However you want to assign blame for the loss to Washington State on Saturday, there's little to justify pinning it on quarterback play, and that's a major credit to Mike Fafaul, who bounced back in a big way from his tough stint against ASU to give UCLA a credible chance against the Cougars on Saturday. He did have the one arm punt interception in the first half and also closed the game with a pick, but between those two throws he actually led a pretty impressive second-half comeback on the strength of his right arm. What was most impressive was his ability to throw on the move. Rolling both right and left, he looked poised and confident delivering the ball, and clearly had a connection with Darren Andrews. As with Josh Rosen, Fafaul was hurt by drops and poor receiver play, with Kenny Walker dropping two balls and both Walker and Jordan Lasley fumbling. Given what we saw against ASU, this was about as good of a performance as anyone could have reasonably hoped for from Fafaul, and he did more than enough for UCLA to win the game if the offense hadn't been a complete disaster outside of him.
Running Backs: D
Obviously, the UCLA running backs aren't getting much help from the offensive line, but that doesn't excuse running efforts that are this awful. In two straight games, the Bruins have averaged fewer than two yards per carry, which is absurd given the talent in the running back corps. Both Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi had plays where they made something out of nothing, but by and large, the running backs really struggled to find any room to run at all. Nate Starks was extremely ineffective, with 10 carries for just seven yards, and he started to look a little gun-shy after a few snaps of being met in the backfield by Washington State defenders. Olorunfunmi had a couple of decent stretches where he was able to push the pile and make some things happen, reinforcing our initial belief that he might be the best back for this very bad offensive line, and Jamabo did well in his two carries. Overall, though, it was just a wildly ineffective night running the ball, and the backs themselves have to get some of the blame for that.
Offensive Line: D-
There were at least a half dozen times where UCLA lined up to run and before the running back even had the ball, there were two or three Washington State defenders in the backfield waiting for them. The blocking was so bad at times that it looked as if the offensive line was blocking for a screen pass when it was just a simple run. UCLA tried something new in this one, with Josh Wariboko-Alali starting the game at left guard in place of Kenny Lacy, but before too long had passed, Lacy was in. Wariboko was not effective when he was in, but that wasn't a unique quality for him, as, once again, the interior of the offensive line was very bad all game. At this point, that should be an acknowledged truth, and UCLA should be scheming around it to whatever extent possible, but instead, the issues were underscored by a game plan that called for UCLA to run extensively between the tackles in the first half. Conor McDermott, to his credit, continues to play well at left tackle, but he isn't getting much help. Andre James has been another relative bright spot, and the two combined to give Fafaul enough help that he was able to sit in the pocket and deliver throws for the most part. The complete inability to run the ball, though, has to fall on the offensive line to a great extent.
Wide Receivers: C-
Someday, UCLA will once again have a receiving rotation that makes sense to us, but that day was not Saturday. Theo Howard might have played a snap or two, or he might not have. Jordan Lasley, who was a big part of the comeback in the second half, was basically absent in the first half. Instead, Walker, who dropped two touchdown passes against Arizona State, once again got the bulk of the reps, and he once again had a couple of drops and a fumble. That Walker continues to play to the extent he does is so strange to see, and speaks to perhaps the coaching staff having a completely different set of priorities for playing time than would make sense to laymen. Now, you have to give some credit to Andrews, who played really well and helped to get Fafaul in-rhythm and comfortable early. Lasley also looked good until the fumble, which was basically the nail in the coffin. We'd like to see Howard get a lot more playing time going forward, but at this point, we're seven games into his freshman season and we'd be stunned if he's played more than 30 snaps -- he might as well have redshirted.
Offensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: D-
The reason this is a D- and not an F: we liked a few of the things they did with Fafaul to get him on the move and away from pressure with the rollouts, and we liked the couple of times they split the running backs out wide for some easy gains. Other than that, this was the worst game of the season for the offensive staff. Despite not being effective running the ball in really any game this year, the Bruins came into this game, clearly, with the mindset that they'd be able to run the ball and dictate the pace and tempo of the game. That's the only explanation for them electing to run the ball 17 times in 29 offensive snaps in the first half, and it's completely inexplicable that they thought they'd be able to do it. Again, they haven't been effective running the ball -- really at all -- this season, so that was a completely unjustifiable decision. In a typical game where you're starting a backup quarterback, yes, you'd like to be able to run the ball, but trying to do it in the 7th game of a season where you haven't been able to do it all year speaks to a complete lack of the evidence at hand. UCLA needed to come into this game with the mentality that Fafaul was going to have to throw the ball all game, maybe 50+ times, since throwing has been the one effective thing UCLA can do on a consistent basis this year. Yes, that's a weird thing to have to do with a backup quarterback, but it's what the strengths and weaknesses of this team dictate.
Not getting a play off after Lasley's fumble was an issue, particularly given that Jim Mora said afterward that they practice that very situation every week. We can imagine that was probably a communication issue, since it didn't look like everyone was on the same page in terms of hurrying to the line to get the play off.
Defensive Line: B+
Overall, this was a really sound performance from the defensive line, which did a mostly nice job against Washington State's running game (which was no joke this year coming in), holding the Cougars to just 2.7 yards per carry. They also did a nice job getting pressure, for the most part, with Takkarist McKinley and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner both recording sacks. Eddie Vanderdoes wasn't quite the force on the interior that he had been through the first six games of the year, and it looked like he struggled a bit more getting push. Matt Dickerson really showed up, for maybe the first time this year, and he actually looked much more mobile than he did at the beginning of the season.
Jayon Brown played his butt off, and was rewarded with a semi-dirty hit from a Washington State player that sent him to the sideline. He was used a blitzer a couple of times, and had one sack, but he was everywhere in run defense as well. Kenny Young continued his 2016 victory tour with another very solid game against the Cougars. This wasn't even a perfect fit of a game for him, since Washington State throws the ball so much, but he did a very good job pursuing. For the most part, those were the two linebackers who played extensively -- UCLA spent basically the entire game in nickel, so that didn't leave much playing time for anyone else.
Defensive Backs: B
Not having Nathan Meadors again for certainly hurt. His absence bumped Octavius Spencer up a rung, and there were stretches in this game where Washington State was able to attack Spencer in coverage quite a bit. Randall Goforth also struggled at times, particularly in tackling. Marcus Rios looked like he had a couple of issues on the first series, but settled down after that and played pretty well. Fabian Moreau was called for pass interference, but besides that he did a relatively nice job of locking down his side of the field. You cannot expect perfect play from a secondary going against a team that passes as much as Washington State -- there are just simply too many opportunities, and eventually something is going to break down. UCLA did about the best job against Washington State's passing game that can be expected and, again, it would have been enough to win the game if the Bruins had come into this with an offensive game plan that made sense given what we've seen this year.
Defensive Scheme, Play Calling, and Game Plan: B
Overall, it was a pretty well-called game for UCLA and a pretty good game plan against a suddenly dynamic Washington State offense. The Cougars came into the game with a better rushing offense than either UCLA or Stanford, which would have been a stunning statement to our August selves. Given that, the Bruins didn't go too dime-heavy, and instead elected to play nickel against even Washington State's consistent four-wide sets, which was nice to see. In the past, it seemed like in these situations, UCLA would go super conservative and just try to out-cover the opponent, but that wasn't really how we'd characterize the game plan here. UCLA even blitzed in spots, which is barely advisable against this offense since they get the ball out so quickly. Finally, it seems that, by and large, UCLA is trusting its secondary to win in man coverage.
It wasn't a perfect game, of course. There were moments where the old three-man rush cost the Bruins, but the Cougars were just 6 of 17 on third down (albeit four of five on fourth down). Given the offensive game plan, UCLA needed a perfect game from its defense to win, and this wasn't quite perfect, so there is that.
Special Teams: D+
Austin Kent had a really rough day punting the ball. He hasn't been excellent this year, but the windy conditions in Pullman clearly messed with him. He averaged just 27 yards per punt, which included a punt that basically traveled back in time. He got chewed out badly by Jim Mora on the sideline after the -1 yard punt, which we get to an extent, but it wasn't a good look on national television. J.J. Molson didn't attempt a field goal and, strangely, only took two of UCLA's three point-after kicks, with Andrew Strauch kicking the other. The kick return game was once again pretty weak. Ishmael Adams had one nice kickoff return to about the 35-yard line, but didn't do much besides that. Randall Goforth nearly fumbled a punt return away, but managed to recover. Kick return coverage was spotty, with Washington State returning two kickoffs for 70 total yards. Strangely, UCLA didn't choose to go full punt-block at the end, instead allowing Washington State to pin the Bruins down at the two-yard line.
Speaking of weird kicking decisions, on UCLA's final kickoff, Washington State lined up to protect against an onside kick, which gave the Bruins the opportunity to pooch the ball and try to get under it, or at the very least create a weird scrum for the ball. The Bruins instead boomed the ball deep for a touchback, which speaks to some essential conservatism that this staff just doesn't seem to be able to shake.