114 offensive plays in the game. Even though the Colorado offense put up points in the second half, the tactical game was really a first-half battle. UCLA needed to focus on winning first down, and keeping Colorado behind the sticks while forcing longer down-and-distance. To do that you have to take risks when you’re playing with limited personnel like the UCLA defense was. The only way Colorado could beat UCLA was to fatigue them, and the only way that could happen was to execute a short passing game with runs mixed in to gain first downs and win time of possession. UCLA took an approach of not allowing big plays, when they again should have taken risks early to create negative plays. Colorado executed their game plan to perfection, and if it wasn’t for the massive divide in skill talent, Colorado wins this game.
I know the term “gritty” has been tossed around a lot since Saturday, and I suppose this was a “gritty” performance in the second half by the defense to pull out this game, but it didn’t need to be that way. Colorado doesn’t have anyone offensively that UCLA would trade for straight across. The only way they hang in a game with a team like UCLA is by UCLA’s game plan allowing them to. That is exactly what happened. The UCLA defensive line was absolutely exhausted by halftime, and when the defensive line goes, the rest of the defense tends to follow.
Even though this wasn’t a match-up that favored a case for a lot of blitzing and pressure packages from UCLA, it was a match-up that allowed for UCLA to use press coverage. Coming off a performance against Cal where I felt that press coverage by the UCLA corners was the key to the win, UCLA almost completely went away from that in this game. There weren’t a lot of 10-yard cushions from the corners in this game, but there wasn’t much press either. Many of Colorado’s drive-extending first down conversions were from a corner getting separated on by a wide-out on a stop route, and the Colorado quarterback and receiver being in sync on the throw and catch. Knowing what Colorado wants to do, and more importantly what they can’t do, you have to try and throw off that timing, and press coverage does that.
114 plays and 34 first downs is a pretty ugly stat line for a defense. I’ll venture a guess that if that is replicated again by any of UCLA’s remaining opponents, they will blow out the Bruins.
UCLA’s Offense vs Colorado’s Defense: Big Plays Galore
Colorado runs a 3-man front with a rush backer and plays a lot of nickel coverage. Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is a very seasoned defensive coach, who uses calculated blitzes and historically has designed pressures very well. He obviously has some personnel deficiencies at his new job this season, so to compensate he has used a lot of zone coverage as his base, with pressures coming with man coverage behind blitzes.
On UCLA’s first two drives, the forced run game with Paul Perkins was in effect, mainly behind the right side of the offensive line, with Caleb Benenoch at right guard and Kolton Miller at right tackle. It’s been noticeable all season long how much trouble Benenoch has on his pulls, and this game was no different. UCLA ran three packaged run plays early in the game, designed to put Perkins behind a pulling Benenoch and pulling center in Jake Brendel, and not one of them gained significant yardage. It wasn’t until UCLA started going to designed throws and designed runs that they started to move the ball, eventually scoring on a Perkins touchdown catch on the second UCLA drive. Credit to offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and quarterback Josh Rosen for making the adjustment early in this game instead of waiting an entire half like they have at different points of the season.
When Miller was injured on a cheap shot from a Colorado defender, it gave Fred Ulu-Perry a chance to insert at right guard. That substitution moved Benenoch back to his more natural position of right tackle. This adjustment allowed UCLA to score late in the second quarter on a very well-blocked run from Perkins. Ulu-Perry pancaked the defensive tackle on the down block and Benenoch kick-blocked his defensive end into the third row. Brendel pulled around the edge and got one seal on a linebacker and Perkins went untouched for the long run. That score put the game firmly in UCLA’s control and would prove to be a very important score as the game wore on.
UCLA’s first drive of the second half was a critical one for them as well. Mazzone has developed a habit of giving away drives to start the second half, presumably running things that set up other plays for later on in the game when they’re needed. This drive was really important because Colorado showed on their first drive of the half that the UCLA defense wasn’t going to be able to do much to stop them for the rest of the game. UCLA needed to hold onto the ball and put something together to respond to the Colorado touchdown. The packaged play passes were available against Colorado’s zone coverage in the first half, and I thought Rosen and Mazzone did a good job on this drive of using them with short completions to Darren Andrews and Thomas Duarte. Those short completions set up a big play down the sideline to Jordan Payton, who had single coverage most of the game. Rosen found him on a designed pass that was thrown perfectly, to break the drive open. The ensuing play was a Nate Starks touchdown and a great response from the UCLA offense.
However, as good as that drive was in terms of design and execution, the UCLA offense spent the majority of the rest of the game ignoring what was working. After an inexplicable special teams play by Ishmael Adams, signaling a fair catch at the UCLA 4-yardline, the UCLA offense had a quick three-and-out before punting to Colorado. Colorado turned the short field into a field goal. On the ensuing UCLA possession the drive started with two plays to Perkins where it was clear he wasn’t 100 percent. Soso Jamabo peeled off a great run for a first down to end the third quarter, but immediately following UCLA began to spiral. A penalty for a false start to begin the quarter was followed by two deep throws that went incomplete. I realize the reads were there, but with a two-score lead and the ball, not to mention an exhausted defense, just take the short completion and keep the chains moving. The third-down play was, of course, the fumble by Rosen that was returned by Colorado for a touchdown and we had a whole new ballgame.
UCLA showed some resiliency on their final drive. Trailing by 3 and having just wasted the last 2 series forcing a run game using a backup running back, UCLA finally responded. On first down Rosen hit Payton on a back shoulder throw off of a great double move for a big gain. That was a play that was there all day long and when UCLA needed chunk yardage they went to it. It also set up the next play, a packaged read pass to Duarte against the zone coverage Colorado switched to following the long gain to Payton. In two plays UCLA was down to the Colorado 2-yard line and a play later punched it in on a Jamabo run that provided the game-clinching score. Great job on this drive of play calling, and execution from Rosen with his two favorite targets in Payton and Duarte.
I don’t blame the offense for scoring too fast against Colorado. UCLA did a nice job of generating big plays against a very porous defense. Rosen played fairly well on the stat sheet, even though his reads on the packaged plays weren’t great in this game.
UCLA showed signs of wanting to force the run game again, and that is concerning. The UCLA offensive line is not great at moving side to side, and Rosen is still learning the reads on the run-pass options (RPOs). UCLA has had much more success this season on designed throws and designed runs. I realize the evolution of Rosen is fast, but I’d love to see the run/pass packages die off as the schedule gets more difficult.
Perkins isn’t healthy, and that is a concern going forward. The difference in what he brings to the offense and what his understudies do is huge. I like Starks and I think Jamabo is improving at a very fast pace, but they’re not Paul Perkins. Getting him healthy is a huge key to the stretch run.
Every season has a game or two like this. Games that on paper should be commanding victories, yet somehow end up closer than they should be. UCLA had one of these games last year in Boulder and another in Berkeley. This game was no different than those from a year ago. What is concerning is the lack of willingness from UCLA to take risks and try to force a team to hit big plays. I thought this was a game where the UCLA defense could be physical outside and force Colorado to play sideline to sideline, but the UCLA defense instead played passively. Credit to Colorado for having a plan to stay in the game, but to me this was a lost opportunity for UCLA to employ packages that will be needed against the next four opponents. I get that it was hot and I get that the opponent was 1-20 in conference games since joining the Pac-12, but that’s no excuse to go soft in scheme. But this is where UCLA is in its evolution as a program. When USC and Oregon were really going, they found a way week in and week out to get up for every opponent. When those teams played opponents with inferior talent, they hammered them. UCLA isn’t there yet, they haven’t developed that killer instinct. That is a hard thing to perfect, but it’s something that starts at the top with a game plan that enables it, and moves on down to the players on the field. UCLA will need to put in a much better effort against the next 4 opponents, but their destiny is still within their control.