UCLA vs. Utah: Unit by Unit Analysis

Nov. 23 -- UCLA had a great defensive performance against the Utes on Saturday, and that's reflected in the report card...

Quarterback: B-

This wasn’t quite the nearly perfect game that Josh Rosen played last week, but the degree of difficulty was a bit more extreme. He was excellent on the first two drives, with a pair of great throws to Thomas Duarte on the first touchdown drive, and made great decisions throughout both scoring drives to put UCLA up 10-0.

On the last offensive play of the second drive, before UCLA kicked the field goal, Rosen took a big shot to the midsection that knocked the wind out of him. He’d taken quite a few shots on that drive thanks to some issues up front, and from that point on, he looked a little more gun-shy than usual. At the end of the third drive, he missed Thomas Duarte on a third down conversion that he usually would have hit, and it was partially because he didn’t quite hang in the pocket long enough to deliver the ball, since he had a defender breathing down his neck.

Much the same thing happened on the first drive of the second half for UCLA, where Rosen back-pedaled in the face of a pass rush and threw off his back foot to a falling-down Jordan Payton, and the ball was nearly intercepted. He had a couple of back foot throws throughout the second half where it seemed like he might have been able to step up in the pocket.

Anyway, he took a ton of shots early from Utah’s big defensive linemen, and even experienced quarterbacks will get a little reluctant to hang in there when they’re repeatedly getting shelled. He did enough toward the end of the game to extend a few drives and keep the clock moving, and with the way the defense was playing, that was pretty much all UCLA needed.

Running Backs: B-

Nor was this Paul Perkins’ best game. The star running back didn’t get a whole lot of running room up front, but he also didn’t appear as decisive as he normally is, particularly on the screen pass where he seemed to be trying to dance to turn it into a big play rather than taking the available two or three additional yards. He’s usually so decisive that this game stood out a little bit, but still, he produced some big runs at key moments, including the touchdown to put UCLA ahead 17-9.

Nate Starks didn’t get a lot of work, recording just one pretty good carry and then not seeing the field a lot more the rest of the day. Sotonye Jamabo got four carries, and didn’t produce a ton on them. It wasn’t an ideal matchup for Jamabo at this stage of his career, as Utah has a really stout front that basically necessitates a certain decisiveness and strength in a running back.

Perkins had a game-saving play in the fourth quarter when he caught the ball that slipped out of Rosen’s hand to start the quarter. If he didn’t do that, Utah would have been set up with an easy scoring opportunity, and the entire complexion of the game might have changed.

We also had a Nate Iese sighting, with the big fullback getting a catch and converting a first down. We’d still like to see him get a little more run in the passing game.

Wide Receivers: A-

Rosen didn’t have his sharpest stuff, but this week the receivers really seemed to pick him up a bit, after letting him down with some drops last week. Rosen’s throws were good on the first drive, but Duarte made a couple of nice grabs to bring them down in the same over-the-shoulder fashion. His touchdown catch showed great concentration because he must have seen the safety bearing down on him out of the corner of his eye but he still caught the ball cleanly.

On the second drive, Jordan Payton made a great catch on the deep ball down the sideline, keeping the defensive back from getting an easy opportunity at it, since it had some qualities of a jump ball. Payton was excellent all day, both catching the ball and in edge blocking, and it’s great that a player as steady as he has been now hold an all-time UCLA record. That catch he made falling forward on the ball on UCLA’s first drive of the second half won’t show up in any highlight reel, but that was a critical moment in that drive which put the Bruins up 8.

About the only lowlight was the Kenny Walker drop on 3rd and 23, where Rosen did a nice job of hanging in the pocket against the rush and put a ball right on Walker’s hands. The ball spun a little funny out of Rosen’s hand, but anything that comes that close to a receiver’s body has to be caught.

Eldridge Massington nearly had a spectacular catch down the sideline early in the game, but could only get one hand on the ball due to the other being used to handfight with the corner, who could have been easily called for pass interference.

We should note, for the second time in three games, that UCLA actually got a few decent blocks out of Duarte, which is very good to see.

Offensive Line: C+

Given the mixing and matching UCLA was forced into up front, and given the quality of the defensive front UCLA was facing, this wasn’t an awful showing. Yes, UCLA gave up a ton of hits on Rosen early, but that settled down over the course of the game, and at key moments the offensive line was able to open up some holes in the running game.

We have to give some love to Kolton Miller who, filling in for Conor McDermott, made the key block on Gionni Paul for the touchdown score. It wasn’t a pancake or anything, but Miller held him up long enough to keep him from standing up Perkins at the goal line, and Perkins was then able to wiggle in. Miller was pretty good in pass protection over the last chunk of the game as well, and against this front, that was very good to see.

The guards seemed to be the main problem in this one.Alex Redmond, before leaving with an ailing hand, struggled quite a bit against Lowell Lotulelei (legitimately one of the best interior linemen in the conference) and let him take a free shot at Rosen once. Redmond’s hand might very well have been bothering him, since he didn’t seem to get much on his punch. Kenny Lacy, on the other side, was the one who let the Utah defender fly through for the big hit on Rosen at the end of the second drive. Fred Ulu-Perry, when he came in to replace Redmond, struggled, which is again to be expected going against a player like Lotulelei.

There wasn’t a whole lot of hold on Caleb Benenoch on his penalty — it looked like Kylie Fitts just slipped. Fitts was a tough matchup for Benenoch when Benenoch was playing on the edge, with a good combination of size and speed. Also, on the illegal formation penalty that was called on Benenoch, it looked more like it was due to Ulu-Perry lining up with his foot a little too far back, and Benenoch taking his cue from that.

C Jake Brendel (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Offensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: B-

Watching the game again, it became even more apparent that UCLA needed to run the ball at the end of the first half and into the second half not only to preserve Rosen, but also because Rosen’s decision making and throws were both getting a little wonky toward the end of the game after the number of hits he took in the first half. It looked pretty conservative live, but in retrospect, it’s pretty understandable.

We had a couple of nitpicks, because of course we do. On the 4th and 1 at the 45, we would have liked UCLA to go for it. We realize we’re like an old man shouting at clouds on this one, but 4th down is not a surrender down, and anytime around midfield with less than a yard to go, we’d like UCLA to go for it. All teams should go for it more on 4th down than they do.

And then, for the other nitpick, at the end of the first half, UCLA called a timeout to force Utah to kick off one more time. We get that it was probably the sole goal to just force the Utes to kick off again, but even still, with 38 seconds to go and a couple of timeouts, we would have liked to see UCLA take at least one shot at a 15 to 20 yard pass play to see if they’d have a shot at getting into field goal range.

Defensive Line: A-

The defensive line stepped up big time in the second half and was a huge part of UCLA shutting down the run game over the last quarter and a half of the game. Matt Dickerson came up huge, and made a really big impact in the second half. He was key on the goal-line stand on Utah’s opening drive of the second half, which limited the Utes to a field goal and their last points of the game.

Kenneth Clark was really good, again, as he pretty much always is. He made a great play to get a tackle for loss on Joe Williams on Utah’s first drive where he broke through the line with ease to get into the backfield. He also completely blew up a designed Travis Wilson run at the start of Utah’s third drive, getting into the backfield and forcing Wilson to juke before he even made it to the line of scrimmage.

Takkarist McKinley shined in the second half, winning a ton of one-on-one match-ups with offensive linemen, and he nearly forced a fumble on the second drive for Utah in the second half.

Ainuu Taua had a nice moment in the first half, nearly sacking Wilson on Utah’s third drive. Wilson’s a little slippery, so he got away, but Taua did a nice job of disrupting the timing of the play and keeping it from going longer than the three or four yards it ended up going.

From what we could tell, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner got a little too far inside on Wilson’s first long run on Utah’s third drive and first scoring drive. Wilson was able to get the edge on him and get into the open field pretty quickly. Now, it’s hard to tell from the TV feed whether Tuioti-Mariner’s assignment was containing or not, but it looked like he got a little bit out of position on that one.

Linebackers: B

Yes, UCLA got gashed in the running game through the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, but the front got stout when it mattered, and some of the credit definitely has to go to the linebacker corps.

Jayon Brown was once again mostly good. He seemed to get into the wrong gap a couple of times, but for the most part he was in position to make plays. The facemask was really unfortunate, because that was a great stop. Not just the linebackers, but there were a few critical penalties in this one that extended drives and probably prevented UCLA from having a bigger lead. To Brown’s credit, he also had a great play to pick up the fumble late that basically sealed the win.

Kenny Orjioke showed up really well int he first half. He had a really nice pursuit of Wilson, pushing him out of bounds for essentially a sack on Utah’s first drive to force a 3rd and 7. Orjioke then followed that up by forcing the fumble that ended that drive by punching the ball out of Williams’ arms.

Kenny Young had a couple of nice moments in this one, including one play where he blew up a zone read (even if it was a missed block by Utah, it was a great form tackle by Young). He still had his issues over pursuing and picking the wrong gaps, but we’ve seen some baby steps out of him in the last couple of weeks that might mean he’s getting a bit more comfortable.

Aaron Wallace came up big, especially in the second half, and was stout against the run. His contributions on the edge over the last two quarters played a big role in UCLA shutting down the run.

Defensive Backs: A

This was a really, truly excellent performance from the defensive backfield. This might have been the best game the safeties have played all year. Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth made the two best plays they’ve made in run support all season in this one, with Wadood getting a great one-on-one stop on 3rd and 1 on Utah’s second drive and Goforth made a similar tackle on 2nd and 10 on Utah’s second to last drive.

Goforth seemed really locked in in this one, and this was definitely his best game of the year. His interception probably should have stood, since the pass interference call was very questionable, but he nearly followed that up with a second pick later in the game. He also picked up the fumble on Utah’s first drive, and just seemed way more active and engaged than he’s been all season.

The revelation from this one might have been the play of Nathan Meadors, though. We thought during fall camp that he had some pretty good cover skills and should get a shot at corner, but we weren’t expecting him to look like one of the best corners on the team at this point in the year. He really has great awareness for a true freshman, and that’s something we noticed even back in spring. He turns his head and looks for the ball, which sounds simple but is actually really hard to do as a corner while also keeping pace with a receiver. He could have had a pick on one of the times Wilson tested him, and generally was nails all day. He was even very good in run support, getting off a block to make a great tackle on Britain Covey on Utah’s firs tdrive.

Ishmael Adams actually had good coverage on Scott the one time Utah connected downfield, but luckily it was called back by a questionable holding call. Otherwise, Adams was pretty solid all day. Marcus Rios made the right decision to hold Scott on a double move late in the game, because otherwise, Scott probably would have had a touchdown. Rios got called for a hold earlier in the game that really didn’t look like holding, since it was effectively a rush attempt by Wilson.

Defensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: A-

UCLA made some great adjustments in this one, using more five-man fronts in the second half and going to Dickerson and Aaron Wallace more. The Bruins basically cut off Wilson’s running lanes and kept him from going to the zone read as much, which gashed UCLA so much in the first half.

This was a perfect bend-but-don’t-break performance. UCLA gave up four long drives, but each ended in a field goal. UCLA forced two fumbles, and nearly had an interception, which is what you’re hoping for when you force a college team to use so many offensive plays — one of the major ideas behind bend-but-don’t-break is that the more plays you force the other team make, the more likely they are to make a mistake.

By many statistical measures, this is now one of the best defenses in the conference, which, yes, speaks to the lack of quality defenses in the Pac-12, but also speaks to the development this defense has made over the last half of the season. Given some of the issues at linebacker especially this season, to be playing fairly well at this point in the season is very good to see.

Special Teams: B

The punting game was very good in this one. Matt Mengel, debuting a rugby-style punt, looked the most comfortable he’s looked in a UCLA uniform. Part of that might have been the high altitude, but he looked good kicking the ball and credit UCLA for making the adjustment to have him kick rugby-style.

Ka'imi Fairbairn missed his first kick in forever just right, but nailed his other one.

Kickoff return blocking hasn’t been great this year, but UCLA might have something in Roosevelt Davis at kick returner. He’s very small, but he is quick and decisive and doesn’t try to go sideways a ton. I’m not excited to see the first time he gets hit pretty big there, but he seems to hold up well in practice, so it’ll be interesting to see if he gets those opportunities this week against USC.

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