Nebraska's Imani Cross pounding out yardage (US Today)

UCLA Ends Season On Disappointing Note

Dec. 27 -- It was perhaps a fitting way to end a difficult season, and with a mediocre Nebraska team able to smashmouth UCLA for 326 yards on the ground, it's perhaps a wake-up call for the program...

It was a tough season so it was fitting that this year’s UCLA’s team ended it on a disappointing note, losing to a 5-7 Nebraska team in the Foster Farms Bowl, 37-29.

It was a tough season for everyone involved in UCLA football – the players, coaches and fans.

We’ll obviously have more analysis of the season. Endless analysis. Probably too much for you to want to read.

But right now, with all of that swirling in the brains of Bruins, let’s try to put this Chicken Bowl behind us first. 

If there was one distinctive takeaway from the game it was really simply that UCLA couldn’t physically match up with Nebraska.  UCLA’s defense looked like the epitome of the “Gutty Little Bruins,” with smaller guys bouncing off big, burly Huskers  like gnats.   Nebraska’s running backs, when they were stopped, fell forward for five yards.  Nebraska stole the Stanford game plan to beat UCLA – just line up bigger guys and see who wins the physical battle – and it worked.  A Cornhusker team that was 37th in the country for yards per rushing attempt, and wasn’t known particularly for its running attack, gained 326 yards on the ground. And that right there, fellas, is your game.

Everything else that UCLA didn’t do well was secondary to that.  If you’re going to allow a team to pound out 326 yards on the ground it’s just highly unlikely you’re going to win. Yeah, there could be other issues that contribute to the loss, but it’s all peanuts when you allow a team to roll through you rushing the ball like that.

If you’re looking for an explanation, it’s a matter of both personnel and scheme.   It’s strange that UCLA hasn’t learned that, say, Deon Hollins, who is a great kid with tremendous heart and work ethic, isn’t a defensive end.  He’s not one in any kind of defense, not even a 3-4.   Hollins, and actually every other under-sized player who slotted into what has been labeled that defensive end/linebacker hybrid spot since Anthony Barr, just couldn’t match up physically against Nebraska’s huge offensive line.  Hollins was sealed off repeatedly in this game, and when they are guys who are a few inches taller and weigh 70 pounds more than him you can’t really fault him.  And that position isn’t, now, a linebacker, in almost any shape or form.  It’s a defensive end.  And if a 6-1, 225-pounder isn’t giving you a match-up advantage in pass rushing, which he hasn’t this season, you have to wonder why he’s still being used in this capacity.  Wouldn’t Matt Dickerson, who is 6-4 and 270 pounds, be a much better fit at defensive end when you’re playing against a team that has decided it’s going to smashmouth you on the ground?  It’s not the fault of defensive line coach Angus McClure, since he’s not responsible for that position.  UCLA simply needs to be able to shift to a 4-3 philosophy when it goes up against a smashmouth team, put more guys in the box and make the offense beat you by throwing the ball.   Most teams that smashmouth you do it because they don’t actually throw the ball well, so why not make them have to do it to beat you?

It’s a head-scratcher, definitely.

At same point, when getting it pounded down your throat like Nebraska did throughout this game, you’d have to think that UCLA’s defensive mind trust would just say, “Screw it, let’s put 8 guys in the box.”

Because it wasn’t just the 326 yards Nebraska gained on the ground that won this game, it was the 38 minutes the Nebraska offense spent on the field.  That will wear down any defense, especially an under-sized one.  You’d rather have Nebraska score quickly, rather than sustain 7-minute drives, wearing down your under-sized defense.  This is the worse aspect of the bend-and-not-break defense – not only when it bend and breaks, but the bending wearing down your less-physical defense.  Heck, you’d much rather they scored quickly, get your under-manned defense off the field, and hand the ball back to your offense that could, perhaps, win the game by either out-scoring the opponent or eating up some clock on its own – or both.  Basically, when your defense is getting run over, literally, get them off the field.    

Hopefully it’s true that the defensive philosophy will change next season.  UCLA has bigger, stronger players on its roster. Perhaps it can develop a scheme that can match up against the Smashmouth Attack.  As we’ve said, it’s going to have to if Jim Mora’s program is going to go to the next level.  It’s going to have to solve the Stanford Problem.

After that, everything else, as I said, was peanuts in this game.  Yeah, the offense wasn’t great.  But it did have an explanation for it – namely that it was playing with only 6 available linemen and started a redshirt freshman walk-on at guard and then used a converted defensive lineman at the other guard for a majority of the game.  UCLA found itself in this situation due to a number of things – a combination of some bad luck but also some poor personnel management.  Injuries, academics and some unavoidable circumstances – like a player deciding to leave the program and go pro for personal reasons and another transferring before the end of the season because he was homesick – all contributed. 

Even with a depleted offensive line, though, UCLA’s offense seemed to still have the weapons to move the ball.  Of course, we can again point the finger at the play-calling; after that first, scripted series that was very successful, the playcalling went back into its shell a bit.  Perhaps too many stretch runs and too much horizontal passing game.  When you have Josh Rosen throwing the ball,  and Thomas Duarte and Jordan Payton going up against a bad secondary, you would think you’d want to exploit that as much as possible. Payton and Duarte only caught 7 balls between the two of them, and just didn’t have it thrown their way enough.

As we pointed out going into the game, too, we had a feeling that UCLA wasn’t in the right mind for this game.  Not just the players, but the entire program.  It seemed like there was a feeling of malaise, that the program collectively just wanted to get this season over, and that was apparent on the field Saturday. 

Even with all of these “peanuts,” though, UCLA still could have easily won this game. It was down by only 8 with two offensive chances in the fourth quarter that it squandered. 

But the one thing that was ultimately just too much to overcome was getting overwhelmed by Nebraska’s rushing attack. Mora, in the post-game press conference, said he needs to get his UCLA team bigger and stronger.  It’s true; he has engineered a defense that can generally defend against spreads well, but it can’t match up against the Stanford Problem.   That might dictate a change in defensive scheme, perhaps go more to a base 4-3 that utilizes a bigger, more physical defensive front designed to match up against smashmouth offenses.   Even on the offensive side, Mora, as a college coach, has adopted the spread, and it definitely was apparent it was at the expense of UCLA’s running game this season.  Mora has indicated he wants to get more road-grater types on the offensive line, to be able to, himself, grind out yards on the ground.   It seems that college football is swinging back that way.  Perhaps it’s time to go back to that age-old philosophy that you win games by winning the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether it’s with or against a spread. 

Even if you want to just concentrate on this game, and not get into analyzing the season, it’s tough to do so since there were so many overarching, season-type issues at play Saturday.  You have to wonder how much impact Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack would have had on the defense. With just that added NFL-level talent, would UCLA’s defense been able to dictate the match-up against opposing offenses this season? Like in this game, would it have tilted the balance of power toward UCLA’s defense, despite Nebraska smashmouthing it?  But then again, if UCLA had had Vanderdoes and Jack, the Bruins probably wouldn’t have been in Santa Clara Saturday and the Foster Farms match-up against Nebraska would be moot.

If you want to get into the what-if game, it’s a swirling conundrum that will suck you in and provide you no answers.  But watching that game, on a very simple level, it does make you wonder what this team would have been if it had those two guys, and hadn’t been so decimated by injury. 

Ah well.  The season is over, and that’s better for Bruin fans.  This was an ill-fated season in so many ways, so it was probably fitting it ended this way. You would have loved to put a pretty bow on it with a win, just so the program and all of its fans don’t have to live with a bitter taste for the off-season – and for prime recruiting season.  But perhaps the season, and the showcase of this game, will emphasize and underline what the UCLA program needs to do to go to the next level.

 


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