There's so much of a great overall benefit from a 24-point win.
In the last several years, UCLA has suffered quite a few injuries. Most of it was just bad luck. But a great deal of it was due to the fact that UCLA's starters had to spend so much time on the field since just about every game went down to the wire. The less time on the field, of course, it follows the less possibility of injury. Against Kansas, UCLA's first-string was pulled halfway through the third quarter and it's awfully difficult for a first-stringer to get hurt when he's sitting on the bench. Also, it gets your second and third-string players very valuable experience. Over the course of a season, these kinds of wins do so much for the team, keeping them less injured, fresh, and overall more experienced. It had been a long time since UCLA had been up by 20+ and you really felt there was no way the opponent could get back in the game.
And isn't it so much more impressive that this team can route an opponent, score 41 points, without an effective passing game?
The passing game looked a little better, but it still is struggling. Here are a few reasons:
- Cory Paus is struggling. He doesn't look very comfortable in the pocket. And he's generally not throwing the ball with accuracy, due mostly, it seems to his nervousness. In the last three years you never would have thought that an issue for Paus would be accuracy, but in the first two games of this season, it is. But, it probably stems more than anything from Paus' fear of injury and the memory of his injury-riddle past. Paus, though, has thrown the ball far more accurately when he's rolled out, seemingly because he's aware that he's far less vulnerable to getting blind-sided than he is throwing the ball in a quickly-collapsing pocket. Given what's happened to Paus in the last couple of years, his relative skittishness is understandable. Paus will continue to settle down, since he's just realizing, "Hey, I can go to two games and not get injured!" You can also probably expect to see Paus roll out more in the future, and set up the pocket in other places than with a straight drop-back.
- The offensive line has been spotty in its pass protection. Mostly it hasn't picked up blitzes really well. Kansas practically blitzed on every first down, and UCLA struggled to pick up the blitzing linebackers. The way you stop a defense from blitzing is to burn them a couple of times, and UCLA's coaches realized that KU was blitzing quite a bit and adjusted accordingly. The problem was, then, not in the play-calling but in the execution. The offensive line struggled to contain the left defensive end – which is the defensive end that is coming at a right-handed quarterback's blind side. As the game wore on, KU's defense wore down, and UCLA adjusted its blocking schemes, the situation improved. But pass protection is probably the area that the UCLA offense needs to improve the most.
- The wide receivers struggled to get open. While Paus took some sacks, he did for the most part, have time to throw, at least to his primary receiver. But it was pretty clear that Paus didn't see too many receivers open.
- They've played two away games in two hostile environments. It's difficult to get the precision, timing and comfort needed for a passing game to be effective on track when you've played your first two games away from the Rose Bowl.
All of this contributes to a struggling passing game. But you can probably expect the passing game to continue to improve each week. Hopefully we'll see more of the offense setting up the pocket in different places, the quarterback rolling out, and more 2-step drops and quick-hitters. Head Coach Bob Toledo said that he still hasn't opened up a great deal of the playbook, keeping it for Pac-10 play. It's a great idea, if you can get away with it, which so far UCLA has. But with an under-rated ASU team coming to the Rose Bowl this weekend, it appears to be time that the rest of the playbook is dusted off and the passing game get on track.
There are some positives to take from the passing performance in Kansas. Brian Poli-Dixon caught a few balls and got out of his dropsy slump. Tab Perry once again proved to be a long-ball threat. Craig Bragg looks like a player who needs to get the ball in his hands. UCLA threw quite a bit to the tight ends, even though most of the passes weren't completed. Back-ups Scott McEwan and Ryan McCann looked completely at east in mop-up duty and threw some strong balls.
DeShaun Foster had a very good game. It was the kind of game that is tailor-made for him: On a fast, artificial turf, against an opponent with a weak DL so he can get into the secondary and break some tackles.
While the offensive line probably got a "C" in pass protection, you'd have to give them an "A" for run blocking. Holes were big and plentiful, and the line did really well in sealing off the defense around end.
Also, some props have to be given to UCLA's fullbacks, especially Matt Stanley. Stanley had a great game, applying some nice blocks that helped to spring Foster and running with the ball well himself. UCLA is smart to utilize its fullbacks as much as possible, given how talented they are.
On defense, overall it was a very good performance. Again, the UCLA defensive line established itself as the dominating unit on the field. Opponents, after just two games, have realized that it's not prudent to try to run plays at the middle of UCLA's defense, with its strength at its defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety positions. Kansas mounted really it's only effective drive to end the first half by going outside on as many plays as possible – either running or throwing the ball.
The defensive tackles – Rod Leisle and Anthony Fletcher – had great games, manhandling the KU offensive line. And the depth at DL also was a big factor. With Sean Phillips and Steve Morgan playing so well, opposing OLs get no relief. And it will get worse for them when the best of the DTs returns in Ken Kocher. At defensive end, Kenyon Coleman had a strong, steady performance. Coleman is good when running straight ahead in pursuit (he ran down running backs to his side on a couple of occasions). Dave Ball also had a good game, containing his end, and Rusty Williams played well in back-up minutes.
At linebacker, even though Ryan Nece grabbed the headlines and did, in fact, have one of the best games of his career, Robert Thomas was primary force. He was quick to the ball, sure-tackling, and did whatever it took to get it done.
Where UCLA's defense looked vulnerable was on its ends. Linebackers got sealed a few times on the end, enabling a KU runner to turn a corner and get upfield on a few occasions. Also, the cornerbacks were a little soft in coverage, making the sides of the field the easiest for the KU offense to find some yardage.
But UCLA adjusted well, especially in containing a running quarterback like Mario Kinsey. Once Kinsey burned UCLA's defense a couple of time with quarterback draws and scrambles, it adjusted in the second half and shut him down.
There is the big factor here, overall, that UCLA generally hasn't faced a legitimately tough opponent. The difficulty in its first two games wasn't really the opponent as much as ait was playing games on the road, in bad weather. So, it's still hard to assess how good this UCLA team is. It's pretty clear that it will have to establish a more effective passing game to be succesful in its Pac-10 schedule. And it's pretty clear that UCLA is going to face some considerably better offenses than those of Alabama and Kansas, offenses that are going to have the tools to exploit the defense's weaknesses.
UCLA plays four of its next five games in the friendlier confines of the Rose Bowl. And while there are still definite questions to the team, and some pretty clear aspects of the team that need to be worked on and improved, the prospect of winning the first two games of the season on the road, and now playing four of the next five games at home is encouraging…