QB Josh Rosen (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Conservative Endgame Dooms UCLA

Sep. 25 -- UCLA played its best game against Stanford since 2012, but conservative decision-making at the end of the game doomed the Bruins to their 9th straight loss against the Cardinal..

You almost get desensitized to it when it's a horrendous blowout every year -- when it's 56-7 after three quarters of Stanford vs. UCLA, you have time to really go through the whole grieving process mid-game. It's tremendously efficient.

When UCLA spends virtually the entire game leading, though, and carries a 13-9 lead into the final two minutes, and then Stanford leads a back-breaking touchdown drive over those two minutes, and then follows that up to force a fumble on UCLA's last-ditch effort to score in the final seconds, and THEN somehow picks up the fumble and scores a touchdown to make the score look like the Cardinal dominated the game -- well, that's the point where you consider whether watching football is even worth it at all.

This was by far UCLA's best performance against Stanford since the Pac-12 Championship game in 2012, and the performance came so close to validating every offseason decision the Bruins' coaching staff made. Making the defense a 4-3 and turning the offense into something Stanford-esque somehow worked to put UCLA in the game against Stanford until the Cardinal ripped out everyone's still-beating heart in the last two minutes. The Bruins led 7-3, and then 10-3, and then 10-6, and then 10-9, and then 13-9, and it felt like UCLA was in control throughout -- until it was suddenly 16-13, and then 22-13, and then [reel missing].

The Bruins were the more physical team throughout the game. The defensive line had its best game of the season for sure, and arguably its best performance in the last two seasons. Eddie Vanderdoes dominated up front, but so did Boss TagaloaEli Ankou (before the injury), Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and a host of others. UCLA held down Stanford's rushing attack for much of the game (the final stats show Stanford running the ball fairly well, but the stats don't capture the tenor of the game very well -- the Bruins very much kept Stanford from those consistent, grinding drives). Offensively, even though UCLA didn't run the ball well, it wasn't as if Stanford dominated physically. There were one or two breakdowns where Solomon Thomas just made a crazy individual play, but otherwise, UCLA's OL held its own in pass protection and wasn't a complete embarrassment in the run game.

UCLA played the ball-control, aggressive, grind-it-out, physical game it wanted to play, and had the lead heading into the final minutes -- and then lost it.

So much of that final few minutes boils down to something we've had an issue with for a while, through UCLA coaches immemorial: wildly conservative endgame decision-making. Offensively, UCLA was conservative, but it was mostly of a piece with the rest of the game plan -- yes, the Bruins probably went into the shell a bit on that penultimate drive, with a couple of runs and then a drop-down throw to Eldridge Massington falling well short of the sticks, but it wasn't the most conservative endgame we've seen, which would be three straight runs into a stacked box to "burn clock". It is worth noting, though, that one more first down would have iced the game at that point.

Our biggest issue is on the defensive side of the ball. With two minutes to go in the game -- in other words, plenty of time for a college offense of any ilk to drive down the field and score a touchdown, even without timeouts -- UCLA inexplicably went away from what had worked all game (an aggressive, attacking mentality on defense) and went passive. The Bruins' went with a four-man rush on first down -- 20+ yard completion to Trent Irwin with no one pressuring the quarterback. On second down, with no one open, a four-man rush flushed Burns but he was able to throw the ball away. On third down, a four-man rush with a very delayed fifth guy (didn't even factor in) led to a 12 yard first down completion. On the following first down, UCLA got some pressure with a four-man rush, but again couldn't close the deal, and Burns was able to dirt the ball. On second down, again a four-man rush with a very delayed fifth guy, and again a completion  with no one in his face for a first down. On first down, four-man rush gets some pressure, incompletion. On second down, four-man rush means a seven-yard completion. Run on third down nets the first down, and suddenly Stanford is 1st and goal at the 7, and then the Cardinal runs the fade to perfection (no rush would have mattered on that throw) and the Cardinal wins the game.

UCLA basically went with a four-man rush the whole time -- the two times the Bruins sent a fifth guy, it was so late that they might as well have committed him to deep coverage (in fact, the fifth guy was probably just covering someone who remained in the backfield). It was a real switch from the rest of the game, when UCLA sent pressure and sent a variety of confusing looks up front to keep the offense guessing. With the game on the line, UCLA reverted a bit to the same passive bend-but-don't-break stuff that we saw so much of last year. 

UCLA squandered what was an almost universally excellent game on defense, with all three levels of the defense playing very well through much of the game. Offensively, the Bruins had more issues, and many of what we thought were the major issues this season cropped up again in this game.

First, the offensive line was not able to generate any kind of consistent push up front, limiting UCLA's running game. It's no surprise that Bolu Olorunfunmi had the best game of the running backs in this one -- as we said before the year, if the offensive line can't open up holes, you want to go with your back who runs with the best power and has the lowest center of gravity. In this case, that's Olorunfunmi. This was a game where he probably should have had 20 carries rather than 11.

Second, receivers once again had absolutely crippling drops. On the final drive of the third quarter, UCLA had a chance to go ahead by two scores, and the Bruins were driving well against a now-depleted Stanford defense that was down its two starting corners. On the first play of the drive, Darren Andrews dropped a wide-open pass that hit him in the chest, but the Bruins got past it and still were able to drive down to Stanford's side of the field. Then, on 3rd and 4 at the Stanford 33, Josh Rosen threw to an open Ishmael Adams, hitting him right in the hands, but Adams didn't look the ball in, turning his head up field, and dropped it. That forced a 4th down attempt (which we support) that led to a Rosen sack, and that drive, which looked so good, ended with zero points. 

And that was really the story of the game -- conservative play-calling at the end really cost UCLA, but there were offensive issues throughout that kept this from being a two-score game or more earlier on. 

It was massively disappointing, given that UCLA outplayed Stanford for much of the game, and given that David Shaw had one of his patented brain fart games. He wildly mismanaged the clock over the last five minutes, using his final two timeouts each after bleeding the clock inexplicably. He also punted twice on 4th and 1 when he absolutely should not have, and burned a ton of clock before calling his timeout to punt the ball with 4 minutes to go. This was not a good Shaw game, and UCLA absolutely needed to take advantage of that fact.

There is no moral victory after a game like this -- the Bruins were the better team for 58 minutes, but it wasn't as if Stanford's prowess just asserted itself at the end. UCLA absolutely could have won the game if the coaching staff had continued to call an aggressive game over the last four minutes. It was a failure of play-calling at the end that doomed UCLA.

So, now UCLA heads into the middle third of the season at 2-2, which we predicted at the beginning of the year. We know some things about this team now -- when the defensive line is relatively healthy, the run defense is pretty good, and the secondary is very good. The offense won't be able to generate much running room up the middle, but it's better going to the edges. Josh Rosen made some strides in this game, and seems poised to have a nice final 8 games to the season. 

But we also know that the defensive play-calling remains prone to conservatism at inopportune times. We know that the offensive play-calling will sometimes operate as if UCLA is actually able to run the ball up the middle, even though it is provably not able to do so. And we know that, with two losses overall and one conference loss already, the Bruins will have to come pretty close to winning out to have the season UCLA was hoping for. It can happen -- we even predicted a 7-1 finish from here -- but it's not going to be easy.

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