When a team loses such a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching game like UCLA did against Stanford Saturday night, 22-13, you can easily point to a few different reasons for the loss. It's never just one thing, but a combination of different factors.
Much is being made of the prevent defense UCLA went to on Stanford’s last drive. It clearly was a poor move. Stanford’s quarterback Ryan Burns, who hadn’t looked good all night, was suddenly a different person. He was given enough time with very little pressure to march the Stanford offense down the field to score the winning touchdown. Five of the 13 passes Burns completed in the game were on that drive. UCLA had employed a great, aggressive defensive game plan the entire night up until that point, pressuring the line of scrimmage, blitzing, stunting and showing good movement on the defensive line to keep the Stanford offensive line and Burns off-balance. But it went prevent, and Burns had time to throw.
Yes, that was a misstep. Absolutely. And while it definitely contributed to the loss, we’re going to say that it wasn’t what primarily cost UCLA the game because the defense shouldn’t have been put in that position regardless.
You can also point to a few player breakdowns. We hate to call him out, but the dropped pass that would have been a first down by Ishmael Adams toward the end of the third quarter with UCLA up 10-6 was the biggest game-turning play. UCLA would have had a first down at about the Stanford 28-yard line. A touchdown would have pretty much sealed the deal. Heck, just about five yards more and the field goal for UCLA kicker J.J. Molson would have been an easy 40-yarder. That would have put up UCLA 13-6 and at least secured an overtime instead of conceding a loss if Stanford scored a touchdown (which they obviously did).
But college players make mistakes, especially in big moments. It’s what makes college football so interesting, fun and dramatic.
Adams’ drop wasn’t the primary reason UCLA lost this game, either.
It was the offensive game plan.
We’ll call it the Stanford Manhood Challenge.
The offensive plan for this game was to line up in the heavy formation most of the time, closely mimicking Stanford’s offense. It was UCLA saying, “We can do this, too, and we’re going to beat you doing it.” That mindset can be completely appreciated.
Until it doesn’t work.
Stanford’s weakness on defense so far this season was clearly its pass defense. And, after losing some of its best pass rushers to graduation, the Cardinal was ripe -- is ripe – for a very effective passing game to pick them apart.
Going into this game, Stanford’s rush defense was giving up just 95 yards per game, was ranked 20th in the country and 2nd in the Pac-12. Its passing defense was ranked 70th in the country, and 8th in the Pac-12, yielding 242 yards per game.
UCLA, clearly, should have exploited Stanford’s weakness on defense and tragically, showed it had the tools to do it. Quarterback Josh Rosen was solid for the night, completing 18 of 27 with no interceptions. UCLA gave up three sacks, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but for the most part (except for one particularly poor sequence of two plays in which Stanford’s defensive end Solomon Thomas was pretty much super-human), protected Rosen. Yeah, like we said, the receivers dropped a couple of critical passes, but there were open receivers for most of the night, and they would have had to drop several more balls for their dropsies to be the primary reason for the loss.
The offensive resources were there. UCLA clearly had the passing game to pick apart Stanford’s passing defense.
But UCLA and offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu obstinately kept with the heavy-formation strategy instead of taking advantage of what Stanford’s defense would more easily yield. UCLA ran the ball 33 times and gained 77 rushing yards. UCLA passed the ball for less times than it ran, just 27, and gained 248 yards through the air. Very simple math: It averaged 2.3 yards per rushing play and averaged 9.2 yards per passing play.
The UCLA coaching staff had spent the off-season retooling its schemes, with the consistent failure against Stanford a big impetus for the retool. It had installed more of a pro-style offense, one that leaned heavily on the heavy formation. It spent a great deal of time in the 9-on-7 drill in both spring and fall practice, preparing and honing the tactics and the players in its smash-mouth, downhill running game.
After watching the UCLA teams get physically out-matched against Stanford for the last five straight games against Mora's program, going primarily to the heavy formation for this game was a clear decision to go man a mano with the Cardinal and beat them straight up, their heavy formation versus Stanford’s. It stubbornly was the mission and UCLA, regrettably, didn’t stray from that plan, even when the indications going into the game were that UCLA should exploit Stanford’s passing defense and – most importantly – after it was clear in this game that UCLA’s offense wasn’t going to be productive using its heavy formation so predominantly. Whether it was the offensive line missing blocks or the running backs missing holes, or both, it wasn’t the most effective offensive strategy, and neither was doggedly sticking to it.
You could more easily overlook the failed strategy if UCLA had been greatly effective in its heavy-formation, downhill running game so far this season. But it hadn’t been. Coming into this game, its rushing attack so far this season averaged 3.2 yards per play, and 117 yards per game, which had UCLA’s rushing attack ranked 108th in the country and last in the Pac-12. And that was UCLA’s overall rushing stats, including running out of the shotgun. If we could break down the rushing stats of UCLA running out of the heavy formation it’s not a stretch to say that they are probably worse than its overall rushing stats. And here’s a big red flag: The previous week UCLA had gained 50 yards on the ground and averaged 1.5 yards per carry against BYU, which is Stanford-lite. It had a trial run the week before and, obviously, it failed it.
So why stick with it?
There was clearly a determined objective the program had adopted since last December after a 5-7 Nebraska team bullied UCLA’s defense with its pound-it-out run game and it had been drubbed earlier in the season by Stanford in the same manner. The program had been embarrassed, really, and decided to do something about it. So, it committed to the more pro-style offense, with an emphasis on a very Stanford-like heavy formation look.
Now, incorporating a physical, pounding running attack into the offense isn’t a bad thing, by any means. It’s absolutely something UCLA should have in its arsenal, and didn’t previously. But when you have an arsenal, you should use the weapons that every scouting indication tells you will be the most effective against your opponent.
The thing, too, is that if UCLA had opened up the field, used more lateral throws, got its running backs and skill guys out into space and around the edge more, it very well would have opened up lanes in the running game. If you had loosened up Stanford’s defense with more passing game, it probably would have been far more effective not only running out of the shotgun but running out of the heavy formation. There were a few RPOs (Run-Pass Options) in this game out of the shotgun, when Rosen opted to made a quick throw to the perimeter for an easy 8-yard gain. It looked like he could have done that all day, and it also looked like UCLA’s receivers were coming close to breaking one. And Stanford's two starting cornerbacks were out of the game in the second half.
But this was a manhood challenge. It felt like UCLA wasn't going to concede to using a clever tactic to go around Stanford's defense, but the game plan was to go straight at Stanford and beat them running right at them, in a formation that generally signals that you’re going to run the ball. It would have probably been effective if UCLA had even used the heavy formation to set up a play-action passing game more, or UCLA had pitched the ball or used swing passes out of it. How about a naked boot out of it on that critical third-and-two at Stanford’s 17-yard-line when it ran straight ahead out of the heavy formation for no gain and had to take a field goal rather than a touchdown? If it had done that, after lining up for a majority of the game, in the heavy formation just to set up that one play and get that one critical first down, it would have been worth it. Lining up so much in the heavy formation would have been pretty ingenious, then.
Really, the appropriate manhood challenge for UCLA coming off five straight losses to Stanford was for UCLA to re-tool its defense to stop Stanford’s own smash-mouth, downhill running game. And the off-season changes in scheme and tactics worked. Perhaps the best player in the country, Stanford’s running back Christian McCaffrey, probably had the quietest game he’s had in a long time. He ran for 138 yards and had just 13 yards receiving. This is a guy who squirts loose for big running plays in just about every game and his longest run from scrimmage was 13 yards Saturday night. He commonly puts up 300+ all-purpose yards in a game and UCLA held him to 165. Stanford’s vaunted rushing attack gained 207 yards, which is decent, but in this game it wasn’t dominating. Stanford clearly wasn’t winning this game because of its running game. UCLA’s off-season mission was to create a defense that was able to match up against Stanford’s smash-mouth, power offense, and it completely succeeded.
But UCLA seemed to take the Stanford manhood challenge a step too far when it decided it was going to employ its own heavy running attack against Stanford so predominantly. It wasn’t necessary, certainly not to get a win against Stanford. Limiting the dominance of Stanford’s running game and McCaffrey, and then taking advantage of the weaknesses of a just-decent Stanford defense, mostly Stanford’s weak passing defense, would have done the trick. UCLA didn’t have to win and pound Stanford into the ground with its running game in doing it. A win would have been plenty good enough.
It appears UCLA so blindly pursued its quest to beat Stanford at its own game it probably adopted too much of Stanford's game, and overlooked what probably was the best means to actually beat the Cardinal.
Give the UCLA players a huge amount of credit. They played hard. They physically out-toughed Stanford. They led in this game for for three quarters. For college kids who are playing this game as amateurs, usually prone to mistakes, breakdowns and letdowns, the UCLA players who were on the Rose Bowl field Saturday for the most part showed a high level of excellence, resolve and both mental and physical tenacity. They answered the Stanford manhood challenge. Except for a few imperfections, they did everything they were capable of.
Guys who deserve individual mentions on defense: defensive end Takkarist McKinley, clearly still hampered by the groin injury, and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes impacted every play; linebackers Jayon Brown and Kenny Young played really well, again supporting the notion they’re so much better when other bodies join them in the box; the secondary was excellent, again, with UCLA’s physical safety combo of Tahaan Goodman and Adarius Pickett making some game-shifting hits, safety Jaleel Wadood showing great run-stuffing instincts, and corner Fabian Moreau again looking like one of the best at his position in the conference. On offense, the long-lost tight end Nate Iese made some big plays and led the team in receptions and receiving yards (5 for 89); and running back Bolu Olorunfunmi again made the case that he should be getting the bulk of the tailback carries, especially in the heavy formation since his his style is far more suited for it than the high, finesse style of Sotonye Jamabo, who ran 7 times for 17 yards.
In the end, this ultimately was the most discouraging and deflating loss of the Jim Mora era. It wasn’t just that UCLA lost to Stanford again, after Mora’s program had gone winless in five previous attempts and Stanford was the nemesis/roadblock to UCLA taking the next step. Yeah, that has a lot to do with it. But UCLA deserved to win this game. The players deserved to win. The Bruins had stepped up to the challenge and out-played and out-toughed Stanford for most of the game. And the most discouraging and deflating aspect of it – it’s easy to see how a simple strategic and tactical misstep, one that appears to be unnecessary, was the primary reason for the loss.
Now UCLA faces another challenge – how to keep it together the rest of the season after such a demoralizing loss. UCLA’s path to a Pac-12 South title got more difficult this weekend, with the Stanford loss and some of the teams emerging as UCLA’s main competition in the Pac-12 South winning critical games. The UCLA players showed against Stanford they clearly have the toughness to be resilient; we’ll see if they can be put in the best position to win the rest of the way.
No one believes in moral victories. But perhaps the UCLA players, having played Stanford strong enough to have won the game, use this as a confidence-builder, now realizing they can play with anyone, and play out the season with a newfound confidence that gets them to the Pac-12 title game and a second chance to get it right and banish the Cardinal demons.