UCLA went into a tough environment on the road, and pulled out a very beneficial win against BYU, 17-14, even with Josh Rosen having one of the poorest performances of his college career.
The win could prove to be a difference-maker at the end of the season – the difference between, say, the win/loss record ultimately being considered acceptable or not by most of the UCLA football community.
It was interesting, too, because it was a game in which UCLA was probably satisfactory in just about every phase – except in its quarterback effectiveness. We say “satisfactory” because there were a few exceptional elements, along with some that were just passable.
But if, before the season (before fall camp) you told us that UCLA would get a solid, passing grade in just about every phase against BYU and Rosen would be the weak link, we would have scoffed.
Rosen threw for 307 yards, and for anyone just reading the box score they might come away thinking it was a good game for him. But he faltered on many levels, and that quarterback inefficiency is what kept the game against BYU close.
Even from just watching it on television, where your screen doesn’t give you the full field view to see all of the receivers in the pattern, it was painstakingly obvious that Rosen didn’t see wide-open receivers. In just about every series, Rosen missed seeing an open receiver, and many times it wasn’t as if the receiver was out of his immediate vision; many times the receiver was in the same direction Rosen was looking, he just chose to throw to a different, far-more-covered receiver. There was a potential touchdown when Rosen missed seeing Austin Roberts open in the corner of the endzone and he forced it to Eldridge Massington instead; and many potential first downs, such as in the beginning of the 4th quarter when he looked past a wide open Darren Andrews on a drag route for a first down and forced the throw further down the field to a relatively covered Roberts. He forced throws into coverage, sometimes into triple coverage, in very dangerous situations.
Even beyond the decision-making in recognizing the open receiver, his throws weren’t greatly accurate. We wouldn’t say they weren’t accurate at all, they were just not greatly accurate. There were too many throws he missed by sailing them over the receiver or just out of the receiver’s catch window.
Give Rosen some credit for a couple of very nice drives where he did make some better decisions. He found his shorter routes without trying to force throws downfield. It seems like Rosen will have a poor series in terms of finding receivers and decision-making, then he'll probably get a counseling session from quarterback coach Marques Tuiasosopo on the sideline to look for his easy open receivers and then have a good series. When Rosen does see receivers he can orchestrate some pretty series.
For the most part, too, the rest of the Bruins – the players and coaches – turned in an acceptable game. The defense dialed up more interior pressure, stacking the box against BYU’s quarterback Taysom Hill, daring him to beat them with his arm – and he couldn’t. That happened mostly because UCLA’s secondary was stellar on the night. We’ve been advocating for a while that the UCLA defensive backs are the strongest unit on the team and the best strategy for the defense would be to put pressure in the box, take away an opponent’s ability to run and make opposing offenses have to beat UCLA’s secondary. UCLA’s defensive coordinator Tom Bradley did exactly that against BYU, in fact. The Cougars are the perfect team to employ this tactic against, with Hill not exactly a quarterback who can consistently connect with receivers downfield but with very good scrambling ability. They are a team that averaged 178 yards on the ground in its first two games, and, in keeping with their team M.O., you would have to assume they were going to try to grind out a running game, with both Hill and BYU’s big, powerful back, Jamaal Williams. So, with UCLA having such a good secondary, it was the perfect tactic, and it was the primary reason UCLA turned in its best defensive performance in recent memory. BYU totaled only 273 yards and just 23 yards on the ground. They averaged 0.9 yards per rush. For most of the game, the Cougars were in the negative column for rushing yards.
Again, this being able to happen is dependent on UCLA’s superior secondary. Fabian Moreau, Nathan Meadors, Adarius Pickett and Jaleel Wadood made some beautiful, textbook break-ups consistently throughout the night. In fact, BYU needed two bad calls against Moreau and Meadors for them to sustain a drive. If Hill did complete a pass it was for five yards and bottled up with no yardage-after-the-catch allowed. Very few times during the game did Hill throw past the first-down sticks successfully.
For any UCLA fan who’s been hanging out waiting futilely for UCLA to play this kind of defense it was a dream come true.
UCLA stacked the box, often times with 8 bodies, and dedicated one body to spying Hill, most of the time it being linebacker Jayon Brown. Hill ran for 87 yards a week ago against a good Utah defense while UCLA held him to -7. He really had just one decent run of 11 yards and was contained for the rest of the night.
After watching UCLA’s rushing defense get gashed in so many games last year and then, to a degree, in its first two games this season, it was like going to a day spa for a rejuvenation package to watch UCLA’s stacked box plug running holes in this game. UCLA got six tackles for loss and four sacks and, most importantly, every running lane had a Bruin filling it.
UCLA put a decent amount of pressure on Hill. There were the four sacks, but plenty of hurries and touches on him. You wouldn’t say it was a night of an overwhelming pass rush, and you could nitpick and assert that, for how much extra pressure UCLA did throw at Hill, they probably should have gotten home more often. But heck, we’ll be happy with the fact UCLA probably blitzed more often in this game than in the two previous games combined.
Of course, the defensive strategy didn’t always work. Moreau got burned for the late BYU touchdown pass, after playing an excellent game. Bradley by-rote went to the prevent defense in the fourth quarter and, naturally, BYU marched down the field taking what UCLA was giving it with its nickel and cushions to ultimately score that touchdown.
But all in all, it was a satisfying defensive game plan and execution of the game plan.
Brown played his best game of the season so far, collecting a team-leading 9 tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. Being the guy mostly assigned to not allowing Hill to get loose, he did a fantastic job of spying Hill while also peeling off from that assignment to make plays. Brown also was very good in pass coverage, getting a couple of key pass breakups himself.
Offensively, while most of the reasons UCLA didn’t move the ball too effectively throughout the night were on Rosen, there were some other less-than-stellar elements of UCLA’s offense against BYU. There were a number of instances in which UCLA’s receivers couldn’t get separation, and, for the first time this season, we have to question offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu’s playcalling in spots. UCLA clearly had shown in its first two games that it runs the ball better around the edge, but there were very few off-tackle running calls. There was one series in the second half in which UCLA stubbornly and predictably ran the ball tackle-to-tackle on five consecutive first downs. We thought perhaps it was a tactic to set up a play-action and a deep ball to Kenny Walker, but that never happened. With BYU generally being big, physical guys without a great amount of team speed, you would think the strategy would be to get UCLA’s ball carriers in space, just merely throw swing routes to its running backs half the night. But that didn’t look to be in the game plan. What was, though, was the idea that UCLA could run up the middle against BYU, again a big, physical team, and after UCLA didn’t show it could do it in the first two games. Because of this, UCLA ran for 50 yards on 34 attempts for a 1.5 yard-per-carry average. UCLA probably missed Sotonye Jamabo, who served his unspoken-of suspension for this game, since he’s better in the open field than Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks. It was a game, though, that, while UCLA has a good stable of running backs, it misses the really exceptional ballcarrier like Paul Perkins, who could always manufacture more yardage out of game like BYU.
Rosen, too, for the most part, got solid pass protection on the night. He stepped up into the pocket and most of the time it retained its integrity long enough for Rosen to throw. UCLA’s running backs, too, picked up blitzes very well; on Rosen’s touchdown throw to fullback Cameron Griffin, BYU blitzed but it was picked up perfectly.
Overall, UCLA clearly was the more talented team – with more team speed and athleticism. It would have been tragic if UCLA hadn’t won this game, especially since the UCLA defensive brain trust called the type of far more aggressive game that fans have been clamoring for – and it worked.
When we watched Rosen in the first couple weeks of fall camp, there was enough evidence that he wasn’t just rusty from the off-season – but that there was definitely something not clicking for him. This has generally carried over into the season, with Rosen looking very similar to how he looked in those first two weeks of camp – unable to see the field, recognize the best receiver option and spotty in his throwing accuracy. It’s something entirely surprising, too, that, in the third game of the season, we’re citing Rosen as the limiting element of the team. Rosen is a very talented player and has the potential for a bright future at quarterback, in college and potentially in the pros. But the hype you hear – of him being the most talented quarterback in the nation, etc., -- isn’t warranted at this point. He has some fantastic tools, but right now he's at the average level for development in decision-making as a college sophomore quarterback. And it's great to have fantastic tools, but if you don't know when to use them they really don't get the job done. Plus, you could say he's been about average in terms of his throwing accuracy; we haven't yet seen the type of pinpoint accuracy we saw in the first game of his career last year in the season opener against Virginia. UCLA won’t always be perfect – or even satisfactory – in every other element of its performance; in fact, we’re hoping the newfound aggressive style of defense wasn’t just a one-time tactic for BYU. But we did assume, even after those first two weeks of a shaky fall camp, that Rosen would be one of the elements of the team you could count on to be good this season. Or even better than just satisfactory.
So it’s a bit stunning to say that, after three games of inconsistency and some questionable decision-making, it appears that Rosen and his development might be the biggest determining factor for UCLA’s season. How Rosen goes the rest of the season is probably how UCLA goes. And right now, there’s some uncertainty there.