UCLA won 42-21 on Saturday, and if you're inclined to feel good about any 20+ point win, go party.
For the rest of us, though, there was enough in that game to give us some more pretty significant concerns about the rest of the season.
First, and foremost, Eddie Vanderdoes went down and, as with Takkarist McKinley, it happened pretty early in the game. We don't know the full extent of the injury, but being pulled from the game and getting iced is rarely a good sign. After Vanderdoes went down, the run defense, which already didn't look great, took a full step backward, and started to look much more porous on the interior.
So, that was an issue, but the other issue was the confirmation we received about what McKinley's absence means -- effectively, UCLA has no other true defensive ends on the roster. Outside containment was a major issue in this game, as an under talented UNLV team was able to get what it wanted at times on runs and plays to the edge. As against Texas A&M, the Bruins gave up five yards per carry and it was only because UNLV elected to throw the ball more that the Bruins didn't end up giving up 200+ yards on the ground again.
Given what we saw in this game, with a combination of Eli Ankou and Nick Terry not consistently able to shut down the interior of UNLV's rushing attack, and with a combination of Matt Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Keisean Lucier-South and others not able to consistently keep containment and redirect running backs, if McKinley or Vanderdoes is out for any length of time, the rush defense could not only be as bad as last year, it could quite possibly be worse.
And we don't want to pin all of the issues on the defensive line personnel -- UCLA continues to have one of the most curious middle linebacker situations that we can remember. In one corner, we have Kenny Young, who has seemingly really impressed the coaching staff with off-the-game-field activities, and then you have Isaako Savaiinaea, who has been a significantly better player in games. Young, who we thought played a bit better than last year against Texas A&M, reverted drastically in this game, and was a huge reason why it was so easy for Johnny Stanton to tell the UNLV staff that UCLA's middle was "soft". Young having a very poor game, combined with the absences of Vanderdoes and McKinley, put UCLA in a real game with a low-level Mountain West team.
We said up top that this was a three-touchdown win, and that's true, but this was also a one-score game to open the fourth quarter, with UNLV driving. The Bruins allowed this UNLV team to sustain some real drives, and if it hadn't been for some unforced errors on the part of UNLV, with Stanton throwing a couple of pretty weak interceptions, the Bruins could have been tied or worse at that point.
From a schematic perspective, UCLA really didn't pressure much defensively, though it seemed the Bruins blitzed a bit more than against Texas A&M. The few times they did blitz, good things tended to happen, such as the Young sack to cap the third quarter, which stymied what could have been a game-tying drive for the Rebels. Again, to reiterate what we said going into the game, it's obvious that without McKinley, UCLA is going to need to bring pressure with more than four to generate a pass rush. This UNLV offensive line wasn't great, and there are many better ones on the schedule that will deal with UCLA's four-man rush even better than UNLV did -- and the Rebels did a fine job.
Offensively, UCLA had some issues, but they were again of the variety that we think are mostly fixable -- aside from the offensive line, which is probably close to as good as it's going to be given the personnel deficiencies at that position. The interior of the offensive line once again wasn't able to generate a consistent push against the UNLV front, which left the Bruins again finding much of their success running the ball on the edges, and behind the two tackles. Again, most of UCLA's success on the ground appeared to come around the right side and Kolton Miller, which is a tendency that teams are going to pick up on soon. Finding some consistent running room elsewhere is going to be critical for UCLA to have the kind of sustained offense it's going to need to make up for its average-at-best defense.
We didn't think Josh Rosen looked great, but it was a significant step up from his performance against the Aggies. He didn't throw any interceptions and looked a touch more accurate, but there were still some throws, especially the deeper stuff, where he just looked a bit off, not hitting guys in stride and forcing receivers to come back to the ball a bit. His decision-making was better, though, but much of that was probably due to the complete lack of a pass rush from UNLV. It wasn't quite the murderous, four-touchdown, 10 yards-per-attempt performance we were hoping to see out of him against this pretty poor UNLV defense, but it was a step in the right direction after a tough opening game.
The receivers once again dropped a ton of balls, which kind of flies in the face of our theory that dropped balls are a matter of variance that should correct itself. Kenny Walker dropped a couple, as did Sotonye Jamabo, and as did Eldridge Massington (arguably twice if you count the targeting drop). Sustaining consistent drives with that kind of receiver play is going to be really tough to do, and the Bruins need to get better quick and find better solutions. Massington has never been the consistent playmaker the Bruins would like him to be, and it seemed that toward the end of the game, the Bruins started to lean much more heavily on Jordan Lasley, who was a major bright spot in this game. Lasley showed the ability to get separation against Texas A&M, even if he dropped his one target, and he put it all together in this game, so hopefully that gives them something to build on.
The running backs were mostly excellent. Jamabo was better running the ball and, for the nitty gritty observer, actually was better blocking as well. True freshman Brandon Stephens showed why everyone was comparing him to Paul Perkins in fall camp -- he's just going to be a starter at some point for the Bruins. It's not even a question. Jalen Starks had a bad fumble, but he was also a big part of the reason the Bruins were able to ice the game late with a pounding drive in the 4th quarter. If we had one question about the running back rotation, it's simply that our guy Bolu Olorunfunmi received no consistent touches (just seven total carries) while Stephens and freshman Starks combined for 18 carries and Jamabo had 11 of his own, but that's nit-picking in a game like this.
So, the question really is what happens from here. The Bruins now go back on the road to face BYU, and it's a BYU team that is probably a little worse and a little different than we were expecting when we predicted a UCLA loss at the beginning of the year. That said, UCLA is a little worse and a little different than we were expecting when we predicted the entire season, so it's tricky to figure out how this might go. If Vanderdoes and McKinley are back for the game, that BYU offensive attack doesn't look particularly strong, but if they're not, we're pretty confident that virtually any team can find some running room on the Bruins.
Even with Vanderdoes and McKinley, the scheme is a worry, and we have a hard time believing a defense running that sort of passive scheme is going to be much better than slightly above average, even when at full strength. So, if UCLA is to make some major noise this year, the hopes might really lie on the offensive side of the ball. Once again, we think Rosen is going to continue to play better -- this game was a step in the right direction. It might take some time, but UCLA also might start to rotate a group of receivers who can consistently catch the ball and get separation, because those unicorns do exist. The offensive line isn't great, but we liked what we saw out of Kennedy Polamalu trying to work around the deficiencies up front.
But that's the thing -- UCLA needs to reach very-good-to-excellent on offense pretty darn quickly here, because the meat of the schedule is coming, and right now, the Bruins don't look properly equipped to handle it.