It’s crazy how perspectives can change. At one point in this game, during the first half, UCLA’s defense was easily handling ASU, absolutely shutting them down, and the offense was out-gaining the Sun Devils something like 250 yards to 50. Arizona State could only score when UCLA handed them points. The Bruins were just shooting themselves in the foot, but eventually it was pretty clear it would naturally right itself. At the time, too, Arizona had held a lead on Utah for a good portion of their game. So, it looked like there was a pretty good chance that UCLA would come out of Saturday in a two-way tie for first in the Pac-12 South with a Colorado team that looked beatable against USC, and had a tougher schedule than the Bruins the rest of the way, and it would get a not-great Utah team and USC in the Rose Bowl.
The perspective at that moment gave UCLA a clear path to the Pac-12 South Championship.
That light at the end of that tunnel closed up in the second half, when UCLA continued to shoot their feet and did quite a bit to bequeath the game to Arizona State, 23-20.
This is truly a weird season of perspectives. The Bruins are just a matter of a few plays away from being 6-0 and probably ranked #5 in the country, and they could be that without even being very good.
You could say they’re not just a few of plays away, but just three dropped passes away from it. It’s easy to cherry-pick one dropped pass from each of the losses against Texas A&M, Stanford and ASU – and not even tough dropped passes but fairly easy catches – and the entire perspective on the season is different.
You could possibly look at it from the view that UCLA would have been #5 in the country and over-rated, or look at it from the vantage point we have now – that UCLA is 3-3 and probably better than that mark.
In this game, that certainly was the case. Whatever conclusion you want to take from it, UCLA was clearly the better team matched-up against ASU. Even if you factored in ASU’s starting quarterback, Manny Wilkins, you could still probably say that UCLA is more talented and better.
But the Bruins under-achieved. And that’s what this is all about, really, that’s where the perspective should always be, regardless of win/loss record. In every specific game, did the team live up to expectations, meet expectations or perform below expectations.
This is an easy call for the ASU game.
Let’s first start with the aspect of the team that at the least lived up to expectation, and that was UCLA’s defense. It held ASU to 68 yards in the first half, and didn’t allow the Sun Devils to convert one third down (0-8). It was nine out of nine in getting defensive stops in the first half (we’re not counting the field goal as a result of Josh Rosen’s fumble at the UCLA 17). Even when you look at the entire game, with UCLA allowing ASU just 275 total yards, holding them to just 3.8 yards per play, that’s a performance that should have garnered at least a two-touchdown win by UCLA, conservatively.
The UCLA defense absolutely delivered. It did its job. Ten of the points it gave up were the direct result of a UCLA turnover. And then the rest were probably due to the defense being a little fatigued by the second half, which you’d have to concede, holding up their end for two-thirds of the game with little reciprocation on the other side of the ball.
It’s interesting, though. If we were to nitpick, it’d be the same issues that slightly failed the defense in the past. Without Takkarist McKinley, who went down with what appeared to be an exacerbation of his lingering hamstring, the UCLA defense was more vulnerable. It couldn’t get enough pressure on ASU’s shaky quarterback, Brady White, eliciting just one sack on the night, and that increase in comfort level in the pocket was enough to allow White to move the chains in the second half. It goes back years that UCLA hasn’t been able to generate enough pressure consistently in its pass rush.
There are other little defensive issues, too, but again, it’s nitpicking a unit that played up to expectation and, when finding fault for why this team lost, that’s not where it should lie.
On the other side of the ball, however…
The offense vastly under-achieved. You could place blame on just every element of the unit – the scheme, the coaching, the running backs, the quarterback position, offensive line and receivers. I think that just about covers it.
Kennedy Polamalu’s scheme is probably still a good one, but its implementation and playcalling was poor in this game. We can probably safely conclude that UCLA’s rushing attack is bad at this point, and UCLA obviously did, too, so UCLA took to the air, attempting 43 passes to only 31 runs. Josh Rosen threw for 400 yards, but it’s strange to say that, with the game essentially resting in the hands of the UCLA passing game, it still failed. The playcalling wasn’t diverse, using an abundance of conventional drops, which, if you don’t have a running game, is going to allow the defense to tee off on its pass rush – and potentially get your star quarterback hurt. All of that came to fruition. If you’re going to eliminate your running game from your gameplan you’d better scheme your passing attack in a way to keep the pressure off the quarterback as much as possible – moving the launch point, quick throws from short drops, easy swing passes to running backs, but there wasn’t much of that. It especially couldn’t roll out Rosen much after he injured his hip and was immobile. At that point, with Rosen limited and an offense without a running game, it demanded some very creative playcalling to move the ball and keep Rosen safe, but there wasn’t much.
It’s tough to place any blame on Mike Fafaul, the fifth-year former walk-on quarterback, who faltered in trying to replace the injured Rosen. After looking good in fall camp, like he’d be able to fill in serviceably when called on, this game was clearly too big for him. But again, you can’t blame him. UCLA has a hole in its quarterback depth chart as a result of some poor quarterback recruiting over a number of cycles. UCLA plainly should have had more options at back-up quarterback in 2016 than essentially a walk-on and two true freshmen who are redshirting.
This is, though, all just compensating for a shockingly poor rushing attack. UCLA ran for 1 yard in the game. It had 16 rushes for a total of 16 yards. Even if you take out Rosen’s three “runs” for -22, it’s still 13 attempts for 23 yards. Every element of the running game is poor, the actual ball-carrying, the blocking, the scheme and the playcalling. No matter whether UCLA employs a man or zone blocking scheme, whether it runs out of the big formation or a shotgun, it’s anemic. With the totals for the ASU game figured in, the rushing stats for the season are stunning: 99.2 yards averaged per game, and 2.9 yards per carry. That now gets UCLA ranked 121st in the nation (out of 128 teams) in yards per game, and 123rd in yards per attempt. It’s right there in the rankings with the likes of Marshall, Kansas, Miami (Ohio), South Alabama and Texas State. Rutgers, which just got shellacked by Michigan, 78-0, is ranked higher than UCLA in both categories.
If you need to point to something to figure out why UCLA is 3-3, this is it. The fact that UCLA spent its entire off-season building an offense around a new power running game and this is what it produced will be the #1 takeaway factor on why UCLA under-achieved this season.
Second on that list of takeaways on why UCLA has under-achieved this season would be dropped balls. There were a couple of touchdown passes dropped against ASU. They weren’t the easiest catches, but you’d probably say they were still catchable. The heart-breaking drops on the season have been pretty well-chronicled and, as we said at the top of this piece, UCLA is probably three dropped passes away from being 6-0.
So, these are under-achieving reasons #1 and #2 – rushing attack and dropped balls. While some blame should be place on the players for both, most of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the coaches. Let’s not even presume to think we can analyze in detail how the players haven’t been coached up well enough. But the coaching breakdown, mostly, stems from a lack of accurate self-scouting and hubris. UCLA absolutely thought it had a power running game, and predominantly utilized receivers who struggled to catch the ball. We’ll almost concede giving the majority of the playing time to receivers who had problems catching, but conceiving of this running attack and for it to fail at this level is, like we said, the #1 takeaway factor on why the team has under-achieved in 2016.
You have to give some credit to the players who proved to be warriors against ASU. Rosen hobbled for most of the game with what appeared to be a hip injury. In the second half, he gave way to Fafaul but then returned to try to lead UCLA in a comeback for the ages, but he continued to get punished, which resulted in a wrist injury that put him out completely. McKinley has been playing with a not-fully-healed hamstring for the entire season. There was Jaleel Wadood, who had been playing well before leaving the game with an injury. It’s truly a testament to the character of the players that they continued to play at a very high level of “hard” despite not having the best opportunity to succeed at times. There really hasn’t been a moment this season you could name where any players looked like they had given up and weren’t giving complete effort. Jim Mora himself has repeatedly said that the collective character of this team is exceptional.
Right now, it’s a bit overwhelming, when the perspective on the season changes so dramatically and so quickly. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope; you suddenly turned it in the middle of this game to see an entirely different perspective on the season, and it was jarring. Right now, the outlook for the season looks bleak from the new perspective on the schedule and the won/loss projection, particularly given the unknown status of Rosen. But, as we said, gaining a perspective based on won/loss is Fool’s Gold. As many always point out on the BRO Forum, if a few more balls bounce your way, like in this ASU game, UCLA wins and fans aren’t threatening to jump off their roofs. But on the contrary, even if those few balls do bounce your way, and maybe that results in a more favorable won/loss record, it still comes down to the takeaway factors and whether, given the talent, this team -- any team -- is under-achieving.