This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
UCLA’s Offense v. Texas A&M’s Defense
Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis has historically been one of the better college defensive coordinators in the country. “The Chief” as he’s known has a ton of talent on this year’s Aggie defense. That discussion starts with the two defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. However, in between them is a former 5-star defensive tackle in Daylon Mack, and a guy who jumps out on film in Armani Watts, as well as safety Donovan Wilson. Using those two defensive ends as vertical pass rushers allows Texas A&M to get pressure using only the four linemen, and how UCLA would handle this was the key to the game going in.
On UCLA’s first possession they used a steady diet of quarterback Josh Rosen under center. With a short field following a turnover on Texas A&M’s opening drive, UCLA moved the ball inside the 25 yard line using short passes and a penalty that negated a touchdown. But on 3rd and short Texas A&M loaded up the line of scrimmage and by getting inside B-gap penetration, tackled UCLA running back Sotonye Jamabo for a loss, and forced a field goal. That drive probably didn’t seem like much, but it cost UCLA 4 points, and leaving points on the board was a theme for UCLA throughout the entire game.
On the second UCLA offensive possession, after moving the ball for a first down into A&M territory, UCLA went to a shotgun look with two backs and a tight end on 3rd down and four. Although I was probably less disappointed in the new offense after watching the game a second time, this formation was a poor choice for this down and distance. All 11 UCLA players are within 10 yards of the box in this set, with the goal being to cross the outside receiver and the tight end against the man-to-man coverage look from A&M. The result of this action is to create the pick play that’s been in football since the invention of the game.
However, UCLA’s receivers didn’t create any separation (another theme that would play out throughout the game) and the running back left in to block (Soso Jamabo) didn’t come anywhere near picking up the blitz off the edge (yet another theme of the game). Using the strong side defensive end to draw a double team, and stacking a blitzing linebacker on the outside shoulder of the weakside end, A&M was able to get pressure on Rosen before any routes could develop.
With pressure coming from his blind side, the high school Josh Rosen kicked in, and while in the process of being nearly sacked and thrown to the ground, he heaved a ball without looking, right into the waiting arms of Priest Willis of Texas A&M. This decision-making was something we saw a lot of from Rosen last season, and many of us attributed that to freshman mistakes. It’s very concerning to see this still happening, as it happened another time later in this game resulting in an interception.
The decision killed any chance this drive had to get points. I’m not going to concede that UCLA scores on that drive, but a quick turnover definitely killed any momentum UCLA had and quickly got the 12th-man crowd back into the game.
On UCLA’s last possession of the first quarter, they began a drive from their own 4-yard line. This drive was really well designed in my opinion. It started with a 7-yard Jamabo run behind a double-tight end left side, then followed with a run-pass option out of the shotgun, which was a completion to Eldridge Massington for a first down. The next play showed the same formation as the first play of the drive, but Rosen used a 5-step drop, got great protection, and found a hitched Austin Roberts for a near 20-yard gain. That play showed the depth this offense potentially could have given decent protection, and it might have been my favorite play of the game design-wise.
A&M rushed 4 and dropped 7 into coverage. UCLA flared out the inside tight end, taking the Sam linebacker with him. The wide-side receiver ran a fly inside the shoulder of the corner, who was maintaining outside leverage to defend against the flare route. The near-side receiver ran a post to split the safeties. All of these routes left Roberts alone behind the middle linebacker with a wide open throwing lane for Rosen.
The protection, with Jamabo chipping the weak side defensive end, allowed for Rosen to let the play develop, but the design of the play was terrific and resulted in a big gain. This play also illustrated how tight ends can change an offense, which I think the CBS commentator Gary Danielson actually commented on.
That play design is a pro-set passing play, which is great to see, but it’s also encouraging to see it immediately following an RPO, which is an exclusively college type of concept. If UCLA can harmonize both pro and college concepts into this season’s offense, given Rosen’s abilities, they have a chance to be really good offensively.
This drive continued with another good Jamabo run for 12 yards, followed by a Jamabo run for 6 yards on first down. On third-and-1 UCLA took a page out of Stanford’s playbook, using a triple-tight end set with a fullback. Bolu Olorunfunmi took the carry and went 33 yards down to the A&M 4-yard line, setting up a first-and-goal. That power run play was something that UCLA spent a lot of time talking about this offseason, and in this instance it worked out well.
Now the game turns a little bit in A&M’s favor. UCLA has taken the ball 92 yards using power runs, pro-style passing plays and RPOs. On first down, UCLA gives the same triple-tight end look, but play-actions out of it to a boundary-side bootleg. With all the action going far side, Rosen had three open receivers in the end zone but waited too long and made the wrong read, throwing incomplete to a tight end out of the end zone. This play sort of put UCLA on tilt it felt like. A sure 6 points to cap a terrific drive had just gone out the back of the end zone, and UCLA makes two bad decision on the next two plays, the last of which was a fade route to Kenny Walker in the corner of the end zone, which is not a high-percentage throw.
After a really impressive drive, where the offense began to invoke some will, UCLA came away with a field goal. This drive should have paid off in 6 and a two-score lead.
The first half inability of UCLA to score touchdowns instead of field goals was the difference in the game. The third quarter was abysmal for UCLA, but in the fourth quarter Rosen adjusted to the pressure by stepping up more in the pocket, and the offense was humming. Barring a really bad interception from Rosen with under a minute to play, UCLA wins this game in the fourth quarter despite being down by 15 with 8 minutes to play. UCLA left a ton of yards and points on the field, mainly due to drops by the receivers and poor decision-making from Rosen. I think you can point to any of those instances and place blame for the loss and you’re probably justified. But to me, the game was lost in the first half on these three drives, where UCLA should have been up by probably at least 13-0. A&M was a reeling program heading into the game. They’ve had mass defections, coaches getting fired, suspensions, and the last thing UCLA wanted was to make them believe they had a chance. When UCLA had their opportunity to put their foot on the throat of A&M early in the game the offense blew it.
• UCLA’s receivers are weak. They rarely got separation as the game went on, as one of Texas A&M’s adjustments was to play more bump coverage. This is not a hugely talented group, so at some point Theo Howard will have to be thrown into the deep end and forced to sink or swim. Eldridge Massington and Alex Van Dyke had poor games in terms of route running and ability to get open. It might be time to look at other options, unless UCLA has no other options. UCLA absolutely should have better personnel at these spots when you’re recruiting with one of the most talented quarterbacks in our program’s history.
• The offensive line was ok in the first half, and was able to summon some protection in the fourth quarter, but had one of the worst quarters I can remember in the third quarter of this game. Those ends for A&M are legit, but to see the entire offensive line get pushed around was concerning. I saw that UCLA went to more Najee Toran and Andre James in spurts, and whether that was due to injury or just to give the starters a break, it’s clear that this line group is thin. It’s really hard to play pro-style offensive football with a thin offensive line group, so that is something to keep an eye on as the season goes on.
-Josh Rosen had an up-and-down – but mostly down -- game. There were the obvious bad decisions resulting in turnovers that need to be stopped. Also, there were way too many key drops from his receivers. However his reads were really inconsistent. He struggles with pressure way more that I would have anticipated at this stage, and his ability to adjust to pressure will be a huge catalyst in how UCLA’s season goes. It’s clear this offense is 100% predicated on his ability to execute. The entire offense is built around him, so UCLA will go how Rosen goes this season.
To say that I’m disappointed with being 8-6 through Rosen’s first 14 games is an understatement. Habits become tendencies if they don’t go away. I know he took this loss very personal, but he needs to keep quiet and go play, get better, and stop the mental mistakes or else there will be labels put on him he doesn’t want. He has the opportunity to showcase his skills in this offense, but games like this one will do him more harm than good in the long term.
Texas A&M’s Offense v. UCLA’s Defense
We all know Noel Mazzone, his son, and the famous N-zone system. Using exclusively shotgun sets, it’s basically a one-back system that revolves around a few core concepts. The system is known for its simplicity, and when run properly can be deadly at keeping an offense balanced. There are designed runs, designed passes and RPOs in the system, and when Mazzone has a quarterback that can execute to go along with a line that can protect, the system can be really effective.
The game plan for A&M offensively was pretty clear. They wanted to get UCLA running sideline to sideline, then use tempo to wear down the front four so that the inside running plays could take effect. As always, it took Mazzone a while to get it going, but on A&M’s first drive of the second quarter they found some rhythm offensively.
Starting from their own 30-yard line, A&M ran far-side for a gain of 4 yards, then on an RPO to the other side of the field picked up a first down on a gain of 6. The next play was a designed rollout to the far side of the field, which resulted in a pass completion for a 9-yard gain. The next was the same play, resulting in a pass to the near side which went for 12 yards. All of these plays were done with tempo, which when combined with the sideline-to-sideline running and the 95 degree heat index, led to missed tackles from Randall Goforth and Fabian Moreau for UCLA.
On first-and-10 from the UCLA 35, with UCLA’s safeties widened out and still playing nickel (which they were in most of the game), Mazzone decided it was time to start running inside. The first down play was an inside zone for 4 yards, the second down play was a completion on a stick route that set up third and short, which A&M then ran up the middle to get a first down.
UCLA began to substitute in players, and A&M stuck with the script. The next first down play was a pass to the wide side for a short gain. That set up an inside zone for another first down. After a short pass play to the far side, A&M pounded away inside for a 7-yard touchdown run.
This was A&M’s best drive of the day. It came at a point where they had to score to seize momentum back from the UCLA offense. It also illustrated how effective Mazzone’s system can be when run properly. The entire drive took about 4 minutes, and forced the UCLA defense to run sideline to sideline and stay in nickel. This drive was similar to many we saw as UCLA fans while Mazzone was in Westwood, taking advantage of the numbers, mismatches, all while using tempo. UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley loves to use nickel when facing spread teams. The current UCLA personnel allows them to bring in an extra safety in Tahaan Goodman, who can play like a mini-linebacker, while not losing much coverage capability. A&M’s only counter was to run the UCLA defense around and force them to stay on the field. Once the heat set in, that opened up the inside running lanes and UCLA didn’t have enough size up front to deal with that. This drive will be the first thing most team’s look at when planning for UCLA’s defense.
As the game went on we continued to see more of the negative tendencies Mazzone’s offense can have. The Texas A&M offense basically went in to prevent with about 8 minutes left in the game up by 15 points. There was one stretch where their best receiver, Christian Kirk, didn’t have a ball thrown to him for three consecutive series in the second half. Travis Knight is a mobile quarterback, but he doesn’t throw the deep ball well, which will force Texas A&M to have to rely on the intermediate passing concepts inside the N-zone system. A&M has a ton of talent at wide receiver with Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, when he comes back from suspension. But with Knight at the helm I’m not sure that offense will be able to do much in the rugged SEC.
As for the UCLA defense, I guess they are who they are going to be with Tom Bradley. UCLA still plays a lot of nickel (although this game probably warranted that), they rarely blitz, rarely stunt up front, rarely press the corners. To me, it’s the same defensive scheme we’ve seen for years. Play the offense straight up and bend-but-don’t-break. Against a spread team like A&M that works fine when you’re healthy, but as soon as Takkarist McKinley went out (with 1:30 left in the first quarter) the entire front four stopped getting any sort of pressure. Deon Hollins is sidelined with a concussion, and even though Keisean Lucier-South can give you some speed on the edge, when your best rusher goes down you’d think you would compensate by blitzing more? Not in this game. Most of Knight’s passes were under absolutely no duress. He was able to check to his second, third and sometimes fourth options pretty regularly. Even though his stat line doesn’t indicate that he did a lot of damage throwing the ball, he was able to spread it around to enough locations on the field to really wear down the UCLA defense. Pressure would have mitigated his ability to do this, and in a best case scenario, forced him into making mistakes which he is prone to do.
• The front four looked great when it was healthy, but as mentioned, losing McKinley really hurts. He’s turned in to a complete defensive end, and with him out there it allows UCLA to get pressure while only rushing four, and football is a lot easier when you can do that. Hopefully he’s fine for UNLV and beyond.
• The linebacker group is really thin. Kenny Young played a lot of Mike in this game, and although he looks more comfortable in a 4-3 than he did in a 3-4, he still had some bad reads. Isaako Savaiinaea played some at that spot, too, and he looked about the same as he did last season. Jayon Brown saw a guard on him all day long, which kept him from being really involved like he was at times last season. The group is just really thin on depth with Mique Juarez gone MIA and Hollins out. I didn’t see much Josh Woods or even Cameron Judge in this game. The linebacker depth is concerning and even more of a reason the front four needs to hold up.
• Eddie Vanderdoes played a whale of a game, as did Eli Ankou. Those two in the middle gives UCLA a formidable set of tackles. Vanderdoes showed off the quickness he had before the knee injury, and I was really impressed with how well Ankou held up against consistent double teams. The design of the defense is to get Eddie in a one-on-one, which lends Ankou to having to eat a guard and a center on almost every down. That can wear on a player, but I thought he was a warrior out there on Saturday.
This was a significant setback for UCLA football and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of attention to detail in the offseason was the difference in the game.
The 2015 season didn’t end well, with the losses to USC and Nebraska, and then there seemed to be a good number of distractions in the off-season, with Trump hats on the tee-box, some controversy in recruiting during June and July, Juarez’s excused absences, etc.
I can’t help but wonder if those distractions spilled over to the players. If those distractions were the difference between three dropped touchdowns on Saturday or three completions. Maybe if UCLA could ever have a stable environment in the offseason we would cash in those field goals in the first half for touchdowns instead. I guess we will never know.
What I do know is that while this roster has some pieces, there are still some personnel holes in it and, really, there shouldn’t be this many five years into the Mora era. With USC losing 52-6 to Alabama on Saturday night, it’s clear the Trojans are not “back,” and probably won’t be anytime soon. When Oregon published their 2-deep a few weeks ago, there were maybe three players UCLA even recruited on it. I know Chris Petersen is Yoda up in Seattle, but does 15 wins in 2 years really scare anyone? Stanford is really good, but how many recruits have we really lost to them over the last 5 years? A few maybe, but not a significant amount.
I guess where I’m going with this is: I expected this season to set up really well for UCLA. We have Josh Rosen and the assumption was we would have the pieces around him to make a run. I think Rosen is going to be a great quarterback at UCLA, but at this stage he’s not there. And the pieces are not there either. The offensive line is a work in progress; the skill talent isn’t as talented as you’d like it tobe, or its young and/or isn’t seeing the field right now; and UCLA’s defensive talent isn’t at a level where the scheme can ignore risk-taking.
So much of winning big in college football as a Pac-12 program is syncing up your talent to coincide with a favorable schedule (you need some luck along the way too), and it seemed like 2016 might be the year for it. After watching UCLA play a maybe-above-average Texas A&M team on Saturday, I’m skeptical that harmonization occurs for UCLA in 2016, and the expectations that the talent-and-schedule sync might create should possibly be tempered. There’s a chance; Rosen would have to mature and advance his game and the rest of the pieces would also have to step up, and it’d have to happen before UCLA gets to its Pac-12 schedule.