Joe Williams v. UCLA's D (USA Today)

Why Did UCLA's Rush Defense Collapse v. Utah?

Oct. 24 -- It's the bye week of the season, so we have time to break down specific issues that we've seen last week or throughout the season. The most dire, pressing one from last week: What made UCLA's staunch rushing defense disappear against Utah?

Is it a coincidence that UCLA reverted to last year's spread-type style of offense, and then reverted to its sieve-like rushing defense from last season?

There are some elements of the spread offense that contributed to the defensive lapse, but it was mostly a combination of a few factors.

Yes, the offense going up-tempo and getting off the field quickly, along with so many turnovers that also put the defense back on the field, had to contribute.  It was the most-lopsided time of possession of any game this season, with UCLA having the ball for 23:49 and Utah 36:11.   It was a hot day and the defense spent 36 minutes on the field.  Linebacker Jayon Brown, who is a warrior, wasn't in the game for a good number of plays, most likely from fatigue. 

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We have to admit, too, the long-held notion from fans that UCLA's bench being on the sunny side of the Rose Bowl field while its opponents relax in shade on the west sideline, has to be a factor. Any coach will deny it, but it's come to the point it has to be addressed.  One team needs to deal with the direct sun and extreme heat -- why should it be the home-field Bruins?  Not using it to UCLA's advantage would be like telling the fans to be quiet when the opponent has a fourth-and-one. 

It wasn't just about the defense getting tired Saturday; it's also about the rhythm of the game.  It takes a different kind of mindset to go back on the field soon after you just came off.  Defenses are used to re-charging their brains as well as their bodies, as well as having more time to get coaching on the sideline. 

Along those same lines, it didn't give the UCLA defensive staff time to adjust to what Utah was doing. The Utes basically ran the same play for about 70% of its rushing yards.  It appeared to be an unscouted look, that UCLA didn't have on tape to scout.  They used a different little tweak to their blocking, and caught Eddie VanderdoesBoss Tagaloa or Eli Ankou inside a couple of times, badly exploited UCLA's linebackers' inability to make the right decision in filling gaps,  and Utah running back Joe Williams was good and fast enough to take advantage.  To Utah's credit, they executed it perfectly.  UCLA, for whatever reason, whether it was coming too fast and furious for them since UCLA's offense was getting off the field so quickly, didn't counter.  Or tried, and failed.  It was purely an instance where Utah's offensive coaches out-coached UCLA's DC, Tom Bradley.    Utah clearly recognized a weakness in UCLA's rushing defense and it worked.  

Kenny Young (Photo: Steve Cheng)

This season UCLA had improved its rushing defense for a number of reasons, and one was that it used a Cover 1 more often, which utilizes a conventional 4-3 front against the run. It really helped UCLA's linebackers, because it limited the gaps they had to fill -- and took away a decision on which gap to fill.  I wish I could point to UCLA getting burned by Utah's running game because it went away from the Cover 1, but that really wasn't the case. UCLA was in a Cover 1 for a number of those big Williams runs, it was just a matter of UCLA's gap integrity being atrocious, and mostly due to some really erratic linebacker play.  Linebacker Kenny Young, who had been playing exceptionally well the last five games or so, had a really poor game, making many poor decisions, and Jayon Brown was not his usual focused self. 

The other personnel decision to go with Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood for the majority of the PT at safety definitely had an effect.  Both were pretty erratic, also, in their rush defense.  In pass defense, too, they weren't stellar, with Utah exploiting seams and slants. Without the trepidation of a Tahaan Goodman or Adarius Pickett  possibly laying a lethal hit on you, the Utah receivers ran through the middle of UCLA's secondary with impunity.  Pickettt might be UCLA's best defensive back right now, right there with Fabian Moreau, and he absolutely has to be on the field for the majority of the snaps. 

It really was a matter of a number of factors coming together -- fatigue (both physical and mental) from having to be on the field so much, Utah executing an unscouted look superbly, Williams being very good, poor personnel play against the run,  particularly with the linebackers and safeties, and UCLA getting outcoached -- and there you go.  

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