Josh Rosen ended this season pretty much how the entire season went for him, playing more than well enough for UCLA to win the game. He threw two interceptions, but neither was really some significant error. The first came at the end of the first half on a heave downfield, and the second came on a desperation play in the 4th quarter where he simply needed to chuck the ball as far as he could downfield, and he accomplished that. He had a number of brilliant plays, including a beautifully set up touchdown pass to Nate Starks where he showed excellent patience and feel.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Rosen. There were the interceptions, and he missed high on a few throws, particularly through the final couple of drives, but, again, he played well enough to win. Looking back on the season, UCLA lost one game where Rosen actually played poorly. With the rest of the losses, it’s really hard to pin much of the blame on him.
Running Backs: B-
UCLA was almost too explosive in the passing game in the first half because it gave the running backs no room to get going. UCLA only had one drive in the first half that went longer than four plays, yet managed to score 21 points. There was very little running in the first half, with just nine carries between all running backs and receivers. There was even less in the second half, when UCLA got down and the Bruins went to the passing game almost exclusively.
All told UCLA had just 16 carries in this game, with Paul Perkins, who looked perhaps a little dinged up, only carrying the ball 12 times. Throwing out Rosen’s 11-yard sack, UCLA actually averaged over 5 yards per carry, but it’s a little deceptive because almost half of UCLA’s yardage came on a single run from Perkins. There wasn’t a lot of consistent running room up front, as you might expect given UCLA’s personnel issues up front.
We liked what we saw from Perkins and Starks, though. Starks looked great on the touchdown catch, and Perkins did his usual thing, averaging nearly six yards per carry on his 12 carries and looking very patient and decisive. If Perkins returns next year, it’ll be a lot of fun watching those two play.
Sotonye Jamabo appeared to hurt his leg on his lone touch, a 36-yard catch. His right leg was braced after the game but he was putting weight on it, which could mean any of a variety of injuries.
Wide Receivers: B-
UCLA had some big drops in this one, including one critical one by Eldridge Massington, but the unit also made some big catches, including a great adjustment and catch by Kenny Walker on the deep ball from Rosen. Watching on TV, you don’t really get a sense of it, but Walker had to adjust his route to cut under the ball and then used his hands well to catch the ball away from his body. Even if you’re still not completely sold on his ability to catch everything thrown his way, there’s no denying that he has made major strides in his game over the last three years.
It was a shame to see Jordan Payton not have one of his bigger games, as he was a few more catches away from the single season catch record at UCLA. One note on the play down the sideline: even if he had caught the ball, it was going to be a penalty for running out of bounds (the referee had thrown his hat).
UCLA went back to the swing pass in a major way in this game, and that led to a variety of catches for Darren Andrews, Stephen Johnson, and the running backs. It’s going to be fun to watch Andrews and Johnson on those kinds of passes next year, because their speed in space is a big play waiting to happen.
Offensive Line: B
We’re grading on a curve here, but given everything personnel-wise coming into this game, this was a surprisingly decent performance from the offensive line. UCLA started a redshirt freshman walkon at offensive guard, yet Rosen was still sacked just once and the team as a whole averaged 4.2 yards per carry ((even factoring in that deep sack).
Caleb Benenoch seemed to be playing really well early on, especially given he was out of position going up against a likely NFL player, but he got hurt midway through the game (head) and had to be pulled. So, after Benenoch went down, UCLA was left playing Cristian Garcia at left guard and Najee Toran, who converted from defensive line again last week, at right guard, with no backups.
Kolton Miller played mostly well on the right side, but there were a couple of plays where he got beat, including one that flushed Rosen from the pocket and forced him to make a throw before he was set. On the left side, Conor McDermott has to be given some credit for also gutting through a knee injury and playing the whole game. He wasn’t 100%, and you could tell, but he still provided good protection for Rosen.
Actually, watching live and then rewatching a bit, Garcia wasn’t quite as bad as we were expecting, given that he is an inexperienced walkon. There were definitely moments where he was completely overmatched, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where he was just bowled over on every single play. Obviously, you don’t want to be in the situation where he has to play, but for a walkon, that was a quality performance.
Offensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: C-
We liked the opening drive, with a good mix of the run and the pass with some plays set up to deceive the defense. We saw a nicely designed end-around, a just OK receiver pass (we liked the idea though!), and then a really well-executed play-action rollout from under center. That was what a dynamic offense looks like.
After that, the offense got a little more stagnant. UCLA hit a deep bomb to Walker, and then scored another touchdown in the first half on a really efficient Rosen drive, but there wasn’t a whole lot of creativity after that first drive. In the second half, UCLA had some slow developing run plays at inopportune times, including a really tentative looking stretch run for Nate Starks that went for -5 yards. UCLA had two consecutive drives to open the second half that went a combined six plays for -4 yards, and that pretty much told the story for the offense in the entire second half.
It sounds like there were a lot of voices involved in playcalling and the game plan, with Kennedy Polamalu, Noel Mazzone, and even Josh Rosen taking some sort of role in it. Against a not very good defense, UCLA’s offense wasn’t good enough to keep pace with Nebraska’s offense, which had a really easy time of it with UCLA’s defense.
Defensive Line: C
So, here’s the deal with our defensive line grading this year: we just can’t blame the actual defensive line overmuch for what is a schematic deficiency against the run. When UCLA plays an undersized outside linebacker as a defensive end, that isn’t on the defensive line, that’s on the scheme.
That said, this still probably wasn’t the best game for the defensive line. The interior was pretty good -- Kenneth Clark had another monster game, despite commanding a variety of double and triple teams all night, and Eli Ankou was just fine. Takkarist McKinley struggled a little bit more on the edge, and missed an opportunity to tackle the slippery Tommy Armstrong on one of the quarterback’s long runs. Edge containment in general wasn’t great, and that’s both a linebacker and a defensive line issue.
We have to think, though, that a lot of issues will be solved if UCLA opts for more of a four-DL front next year. UCLA willingly went undersized this year with Deon Hollins as a defensive end, and that experiment really didn’t work. UCLA didn’t get a whole lot of pass rush out of Hollins, and the Bruins gave up a good deal on the ground.
UCLA linebacker play was pretty poor in this one. Jayon Brown got dinged up, and that certainly didn’t help, but once again UCLA struggled on the interior to fit in the right gaps. Kenny Young, after having a couple of better games to end the regular season, had a tough one on Saturday, looking flummoxed by the running of Armstrong and the variety of backs Nebraska used in the running game.
Hollins, as we mentioned, was targeted in the running game quite a bit, with Nebraska often running to his side of the defensive line. We like Hollins a lot, and he’s a hard worker and a really good pass rusher, but he’s miscast as a defensive end, and he was asked to do more than his skillset really allows this year.
Isaako Savaiinaea played sparingly, and we can only imagine he’s still a little gimpy from the ankle sprain. He did have a few of the better plays for the defense, especially on the one three-and-out UCLA forced in the first half. One big adjustment heading into next year: it seems pretty clear that Savaiinaea simply performs better than Young during games, and should probably head into next year as the starter.
Again, the linebackers will probably be helped by a scheme change that puts another defensive lineman in, but even still, making a switch at middle linebacker heading into next year could also pay big dividends.
Defensive Backs: C+
This was a really tough game for the defensive backs. Going into the game, we heard Marcus Rios had an ankle issue, and big kudos to him for gutting up and playing. Then Johnny Johnson went down with an apparent shoulder injury, and that left UCLA in really bad shape at corner. Already undersized with Johnson and Ishmael Adams starting, UCLA now had to go with Adams and some of the inexperienced Denzel Fisher, and the two got targeted quite a bit.
Safety play was hit and miss. Jaleel Wadood had a few nice tackles, but Randall Goforth still doesn’t look quite 100% and struggled to wrap up a couple of times. This was a really tough run matchup for the UCLA safeties, because they both gave up a lot of weight to the bruising Imani Cross.
Armstrong made better throws in this game than he’s made in large part this year, so you have to give him some credit for making some tough throws and taking advantage of the times when UCLA went with man coverage. Pass defense overall wasn’t bad -- even on the touchdown catch over Adams, he had pretty good coverage, he was just giving up too much height. Run defense was more of an issue for the secondary, and it really seemed to come down to size and tackling.
Defensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: D
This is more of a scheme complaint than a play-calling or game plan complaint. In the context of the scheme, it was a pretty well-called game, or at least not egregiously bad.
But as we’ve belabored now, the scheme has to be a question mark right now. UCLA is now 13 games into the season, a season where teams have largely been able to run all over the Bruins, and still UCLA is primarily running a four-man front with 3-4(ish) personnel. We’re not saying that adding a fourth true lineman would fix every issue UCLA had this year, but it at least would be a response to the run game issues this year, and we’d have to imagine that it would help to fix that problem, even if it perhaps presented some issues in terms of effectively defending spreads.
As we wrote in the season review, we’d like to see UCLA marry its defensive scheme to its offensive scheme a bit more next season. A higher risk defense, predicated on forcing turnovers and big negative plays, would be a much better fit for UCLA’s explosive offense next year than this bend-but-don’t-break scheme. Anything to get the offense on the field as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, is probably a fair strategy.
Special Teams: C
Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a field goal for the third game in a row, and just didn’t look quite right, from pre-game warmups on through. The field goal might not have changed much in terms of the course of the game, but it also might have changed some dynamic or other. It was an unfortunate note for Fairbairn to end his career on.
Roosevelt Davis looked pretty good at kick returner, but UCLA needs to do some work heading into next year on its return blocking and also in terms of finding a new returner. The two best guys this year (Davis and Fuller) both graduate. Perhaps Stephen Johnson can do it, but that needs to get figured out.
Matt Mengel finished off his UCLA career with one of his better, more consistent days punting, so that was good to see.