-- It was a good win, with UCLA playing good defense when the game was still being decided, and making adjustments on offense to put the game away in the second half.
-- Running back Nate Starks has proved he should be the featured back in the offense. He showed in this game he’s the most reliable in finding the hole consistently, being able to get upfield, and gain yardage after contact. The knock on him a bit was that he wasn’t the best blocker, but he had some blocks in this game that were key, keeping Josh Rosen protected on his improvised touchdown throw to Kenny Walker and opening up the lane on Theo Howard’s touchdown reception.
The question, though, is why it’s taken so long – the fifth game of the season – for it to be determined that Starks should be the featured back. From day one in spring practice and then again in fall, Sotonye Jamabo was given the higher percentage of first-team reps, and he clearly was the guy UCLA thought was going to be the featured back by how UCLA used him to begin the season. We don’t think Jamabo is, by any means, a bad football player; we actually like him, we just don’t think – and have always questioned – whether he was really the best option next to Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi, especially in UCLA's re-tooled offense which requires more of a physical runner. We might concede that Jamabo was given the starting role because Starks needed to sit out the first two games, but it’s pretty clear that Jamabo was considered the #1 back regardless.
This game, again, was an example of how much UCLA misses a truly great tailback like Paul Perkins. There are holes the current running backs as a group are just plainly missing, and they don’t have the capability that Perkins had to gain difficult yards. Go back and watch Perkins in a game from last season and the contrast is pronounced. It’s not even that the offensive line created better holes last year – perhaps slightly better – it’s just how good, and how much better, Perkins was. While it’s been said that UCLA’s stable of running backs is talented, we are coming to the realization that it’s definitely deep, with players who are absolutely Pac-12 caliber, but we don’t know if there is an elite running back on the roster. Perhaps it’s true freshman Brandon Stephens. He flashed some of that top-end type of talent in fall camp and in some runs in games he had earlier this season, but he’ll need some time to develop and progress.
-- What’s wrong with the running game? It’s absolutely a combination of a few factors. Like we said, it’s definitely that UCLA doesn’t have that top-end talent at tailback. But there is some blame to go around to everyone. The offensive line had some lapses in run blocking against Arizona. While we’ve said that that the interior OL has had problems getting a push, against Arizona, UCLA’s esteemed tackles, Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller, struggled with Arizona’s smaller linemen at times. Yes, many times the UCLA OL was going up against a stacked box and was outmanned, but a good amount of times they weren’t, and were just whiffing or missing blocking assignments.
Interestingly, the back-up redshirt freshman right tackle Andre James, who came in for Miller when he injured his leg, fared well, especially in run blocking. James, who is 6-4 and more mobile, looked far more comfortable matching up against Arizona. In practice when we’ve watched James, we’ve watched him mostly in pass protection, where he’s been inconsistent. But Saturday he looked very much in his element as a run blocker. Perhaps with UCLA’s commitment to a power running game, the big, long tackles aren’t necessarily the right fit all the time, and smaller, more mobile guys are.
It also seems that UCLA’s rushing game works better when UCLA zone blocks, rather than employ more man blocking, and it hasn’t been doing that nearly as much as it has in the past, and less with the new more pro-style scheme. Also, UCLA’s tight ends, generally, aren’t good blockers - they are missing far too many blocks - so, in trying to compensate for that, a zone blocking scheme would probably help (as would more motion). As we said a few times earlier this season, if you might notice, UCLA runs the ball better out of the shotgun, when it uses zone blocking more. When you see so much penetration, like UCLA gave up against Arizona, that’s due a great deal to a man-to-man blocking scheme and just an individual missing a block. And using a man, against a defense like Arizona that tries to make up for a lack of elite personnel in its front seven by moving around its front seven quite a bit, isn’t ideal. UCLA’s running game has been most successful this season when it’s specifically used an outside zone blocking scheme, which pretty much just walls off the entire line of scrimmage and allows the running back to find the edge.
Then, also contributing, and related to man v. zone blocking, is the playcalling. We’ve already made a good deal out of UCLA emphasizing the pass against a poor Arizona rushing defense – a week after it emphasized the run against a good Stanford rushing defense. It seems a bit illogical, and we’ve tried to understand it: perhaps after being stubborn against Stanford with the run, UCLA learned its lesson and decided to go more to the pass this week? If so, though, it’s not gearing its game plan well enough toward the opponent’s defense, and the defense’s weaknesses.
To its credit, UCLA did playaction more out of the heavy formation this week, which we wanted to see after Stanford. But to make the playaction work, it still needs to run out of the heavy formation a bit, and UCLA is not successful doing it. Against Arizona, when UCLA lined up with two tight ends, Arizona loaded the box, and with so many defenders able to match up, all it needed was one blown block or one missed hole.
Bottom line, UCLA hasn’t been able to run in its heavy formation, which mostly uses a man blocking scheme, and because opposing defense know to then load the box.
There is probably the makings of a solid running game in this offense, emphasizing running out of the gun, out of a more spread-like formation, with Nate Starks, and utilizing zone blocking more, especially an outside zone run. That’s one of those “ifs” Jim Mora talked about in his press conference after the game Saturday night.
-- In the offensively anemic second quarter of the Arizona game, a few factors contributed, but, really, it was predominantly UCLA’s receivers dropping balls. We’re going to say that there were six drops in the first half total, because we’re not going to count the one attributed to Nate Iese since that was an un-called pass interference. But we are counting the one by Eldridge Massington that really wasn’t a drop, but a fumble, since it still was his fault. Massington’s “drop” on the fourth down and Mossi Johnson’s drop were drive killers, and even Walker’s drop on a first down that would have been a first down was significant. On second look, UCLA’s offense in the second quarter wasn’t as bad as you might have thought; it actually moved the ball. It didn’t run much, just a couple of times, out of the gun with Starks, and it was successful enough. It went up-tempo, but it did put Rosen in too many conventional drops, which allowed Arizona to tee off on him. But even so, even with all that figured in, it was the receiver drops that were the offensive killer of the second quarter.
It’s time to give the majority of the receiver reps to the guys who have shown in the first five games they’re worthy of them – and that’s, first, Darren Andrews, who had 9 catches for 109 yards and looks like the closest thing to a go-to receiver UCLA has; and Walker, who had 4 catches for 114 yards. In fall camp, we said we thought UCLA was going to have to re-think its concept of a “go-to” receiver since it didn’t have any bigger types that showed the consistency of Andrews and Walker. Plus, both Andrews and Walker look very dangerous after the catch, so even if they don’t have the conventional, absolute sure-handedness of a typical go-to receiver, they make up for it with how dangerous they are – and they have the least penchant for dropping balls among the receivers to make up for. It appeared that it was Jordan Lasley’s turn to be suspended this week, but he’s shown so far this season he’s the next guy in the group worthy of getting the ball thrown his way more often. And then there’s true freshman Howard, who was electric in his first touchdown catch, and absolutely needs more playing time. After being a big piece of the offense the first couple of weeks, Y-type receiver Austin Roberts hasn’t been recently, and while it’s probably just a matter of certain plays not going his way, he needs some plays called for him as the primary receiver in every game.
-- After that second quarter on offense which was pretty abysmal (even though UCLA actually moved the ball), there was a good adjustment made in the third quarter – to roll out Rosen and throw more laterally. It completely off-set Arizona’s pass rush, made them have to adjust and be more honest, and it simply plays so much into Rosen’s strength as a quarterback. When he’s in the pocket, and even if the pocket integrity is holding up, he doesn’t check down or make as good of decisions as when he’s rolled out and able to see the field better. Rosen made some very good plays against Arizona when he was rolled out, and some incredible plays when he scrambled outside the pocket. It clearly makes Rosen more comfortable when he has just one-half of the field to survey and there aren’t bodies collapsing around him. UCLA’s game plans need to have this as an integral part every game from the outset, not as an adjustment. And while we do appreciate the adjustment – we have to ponder why this is just being realized five games into the season, when it’s very obviously playing into Rosen’s strengths.
-- The defense, for the first two Arizona quarterbacks, was exceptionally good. Before Arizona freshman quarterback Khalil Tate came into the game with 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter, UCLA had held the Wildcats to 165 yards of offense, and an average of just 3.6 yards per play and just 7 first downs. It’s not a stretch to say it was a dominant defensive performance up to that point. The front seven were very good, led by middle linebacker Kenny Young. Young was easily the team’s defensive MVP, not only because he led the team with 12 tackles (8 solos), but he was running down ball carriers sideline to sideline. He was personally responsible for getting so many hits on quarterback Brandon Dawkins he had to leave the game.
It actually might have been better for UCLA that Young didn’t put Dawkins out of the game, because after the next guy up, Zach Werlinger, proved to be mediocre, Arizona opted to burn the redshirt year of Tate. And Tate was very good, and caught UCLA completely unprepared and probably a little fatigued. Now, when Tate came into the game it was 24-7 in the third quarter, and UCLA felt like it had the game well in hand, and was content with Arizona going to a read-option running game and running down the clock. But still, there was a lot of game to still be played, and if UCLA’s offense hadn’t found itself in the second half, Tate very well might have led Arizona to a comeback win. For a UCLA fan, with UCLA having found its offense and its defense dominating up until halfway through the third quarter, and the score 24-7, you would have liked to see Arizona choked out completely. But Tate was too good. He’s 6-2 and 220 pounds and they ran primarily that read-option with him, and he gained huge chunks of yardage against the Bruins, finihsing with 79 yards on 15 carries in a quarter and a half. It was a bit curious, too, since UCLA many times had Tate covered in the read-option and he should have pitched it, but Tate just tucked it and made some exceptional individual plays, trading off burning individual UCLA defenders. Young hadn’t been beaten all night, but Tate beat him. It’s very unusual for someone to beat Takkarist McKinley to the edge, but Tate did. It was a little worrisome that the old UCLA nemesis, the read-option, was so effective, but you have to consider that UCLA had no tape on Tate, didn’t know his tendencies, and he was fresh to go along with being big and fast, going up against a more-fatigued UCLA defense. Luckily, looking down UCLA’s schedule, there really aren’t any other offenses that have a quarterback who could execute the read-option like Tate. UCLA might see it a bit more now, after it looked like it couldn’t defend it very well even when it had it covered, but we think Tate, if Arizona opts for him the rest of the season, is going to prove to be very uniquely exceptional in that offense.
Overall, it was a good game for the Bruins. It’s tough to say how good Arizona is, looking very inconsistent this season, so it’s not a slam dunk to assert that UCLA’s performance was really exceptional. It was more like another step in the process. Rosen is improving, especially in his decision-making. Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu has a scheme with the tools, and has shown some stretches of good playcalling. The receivers absolutely need to stop dropping the ball. The running game might have made an advancement with the recognition of Starks as the featured back. The defense has put together three good games in a row, after it had its game plan tweaked a bit after the UNLV game, and with the health of McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes.
Mora is exactly right – there are many good components here – players, coaches, and schemes – and it could be very good “If” they all come together.