Going into this season, we made our concerns about the team pretty apparent, and most of them centered on the offense. Would the offensive line be able to, first, protect Josh Rosen and, second, establish any kind of interior running attack? Would Kennedy Polamalu, in his first year as a play-caller, be able to hit the ground running? And, would the receivers, without a true number one having been established in fall camp, perform up to the level of last year?
If you were going to base your answers to those questions off of the game on Saturday, you can't be happy with the result.
The offensive line couldn't hold up against Texas A&M's tenacious pass rush, and it wasn't just the interior. Even Conor McDermott had trouble, as you might imagine, with Myles Garrett, but the matchup veered a little bit more Garrett's way than we would have thought coming in. The interior of the offensive line was poor, with some issues in pass protection, but even more in generating an interior presence in the running game. It's no wonder that the majority of UCLA's successful runs were off tackle, because there was very little push up front.
Polamalu, for his part, looks like a work-in-progress as a play-caller, which we suppose was to be expected. The red zone play calls were curious, particularly the two sweep-type plays to Ishmael Adams out of the backfield, and, though this is a qualitative and subjective statement, we thought the play-calling overall lacked some rhythm. Now, that might have been largely due to some of the other struggles UCLA was having, namely on the offensive line, at quarterback, and at receiver, but some of it has to fall on the coordinator. UCLA also had to burn timeouts a couple of times due to struggles getting the plays in, and then had some clock management weirdness on the drive to end the first half that led to the missed field goal where UCLA looked like it wasn't prepared to run another play.
The receivers were shaky. There isn't another great way of putting it. They weren't universally bad -- in fact, Kenny Walker's one touchdown catch was a sublime bit of situational comedy -- but there were just way too many drops. Alex Van Dyke, Jordan Lasley, and Walker all had big drops at various points, and if Lasley, in particular, catches his, UCLA would likely have won the game in regulation.
But perhaps the biggest issue was not one that was on our radar coming in -- Rosen also looked shaky. He had three interceptions, two of which looked like they were completely his fault, and he just was off most of the day, with even the throws where he connected not being thrown perfectly. The throw to Walker early where UCLA earned a pass interference call easily could have been a touchdown if Rosen had lofted the ball a bit more. He also under-threw Austin Roberts on a throw where Roberts likely would have run into the A&M red zone for a 40-yard gain if the ball had been thrown well.
It was a worrying performance because Rosen also didn't have a great fall camp, as we talked about at length. Last year, when Rosen had a poor fall camp, at least he came out and played a nearly perfect game against Virginia. This was a different environment, for sure, but Rosen still didn't look great. He rallied to lead a couple of nice drives in the 4th quarter, but his problems in the first three quarters were a big reason why UCLA was in such a deficit.
We're not sounding the alarm on Rosen, though. It was a tough environment against a team that was largely dominating UCLA's offensive line, so we're happy to give the benefit of the doubt. He could use a nice performance against UNLV next week to get in rhythm in this offense, though.
So, largely, we'd say the loss stemmed from offensive issues, which kind of fits what we expected coming out of fall camp, except that we were in no way expecting Rosen to have the kind of game he did, for UCLA's tackles to lose to the extent they did against the Aggie pass rush, or for UCLA's receivers to drop the balls the way they did. So, basically, UCLA had the issues we were expecting, just to a much greater extent than we expected.
It was actually funny, watching that fourth quarter, because Noel Mazzone started doing all of those infuriating Noel Mazzone things, only this time, it was actually benefitting UCLA. The Bruins were gifted several opportunities to both tie and then win the game thanks to some curious Mazzone play-calling in the 4th quarter, where he'd call passes when it was time to burn the clock. Then, in overtime, his patented red zone play calling nearly kept the Aggies from scoring in their half of the overtime period, despite getting down to the 4-yard line with four downs to go.
Of course, UCLA was then unable to score in the red zone with four downs on its ensuing period, so I guess we'll get our jollies somewhere else.
Defensively, UCLA looked a little bit better against the run than a year ago, but largely the same bend-but-don't-break scheme we've come to expect. There wasn't much pressure until the 4th quarter, when UCLA had to get some stops. A bit of a concern is that the defense didn't appear to deal with tempo well at all -- on two drives in the first half, the defense looked a little gassed by the tempo, and there are going to be quite a few Pac-12 teams who attempt to tempo UCLA this year.
In a bit of a concern on that end, Takkarist McKinley went down early in the game, and though he tried to make a go of it, it looked like his groin was bothering him again. Groin issues can last a while, so that's a worry. With him in the game to start the first half, UCLA's defense looked actively good, but with him off the field, it kind of went back to not really having much of a rush.
The secondary played pretty well, with the safeties both making big plays late in coverage to keep UCLA in it. Aside from a phantom holding call on Fabian Moreau, it looked like the corners played fairly well as well.
Linebacker appears to still be a bit of an issue -- Kenny Young, while certainly better than he was last year, still looked a bit worse than Isaako Savaiinaea at middle linebacker, at least to the naked eye (we'll rewatch the game later). Jayon Brown seemed to get picked on a little bit in coverage. We didn't notice much from Cameron Judge. There were just too many times in the first half especially where A&M would run up the middle and no one would be there. Part of that is Mazzone's scheme spreading defenses out, but some of it has to be UCLA being out of position.
The question is what happens now. UCLA certainly has some things to work on, and we think a lot of it should start with reworking the offense to account for the obvious issues up front. When UCLA went shotgun in this game, it appeared to help, so that's one fix we'd explore. Working on personnel usage would also be worthwhile, as a few times in this game (basically any Sotonye Jamabo red zone run, or that fade to 5'9 Kenny Walker) it seemed UCLA didn't have the right personnel in the game for that particular play.
Those are fixable issues. It wasn't that long ago (2012 to be exact) when UCLA did a really nice job scheming around a mostly poor offensive line. The question is whether UCLA has the tools to mitigate those issues in the same way as they did in the past.
Going forward, the Bruins have a tune-up against UNLV next week that should hopefully give them some time to work on some things. But then a meaty part of the schedule hits, with a back-to-back against BYU and Stanford. We had them both pegged as losses in our preseason preview, so at this point, UCLA is going to have to play a little bit above where we had them to get back in line with the 9-3 we predicted to start the year.