We completely respect the coaching decision to go to a pass-first offense against Utah. Last week we advocated that UCLA get Bold and Drastic, and you could say that move qualified.
But it might have gone a little too drastic for its own good. It wasn't pass-first, it was really pass-only.
UCLA attempted 76 pass plays against Utah, and just 10 plays were intended as runs. It ran the ball just three times in the second quarter, and one of those was a scramble by quarterback Mike Fafaul. The only run in the third quarter was another Fafaul scramble. The Bruins didn't run once in the third quarter. When Bolu Olorunfunmi took a handoff from Fafaul at 11:51 of the fourth quarter it was the first designed run play of the second half, and the first since about six minutes left in the second quarter. UCLA went 23 straight plays without intending to run the ball.
Once UCLA established it was going to pass every down by the second quarter, Utah adjusted. It sometimes even had just five in the box, and even at times dropped its defensive ends into coverage. You could see the UCLA passing game falter some, too, as a result of Utah's adjustment, with fewer receivers wide open than initially in the game.
So, with this happening, with Utah dedicating fewer defenders to the box, selling out to the pass, and it appearing that there was some running room now opened up, why not attempt to run a little? It appeared that the offensive approach of pass-to-run had worked, and softened up Utah for some runs. Especially with UCLA's defense clearly not being able to staunchly defend against Utah's offense, it made sense to see if you could, then, take some pressure off the defense and eat up some clock with some running plays. But in one of the most head-scratching play-calling instances of the last several years, UCLA stuck to the air. When UCLA finally got around to it, and dabbled in the run game a bit in the fourth quarter, Olorunfunmi gained 5 yards and 6 yards on two runs. But too little, too late. Since the second quarter, there looked to be some yards left on the field in the running game after Utah made its defensive adjustment to go to the zone.
And then what was also curious was that UCLA didn't really attack Utah's passing defense the most efficient way it could. People are calling this an Air Raid offense, but an Air Raid, tactically, isn't just an offense that throws a lot; the offense is based on pre-snap reads to find the hot receiver and a short passing game to exploit it. In fact, once Fafaul looked comfortable in the second quarter, UCLA inexplicably started employing deeper routes -- even after Utah went to a nickel and zone.
And, again, why not now take advantage of the running room you've created from your pass-to-set-up-the-run offense? UCLA set up the run but then never went to it. Heck, the original architect of the Air Raid offense, Mike Leach, has now realized that passing 60+ times in a game just can't work anymore, and he's developed a running game at Washington State, one that takes advantage of the running room the WSU offense creates through the pass.
And these are just low expectations, given what tactically the game was bearing. We're not even asking for more imaginative situational playcalling. The offense, in its application, lacks creativity. Screens, bubble screens, wheel routes, slip routes, pick routes, more roll outs, quarterback-designed runs, legitimate read options in which the quarterback tucks it to keep the defense honest, trick plays, RPOs, etc. So many of these we saw in fall camp haven't made their way into the weekly gameplans.
But let's not even harp on that. In the Utah game, it didn't even demand an A+ level of playcalling creativity. It just needed to exploit what it had created.
UCLA had Utah set up perfectly in terms of strategy. It was one of the boldest tactic/strategies a UCLA coaching staff had adopted mid-season in recent memory. Utah had to compensate, and was reacting to UCLA's tactic, leaving itself vulnerable. But UCLA then amazingly didn't take advantage of the advantage its strategy yielded. It would be like in a boxing match, if one fighter kept going for the body and finally his opponent guarded his body and left his chin undefended, and the fighter kept hitting him in the body. The only explanation was that the strategy to pass so much was just that -- a strategy to pass so much -- and wasn't thought out enough to then exploit what that strategy beared.
Perhaps the running game would have still struggled. It's absolutely something that might have happened. But the situation called for at least a test of the running game. With Utah adjusting to a pass-first defense, UCLA passed 23 straight times and didn't even think once that it might want to test the waters of the run game.