This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
At the beginning of the season, this game in Provo had the markings of a street fight for UCLA. BYU certainly can present some challenges, and historically has been a thorn in the side of UCLA. The brand of football the Cougars have been known to play is not fun to play against. Combine that history with the game being the home opener for BYU and first year coach Kalani Sitake and the fact that UCLA plays Stanford the following week, and this looked like a road trap game for UCLA.
Sitake was a very interesting hire in the offseason. A former Cougar player, Sitake had made a name for himself as one of the better college defensive coordinators on the West Coast. His "disciplined pressure" brand of defense gave UCLA fits a few years ago when he was the defensive coordinator for Utah, and this game would be no different.
What BYU lacks is offensive skill talent, so the key to beating BYU is being aware of where their 26-year old quarterback, Taysom Hill, is at all times. Hill is a very athletic guy, runs very well and throws well too. He is really good at making positive yards when things break down, but has a tendency, much like former Bruin Brett Hundley, to drop his eyes and look to run at the first sign of pressure. Given the short history of the Bruin defense under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, and his unwillingness to bring pressure against mobile quarterbacks, this game had the potential to be an offensive success for BYU.
UCLA Defense v. BYU Offense
Really from the get-go on Saturday night it was clear that the game plan from UCLA’s defense was different. Picking up on the first televised series of the game where the Bruin defense had just surrendered a first down, you can quickly see the nickel package could fit both the run and pass defense UCLA wanted to play. A big change on Saturday, and for my money something that should be a permanent change, was Adarius Pickett in the game for the absent Randall Goforth. Pickett has the ability to play both the run and the pass, something that Goforth just can’t give UCLA at this point in his career given all the injuries he’s had.
On first-and-10 on this series for BYU, they gave a power look, using stacked tight ends to one side, out of a single-back set. This offensive set going against a nickel usually can find a mismatch, but not on this play. BYU play-actioned out of this look and Hill threw to a crossing tight end for an incompletion. The play was defended well for a couple of reasons. First, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes was able to shed his single block and get pressure on Hill, something that resulted in Hill having to go to his first read with the throw. The second reason this play was defended well was because UCLA was able to maintain outside leverage (a theme all night long) on the run action, and linebacker Jayon Brown was able to find the tight end and keep him in front of him on the throw. The pass went incomplete, but Brown probably could have picked off the ball if he wanted to. Regardless, after one play it was clear that UCLA had way better athletes that BYU outside and they could play off that to slow down this Cougar offense.
On the next play, again Vanderdoes shed his single block and stopped the running back in the backfield for a slight loss. What was great about this play, other than the outstanding effort by Vanderdoes to make the tackle, was the run fit and emphasis on contain that the UCLA front had. Even if Vanderdoes doesn’t make an outstanding individual play, the run play would not have succeeded because UCLA had almost perfect containment. On third down UCLA played bump coverage outside and used Brown to spy on Hill in the backfield (another theme all game). UCLA used both ends to rush vertically up field, which allowed Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou on the inside to each pick a gap. At that point the defensive front is acting as sort of a funnel, giving Hill two gaps maximum to step up into. Either he would throw from the step up, or try and run through one of the gaps, which is where Brown’s read comes in. If contain is executed properly by the four rushing linemen, Brown has a one-gap read based on what Hill wants to do. On this play, UCLA knew it was 3rd-and-long, so they kept the wide receivers in front of them and let the pass be completed, with Fabian Moreau making the tackle well in front of the sticks, forcing a punt.
This play didn’t look like much but I found myself going back to it over and over again when re-watching the game because it illustrated UCLA’s game plan so well. Force the receivers to run past the defensive backs, create a pocket for Hill to make decisions from, and let those decisions dictate where the spy backer flows.
As the game went on UCLA took the next step in this defensive progression, using Brown to heat up the pocket before Hill could make his read. Even on the few occasions where Hill made the right read and was able to escape the pocket, UCLA linebacker Kenny Young was there to clean up the play.
Two really key factors made all of this possible. One was UCLA being able to get vertically up field with a rush, which is due in large part to having Takkarist McKinley back in the lineup. He has the ability to create so much havoc, either he commands a double team which frees up Vanderdoes, or he has a one-on-one with a tackle. The other key factor was UCLA finally being willing to put its corners on an island one-on-one with the receivers. It’s clear this 2016 Bruin team has the best secondary it’s had under head coach Jim Mora, and seeing the staff trust in those guys to lock down their assignments was awesome.
BYU finished the night with 23 yards on the ground, and allowed 4 sacks. So much of the success UCLA had against the BYU offense was due to the game plan. Tom Bradley called, to me, his best game of his UCLA career. That combined with the personnel change and trust he put in his secondary, really allowed for UCLA to show what it’s capable of defensively with this roster.
-- Having another thumping safety in the lineup, who can also cover in pass defense, is really critical for UCLA going forward. I’m not sure if Goforth is hurt or was suspended, but regardless, Pickett should be in the nickel lineup with Jaleel Wadood and Tahaan Goodman.
-- BYU has really pedestrian wide receiver talent, which makes the switch to offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s system all the more confusing. If receivers can’t win one-on-ones more that 20% of the time (which is where the UCLA DB’s probably graded out in this game) it’s going to be a long season in Provo.
-The front 4 for UCLA of McKinley, Vanderdoes, Eli Ankou and Matt Dickerson played really well, but so did the second-unit guys like Rick Wade and Nick Terry. Add in Keisean Lucier-South, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Deon Hollins and a healthy Boss Tagaloa, and UCLA has the making of a really good front four when they play with proper leverage and run-fit well.
-- You have to mention the linebacker group after this game, especially Young and Brown. Young was on his heels a lot against UNLV, probably due to some poor contain up front, but also due to slow processing of his reads. Brown had linemen on him constantly in the first two games, which is also a sign of poor execution up front. In this game, they both benefited from the better execution up front and when they were needed to make a play they did almost 100% of the time. That’s really encouraging improvement from them, especially with Stanford on the horizon.
UCLA Offense v. BYU Defense
As mentioned, Sitake has a reputation for bringing disciplined pressure, especially against the run, and this game was no different. At the beginning of the second quarter BYU was basically run-blitzing on every run play for UCLA. To me it looked like they might have even had UCLA’s signs, because they were guessing right a lot and usually defenses in college aren’t that lucky. Sitake likes to blitz to an area where he thinks the run might go, and with a middle linebacker the caliber of Butch Pau'a, it’s easy to execute.
On UCLA’s second drive of the second quarter, starting with a short field after an Adarius Pickett interception, UCLA adjusted nicely to the run-blitzing of BYU. On first-and-10 UCLA came out in a double-tight end set and ran play-action to the boundary side. BYU wasn’t blitzing to that area of the field, but the play action caught the flow-and-scrape linebackers and UCLA moved quarterback Josh Rosen to his left on a bootleg. Not many college offenses have this action in the playbook, but UCLA trusts Rosen’s ability to throw to his left while running left, and the play resulted in a 12-yard gain to Eldridge Massington on a comeback route.
On the next play UCLA showed again the versatility of the offense, running a combo play (RPO, or Run-Pass Option). The play-action and run blocking of the linemen caused BYU’s key to go off and they blitzed to the area of the back’s action. This gave UCLA single coverage on the back side of the play, which resulted in a completion to Massington again, this time on the stick route for a first down.
Now inside the red zone, UCLA used some tempo and ran inside with Bolu Olorunfunmi for a gain of a few. This three-play sequence was a really good set-up from offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, showing a pro-style play-action concept on the first play, an RPO-spread concept on the second play, and a run play out of the same formation on the third play. The next play, a 2nd-and-8, was a run play for UCLA against a favorable box from BYU. With no run blitz in play again, Olurunfunmi had a seam and probably could have scored but offensive lineman Kenny Lacy didn’t hold his block and his defender made the play after a gain of 3.
So on 3rd-and-4 from the BYU 7-yard line, UCLA got an honest box and a four-man rush. Showing trips to the wide side, Rosen had 2 open receivers, Darren Andrews on the inside curl and Austin Roberts on the corner route to the pylon. The outside receiver, Massington, was running a short curl route, which basically created a choice read for Rosen with one defender having to defend both Roberts on the corner and Massington on the curl. Rosen made the wrong read and threw incomplete to Massington, with the drive ending in a J.J. Molson's 24-yard field goal. The field goal put UCLA up by 2 scores with 7 minutes to go in the half, but UCLA left points out there on this drive.
This drive illustrated a theme we would see play out again for Rosen. He’s been wildly inconsistent so far this season, and I’m not sure what that is attributable to. This decision changed the game, just as he had a few decisions change the Texas A&M game. As this game wore on there were several plays where had he just checked down to the open receiver instead of trying to thread the needle to the bigger play route, UCLA would have moved the ball into scoring position more effectively.
If UCLA was able to put up points early in the game the entire scheme of the BYU defense, which was to sell out on the run, would have changed. As it stood, this play along with a few other poor decisions in the first half from Rosen, allowed BYU to stay in the game, and ultimately allowed them to continue to bring pressure to stop the run and force UCLA off schedule. As we saw on this drive (up until the last play), when UCLA is on schedule the offensive system is really varied, and can cause trouble for a defense. But any offense is going to be challenged when its fastball is taken away, and UCLA not being able to run the ball was due in large part to mistakes they made throwing the ball.
-- UCLA’s offense did enough to win, and winning on the road in a tough environment is always a good thing. But at this stage, Josh Rosen has a lot of improvements to make in his decision-making and accuracy to lead UCLA to where it wants to go. In a lot of ways I wish Stanford was another month away. That would give UCLA and Rosen time to iron out some of these issues. As it stands, they’re up next and for UCLA, Rosen and the offense will have to be almost perfect to be able to move the ball against that defense. You absolutely can’t turn it over against Stanford and you can’t leave points on the board.
-- I still don’t quite understand the receiver rotations so I’m just going to stop hypothesizing about it. Theo Howard is the only deep threat on the team other than Kenny Walker, yet he doesn’t play. UCLA has to be able to stretch the field at some point to create some space for the other receivers to work. Walker is a threat on every play to go deep, and this game was a great example of where a deep threat was needed. BYU was trying to play UCLA in a phone booth so to speak, and was allowed to play within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage most of the night. Stanford will try and do the same thing to UCLA so being able to at least threaten the deep ball has to be in the game plan next week.
-- The running backs have had a lot of criticism for the low rushing total in this game, but if UCLA does a few things differently in the throw game the running backs get off earlier against BYU. There were times where UCLA just tried to run against an unfavorable box from a numbers standpoint, but that box is stacked because BYU isn’t forced to be kept honest. Moving the pocket, play-action, screens and horizontal passes can all help free up the box for run plays. Some of that can be blamed on the sideline for the play calls, especially late in the game, but some of that is Rosen not wanting to check down to the easy routes. Either way, those facets will have to be executed on against Stanford because they will jump the first-read post snap a lot and force the QB to progress and check down. If Rosen can do that this offense will hum, but if he can’t it will result in mistakes and stalled drives.
There were a lot of encouraging things in this victory, particularly on defense. Tom Bradley had a great game plan and the players executed it almost to perfection. BYU isn’t UNLV, so this is a good win. They’re not Stanford either so there are things to address immediately, but the defense certainly showed they have the ability to stop the run if they play with correct leverage and maintain contain responsibilities on a consistent basis. The offense is more concerning to me. Yes. I like the system, and yes. Rosen has the talent to execute it to its potential. But we just haven’t seen anything close to that yet from him and I’m not optimistic it changes in one week. As fans of this year’s team, I think we need to think longer term. If Rosen continues to improve, we most likely get Stanford twice, and where his development is at in the second meeting will be far more critical than where it is this weekend. The good news and the bad news is that it’s all on him.