Fabian Moreau (Photo: Steve Cheng)

Takeaways from UCLA v. UNLV

Sep. 12 -- After watching the tape of the UNLV game again, UCLA's performance was better than at first viewing, but it still emphasized that the defense needs a shift in approach if it's going to be effective the rest of the season...

• UCLA's performance on Saturday against UNLV held up better after viewing the tape of the game.

Of course, you have to consider that UCLA was going up against a lower-rung Mountain West team, but the offensive line did well in both pass protection and run blocking, better than the impression you came away with watching the game live.

Watching the tape, you could see some details of quarterback Josh Rosen's performance that made it better than when watching him live Saturday.  He found secondary receivers by looking for the short routes.

The secondary had a few lapses, allowing a few UNLV receivers to find seams, but once again the DBs were the strength of the team.

The defensive line wasn't as porous in its run defense as it seemed watching live.

So, really, many of the UCLA fans that went ballistic Saturday were probably over-reacting a bit. 

Jordan Lasley (Photo: Steve Cheng)

• UCLA wasn't dominant in this game, though, because of: 1) penalties, 2) dropped passes, 3) rushing defense and 4) the lack of aggressiveness on defense, which, among other things, allowed UNLV to convert some mind-numbing third-and-longs. 

• And given all of this, it's almost all acceptable at this point except the rushing defense. Think about it: If the one thing that changed was that the UCLA defense was staunch against the run, we almost feel like we'd be nitpicking the rest.  The big sticking point is easily UCLA's poor rushing defense. Personally I'd rather the defense get burned over the top on some big passing plays than slowly bleed out by allowing perpetual 6-yard runs.  There is no reason why UCLA's defense should get pushed backward by UNLV's offensive line.  The gap-filling philosophy of run defense isn't working, because of its inherent passivity and that the personnel in the front seven will trade off in not holding their gap, just enough for an opposing offense to exploit.  You can blame the defensive line, you can blame the linebackers, or you could blame both units. Heck, this week, safety Tahaan Goodman, working as a mini-linebacker in the nickel, was a big culprit, getting swept out of the way on some critical running plays, like Johnny Stanton's conversion on 3rd-and-25.

Yes, UCLA was missing key pieces in Eddie VanderdoesTakkarist McKinley and Jaleel Wadood, but there is still no reason the defensive talent UCLA put on the field should allow UNLV to rush for 175 yards and 5 yards per carry and get a push.  UCLA has just three tackles for loss in two games. 

We're not going to presume that we know enough to make suggestions on what needs to change.  We can repeat the oft-repeated mantra of more pressure at the line of scrimmage, more bodies in the box, more run blitzes, etc.  But all we're going to say is -- there is now enough evidence that UCLA's rushing defense needs some kind of dramatic shift in approach and tactics to make it as effective as this team needs it to be for UCLA to be successful this season. It can't just rely on the return of Vanderdoes and McKinley.  

• Pretty much it's the same sentiment on pass rush.  UCLA has one sack on the season. It went 82 defensive plays before it got its first one.  Beyond getting its star personnel back, it seems that something needs to change to bolster the pass rush and the rushing defense if UCLA is going to be able to defend against BYU and then the Pac-12.  

• It wasn't coincidental that the turning point of the UNLV game was a blitz --  Kenny Young's sack in the third quarter.  UCLA had given UNLV the momentum with penalties and dropped passes and the Rebels were a touchdown away from drawing even and had the ball. Young's sack stopped down that drive and UNLV's momentum.  In fact, a big portion of the best defensive plays in the UNLV game came from blitzes -- both of Randall Goforth's picks and a few other errant, hurried throws by Stanton.  If there ever was a game that was clear evidence of the benefits of pressuring the line of scrimmage and the quarterback this was it.

• Like I said, the secondary lost a few guys in their zone, but a few of the positive passing plays by UNLV came after the UCLA DBs were allowing a cushion.  The UCLA secondary is the strength of the team.  Fabian Moreau and Nathan Meadors, so far in two games, have looked like UCLA's best cornerback duo in a while. They're especially good at pressing, and it's tragic that they aren't doing it as much as they should. We feel this isn't defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin's strategy, and that he'd probably love to press his DBs more.  

• It was a bit surprising that UCLA opted to play both of its freshman tailbacks, Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks.  We expected Starks not to redshirt, since he's a great change-of-pace with his size.  He was used against UNLV precisely as we thought he should be used -- in the fourth quarter, with fresh legs, grinding out yards on the ground against a softened-up and tired defense.  We were particularly surprised to see Stephens, and ecstatic to see how well he looked in his first significant minutes. He clearly has a great feel for it all, just like in fall camp, showing that he can make the high-school-to-college transition seamlessly, and that he has a very bright future.  Using him, though, made us wonder if there is some uncertainty about Nate Starks, who has essentially been suspended for the last two weeks and didn't play, and whether he'll actually return.  

Brandon Stephens (Photo: Steve Cheng)

• This might have been the best-conceived and best-called offensive game for UCLA in recent memory.  Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu's offensive scheme is a good one, but it's still always about the play-calling; you can have the menu, but can you order off it with variety and imagination given game situations, down and distance?  As opposed to last week against A&M, this week the spread was the default look (like we suggested would be a good move), and Polamalu utilized it fully, going consistently to a short passing game with variety -- swing passes, screens, slip routes, etc.  The running attack had counters, pulls, and pitches, and it paid off with UCLA's ball carriers getting some good swaths of grass to run into.  Most importantly, Rosen looked particularly more comfortable; it might not be coincidental that he was more able to see his short, secondary routes out of the gun since it's what he's played in since high school.  

• It's pretty clear that the dropsies among the receivers is not an aberration. It was an issue in fall camp, against Texas A&M and then against UNLV.  Eldridge Massington is a good kid and a leader in the clubhouse, but it could be appropriate now to give some of his playing time to others, namely Jordan Lasley, who had some key catches, and probably the catch of the game when he had to stretch on the over-the-middle route to get the first down. Theo Howard saw his first action and made his first reception. We're hoping that was just a getting-his-feet-wet kind of thing and he'll start to see more action.  There were just too many drops in this game, and UCLA needs to find the guys who will catch the ball.    


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