Well, at least they tried something different!
The end result was the same, of course, another loss to bring the team's record to 3-5, but the manner in which the Bruins lost was different, at least. Scrapping the pro-style scheme that had led them to a pretty excruciating 3-4 record through the first seven games, the Bruins unveiled an up-tempo spread attack that looked more like an Air Raid than anything against Utah on Saturday -- and for long stretches, the offense actually looked good!
The run defense, for a switch, was godawful though, and that allowed what had been a pedestrian Utes offense to put up well over 7 yards per play, well over 7 yards per rush attempt, and 52 total points. This was probably the first time all season where UCLA's defensive line just looked outmanned at the point of attack, which hurt, and then UCLA's linebacker play, which had been very good through the last five games, really suffered, likely due in part to the struggle up front.
Going to the up-tempo spread, and electing to throw the ball 70 times with a backup quarterback in Mike Fafaul, might seem a little crazy on the surface, since it's such a departure from what UCLA intended to do offensively to start the year, but we actually thought the entire offensive game plan was completely defensible. It's something we've advocated for the last few weeks, since it is so obvious that no matter what UCLA does, they're not going to be able to run the ball this year. Given what UCLA had to work with, this decision made the most sense, at least to us.
Now, of course, being in the position where you have to switch your whole offensive scheme to an Air Raid on the fly, and then being forced to have a former walk-on backup quarterback run it, is another story altogether. Fafaul threw four picks in and fumbled the ball away once, and we came away thinking that was about as good as you could have expected -- which isn't great. In the fifth year under a particular head coach, you should have defined schemes on both sides of the ball, with the players to run them, and you should have a quarterback depth chart that's more than one guy deep of dudes who aren't going to turn the ball over five times in a game.
The crazy thing about Fafaul's performance, though, was that if the defense had played even half as well as it had in the previous five weeks, it probably would have been enough for the Bruins to win the game. UCLA generated big chunk plays, and for as many bad throws as Fafaul had, he also had a handful of really good ones. He actually had a pretty typical Air Raid-y day, with almost 500 yards passing and five touchdowns to go along with his turnovers. Up until a late surge from Bolu Olorunfunmi, Fafaul was also UCLA's leading rusher.
The defense played really poorly, though, and combined with a lackluster special teams effort, even the dramatic scheme shift on offense wasn't enough to ensure victory. Defensively, UCLA did a couple of things well -- basically anything Takkarist McKinley is responsible for, UCLA did well -- but the interior of the defensive line really didn't hold up against Utah, and Kenny Young really seemed to revert to some of his early season (and last year) issues in the run game. UCLA's secondary also took some poor angles at Joe Williams, who probably would have run past anyone anyway. It was a complete breakdown of UCLA's run defense, with much of it starting up front and at middle linebacker.
McKinley needs to be called out as a major positive though. Without him, Utah could have made this a Utah vs. Oregon 2015-esque bloodletting, but McKinley single-handedly shut down some Utah drives. He had three sacks, but probably hit the quarterback another five times, and also just lived in the backfield. He was about the only good part of UCLA's run defense, and it didn't look like Utah got much of anything going against him. Even counting Williams' incredible performance, McKinley was the best player on the field for either team.
Special teams were also bad. Opening the game with a kickoff return for a touchdown and then closing the game (basically) with a kickoff that sailed out of bounds was a nice bookend, if nothing else. UCLA changed things up in the kicking game in a major way, with Andrew Strauch taking all of the extra points and field goals and Stefan Flintoft and Adam Searl taking all of the punts. The only really good return UCLA had was Adarius Pickett's, as Ishmael Adams once again seemed to struggle to find anything in the return game.
It'll be interesting to see what UCLA takes away from this game. From our perspective, getting Josh Rosen back is pretty critical. While Fafaul has been better than I expected, actually, Rosen probably wouldn't have made as many mistakes, and probably would have connected on a couple of throws that Fafaul missed. If you throw Rosen into this version of the offense, where he'd be called upon to throw the ball 70 times per game, we think there's a decent chance that could be an effective offense.
That's if UCLA sticks with it. Given the way the defense played, we could absolutely see the staff seize on the offensive tempo as the reason for the defense's struggles and revert to more of a "balanced" attack to take up more clock. With nearly two weeks before the next game, on the road at Colorado, the Bruins certainly have time to install a little bit more, or scrap what they're doing and start over with something new, or go back to what they ran at the beginning of the year.
You might say that none of that matters, and you certainly have a valid point. This season is already basically a failure. Even if UCLA won out, which seems so unlikely as to be actually laughable, the Bruins would still be shut out of the Pac-12 South (we haven't done the actual math, but that feels right). Right now, bowl eligibility is probably the major goal, and even that seems like a stretch, with the Bruins having to win at least two of Colorado, USC, and California, in addition to the supposed gimme at home against Oregon State. 5-7 seems like probably the most likely result, with 4-8 nipping closely at its heels.
We tend to think that the offensive changes, whatever they end up being, do matter, though. If UCLA has any hope of having a good season next year, the Bruins need to start figuring out what they want to be offensively very quickly. The equation doesn't change a whole lot next year, with the offensive line maybe even a little worse with the loss of Conor McDermott, and projecting the recruiting class out, it doesn't look like there are many immediate impact guys coming in. Whatever UCLA wants to be offensively next year, the Bruins had better start figuring it out now while they can do some live tests.
Maybe it's an Air Raid? UCLA has some receiver talent, even if it is curiously used, and Rosen can absolutely sling the ball around. The offensive line doesn't run block well, but it pass blocks fairly well, especially if the quarterback gets the ball out quickly, as is the case in a typical Air Raid. So, maybe that would be the option for next year. Of course, it's a major worrying sign that we're having to figure out how all of these mismatched pieces might fit best into a speculative offensive scheme in year six.
In any case, UCLA is poised for a pretty bleak finish to the year, and this will certainly be the worst year UCLA has had since probably Rick Neuheisel's third year, and it'll represent another step back from the heights of 2012 through 2014, after already taking a step back last year. Figuring out how to reverse this decline has to be the mission over the next four games, so that the Bruins have a better answer, and a better plan, to start the 2017 campaign.