Another game, another somewhat shaky performance for Josh Rosen. Once again, it wasn't all bad. There were a couple of drives where Rosen put it together and looked very good, and that was a big key to UCLA pulling out the win. But for much of the first half and fits and spurts in the second half, he looked off. Some of it might have had to do with his slight ankle tweak from the first half, but it seemed like he was having the same issues he's had through a few games now: locking onto his primary read, not taking what the defense is giving him, and looking pretty inaccurate deep. There were multiple moments during the game where he tried to force the ball to a covered receiver when other receivers were running free.
We have to think it's a comfort level thing. This is a new offense still, and he is still getting comfortable with the different drops and formations, not to mention the wildly different personnel at receiver. There's also the issue of the offensive line, which has protected better the last two games, but is a far cry from last year's unit in terms of pass protection. The combination of all of those factors has likely made Rosen's adjustment to this new offense a little bit more difficult than you might have otherwise assumed.
He's still showing flashes of very good play, though, and if we were betting on it, we'd put our money on him figuring things out before too much longer passes.
Running Backs: C+
This was really tough sledding for the running backs, so it's difficult to grade them too hard or to take too much from this performance. It was our first time seeing Nate Starks this year, and he actually looked pretty good, even if the stats don't show it because UCLA couldn't open up much in the BYU front. He's probably a better jump cutter than any other back on UCLA's squad, and now that we think about it, that might be where he compares the best with Paul Perkins, in terms of his ability to side step. He showed some good power on a few runs, and turned what should have been a couple of TFLs or no gains into pickups of a few yards.
Bolu Olorunfunmi didn't look nearly as good, and we are starting to wonder if this huge rotation of running backs is making all of these guys a little less comfortable with their roles. Olorunfunmi had to split second unit carries with both Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks again in this game, and neither of them did much either. While we like what we've seen out of Stephens and Starks, and think both could absolutely have roles on this team, a more defined running back rotation might get these guys in a little bit more of a rhythm.
Of course, it would help if running backs didn't keep mysteriously missing games! Sotonye Jamabo missed this one, and judging by Jim Mora's response when asked about it, we'd guess it was for a reason very similar to that which sidelined Nate Starks for the first two games.
We also got our first glimpse of Cameron Griffin, who got even more time than you might expect thanks to the mysterious absence of Ainuu Taua, Griffin looked pretty darn good catching the ball, nabbing a touchdown and then also catching a nice little outlet from Rosen and turning up field well. He's a really good athlete for his size, and he looks like he could be a weapon. He also caught the ball very cleanly, which we've learned to cherish on this year's UCLA squad.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B-
This was a game where the receivers did a lot of very good things, and then some not-so-good things. First, the good: Darren Andrews, aside from that one silly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, looked great and very explosive with the ball in his hands. While BYU's defense isn't fast by any means, Andrews made it look like they were running in mud on his touchdown catch and run (helped, of course, by a huge block from Kenny Walker, who is blocking like a madman this year). He tended to be the overlooked guy this offseason when we were talking about the speed and talent in the UCLA receiving corps, but he was the leading returning receiver and he's showing up a good deal.
Ishmael Adams needs to put in some long hours with Rosen on timing, because if they ever really get a connection down, that could be a sight to see. Adams was once again able to get open quite a bit in this game, but Rosen missed him or didn't see him a few times. He still managed a couple of catches for 32 yards, but it easily could have been much more. Jordan Lasley didn't have a huge game, but he did make a couple of critical third down catches again, and is becoming one of Rosen's outlets when he needs someone sure-handed, which is good to see. Walker, for his part, also had a nice couple of catches, and looks so much more like a complete receiver than he ever has.
That said, there were still some drops and weird issues. Nate Iese, who caught a couple of nice balls, also had Rosen's lone interception pulled out of his hands, which just shouldn't happen to a big tight end like Iese. Eldridge Massington had a ball poked away near the goal line that he probably could have nabbed as well. There were a few other issues throughout the game where receivers just didn't look like they were fighting for the ball as well as they might have. Admittedly, Rosen has been off, but it seems like every throw he makes that's slightly off target has virtually no chance of being caught by a receiver, which is a far cry from last year, when Thomas Duarte and Jordan Payton caught basically everything thrown their way. Rosen still needs a go-to guy, and maybe it's Andrews, but you'd ideally like it to be one of the bigger guys.
Offensive Line: C
When you rush for only two yards per carry, it's hard to grade the offensive line too favorably. As one major caveat, we think there was something going on here where BYU might have had some sort of tip off about what UCLA was running, because even before UCLA went into straight run-on-first-down all the time mode, BYU was guessing right an inordinate number of times, and was sending five or six guys upfield on a significant number of running plays. It might be a good idea for UCLA to see if there are any tendencies from the first three games that they could correct.
Even counting that, though, UCLA didn't do a great job getting push on the interior, and then the Bruins compounded the issue by also not being very good running to the outside, which has been the strength so far this year in the running game. Obviously, it's hard to run block when you're outnumbered, but that wasn't always the case, and still UCLA wasn't able to generate any consistent push.
Pass blocking was generally pretty good. Rosen got hit a few times, but a lot of that came when he held the ball a beat or two too long. For the most part, he had a clean pocket to work from. BYU didn't blitz Rosen a whole lot (which might have been the wrong strategy, because Rosen looks uncomfortable enough that a little bit more pressure could cause him some really significant issues), so UCLA's offensive line had it a little easier in that respect, but even still, they held up pretty well against BYU's three- and four-man rushes.
Offensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: C+
Like we said above, UCLA might want to look at its tendencies from the first three games to see if there's anything that teams could scout out about the rushing attack, because it certainly looked like BYU knew when UCLA would be running the ball. In the second half, Kennedy Polamalu's play calling trended much more to the run-run-pass variety, which might have tipped off BYU all by itself. Watching live, it felt like he called a first down run on about 12 straight plays, but it was only five checking back on the play by play. Still, it certainly did seem as if UCLA got much more predictable in the third quarter as the Bruins tried to establish a running game.
So, UCLA couldn't get much going in the running game, but the passing attack was solid enough. We liked UCLA going for it on an obvious 4th down again, because the Bruins really haven't done that in the past. We've now seen correct 4th down judgment calls in two straight games, so we're hopeful that maybe some analytics have made their impact on the UCLA staff.
Defensive Line: A
Like we said about the first quarter against Texas A&M, when the Bruins are close to fully healthy on the defensive line, it actually looks pretty darn good. With Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley both back and at least somewhat healthy, the Bruins had their best running defense and their best pass rush of the year. Vanderdoes was very stout on the interior, and ate up several runs before they had much of a chance, and McKinley was a beast off the edge, especially when you consider that he was very clearly still feeling some soreness in his groin. Hopefully whatever happened to him at the end of the game doesn't hold him out for long, because watching this defense with him wreaking havoc off the edge through the first three quarters or so was -- dare I say it? -- fun.
It seems like McKinley's return was infectious for the whole line. Rick Wade, who's been almost unnoticeable through the first two games, had a major breakout performance, recording a huge 13-yard sack as well as a second tackle for loss, in addition to several nice plays against the run. He looked much quicker and more explosive than he did in the first two games, which might be a sign of growing comfort. What you always have to remember is that redshirt freshmen are a funky breed -- they have played football games since pretty much 8th grade at the latest, and now they've just spent a year sitting out competitive games. It can take a while to get acclimated to live reps again.
Deon Hollins also had a number of good rushes off the edge, but he struggled to finish. Again, he's sat out two games, so it could take a little bit of time to get his feet back under him. Hopefully he can finish a little bit better going forward, because his first step is a real asset.
Anyway, there was a lot to like about this performance across the board for the defensive line, but especially how much better it looks with Vanderdoes and McKinley out there. We knew keeping those two healthy was a key to the season, but the last three weeks have underscored just how important that is.
We have to shout out Kenny Young, who might have played his best half as a Bruin in the first half. He has never looked quicker to the ball or more instinctual. His big sack of Taysom Hill was a huge play, and was also just about the quickest he's ever looked as a Bruin. He was very much on his game, and it was fun to watch him react so quickly. Hopefully this gives him a lot to build on going forward.
Jayon Brown was the big breakout guy, though. We talked him up all offseason, but he had a somewhat quiet start to the season. This game, though, he really shined. He was the designated spy on Hill for most of the game, and he was a huge part of the reason Hill had basically zero running room most of the day. UCLA also used him in a variety of ways, and we swear we saw him with his hand down a couple of times as a pass rusher. UCLA loved to blitz him in practice this spring, and it looks like they started to let him loose a bit more.
Cameron Judge also had a very nice game, with one great tackle for loss in addition to some very good play on the edge. UCLA totaled six tackles for loss, with three of them by linebackers, which is great to see. This was by far the most disruptive game for UCLA's defense this year.
It didn't look like many other linebackers, if any, played. We didn't see much of anything from Josh Woods or Isaako Savaiinaea. But if Young, Brown, and Judge can bring that kind of effort every game, a short rotation could work just fine for the Bruins.
Defensive Backs: A-
Despite not having Randall Goforth (reasons undisclosed), the Bruins were once again mostly excellent in the defensive backfield (and no, we're basically not counting the prevent drive at the end of the game). UCLA's cornerback play is at such a higher level than it has been at any other point in the Mora era. Fabian Moreau was once again hit with what looked like a questionable holding call, but he was otherwise mostly flawless in coverage, while Nathan Meadors continues to impress us with a feel for the game that is beyond his years. He plays the ball and keeps track of receivers at the same time like a seasoned veteran, and not a guy in his second year in college.
Adarius Pickett had a monster game at safety, looking like an enforcer back there. He gives UCLA a real physicality at safety that we really like. Ever since the light came on for him last fall camp, he's been really fun to watch. He plays with such a downhill mentality at safety. He also snagged an interception. Jaleel Wadood, coming back from his "bump and bruises" a week ago, looked completely fine in this one. Tahaan Goodman also played a fine game, and didn't seem to have anywhere near as many issues as he had against UNLV, when he was asked to play almost a mini-linebacker role.
Defensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: B+
There's been a lot of consternation about that prevent defense toward the end of the game, and while we understand the concerns, it was probably the right call with two minutes to go and BYU down two scores. We'd love to see UCLA stick with an aggressive mentality all game, but in that situation, forcing a team to take some time getting downfield is probably the best move. It worked OK -- UCLA probably allowed too many big chunks, but the Bruins still bled some good time off the clock.
This was one of the better called games we can remember from Tom Bradley, and UCLA had a very nice game plan coming in. Very clearly, the Bruins knew that forcing Hill to throw the ball was the big key to the game, and that's exactly what UCLA did. With Brown spying him, and the run defense much stouter with Vanderdoes, the Bruins kept Hill in the pocket and forced him to make intermediate throws downfield. Hill actually threw it OK at points, but he was bound to miss his fair share of throws as well, since he's not a good passer.
UCLA also threw some timely blitzes at Hill, and only one really left a lane for him to run through. For the most part, UCLA was very disciplined in its pressure, and kept Hill from having any running lanes based on the pressure.
Special Teams: C+
Before we get into what went wrong, we have to give Brandon Burton some props for his play through three games. He's been a dynamo on return coverage, looking almost exactly like what Brown and Judge looked like as true freshmen on special teams. Burton has the look of a guy who's going to be a big-time defensive player for UCLA as early as next year.
Snapping looked to be an issue, with some of the punt snaps and field goal snaps just looking a bit off. J.J. Molson missed a makable kick from 38 yards, but made a 24 yarder. He still remains much better than Ka'imi Fairbairn was as a true freshman. Austin Kent once again punted it pretty darn well, and even downed a couple of kicks inside the 20.
Returns weren't great. Ishmael Adams had a poor game on both punt and kick returns, and didn't show much elusiveness. He also nearly turned a ball over while muffing a punt, which was ugly. It might be worth giving someone else an occasional look there.