UCLA lost 27-21 to Washington State last night, and the 2016 version of this team is starting to resemble some of those fundamentally crippled teams of the Dorrell and Neuheisel years. The UCLA defense is clearly very good (and possibly elite, according to advanced stats), but the offense is so bad that it is weighing the entire team down like an anchor.
The Bruins are now 3-4, and what that means is that bowl eligibility is suddenly a question, when it hasn't been at any point during the Mora era. UCLA needs to find a way to win three of Utah, at Colorado, Oregon State, USC, and at California, and if you can find three definite wins in that group, you haven't been watching UCLA lately. 5-7 or 6-6 are certainly the most likely results going forward, though obviously there's still a chance at something loftier -- or something much worse.
Saturday's game, like so many this season, was marked by UCLA's complete inability to run the ball, and like so many other games this year, it was also marked by the offensive staff being very slow to recognize the systemic deficiencies of the running game. In the end, UCLA finished with 40 pass attempts to just 25 rushes, but in the first half, UCLA tried to "establish the run" to the detriment of everyone involved. The Bruins ran the ball 17 times and passed just 12 in the first half, and accumulated a total of 16 rushing yards. It was an abject failure, of course, because that's UCLA's running game this season, but the strange part is that the coaching staff, which has been watching the same games as all of us this year, somehow thought they'd be able to run the ball against this team, when they haven't been able to run the ball on anyone this year.
In any case, the ineffective offense in the first half, hamstrung by an inability to run the ball and an inability from the coaching staff to recognize that they cannot run the ball, put UCLA in a 10-point hole entering the second half. Given the way that UCLA's offense played in the second half, when Mike Fafaul was allowed to throw the ball at will and looked pretty effective doing it, it's no stretch to say that a better game plan entering the contest, one that recognized that UCLA, again, cannot run the ball, would have made this a more than winnable game.
Fafaul has to get a ton of credit for the way he played in this one. A week after looking completely out of sorts against a bad ASU defense, he looked much more comfortable and confident against a better Washington State defense. He threw well on the run, but also stood in the pocket and delivered some good throws. We were expecting him to be a weakness in this game, and if anything, he was one of the few bright spots offensively. Obviously, he threw the one arm punt interception in the first half and closed the game with a pick, but frankly, the first interception was pretty clearly a called deep shot that no one should have been calling for Fafaul, and the second interception barely mattered (UCLA wasn't driving 98 yards in 49 seconds with no timeouts, not with this offensive line and receiving corps).
The receiving corps was bad again, and it's inexplicable that Kenny Walker continues to play as much as he does, considering how many balls he has dropped this year, especially when (while we could be wrong) we're pretty sure Theo Howard didn't play a snap on Saturday. Walker didn't make an effort on one sure touchdown (it looked like he thought it'd be broken up and didn't even get his hands up) and also had another drop, in addition to a fumble. Fafaul really hit a rhythm in the second half, and if the Bruins had gotten competent receiver play down the stretch, we might be talking about a Fafaul-led comeback the same way we talked about Jerry Neuheisel's win over Texas two years ago.
Defensively, UCLA really showed up against a very good offense. You can absolutely nitpick and point to the three-man rushes on a few critical third downs, and you can harp on some of the weaknesses in the secondary, where certain guys were picked on in the passing game at times, but ultimately, the stats tell the tale: UCLA held Washington State well below its season averages in basically all categories. This was probably the worst game that the Cougar offense has played this year, and Luke Falk was made to look pretty pedestrian. The defense absolutely created enough chances for UCLA to win the game if it had even gotten an average performance from the running game and the coaching staff.
Tracy and I have joked, and I'm sure many of you have, that UCLA will never be able to put together a good offense and good defense in a single year. This defense, despite lacking some star quality, seems like it's probably the best of the Mora era (2012 and 2013 have arguments, but the secondary is putting this one over the top). The offense, though, is definitively the worst, and it's not even close. This offensive system, seven games into its first season, is pretty clearly a failure (at least for this year) with a design that requires something UCLA doesn't have: a good offensive line. UCLA's offensive line is not just not good -- UCLA's offensive line is not even average. Starting Josh Wariboko-Alali in this one was a nice idea (and we support any sort of moves on the offensive line, since it can't get a whole lot worse) but it had the air of reshuffling deck chairs. UCLA's offensive line is bad, and since this offense requires a good offensive line, the offense itself is bad.
Going forward this season, it's hard to see a significant chance for success. No "if nots" there -- it's simply hard to see this team achieving success this year. About the only chance is for the offense to embrace the idea that it is not going to be able to run the ball this year, and start to game plan accordingly. Obviously, the scheme is not designed for this to be an Air Raid team, but UCLA should look to get as close to an approximation of that type of offense that this offensive scheme and design allows. UCLA, despite its issues at receiver and in pass protection, has shown the ability to be an effective passing team this year, and even with Fafaul at quarterback, that's clearly the way for UCLA to generate effective offense this year.
Will that happen? We'd be stunned. So far this season, we've heard a lot of talk about "fixing" the running game, which is really the wrong conversation, in our eyes. The running game is most likely unfixable this year, with such a poor offensive line and a scheme that seems to telegraph run every time it lines up with double tight ends and a fullback. Sure, UCLA could make massive scheme changes to fix the running game, but with five games left, we really doubt it. No, we imagine some attempts will be made to fix the running game by plugging in a new player here or there, and installing a new play concept or two, but we doubt any fundamental changes will be made midseason.
We're not going to pin a bunch of this on Josh Rosen either. When he comes back, this offense will still have the same issues it showed last night and in the previous six games as well. The rushing attack won't be magically fixed by his presence, so his return, while it should improve the passing game, really won't do much at all to shore up the major weakness of this team that is keeping the 2016 Bruins from being anything close to good.
So, projecting this out to its logical conclusion, UCLA will most likely finish either 5-7 and miss a bowl game (as long as there are enough eligible six-win teams) or 6-6 and barely make one. That's a major step back for this program after taking a small step back last season, and it'll mean that in the Rosen era, UCLA will be either 13-12 or 14-11 (with bowl game pending) through two seasons. We are staring down the barrel of UCLA squandering the Rosen years with poor talent evaluation at receiver, abysmal depth on the offensive line, and a scheme change that has succeeded in giving UCLA its worst offense since Rick Neuheisel was moving the needle in Westwood.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. There's still some hope of salvaging things because, while no one on the remaining schedule is necessarily a patsy (not even Oregon State), there isn't a real world-beater on the schedule either. UCLA's defense, as long as the players don't get discouraged, should be able to keep the Bruins in basically any game this season. But if UCLA doesn't figure out what its identity is on offense this year, the last five games are going to very closely resemble the first seven, and we'll all be having a much less pleasant conversation in December than we've had in the previous four years.