It maybe wasn't the perfect performance we were hoping for from Josh Rosen in the wake of his poor performance in game one, but it was still a significant step up, which was good to see. His touchdown throw to Mossi Johnson was one of those throws we saw so much of last year, where he looked off a safety and then threw a perfectly timed bullet to Johnson for the score. He also was once again plagued by drops that would have made his stat line significantly better (there were at least five drops, and you could talk me into a couple more).
Rosen still looked a little off to us, though, having watched him so much over the last few years. He hasn't been able to connect on deep stuff much at all this year, and he just doesn't look like he quite has the timing down with this new corps of receivers. One of the pseudo-drops was that early deep bomb to Kenny Walker where Rosen probably out-threw him by a hair, and then he did the same to Ishmael Adams later in the game. When you're tossing a ball 50 yards in the air, there's bound to be a failure rate, but we'd like to see him connect on a few more of those.
His decision-making was better, but that might have been due to the complete lack of pressure from UNLV. In any case, Rosen didn't throw any picks, and at no point did he look like he was in any particular danger of throwing one.
In an interesting note, it looked like Rosen had a few more issues throwing to his left than his right -- basically, when he had to open up his body to make the throw, it seemed to lose a little bit of zip. That's typically a much harder throw for a quarterback to make, throwing to your off-hand side, but Rosen seemed to make those throws a little easier and with a little more zip last year. That early throw to Alex Van Dyke, where Van Dyke had to kneel to catch the ball, is a good example of this.
Running Backs: A-
The only reason this isn't a straight A is due to the fumble by Jalen Starks -- other than that, the backs played a very good game pretty much across the board, and in all facets of the game. Starks even made up for that fumble with his contributions to UCLA's grinding 4th quarter drive that iced the game. UCLA has a lot of talent in the running back group, and if and when Nate Starks comes back, they'll go five deep with talented tailbacks.
Sotonye Jamabo ran the ball really well and showed good vision and cutback ability against UNLV. His crazy touchdown run, where he reversed field and then came down the sideline, was certainly ill-advised but was also impressively athletic and showed off some of the audacity you want in a playmaker. For the nitty-gritty types, Jamabo also blocked better, and seemed to seek out blocks more than he did in week one, which was good to see. Bolu Olorunfunmi only got seven carries, and they seemed pretty sporadic, and he didn't seem to establish any kind of rhythm. He also blocked well, though.
Brandon Stephens was pretty much the revelation of the group on Saturday, flashing a lot of that Paul Perkins-esque ability that was talked about during fall camp. He's taller, for sure, but he already displays some of that uncanny patience that Perkins developed over his first two years in the program. We love/hate making predictions here at BRO, but we'd bet money on Stephens being the starting running back at some point, even with the stacked depth chart.
At fullback, Ainuu Taua showed up late in the game, catching a couple of screens out of the backfield and looking like a reasonably nimble guy for 270+ pounds. When he can do that, it'll force teams to play him honestly, which should take a little more pass rush pressure off Rosen.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C
So, after we spend all week saying that there's no way UCLA is going to drop as many balls as they did against Texas A&M, the Bruins came out and dropped pretty much the exact same number of passes against UNLV. We get that you can't catch everything, but this offense cannot run to its fullest potential when receivers are dropping 5+ passes per game.
Jordan Lasley had a very nice 4th quarter for the Bruins, filling in for Eldridge Massington. He made a great play on a back shoulder catch and then also had a nice catch over the middle where he had to leap to catch and take some contact. He also showed some tenacity as a blocker on the edge on a couple of plays. We've talked about Lasley languishing a bit in practice over the last two years, but even against Texas A&M, he played well aside from the critical drop, and now here he had a very good game.
Blocking has actually been a strong suit of the unit so far this season, and in this game, we noted Kenny Walker and Mossi Johnson both making big blocks at various points, with Walker peeling all the way back from a deep route to help spring Sotonye Jamabo's crazy reverse-field touchdown. We were concerned that without Jordan Payton, receiver blocking might drop off, but that really hasn't been the case.
Ishmael Adams had a little bit more of a breakout game, but he's just scratching the surface of what he showed in practice. We'd love to see more of him on the deep patterns, though, as he was just about three feet from adding a long touchdown to his stat line for the day. He's a slippery guy, and we loved how Kennedy Polamalu used him on screens on Saturday.
Theo Howard played at least one snap, and had his first college catch, so that was nice to see. Hopefully he sees more time going forward, as he's an electric playmaker.
The tight end group blocked better in this game than last week, and true to his word, it looked like Jim Mora played Caleb Wilson a bit more and Nate Iese a bit less. To his credit, Iese played a little better and blocked a little more in this one.
Offensive Line: B
You can knock UNLV's pass rush and defensive talent, but we'll take any kind of solid performance after the issues against Texas A&M last week, and UCLA certainly turned in a solid game in both pass protection and running the ball. Aside from one weird situation on a 3rd and 30, Rosen wasn't pressured much at all on Saturday, and the credit has to go in large part to the offensive line.
Running the ball was a mixed grade, but it was actually better than we thought watching the game live. The tackles stood out, and Kenny Lacy did a nice job pulling on one of Jamabo's touchdown runs, but it didn't look like Scott Quessenberry or Najee Toran were getting the kind of push they should have against that UNLV front. The Bruins averaged 5.5 yards per carry, so obviously there's not much to complain about, but we'd bet a significant percentage of the 219 yards UCLA gained on the ground came around the tackles.
Offensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: B+
This was a really impressive showing for Kennedy Polamalu. No, the offense did not fire on all cylinders, but we loved the adjustments he made to what wasn't working in game one, and how he applied that to game two. First, UCLA operated much more out of the shotgun early to help get Rosen in a rhythm, and it obviously looks like it worked. He's played in the gun his whole career, so that makes sense.
Then, after noting that the offensive line was having issues in both pass protection and interior run blocking last Saturday, Polamalu worked in significantly more screens and runs to the outside. The Bruins had a wide variety of screens in this game with different personnel, ranging from fullback screens to Taua to a slip screen to Adams. Then UCLA used a variety of pitches and stretches to get the running backs in space on the edge more. Having an offensive coordinator who doesn't sell his patented scheme on the Internet maybe gives UCLA the benefit of flexibility finally.
Defensive Line: C
Well, this isn't how anyone would have envisioned UCLA starting its season, with its two best defensive linemen both getting hurt in the first two games. Takkarist McKinley sat out Saturday with a groin injury, and it's unknown when he'll return, while Eddie Vanderdoes went down toward the end of the first quarter with a knee injury (it appears to be minor, as he posted on Instagram that he'll be fine). Vanderdoes did sit out the rest of the game, though, and we got a glimpse of the Vanderdoes-less and McKinley-less defense. It wasn't pretty.
Containment was an issue from the defensive ends. Without McKinley, UCLA really doesn't have a great deal of quickness out there. Matt Dickerson looked to have some difficulty playing in space, and UNLV played off of him a couple of times in their option game. Early on, Vanderdoes looked to be having a field day with the interior of UNLV's offensive line, repeatedly blowing them up on pass plays to get into the backfield, but after he went out, UCLA had nowhere near that kind of success in straight one-on-one match-ups. Boss Tagaloa, though, stood out as a player from the group that helped fill in for Vanderdoes. After an early pancaking, he stepped up and looked shockingly mobile for such a wide, squat body.
UNLV was able to get too much of a push at times, though, and that's a concern. UNLV's offensive line is average at best, and they were still able to convert on 3rd and 4th and short with regularity. Some of that is on the people plugging the gaps between defensive linemen, but some of it is on the linemen themselves. In this sort of game, even without Vanderdoes and McKinley, there's an expectation that UCLA-level athletes should be able to win one-on-one against their lower level Mountain West opponents.
As for the issue of quickness on the edge, one thing we'd explore is the addition of Breland Brandt to the defensive line group. He's a little bit bigger than Keisean Lucier-South (who had an OK game on Saturday in his own right), and a little bit longer too, which might make him a fit on the edge. He has the athleticism to make plays in space, but it would be a matter of getting him mentally ready to play as he is a true freshman who appears destined to redshirt.
If we had to pick a position group that is hurt the most by UCLA's passive defensive scheme, it's the linebackers. The passive approach to defense forces the linebackers to be basically perfect at all times, since there's virtually no margin for error because the defense as a whole does such a poor job of creating disruption and negative plays. So, even if the linebackers do their jobs perfectly 9 out of 10 times, it's probably not enough given the passivity of the scheme. It's our biggest issue with running this sort of defense -- it demands perfect play, which doesn't exist at the college level.
So, that all said, the linebackers had enough issues on Saturday that it helped UNLV to a pretty solid offensive performance. Kenny Young once again had a lot of plays where he either picked up a block and did little to shed or was just nowhere close to the play -- which is just so weird to watch given that he's a middle linebacker. Again, he has improved sideline to sideline and he once again made some plays in pursuit, but so many other times, he was just not in any position to make a play on a ball carrier coming up the middle, either because he got eaten up by a blocker or was just not quick enough to the ball.
Isaako Savaiinaea looked better, but not considerably so. One of his early series did result in a three-and-out, though, with Savaiinaea making the critical third-down stop. Later, though, he also allowed himself to be blocked far too easily on Stanton's keeper touchdown to cut the lead to 7 in the third quarter. Still, he looked better than Young.
Jayon Brown had a very solid game, and missed a pick by mere inches. Josh Woods got the start, with Cameron Judge sitting out for undisclosed reasons, and looked OK. He had a couple of plays where he looked a little overmatched from a strength perspective, but didn't look wildly out of position at any point, which is nice to see from a guy with as little game experience as he has.
Defensive Backs: B-
This was largely a pretty good outing for the defensive backs, but the grade mostly drops for the play of Tahaan Goodman, who seemed to struggle in both pass coverage and run support on Saturday. He was a big part of why the option conversion on 3rd and 26 worked out for UNLV, as he got sealed out of the play, and he had a number of plays like that throughout the day, where he just didn't look like he was in the right position to make a play. Octavius Spencer also missed a tackle on that play, but it looked like Goodman was the first issue.
Other than that, it was a pretty solid day. After Devonte Boyd got free a little too often in the first half, Fabian Moreau tightened the screws quite a bit and played much more press coverage, which more or less neutralized Boyd. That was one of the more impressive game performances we've seen from Moreau, and he's playing the ball better than he ever has in a UCLA uniform. Nathan Meadors, for his part, was very solid on the other side, though UNLV's receiver talent drops off considerably after Boyd.
Randall Goforth secured two interceptions as well and showed off his excellent return skills on the first one, taking the ball back over 50 yards. We still remember Goforth looking pretty shifty as a kick returner early in his career, and it was cool to see him get the chance to shine with the ball in his hands again. Anytime you get two picks in a game, it's a pretty impressive feat.
Without Jaleel Wadood, UCLA's coverage in the deep half of the field was a little spottier than normal, but there weren't any major breakdowns. UNLV missed a deep ball early that could have gone for a touchdown, but that was more about the receiver beating Meadors than an issue with the safeties. Adarius Pickett didn't have quite as effective a game as he had against Texas A&M, but he didn't get burned over the top either.
Overall, it was an above-average performance against a team that didn't have that strong of a passing attack to begin with.
Defensive Scheme, Game Plan, and Play Calling: C
UCLA actually did blitz more than you might have thought live, but many of the blitzes just didn't get home, with the interior of UNLV's offensive line often picking up the blitz pretty well. There didn't appear to be a whole lot disguise to the blitzes, with the one semi-delay coming on Kenny Young's big sack to end the third quarter.
The bigger issues is the lack of an attacking mentality generally. The defensive line is clearly built to contain rather than get up field, and it's a telling and worrying statistic that UCLA has just one sack through two games, and just three tackles for loss. This is just an incredibly passive defense, with virtually no disruptive ability with McKinley out. The scheme doesn't often ask the corners to press, and is built largely around containing a running game instead of pushing defenders upfield to cause disruption.
It's a tough philosophy to execute at the college level. As we said in the linebacker section, the scheme's success is more or less built on players playing perfectly, with everyone filling their assigned gap, shedding their blockers perfectly, and the proper player making the tackle. It's nearly impossible to get that kind of perfection at the college level. So, as with every defense, you end up with breakdowns, but because this defense creates so few negative plays, the breakdowns end up costing a good deal more, because this isn't a defense that's forcing third-and-longs and turnovers constantly.
Special Teams: B
Once again, UCLA's freshman specialists had pretty good games. J.J. Molson did hit a kickoff out of bounds, but those sorts of things happen to freshmen. He also had his first touchback, which was good to see. Austin Kent punted pretty well as well.
Adams had much more success in the return game on Saturday, with a couple of decent returns that looked like they were a block away from going the distance. If he becomes a little more of a factor offensively, which we absolutely see happening, he could have an impressive all-purpose yardage total at the end of the year.
Return coverage was generally pretty good, so hopefully that's returning to form after an off year last season.