UCLA needs to make some major changes to its offense for the rest of the season.
UCLA sits at 3-4, and 1-3 in the Pac-12, and is looking to salvage the season with a second-half run for the ages. UCLA could still mathematically win the Pac-12 South, if there was some bizarre-o result the rest of the way in which UCLA won out and USC, Utah, Colorado and ASU all sufficiently got beat up by the rest of the Pac-12. Even if that remote possibility doesn’t happen, winning out, or winning four of the last five, or even just getting bowl eligible is going to be contingent on UCLA doing something dramatic with its offense.
UCLA’s defense has been the constant, consistent aspect of the team that has delivered every week, being one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, giving up just 4.5 yards per play to rank #15 in the country. If UCLA’s offense had been just fairly good, not even good and not even very good or excellent, it’s heart-breaking to think where the Bruins would be right now.
We can also play the what-ifs with the dropped balls by the receivers; if just maybe a handful of dropped balls were caught, UCLA is probably 6-1, at least. (Just an aside: it’s not a testament, really, to UCLA actually being a really good team despite a few fumbled passes; it’s really a testament to how mediocre UCLA’s opponents and the Pac-12 South are this year.) But dropped balls are forced errors. It’s something that, really, you can’t necessarily prevent at the exact moment. The receiver has a certain degree of talent, he’s been coached up to a certain level, and all of that contributes to the level of play you get on the field.
But it’s a different story with UCLA’s running game. It’s less of a performance “error” that can’t be prevented; it’s something that, really, can be far more schemed and game-planned around.
The running game is absolutely the problem. The Bruins’ ground attack is averaging 2.7 yards per rush, which ranks it 123rd in the country.
A compounding problem is, once it was abundantly clear UCLA couldn’t run the ball effectively, it kept doing it, overly so. Let’s concede that it wasn’t absolutely clear after Texas A&M or UNLV, even though there were red flags after those first two games. Some changes were in order, but it still warranted to continue to run the ball at the frequency it was. But the BYU game was probably Defcon 3, when it averaged just 1.5 yards per carry in that game. Some considerably drastic changes should have been instituted in the offense at that point to make up for what clearly was the issue with the offense, but it forged on, status quo. Stanford (2.3) and Arizona (3.9) absolutely brought it to Defcon 2. The nuclear winter set in for the ASU game when UCLA averaged 0 yards per rush and ran for a total of -1 yard.
UCLA did make some changes over the course of those games. It took it a while, but it stopped running as much out of its big formation. It tried to utilize more zone blocking out of a shotgun. It used more motion runs, to help out-man the point of attack. But none of it didn’t work. Against Washington State it averaged 1.7 yards per rush, and still really emphasized the running game in the first half, which sufficiently put UCLA and its second-string quarterback, Mike Fafaul in a hole too big to climb out of. We can understand the rationale: Fafaul struggled against ASU the week before, and he was going into Pullman in poor weather, so you didn’t necessarily want to put too much pressure on him initially against WSU.
But Fafaul had a solid second half, showing he can be effective enough in the passing game to move UCLA’s offense.
Now there really aren’t any excuses or rationale left for why UCLA shouldn’t make some drastic changes to its offense when it faces Utah Saturday. It’s clear UCLA can’t run the ball effectively, and it’s time to drastically change the offense to compensate.
We’re not even advocating that the Bruins should go to throwing the ball 60 times per game. That might not be the panacea. But merely tweaking the running game, thinking that improving different nuances of it is going to make the difference, at this point isn’t enough.
Perhaps it’s essentially scrapping Kennedy Polamalu’s pro-style offense. Perhaps it’s going to a more Noel-Mazzone-like spread, using read options and RPOs (Run-Pass Options), throwing quickly and horizontally to offset a teeing-off pass rush, using more swing passes to the running backs, and using tempo to tire out the defense, etc. Fafaul has been in Mazzone’s scheme for the four years prior to this season and has to be considerably comfortable in it. Perhaps running more out of a real spread – where there are four or five receivers at the line of scrimmage – and against an opposing nickel look is a key part of it. The UCLA coaches this week acknowledged that they didn’t have the type of personnel – the offensive linemen, tight ends, etc. – to run effectively in Polamalu’s big formation and man running scheme. So, perhaps it’s going away from that substantially.
Perhaps it is throwing the ball 50+ times, and getting Fafaul rolled out and out of the pocket, in the same way he looked pretty comfortable last week against WSU.
It’s ironic that UCLA plays Utah this week. We’re pretty much advocating that UCLA go back to Mazzone’s offense, but Mazzone called some strange games against Utah during his time at UCLA. So, really, it’s pretty much advocating to use Mazzone’s basic offensive approach – but one he didn’t use himself against Utah.
It’s Halloween, and maybe it calls for Polamalu to get dressed up as the Ghost of Mazzone to finally get Mazzone’s offense right against Utah.
Utah's defense this year, too, isn't the defense they usually are. They're banged up and just not of the same caliber as recent years. They are equally average in both run and pass defense, so it's the perfect opponent for UCLA to flip a switch on a new-style offense.
Regardless of how they do it, UCLA needs to be bold and drastic. No mere tweaks. What you would call a major tactical sea change. We truly don’t think they’ll continue down the Karl Dorrell-esque conservative path of nose-to-the-grindstone, keep-working-hard-and-it-will-improve mindset. But the question is whether the staff will truly go Bold and Drastic.
What do they have to lose? Attempting something drastic and failing would be far more desirable than going the Dorrellian-like dogma route and eking out a win. Doing something dramatic isn’t desperate or a sign of panic at this point, it’s decisive. It’s probably, too, a great tactical idea, since Utah simply hasn’t spent time this week preparing for a different type of offense from UCLA and would be vulnerable while it’s adjusting.
UCLA’s coaches, in particular Jim Mora, hinted at some changes to the offense this week. He did say that they could just be subtle changes, and the casual observer might not notice beyond that UCLA is merely running the ball a bit better. But we’re hoping that’s a smokescreen, coach-speak to not tip off Utah, and that’s it’s more than just a few tweaks but a sea-change caliber shift.
At this point in the season, with UCLA teetering and seemingly able to fall on either side of the season’s brink, we’re hoping for the Bold and the Drastic.