Last year’s Southern Cal game felt so easy and low stress, as both teams were on cruise control from midway through the third quarter. This game (like every Utah game since they entered the conference) was the exact opposite of that. That was as stressful a win as we can remember—even the Automatic Ka’imi Fairbairn couldn’t loosen things up and let us breathe. And yet, even as we were beginning to make angry excuses in our head for what in the past would so often turn into a sad loss, the defense stiffened up, the offense didn’t make any crushing mistakes, and the Bruins became the first road team to win in Salt Lake City this season. Winning stressful games is so much more fun than losing them.
The stats look pretty much like what you’d expect, though maybe you didn’t expect the defense to grade out quite as great as it does.
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
We had recently been talking about how the defense just needed to play well enough to let the offense win the game. Against Utah, the offense played just well enough to let the defense get the win. After the first two drives resulted in 10 points (remember the tempest in a teapot last season about the Bruins’ opening drive “struggles?”), it seemed like this might be an easy one, but the Utah defense clamped down and the Bruins lost TWO starting offensive linemen, making the final eight drives of the game a struggle. The big pass plays of the first couple drives (33 and 28 to Duarte, 37 to Payton) completely dried up the rest of the game, as the Bruins decided once more to go run-heavy against a very good run defense (and mediocre pass defense). We do understand that Rosen was taking hits, but this was literally a semifinal for the division championship in which one more score would have iced the game. Just a few more passes (or maybe fewer drops) would have been nice.
On the plus side, the offense was able to ride Paul Perkins and Jordan Payton down the field to grind out that touchdown drive to start the second half and provide the winning margin. Perkins continues to have some of the most incredible vision we’ve ever seen, creating holes that didn’t even really exist thanks to his cutting ability. The offense only went three-and-out three times and did not turn the ball over, which helped against a Utah team that relies on short fields to score. Overall, the Bruin offense is still having a very solid season.
Bend don’t break is a lot better when you don’t bend, and after the Utes came within 10-9, the UCLA defense decided enough was enough and only allowed four first downs the rest of the game.
The Bruin defense began the game having its customary trouble against the zone read (it is pretty weird how well UCLA plays against Arizona, with the coach who basically invented the modern zone read), but they adjusted, forced four straight second half three-and-outs, and stopped the desperation Utah drive. The Utes have been a terrible big play offense all year, and only averaged 4.1 yards per play against the Bruins. Their longest play of the game went a whopping 20 yards. That is really bad (and pretty much what we expected, given how good the Bruins have been at preventing the big play in every game but Stanford this year). Goforth’s interception probably should have stood and Kene Orjioke did a great job to force the fumble that stopped the initial Utah drive.
Joe Williams actually looked pretty solid and Travis Wilson…didn’t throw any interceptions, but the UCLA defense comfortably held the Utes well below their season stats—14 yards fewer per stop, 1.3 yards fewer per play, 1.3 points fewer per drive, and 2.2 points fewer per trip inside the 40. Even given the mediocre opponent, this was a very very good showing by the Bruin defense. It won the Arizona game for the offense last year, and won the Utah game this year.
Here is the email we sent to Dave and Tracy with the game preview attached:
The Utes depended on field position and turnovers all season, but the Bruins outplayed their hosts on both counts and allowed their superior offense and defense to win the game. Matt Mengel, who apparently can rugby kick now, had perhaps the best punting game of his career, and Roosevelt Davis looked like a legitimately dangerous return man, coming an Andy Phillips tackle away from taking one to the house. The defense forced two huge fumbles in their own territory and, thanks in large part to the wonderful Paul Perkins, the offense held on to the ball.
It wouldn’t quite be correct to say the Bruins beat the Utes at their own game. More accurately, UCLA didn’t allow Utah to play their game, depriving Whittingham’s crew of the turnovers and field position that had been the lifeblood of their season and then suffocating their weak offense. We always hated that Ben Howland focused more on shutting down his opponent’s strengths than accentuating his own team’s abilities, but it sure won a lot of games. This past Saturday, Mora’s Bruins played Howland Ball and it got them to the most meaningful game against Southern Cal since 2012.
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