Kenny Young (Photo: Steve Cheng)

UCLA v. BYU: A Second Look

Sep. 19 -- After watching the UCLA/BYU game a second time with a more discerning eye, we have more takeaways from the game, more insight into quarterback Josh Rosen and UCLA's successful defensive effort...

In addition to all of the analyses we've already done of the BYU game, here's some additional opinions after watching the game on tape for a second time.  

-- Really breaking down every one of UCLA’s passing downs, it was a worse performance by quarterback Josh Rosen than I came away with right after the game, and obviously I didn’t think it was a good one after first viewing.  He’s absolutely locking on to his first receiver option.   There are better options – even in his line of vision – and he’s, for the most part, ignoring them.  This is why he holds the ball for a couple of excessive beats, and this is why he’s been doing it since fall camp.  Some of the secondary options are easy first-down throws, but he’s only looking for his primary receiver a vast majority of the time.  For instance, in the second quarter, Rosen was sacked when he directly looked past an open Nate Iese waiting for Eldridge Massington on a deeper route to get open.  On the next down, third and 18, he locked on to Darren Andrews and threw into triple coverage, with Massington open on a drag route with enough yardage for the first down.  When he threw short, and he did successfully in this game, it was still to his primary receiver. There were only a small handful of times he went to his secondary receiver.  While the 343 yards Rosen passed for seems impressive, the credit for most of those yards has to go to the scheme and the receivers because it was some basic stuff that a decent Pac-12 quarterback could have accomplished given the opportunities.  He probably left about 100 yards and 21 points on the field. 

He also missed more open receivers than I remembered at first viewing.  He missed about five open receivers in the first half – his primary receivers that are open, with plenty of time – just overthrowing or missing.  After watching it again, the throw in the redzone in the second quarter to Massington was thrown badly behind him and was a too-difficult catch (and by the way, that was the play Austin Roberts was wide open in the corner of the endzone, in Rosen’s direct sight line). 

Josh Rosen (Photo by Steve Cheng)

So, the question is why? Why is Rosen doing this? It could be the new scheme, and still getting used to it, the routes and timing, and throwing out of a five-step drop from over center, which absolutely gives him less opportunity to scan the field.

But I’ve come up with another explanation.  Last season he had two go-to receivers he relied heavily on – Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte. Those two guys combined for 131 receptions, which was 54% of Rosen’s completions to receivers in 2015.   If you go back and watch 2015 games, he was doing the same thing, locking on to his primary receiver, but those guys were primarily Payton and Duarte, and when he threw them the ball in tight spots they caught it more readily than UCLA’s receivers this season.  So, yeah, it’s partially the fault of the receivers group, that there isn’t anyone capable of consistently making a clutch catch. Perhaps UCLA is starting to discover those guys – possibly Andrews, Mossi Johnson or Jordan Lasley – but they haven’t so far been the designated go-to guys in three games like Payton and Duarte were last season.  So, it’s then, partially a coaching/personnel lapse, unable to so far to find the guys that Rosen needs as his primary receivers.

Or Rosen could just look to his other wide-open options.  Because here is where you give the receivers group some credit – because there were secondary receivers open all night long against BYU but Rosen just didn’t go to them – or very, very rarely.  And here’s the thing: If Rosen wants to develop and take his game to the next level, he absolutely has to do this.   He not only has to find secondary receivers, he has to develop the skill of looking off receivers, which is the next step from finding secondary receivers. 

Hopefully in the next few weeks, we see a couple of things that seemingly would really go a long way to improving this phenomenon:  UCLA gives more playing time to the guys who, in the first three games, have shown they are more reliable primary receivers.  And Rosen develops the knack for not locking on, looking off and also finding secondary receivers. Heck, it’d be great if he just recognized the open receiver among those in his direct sight line.

On the bright side, Rosen is an immensely talented player with tools unlike most of the quarterbacks in college football.  He is just a sophomore, and is a very smart kid, and if he develops this, and adds it to his tool box, his upside is exactly what everyone has been hyping it as. 

-- Watching UCLA’s rushing attack sputter on tape, one major factor jumped out, and it wasn’t that difficult to surmise. UCLA’s running game was stuffed for most of the day because it was running against a stacked box.  BRO's Dave Woods, in his Unit-by-Unit Analysis, said that perhaps Kennedy Polamalu has a tell in his playcalling that gave BYU a hint of what play he was run. Yeah, that tell was lining up with double tight ends and a fullback. This isn’t rocket science, but very simple arithmetic, on both sides of the ball.  It’s basic warfare strategy and it goes back thousands of years:  If you have more guys you have very good chance of winning the battle.  If there were seven guys blocking and BYU put 8 guys in the box, they won. Conversely, as we saw play out on the other side of the ball, If BYU had 6 blockers and UCLA put 7 in the box, UCLA usually won.   

The offensive line blocking wasn’t horrendous.  It wasn’t great, but it was passable, except for a couple of marked lapses. But for the most part, the OL blocked their man.  It was BYU’s linebackers making the tackles. BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u had 19 tackles, many times being unblocked in making them because UCLA was operating at a man deficit in its rushing attack.

We understand that UCLA wants to test every team’s rushing defense with its power running game. Makes sense. If UCLA can go mano a mano and gain 5 yards, even after giving away exactly what it’s going to do with its formation, great. But so far this season, and particularly in this game, UCLA was unable to do that.  But where the offensive playcalling wasn’t good, and it was the same in the Texas A&M game, was after it appeared UCLA's power game wouldn't be effective, Polamalu stubbornly kept pounding away.  The theory is that eventually you’ll wear down the defense and the power running game will prevail.  So far, that only happened in the fourth quarter of the UNLV game, against a much weaker, Big West opponent, so it’s probably safe to say that it’s unlikely to happen, and not a great tactic, for the rest of the season.  After testing the power running game and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean to not go to it. But it might mean that Polamalu should not go to it as doggedly in the second half like he did against BYU, especially on five successive first downs.   

The one benefit, too, you naturally get out of a power running game is to go play-action and throw out the formation.  UCLA didn’t do that as much as it should have, and when it did it, in fact, froze the BYU front seven long enough to create some space in their secondary.  Passing out of the power formation, out of play-action and even with some rollouts, has been very successful in the limited amount of times UCLA has employed it. 

It’s interesting, too, that UCLA’s best success running the ball was out of a shotgun, with just one tight end/fullback.  It’s not completely what you would call a spread, since it’s not the classic definition of a spread, with four or five wideouts across the line of scrimmage, but it uses the spread concept to “spread” the field, creating some running lanes.  This worked, too, when combined with UCLA playing at a faster pace.  The drive in the second half in which UCLA scored its first touchdown was done with some pace, snapping the ball just about every 17 seconds, and with some running plays coming out of the spread-like look. Nate Starks ran twice in succession for 5 and 8 yards, and had some room to run.  It was, then, very telling, that on the next play UCLA went to its power formation and Starks got corralled for a two-yard loss.

Nate Starks (Photo: Steve Cheng)

So, really, unpredictability is the key.  Passing more out of the power formation, running more often out of the spread-like look, and doing so with some pace at times looks to be really effective. 

It’s also a matter of Polamalu not being stubbornly dedicated to the power running game. If it’s not working, find something else. UCLA’s perimeter running attack has been very successful so far this season, and so has just about any time UCLA has tried to get the ball in the hands of a running back on the edge, with either running plays or swing passes.   Probably the most effective way to wear down a defense and open up the middle for your power running game is to make those big defensive linemen run sideline to sideline. 

-- Perhaps this all functioned a bit as a trial run for Stanford.  If there’s a team on UCLA’s schedule this year that the most closely mimics Stanford, it’s BYU, not just in personnel but in scheme and style. It’s a poor-man’s version.    It then could be very fortuitous that UCLA played BYU the game before Stanford, providing some insight on how to attack Stanford’s defense – realizing that if it didn’t work against BYU it’s not going to work against Stanford. Hopefully, too, UCLA used the BYU game to set up Stanford, fooling them into believing UCLA has some offensive tendencies out of certain formations – which it will then depart from this Saturday.

-- Staying with that not-radical theory of engagement, when your army has more guys compared to the army you’re fighting you usually win, it was very much on display for UCLA’s defense.  There’s quite a bit of difference in the play of UCLA’s linebackers when they have the same manpower in the box, don’t have to be responsible for two gaps and one small little shading one way isn’t disastrous.  It made a huge difference for UCLA middle linebacker Kenny Young, who played one of his best games as a Bruin.  He looked so much more comfortable without having to do as much, and it even showed in his confidence and effectiveness in pass coverage. 

-- Yes, BYU was the perfect match-up to dedicate more defensive bodies to the box.  But even against other teams when it seemed like a good idea, UCLA hadn’t done it in the past. So why did UCLA actually make this change?  It wouldn’t be surprising if, after allowing his defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to have some freedom in his scheme and playcalling, head coach Jim Mora got a little more involved in gameplanning for BYU. 

Takkarist McKinley (Photo by Steve Cheng)

-- Some more personnel observations:

Takkarist McKinley can’t be the only true pass rush threat among the defensive ends, especially if he's hobbled for any more time this season.  Deon Hollins has that great first step and was dangerous against BYU, but he doesn’t tend to get home.  Hollins needs to get home.  Keisean Lucier-South just doesn’t look effective in getting to the quarterback. Linebacker Josh Woods lined up on the edge at times and looked quick off the ball.  

With Randall Goforth serving his not-talked-about one-game suspension, Adarius Pickett made a considerable difference at safety.  Not only is he a good ball hawk, he provides so much more physicality in coverage and in run support.

Freshman receiver Theo Howard got in for what looked like one play, blew a block on a bubble screen to Starks, and that was it.  The veterans in the receiver group are good blockers, but have had issues holding onto the ball. So the criteria for getting on the field more for the more-talented Howard shouldn’t be blocking but catching.  Let the veterans block and let Theo catch.

-- As we said above, the offensive line was actually decent in its run blocking, it was just out-manned. On some plays, though, the assignment for an OL is to get to the second level to block a linebacker, and left guard Kenny Lacy missed or gave up on some second-level blocks that directly led to a BYU linebacker making a stop for a loss or no gain. 

-- When you have Kenny Walker, you need to go to him deep at least once during every game, perhaps every half.  


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