Saturday's first half might have set offensive football back a few decades, but UCLA used an impressive offensive second half (with a boost from several positive special teams plays) to pull away with a comfortable 45-24 win over Arizona that was never in significant doubt.
There were a couple of big takeaways from the game for UCLA. First, and on the positive side of the spectrum, the defense put together another very solid performance, the third consecutive week where UCLA's defense has looked much more like the unit we expected it to be to open the year.
From a cause and effect perspective, it isn't too difficult to pin down why the defense has looked so much better through the last three games than it did through the first two. Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes, who each missed portions of the first two games, have played in each of the last three games, and their presence has significantly impacted both the run defense and the pass rush. With McKinley in there, in particular, UCLA actually has a hope of containing the edge and forcing quarterbacks to remain in the pocket, which is especially critical against running quarterbacks, like the Bruins faced last night. UCLA allowed some yardage in the quarterback running game, to be sure, but much of that came after Khalil Tate came in and the game was already essentially over.
McKinley and Vanderdoes both being ensconced in the starting lineup has really freed up the linebackers as well. After seemingly playing with offensive linemen blocking down on them consistently through the first two games, the linebackers have played much better over the last three, and you really have to point to the play of Kenny Young, who looks like a completely different player. He was critical in pursuit last night, and had a number of first-down saving tackles. He also laid a huge number of (clean) hits on Brandon Dawkins, which probably contributed to him sitting out much of the game. You could make an argument that Young was the defensive MVP last night, and that's just great to see.
The other takeaway isn't so positive, but perhaps there's a silver lining. The offense spent the first half scuffling badly. The second quarter especially was a very poor exhibition of football, as UCLA elected to pass on an absurd number of downs and Josh Rosen took a hit basically every time he dropped back to pass. It was an interesting game plan for UCLA in the first half, as the Bruins went heavily to a shotgun passing attack. Against Stanford, we might have advocated that, but against this Arizona team, with its weak defensive front, we assumed that UCLA would continue to try to power the ball between the tackles.
Of course, as it turned out, UCLA wasn't really able to run the ball as well as you'd like against the Wildcats, so perhaps Kennedy Polamalu was simply being prescient. The Bruins averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry against Arizona a week after Washington averaged just under 7 against this same Wildcats defense. So, that's a major concern -- as we said in the preview, if UCLA is unable to run very effectively against this Arizona defense, that means the Bruins will probably have trouble running the ball on anyone at all.
The silver lining is the second-half performance. UCLA was much more balanced and varied, both in terms of formation and play call, in the second half, and that seemed to get everyone a bit more comfortable. UCLA's receivers also actually started to catch the ball in the second half, which is a key part of the game, and Arizona wasn't able to tee off on Rosen in quite the same way that the Wildcats were able to in the first half.
From a game plan perspective, you might wonder why UCLA went with a mostly shotgun-based passing attack in the first half, against a team that had a much better pass defense than run defense coming into the game, but the more we've thought about it, the more we think that might have been an acknowledgment from the coaching staff that they need to prioritize a new kind of offensive attack, given that the power running game hasn't been working against basically anyone. If UCLA goes back to trying to pound the ball between the tackles 30 times per game after this one, maybe that idea will prove to be incorrect, but right now, it makes sense.
We got our first look at Theo Howard actually participating in the offense in a real way in this game, and his touchdown catch was the kind of play you might remember seeing a lot of from players like Marqise Lee and Robert Woods across town. In other words, he looks electric with the ball in his hands and should play a lot more going forward (and probably should have been playing a lot more going backward).
Special teams, despite J.J. Molson's missed field goal, were a true bright spot for the first time this season, largely thanks to excellent kick and punt returns as well as very good kick coverage. We'll await Alex Mokover's statistical review for the finer details, but we'd guess this was UCLA's best performance from a field position perspective all season, which clearly gave the Bruins a big boost offensively.
Watching the game live and then brushing up on a few key plays this morning, Nate Starks really provided a steadying force in the backfield. He was good running the ball, for the most part (maybe missed a few holes), but his blocking really stood out. There were more than a couple of times where Rosen would have gotten absolutely popped if it hadn't been for a saving block from Starks, and he was also a big reason why Howard was able to just glide into the end zone on his touchdown catch. If this game is in any indication, Starks is going to be the lead back going forward, and based on this game, that decision makes sense.
Darren Andrews and Kenny Walker both had very good games at receiver, and I could be misremembering, but I don't think either had a drop. UCLA used both Andrews and Walker on sweeps at points, and it was really cool to see that kind of speed getting up field against this defense. Walker has turned into a much more polished receiver, and Andrews, for his part, has become a very reliable outlet for Rosen. We said before the year that UCLA might have to reconfigure its idea of what a go-to receiver should look like, and for one game at least, it appears the Bruins did.
Kolton Miller's injury is an obvious concern going forward. The hit to his lower leg didn't look good, and we'd anticipate that he'll be out for some time, not knowing anything specific about the injury. Andre James filled in and actually looked much better than we had any right to expect, but any injuries to the offensive line are critical injuries given the depth situation there.
At this point, five games into the season, we can start to draw some conclusions about this UCLA team.
First, defensively, this team has a chance to be very good. With McKinley in there, UCLA actually has the ability to get home with four from time to time, which is critical. UCLA's staff has also loosened up quite a bit this season, with significantly more blitzing than last year (or the previous year). UCLA hasn't played a truly elite offensive unit yet (and Arizona without Dawkins for most of this game certainly doesn't qualify), but we've liked what we've seen.
Second, offensively, this team looks like it might be limited all year by some trouble running the ball. UCLA hasn't been consistent running between the tackles against anybody this year, and the Bruins have already played two poor rush defenses in UNLV and Arizona. Running off tackle and outside can work to an extent, but good-ish defenses will shut that down. As we've mentioned in the last couple of weeks, the offense might rest progressively heavier on the right arm of Josh Rosen.
The question is really whether the combination of a good defense and what looks like an average, at best, offense will be good enough to win the South. Right now, UCLA appears to have as good of a shot as anyone. Utah has clearly taken a step back this year, with a more suspect defense and a slightly less effective offense, and losing to Cal is never a good thing. The Arizona schools, as anticipated, are in rebuilding mode. USC has already put itself in must-win mode the rest of the year by losing two conference games to open the season.
Colorado is interesting -- the Buffs have looked legitimately good through five games, and not just good-for-Colorado, but actually good. Offensively, they seem to be hitting a new height with Steven Montez at quarterback, and defensively, they have a good secondary and some disruptive talent up front. The Buffs have a tougher schedule going forward, though, than the Bruins, with road games at USC and at Stanford within the next three weeks before the Bruins come to town in November.
At the very least, though, the Bruins have to be considered the co-favorites going forward, and if they can escape the next two road games and the home game against Utah, that Thursday night in Colorado is shaping up to be a fun Pac-12 South matchup.