Watching the game over again, it’s tough to grade Josh Rosen. If you were basing the grade just on the first half and first scoring drive of the second half, he’d probably be a solid B+, if not better. He made some incredible throws into tight windows against very good coverage from USC (without getting a ton of help from his receivers) and showed very good poise. His throw to Duarte for the first touchdown was exactly what it needed to be against tight man coverage.
But then the second half got into full swing and he looked much more like a freshman. On the strip sack, he took way too much time in the pocket waiting for something to develop. Yes, the offensive line could have done a better job blocking a straight one-on-one, and yes, his receivers could have done a better job getting open, but the alarm clock in his head needs to be ringing at that point.
After that play, Rosen seemed much more flustered. He had a nice zone read on the next play after the fumble, but then a couple of plays after that, he threw a bad interception to Iman Marshall off of his back foot where he didn’t hang in against the rush. At various points throughout the second half, including the many failed drives into the 4th quarter, he just looked antsy, and his feet, which are usually very steady, were constantly moving, even when there wasn’t much of a rush. He very much isolated on Thomas Duarte and Jordan Payton for much of the second half, and Duarte in particular got no separation from Su'a Cravens.
He had a few nice throws on the drive that set up the missed field goal, and if Nate Starks’ incredible run had stood, perhaps he would have regained enough poise to lead another scoring drive or two over the final stretch of the game. But it didn’t, and he wasn’t really able to find that level of success again over the last quarter.
Running Backs: B-
Paul Perkins is a really good running back, and he showed against on Saturday many of his best attributes — the first touchdown run, where he maintained his balance by pushing his hand into the ground, was vintage stuff. But for the second time in as many weeks, he looked a little more tentative than usual, and, in a rarity, there were a couple of times where he didn’t gain as many yards as he could have because of a lack of decisiveness. On the swing pass on the opening drive of the second half, he probably could have had three or four more yards, but instead danced around trying to hit a bigger play.
That said, he made some really great runs. On UCLA’s second scoring drive, he was great, and gave UCLA a huge boost when it needed one. It sounds more and more like he could return to UCLA, and that’s great to hear.
Nate Starks looked really good in this game. His run that was called back by the illegal formation was about the best run UCLA has had all year, and he had a couple of other nice carries in this one as well.
Sotonye Jamabo had one really bad carry in this game, looking extremely tentative on a play that was actually blocked really well. A more decisive runner would have had at least five yards, and maybe more, where Jamabo got maybe a yard.
Wide Receivers: D
However much blame you want to pin on Rosen for the turnovers, pin a good helping of it on the receivers for not giving him anything to work with for most of the game. UCLA’s two best receivers, Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, were blanketed for most of the night, and Duarte, in particular, really seemed to respond poorly to the physicality of Cravens.
Payton fought through the tight coverage a little bit more, and had a couple of nice catches on that drive that set up the missed field goal. He also took Kevon Seymour for a ride to set up Perkins’ short touchdown run, which was cool to see. Duarte, though, was targeted a ton by Rosen in the second half, but each time Cravens was right there and Duarte wasn’t really in a position to fight for the ball.
Darren Andrews, it should be noted, actually did pretty well, and probably should have gotten more looks from Rosen. Despite being covered by Adoree Jackson, Andrews more than held his own, with a nice back shoulder catch in the first half and a couple of other nice plays throughout the game as well. He was wide open a few times where Rosen just didn’t see him.
Other than that, UCLA’s receivers really didn’t do a whole lot. The game-plan clearly was reliant on receivers beating press coverage and, for the most part, they didn’t. To a certain extent, that’s a bad game plan, but it’s also the case that high-level receivers should be able to get off press coverage more often than UCLA was able to on Saturday.
Offensive Line: D
USC seemed to do a fair amount of twists and stunts up front which flummoxed UCLA’s offensive line. The Trojans didn’t often bring more than five, but the stunts seemed to cause some issues, and, at least a few times, UCLA’s OL simply lost one-on-one battles to USC defensive linemen.
UCLA’s short yardage offense is, it’s safe to say at this point, not very good. This year, the Bruins have generally had a tough time generating yards on the ground on 3rd and 1. Look at the way USC was able to convert on short yardage all game, and compare that to what UCLA’s offense looked like on short yardage. Even on the 4th and 1 that UCLA converted for a touchdown, the blocking was poor and Perkins probably should have been blown up for a loss. Now, UCLA should probably be doing more to compensate for the inability to convert 3rd and 1 on the ground, but it’s also on the offensive line and blocking to get enough of a push to get a yard.
On the sack of Rosen that led to the punt return touchdown, it looked like Kolton Miller got initially beat and then Caleb Benenoch was in bad position to pick him up. The right side had issues against USC for much of the day, and Benenoch didn’t have a very good game at right guard.
Conor McDermott looked a little tentative at left tackle after injuring his knee last week, and didn’t do a great job sealing the edge on running plays. In total, it was just not a good performance from the offensive line — too much pressure on Rosen, especially in the second half, and too little consistent success in the running game (the stats are distinctly padded by Starks’ big run at the end of the first half).
Offensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: D
UCLA really didn’t appear to have much of a response to USC running mostly man coverage on Saturday. The Bruins had a couple of back shoulder throws, ran a few bunch formations, and tossed in a couple of swing passes, but for the most part, UCLA was reliant upon its receivers beating USC’s DBs in one-on-ones, and for the most part, UCLA’s receivers did not. We didn’t see a ton of those receiver screens to the outside we saw last year, which we sort of get since the coverage was so tight, but we would have liked to see more swing passes and throws to the running backs in the flat since the flip side of tight man coverage is that UCLA’s big, strong receivers don’t have to move too much to get a nice block to spring a running back for a good gain.
The sequence on 3rd and 1 at the USC 38 and then 4th and 3 at the 40 on UCLA’s second drive was really ugly. First, all year, UCLA has struggled in short yardage situations when it goes very conventional with interior runs, and once again, UCLA got stuffed for a two yard loss. Honestly, don’t have that much of a problem with the play call, but only if you’re walking into it as two-down territory. Instead, UCLA elected to punt on 4th and 3, which was just an abysmal decision. Yes, it didn’t turn out to be a big deal, because the punt was a rare very good one and USC’s drive got nowhere, but the decision making was very bad.
Short yardage play calling has been very strange in recent weeks. The second third and 1 UCLA was faced with in this game ended up being a really low percentage fade to Jordan Payton, and then UCLA followed that up with the 4th and 1 running call which ended up with a touchdown but probably should have been blown up in the backfield.
Defensive Line: B-
This wasn’t a spectacular performance for the defensive line, but until the entire defense got fatigued late after being on the field for most of the game, it was solid enough. UCLA held USC’s running game pretty much in check in the first half, and that was thanks in large part to solid play up front.
That said, UCLA wasn’t able to take advantage of USC’s perceived weakness up front, particularly at center. Kenneth Clark actually got pseudo-pancaked on the first play of USC’s second drive, which is a very abnormal thing. Clark didn’t have a bad game after that, but he wasn’t his usual dominant self, and wasn’t able to fight through double teams as much as he did at times earlier in the year.
The biggest hilarity in this game was UCLA’s defensive line getting called for disconcerting signals after the Bruins spent much of the Oregon State and Washington State games complaining about that very thing.
This was a very nice performance for the linebackers as a whole (again, until the defense got worn down late). Kenny Young actually made some really big plays in this one, including a nice tackle for loss on the opening play of the game where he just looked very instinctual. Hopefully that’s a sign of the light coming on for him a bit after a very tough year. He still had a play or two where he over pursued (particularly on Dominic Davis’ big run in the first half) but it was a much better game for him than he’s had recently.
Jayon Brown was all over the place again making plays. He actually got picked pretty badly on the swing pass to Tre Madden that extended USC’s field goal drive to open the game, but still managed to get in to make the tackle.
Aaron Wallace continued his very strong senior season with a huge game against the Trojans, recording 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, and sack (the only one for UCLA on Saturday). He’s been one of the biggest bright spots for UCLA all year.
Isaako Savaiinaea returned to action and, while he looked a step slow, made a nice impact, including a great tackle out of bounds on a Kessler scramble.
Defensive Backs: B-
For the most part, UCLA’s defensive backs did a nice job of limiting USC’s explosive playmakers. Juju Smith-Schuster got open once deep on a double-move past freshman Nathan Meadors, and Darreus Rogers made a nice play to beat Meadors for a touchdown later in the game, but otherwise, the big plays were hard to come by for USC.
Jaleel Wadood played well in run support, and has played better over the last half of the season than he did through the first six games. He had 11 tackles, seven of them solo tackles, and many of them came in run support. Randall Goforth also made some nice plays in run support.
Marcus Rios had a nice day covering Smith, for the most part. His physicality helped in that matchup, and since the refs weren’t interested in calling much holding or pass interference on Saturday, he was able to use that physicality to great effect. He had great coverage on Smith on the fade attempt into the end zone.
Defensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: B
This was a good enough defensive performance that UCLA could have won. UCLA really only gave up 26 points to USC’s offense, and when you factor in that 7 of those came after a midfield Rosen interception, it’s hard to pin too much of the blame for this game on the defense. UCLA’s bend-but-don’t-break defense worked about how it’s supposed to work, forcing six three-and-outs on 12 drives, one four-and-out, two field goals, and three touchdowns.
Short yardage defense is definitely an issue for UCLA, and it’s almost to the point where it looks like the Bruins just concede that they aren’t likely to get a stop on 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1. Too many times in this game, but throughout the year as well, opponents have just been able to run at will on the defense on short yardage. Contrast that with UCLA’s own issues running in short yardage situations, and that’s something that needs to be addressed in the offseason.
You have to give some credit to USC and Cody Kessler. The Trojan staff called an excellent offensive game, and for the most part, when UCLA had a good pressure dialed up on Kessler, he was able to dump the ball off or throw it away at the last moment to avoid the big negative play. USC’s offense didn’t make mistakes in this one, and while some of that was probably due to some lack of pressure from UCLA’s defense, it was pretty obvious that Kessler was playing with a lot of poise on Saturday. Having watched a lot of USC this year, that was very obviously one of Kessler’s best performances of the season, even if the stats don’t reflect it.
Special Teams: D-
Special teams, which have been an eyesore most of the year, were bade again on Saturday. UCLA had a bad missed tackle by Cameron Judge on the punt return touchdown by Adoree Jackson where Judge just didn’t wrap up on Jackson, which allowed the return. Matt Mengel kicked a couple of really bad punts in this one, including that one to Jackson.
Ishmael Adams should probably not be an option at kick returner any more. He hasn’t made a good decision back there in a while, and in this one he made a really bad decision to return a kick from the middle of the end zone.
Ka'imi Fairbairn missed another field goal in this one, after missing one last week. Both were from 40+, so there’s that.