Tactical Bruin Breakdown: Washington State

Nov. 17 -- Yes, the officials were horrendous, but some critical errors on the field and on the sideline cost UCLA the game against Washington State...

This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla. 

Instead of just the typical tactical breakdown that I usually write, I’m going to begin with something different.   

Because there was so much UCLA fan angst about the officiating of the game by the Pac-12 crew, I want to touch on that.  Was Ishmael Adams’ fumble in fact a fumble?  Did Darren Andrews fumble?  Why do UCLA opponents never get called for holding against the Bruins? 

The Pac-12 officials are a total joke and are not capable of officiating football games in this conference.  This conference has sophisticated offenses, which play at the highest level of pace, tempo and game-speed of any conference nationally, and as such the Pac-12 is one of the highest-scoring power conferences every year.  To ask a crew of part-time employees to officiate accurately at a highly sophisticated level of competition is absurd.  Subjective calls, which I define as on-field calls, are hard to dispute.  However, that is why there is a replay official in the booth.  His job is to help assist the harder subjective calls, using empirical data.  Given the benefit of slow motion footage, the margin of error should be greatly minimized by the replay booth official, yet for some reason this isn’t the case.

The replay booth has been getting calls wrong all season; just ask Arizona State how they somehow lost to Oregon.  Duck receiver Bralon Addison’s foot was literally on the white paint of the out-of-bounds line when he caught the game-winning touchdown pass, yet the booth didn’t overturn the call on the field.

Adams fumble was clearly made after his elbow had hit the turf, and the call on the field was correct.  How that call gets sent up to the booth and overturned is inexplicable.  The Andrews fumble was a little less clear, but a booth official is supposed to only overturn a call on the field when there is indisputable evidence to overturn, which didn’t exist on the Andrews fumble.

So the booth official, 80 years old or not, should be fired, immediately.

The bottom line is the Pac-12 officials are a national punch line, and that has been the case for years.  Larry Scott, who has now become the bigger punch line nationally than the conference’s officiating, tried to remedy it this offseason by replacing the head of officials, but that doesn’t appear to have fixed the problem. 

At some point the criticism should be directed squarely at Scott.  Inconsistent officiating aside, this guy has been a disaster since he took over as the head of the Pac-12.  Not only has Scott managed to relegate the conference into media obscurity (12 million national subscribers, which is about one-fifth of the Big Ten and SEC networks), he’s killing home game attendance for virtually every non-ranked team in the league with his 7:30 PST time slots.  Most of this can be attributed to Scott costing the conference millions of easy dollars by his failure to negotiate a deal with DirecTV. 

The Pac-12 Network generates about $1 million per year for each university, far less than the $12 million per year projection.  The Pac-12 Network is basically a spot for the parents of every non-revenue-sport athlete to watch their children play on TV.  The football games that are broadcast on the Network are done on such a budget, with such poor commentating and analysis, that they are barely watchable.  The advertising sold on the Network is to State Farm and Farmers Only, not exactly big-budget slots I’m guessing.  But there is no need to pay a premium to advertise when you’re not going to be seen by millions of households. 

Scott botched the conference expansion process; while negotiating to get the Texas schools ended up with lowly Colorado and Utah.  He has overseen a basketball officiating scandal perpetrated against Arizona, and has taken a steadfast line in remaining “independent,” while the other network comps have all partnered with Fox and ESPN to increase enterprise value.

So we as fans complain about the officiating and how our Bruins are getting screwed week in and week out, and that’s valid, but the problems exist much higher up the food chain. 

The conference is cannibalizing itself this year in football, due in large part to poor officiating and even poorer schedule management (each Pac-12 team has nine conference games while the other major conferences only play 8).  At this stage the lack of two teams in New Year’s Day bowl games could cost the conference another $10 million. 

All this while Larry Scott and his staff at the Pac-12 Network are trying to popularize the myth that excitement happens in the middle of the night on the East Coast, with the campaign #Pac12AfterDark.   

Bottom line for me: we can’t expect the officiating to get better until the conference changes leadership at the top.


Washington State’s Offense versus UCLA’s Defense: A Chess Match

As for the tactics of the game against Washington State, UCLA just gave the game away.  When you play a pass-heavy team, you have to get early touchdowns when you can. 

Teams like this year’s Cougar club will move the ball and they will score.  Luke Falk is one of the best examples of “recruiting for fit” that I can think of nationally.  He operates the Air Raid system as well as anyone has under head coach Mike Leach.  Falk throws the inside concept routes very well, and once those routes are established, the Cougars work off the slant routes masterfully.  UCLA needed to take away the inside routes early in the game, and force WSU to throw vertically to alleviate the pressure in the middle of the field. 

In the Air Raid offense of Leach, once the slants are available, the entire playbook opens up because the linebackers have to be cognizant of the underneath routes and the safeties can’t cheat due to the volume of deep routes.  Almost every WSU game begins with Leach fighting to establish the inside route concepts, forcing slants or short throws into the flat to make the linebackers move.  WSU will also use their running game if they need to in order to come back to the slant concepts.  Once they establish the inside routes, Leach loves to run seam routes and “sluggo” routes at the backers who are “trued up.” Because the secondary is usually in man coverage with zone underneath, those routes usually go for big plays.  Off those route concepts come the “choice” routes where the Air Raid can get going on all cylinders. 

As I said when UCLA played Cal, who runs a very similar offense to WSU, incompletions or big deficits are the undoing of the Air Raid offense.  Falk has operated the offense at a highly efficient rate all season, so UCLA couldn’t realistically rely on incompletions to stall the Cougars.  UCLA had to try and force negative plays, as Falk does have a tendency to hold the ball, but the best defense against this WSU team is a good offense and building a lead.

The second WSU drive was a series of great adjustments from Leach and company.  WSU started the drive with a quick slant for 5 yards.  WSU then ran a hitch to the far side where Dom Williams was one-on-one with a corner, resulting in a gain of 16 yards.  WSU then came back to the slant for a short gain and then drew UCLA offsides on a penalty for a first down.  So in three plays, the ball was at mid-field and all WSU had done was execute the adjustments to the game plan, using under routes to isolate corners and get the linebackers moving. 

To illustrate the adjustments more, the next few plays show how efficient the WSU offense can be.  After an intentional grounding call on Falk on first down, WSU faced a 1st-and-26.  Falk threw a deep fade down the sideline incomplete, but that set up the 3rd-and-26 play, which was a deep cross from the slot who was running into a middle zone.  What was really brilliant about the play was how it was set up by the prior incompletion.  The same outside receiver who ran a fade on the second-down play ran a fade on the third-and-long play.  UCLA’s safety on that side of the field, Jaleel Wadood, had to give help over the top to the fade.  That created depth for the slot to get behind a linebacker and into open space in the zone in front of the other safety Randall Goforth.  The third down play didn’t convert, but it set up a very manageable distance on 4th down, which WSU was prepared to go for knowing they were in two-down territory. 

This is a great example of Falk knowing how to operate the offensive system.  Falk knew on 2nd and 26 that he had three downs to convert, and the key wasn’t to press on second down, rather run a play that if hit, would convert, but at worst would set up a potential chunk play on 3rd down.  When the pass was completed on third down, WSU didn’t hesitate, and converted on 4th down and 5 by going back to the system’s bread and butter concept, the slant.  WSU scored a few plays later on what would be a very critical drive in the overall flow of the game, but the drive was won by WSU with really strong playcalling and execution of their system in the middle of the drive.

The game winning drive by WSU was another example of Mike Leach’s sometimes brilliance.  Against pure press coverage, WSU started the drive with a quarterback run for 3 yards and had to burn a timeout.  During the timeout I saw Leach discussing with his quarterback how to beat that coverage as they hadn’t seen much of it from UCLA up to that point. 

On second down WSU got the same look from the UCLA defense and went back to the stop route to Gabe Marks, who gained a few yards after a missed tackle and got a first down.  The next play UCLA showed the same coverage, and Falk again scrambled away from a vacated middle to gain 5 yards with 37 seconds left.  At this point, UCLA should have dropped into a zone and given some cushion to the wide receivers, particularly the outside routes.  The risk of the WSU outside receivers beating the UCLA press coverage and finding open space after the catch was too great.  But UCLA stayed in the same coverage as they’d shown on the prior plays and WSU ran a “choice” route to get the outside receiver, Williams, free on an inside slant.  Falk delivered the ball on time and Williams broke free for a 30+ yard game. 

Two plays later with 20 seconds left WSU had 2nd and 10 at the UCLA 20-yard line and WSU ran a levels concept with inside crosses and a comeback route to the far side.  Falk threw the ball incomplete against double coverage into the stands.  What was noticeable about the play, though, was that the UCLA safety, Goforth, had doubled over onto the outside receiver.  Leach used this as a key, and on the next play with the game on the line, WSU ran the same outside concept with a comeback, got the safety to drift and sent a seam route inside the numbers.  That seam route left Ishmael Adams in one-on-one coverage with no safety help against Marks.  Falk delivered the ball to the receiver’s back shoulder and Marks won the one-on-one for the game-winning score.  The safety play of UCLA has been poor all season long, and Mike Leach is the type of coach who keys on safeties.  In this situation he took advantage of the safety guessing and won the game with the move. 

UCLA should have called a timeout prior to the play and come out with a defense that allowed for the short throw, but prevented the deep ball.  A field goal in that situation is a given based on the coverage bust a few plays earlier.  What a defense can’t do there is allow the touchdown, but UCLA didn’t execute, got caught cheating and, due to their lack of discipline, gave up the game-winning score.


By and large the UCLA defense played pretty well against WSU.   There were a few times where they got caught guessing, but in between the first WSU scoring drive and the final WSU scoring drive, the UCLA defense played fine.  UCLA got fairly consistent pressure, did it with four most of the time, but was pretty effective creating negative plays when they blitzed.  Any time you can hold a quarterback the caliber of Luke Falk below his season average in yards you should win the game, and the defense did that.

Johnny Johnson going out hurt UCLA a lot, and the hope is that he can return by the Utah game.  Moving Adams over to corner and having to play Adarius Pickett at the nickel back is a tall order for them at this point.  The depth is really being tested for UCLA and they’re responding pretty well, but against a team like WSU you’ve really got to be disciplined.  Without Johnson in there the coverage busts increased.

I’m not sure what happened between Takkarist McKinley and Matt Dickerson but to me that looked like competitive spirit instead of something more.  The penalties are starting to cost this team, and I don’t blame McKinley for being upset at another mental mistake by his line-mate.  Hopefully that isn’t a larger issue.

UCLA’s Offense versus Washington State’s Defense: Missed Opportunities

UCLA’s offense moved the ball all night on WSU, but when it counted UCLA couldn’t put the ball in the end zone.  The game plan for UCLA had to be to score touchdowns early and get the WSU offense in a hole.  WSU doesn’t have a great defense, they have a decent front four, but their secondary is small and not very deep. 

UCLA came out on their first drive and marched from their own 17-yard line to the WSU 8-yard line in 3 plays, all designed passes where quarterback Josh Rosen found a one-on-one matchup he liked and took advantage of it.  After three offensive plays, it appeared UCLA would be able to move the ball and put up points in this game at will, but the red zone was a real problem for UCLA. 

Josh Rosen (Steve Cheng, BRO)

On the same drive, with a first-and-goal from the WSU 8-yard line, the Bruins ran two designed runs to Paul Perkins to set up 3rd-and-goal from the 2-yard line.  Then, inexplicably UCLA got cute.  A heavy package was inserted with defensive players Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Kenneth Clark, which resulted in a false start penalty on Tuoti-Mariner, backing UCLA back up to the 7-yard line.  On the very next play, oft-penalized Alex Redmond false-started, pushing UCLA back to the 12-yard line.  So now a red zone opportunity that started at first and goal at the WSU 8-yard line, and saw UCLA reach the 2-yard line, against one of the worst red zone scoring defenses in the country, was all but stalled due to absurd play calling and a lack of discipline.  Despite WSU trying to give UCLA more help with an encroachment penalty of their own, the drive ended in a field goal when it very easily could have resulted in a touchdown.  Four points lost due to a lack of attention to detail for UCLA.

On UCLA’s second offensive drive, Josh Rosen and Paul Perkins made some very impressive plays with their legs that kept the chains moving.  On 2nd and 7 deep in UCLA territory, Perkins gained 10 yards basically all on his own.  The UCLA offensive line was pushed around most of the night by the WSU defensive front, particularly the right side of the line with Kolton Miller at tackle and Caleb Benenoch at guard.  Luckily Rosen was able to find Thomas Duarte on a critical third down that opened up the middle of the field by using his legs to evade pressure.  After a drop, which was one of eight drops by the UCLA receivers in this game, and a trip from Andrews on a fly sweep that resulted in no gain, Rosen rolled away from pressure given up by Miller, and found Eldridge Massington on a cross for a third-down conversion.  The scrambling of Rosen coupled with the threat of Perkins running moved up the WSU safeties and set up a packaged-play completion to Massington for a first down at the WSU 2-yard line. 

Then again, the wheels fell of the drive thanks to the same issues on UCLA’s first drive.  On first down from the WSU 1-yard line, UCLA tried again to get the heavy package involved, presumably to get Kenny Clark his first ever rushing touchdown.  The snap was early and led to a broken-play incompletion.  On second down, when UCLA should have put away the gimmick for good, they left the heavy package in and called a stretch play, which is basically a long run predicated on outflanking the edge of the defense.  I’ve been around football a long time, and I have zero explanation as to why that play would ever be a good idea with that personnel grouping. 

On 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line, UCLA went back to the normal personnel grouping and threw incomplete after the right side of the line again gave up pressure.  UCLA converted a field goal, but this was another drive where points were left of the field due to poor decision-making from the coaching staff.  As a result, UCLA trailed 7-6 in a game where they should have been ahead 14-7.

There were other highlights and lowlights offensively for UCLA, but the bottom line is, if UCLA scores touchdowns on their first two drives, this is a totally different game.  WSU playcalls differently, the loss of Falk for a few series is a different challenge, and the UCLA defense is allowed to take different tactics to defend the WSU Air Raid.  Those wasted scoring drives can’t be highlighted enough as turning points in this game.

As the game wore on the mental mistakes for UCLA continued to mount: Dropped passes on critical downs, poor decision-making by the UCLA special teams (which has quickly become a very weak unit).  Sure, there were missed calls by the officials and even bigger errors in the replay booth, but UCLA didn’t need to be in the position of letting the referees have such an impact on the game.  Had UCLA come out with the correct game plan, which was to value drives and focus on touchdowns early instead of trying to be cute, they win this game handily.  Instead, the game went down to the wire and, even though Rosen did his best to rescue UCLA from their own devices, the Bruins came up short.


Some of the coaching decision in this game are on the level of season-changing.  Fortunately, since Utah couldn’t take care of business in Tucson, the UCLA Bruins find themselves in the same position they were in when the week began.  UCLA controls their own destiny despite a pathetic approach to the Washington State game from the sidelines.

Senior Day is turning into an annual embarrassment.  The ceremony being moved to halftime is just a ridiculous decision.  That is a special moment for those kids and their families, but it can’t be a distraction from the game, and at no other school is it as much of a distraction as it is for UCLA.  Imagine what a train wreck it will be next year, with all the players scheduled to leave the program in 2016, having a ceremony at halftime.  Do a luncheon or a bonfire or something completely unrelated to the game if you have to, just don’t allow Senior Day to be a distraction again.

It seems like I say this every week, but Josh Rosen is big-time.  This game looked like the game where this officially became his team.  Perkins wasn’t even in the game on the final drive, and with Duarte clearly not 100% and most of his supporting cast not playing up to their potential, Rosen took the game over on that final drive.  I’m disappointed for him that his effort didn’t result in a Bruin win.  UCLA has many members of the program to blame for that, but Josh Rosen isn’t one of them.

The arrogance of the UCLA coaching staff is sometimes palpable.  They didn’t game plan for ASU because they clearly didn’t respect Todd Graham and his staff.  I’m not sure they take Stanford as seriously as they should.  And this game against WSU was right up there with any of the flat performances the Bruins have had under this staff.  UCLA had such little respect for WSU that they tried to get a defensive tackle a rushing touchdown.  Such little respect that UCLA didn’t feel the need to get into the locker room at halftime.  At some point the inexplicable losses where UCLA holds a significant talent advantage have to be looked at and examined.

Conclusion: Move On, Fast

This game has the potential to be a pretty deflating loss for UCLA.  When they watch the tape, they’ll see how one-sided the talent was in their favor and kick themselves for the mental mistakes that cost them this game.  Or maybe they arrogantly won’t watch the film.  Assuming they do watch the game film, hopefully they realize that for four years now penalties have been a huge problem, and in this game it played a critical role in UCLA losing.  There has to be accountability with players who continue to make the same mistakes over and over.  Discipline needs to be a core value.  UCLA has a chance to play for a Pac-12 championship, but if they’re going to beat a Utah team that is disciplined and very well coached, UCLA will have to clean up the mental mistakes, gameplan properly, and find some humility, and do all of those things fast.  If not, this season has the potential to go South instead of being a South-winning campaign.   

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