Takkarist McKinley and Jayon Brown (USA Today)

UCLA Squandering Opportunities -- Against Colorado and More

Oct. 4 -- UCLA and Colorado played an ugly game Thursday night, with the Buffaloes ultimately being a little less ugly and winning 20-10. The Bruin defense was the ultimate bright spot, while UCLA's offense squandered a great opportunity, which is kind of an apt comment for the season and perhaps the program...

Usually before I write the post-game analysis, I re-watch the game at least once. 

But I’m begging your forgiveness in allowing me not to have to watch that again.

UCLA lost to #15 Colorado, 20-10, in what was one of the ugliest and least memorable games in recent memory.

It was pretty much a mess, with both teams combining to commit 5 turnovers and 25 penalties, for 224 penalty yards. 

UCLA’s offense gained a total of 210 yards. So, that’s a good measuring stick of the quality of the game – when the combined penalty yards of both teams is more than the yardage gained by one of them. 

It wasn’t just UCLA committing the ugliness; Colorado was just as homely.   The Buffaloes committed four turnovers and 8 penalties – in the first half – but UCLA could only muster a 10-7 lead at halftime.  It was one of the most undisciplined and sloppy halves witnessed this season – and it was done by Colorado.  But UCLA couldn’t capitalize enough on the opportunity.  

The only relatively pretty thing on the night was the UCLA defense, which played exceptionally.  The unit played well as a whole, with the secondary consistently blanketing Colorado’s receivers, allowing the UCLA pass rush to put pressure on the Colorado quarterbacks.  Combine that with a dominating game by UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who had seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and was so much more than that stat line. He was a constant source of disruption for Colorado’s offense on just about every play, cutting off and stringing out ball carriers and flushing out quarterbacks.  If he had finished a couple of his penetrations he probably would have had 5 or 6 sacks.  In a game that wasn’t memorable, McKinley had one of the most memorable plays when he violently sacked Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau, which dislodged the ball in the air to a waiting Jayon Brown, and then McKinley hustled downfield to make a key block on Brown’s return, The hit on Liufau also took him out for a portion of the game. I don’t know if there’s more one individual can accomplish in one play.  It was reported by Fox that there were upward of 30 NFL scouts in attendance, and McKinley put on a show and literally made a pile of money Thursday night.  

Brown, too, had an exceptional game, finishing with a total of 19 solo and assisted tackles, two tackles for loss, and that fumble recovery.   

The defense as a whole stopped down a Colorado offense that is one of the most prolific in the Pac-12.  The Buffaloes averaged 33.7 points and 474 yards per game coming into this one, but UCLA held them to 20 points and 304 yards.  

It also forced those four turnovers. 

In other words, it was by far a performance good enough to earn a win in Boulder.

But UCLA’s offense, conversely, was on the other side of the spectrum in terms of quality.  

UCLA, of course, is working at a deficit with its former walk-on quarterback, Mike Fafaul, replacing the out-for-the-season Josh Rosen (Fafaul said in his post-game interview that Rosen will have surgery on his shoulder).  Fafaul is clearly a warrior and doing everything he can to make the UCLA offense succeed. It’s clear, too, that if UCLA had had a healthy Rosen in this game it almost certainly would have been a different story.

But that’s no excuse.  This is not on Fafaul’s shoulders. The offensive scheme failed again this week to put the players it does have in a position to succeed. 

With the bye week, UCLA had a week and a half to prepare an effective offensive gameplan.  With UCLA coming into this game 3-5 and without much to lose on the season, it was an opportunity for the UCLA offense to institute some changes in its offense.  It was perfect timing, coming off a game in which Fafaul threw 70 times against Utah; you had the Colorado defense just about where you wanted it, not knowing what to expect from an offense that had attempted that, and one with its back up against the wall.  

But UCLA’s offense reverted back to essentially what it was at the beginning of the season, a mix of the pass and some poor runs, with maybe some slight tweaks. When it tried to run, it didn’t do it much from a true spread, which it seemed over the season is just about the only chance it has had to gain yardage on the ground.  Fafaul has shown a penchant for throwing well when he’s out of the pocket, and to be accurate in a short, precise passing game. But UCLA went very conservative with Fafaul setting up in standard drops most of the night and then many times throwing downfield, which is exactly what he isn’t good at doing.  

If there was a takeaway from the Utah game, it was that UCLA’s offense got in a bit of a rhythm when it went to its tempo spread offense, mimicking Noel Mazzone’s from last season.  Even in this game, Fafaul was successful when he looked under 10 yards and got the ball out fast. He was especially good when moving out of the pocket, throwing for UCLA’s lone touchdown when he stepped away and extended the play to find Darren Andrews free along the sideline.  But UCLA’s offensive gameplan had very little in the way of a short, quick passing game and Fafaul rolling out. 

The running game, too, has shown its most promise when it’s running out of the shotgun, with the defense spread out in a nickel, and less bodies in the box, and out of the no-huddle, tempo offense. 

The featured running back this week was Sotonye Jamabo and he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.  We’ve come to the conclusion, after enough evidence, that Jamabo is either not a running back, or just not an elite caliber one. Yes, he’s not getting enough room created by the offensive line, granted, but he doesn’t take advantage of the room he’s given, and almost never makes something out of nothing.  For 6-3 and 215 pounds he’s not a physical running back. He doesn’t physically pound away at a defense and break tackles, but is a finesse player, bouncing and sliding along the line instead of just committing to a semi-hole, putting his foot in the ground and getting upfield.  The lack of explosion is what hurts him the most; if you’re going to be a finesse player, one that’s even that big physically, you better explode through those semi-holes and at least get three yards before you’re hit once and go down.   He dropped a pass, ran out of bounds when UCLA was trying to run the clock at the end of the half, and also whiffed on a block that led to Fafaul being sacked on a critical third down.  

Mike Fafaul (USA Today)

And again, given the state of the UCLA offense, even with the worst running game in the country, an ineffective featured running back and a back-up quarterback, there was – amazingly – still an offensive opportunity in this game that was squandered.  As stated above, you had set up Colorado because of the Utah game; you had the Colorado defensive staff truly guessing what UCLA would do offensively this week. Again, you had really nothing to lose.  It was a great opportunity to really get unconventional and attempt some dynamic stuff. But UCLA offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu seemed to get more conservative and conventional. The way to overcome your personnel deficits would have been with an imaginative gameplan, to keep Colorado on their heels and guessing throughout the night.  But the playcalling was so conservative and conventional it almost felt like that was the surprise – that UCLA wasn’t going to attempt anything different.  How about on some third-and-longs, with your back-up quarterback, don’t subject him to a blitz with a conventional drop?  

I think most UCLA watchers would forgive the offense failing in this instance, given its personnel status, if Polamalu had attempted some out-of-the-box, unconventional wrinkles. Heck, just a couple of trick plays might have sufficed.  But it appeared the gameplan for Colorado was, inexplicably, the most conservative of the season.  

Even without any creativity, perhaps I’m delusional, but it still seems, if UCLA went to a pure up-tempo spread that featured a quick, short passing game and a running back that would put his foot in the ground and get upfield with some explosion, the offense would be adequate – adequate enough to win when the defense turns in a performance like it did against Colorado. 

UCLA’s special teams haven’t had a good season, and this wasn’t a good game for them.  Three field goals were missed, two by J.J. Molson (one was blocked) and one by Andrew Strauch (Molson did make his long for the season, a nice 48-yarder).  The freshman scholarship punter, Austin Kent, has faltered some this season, and walk-on Adam Searl had stepped in the last few weeks and done solidly.  He has gone to a rugby style, which had been effective. Early in the game, Searl really made a great play when he caught a bad snap that was going over his head and quickly rugby-kicked it for 50 yards.  But rugby-style punts have little hangtime and have to be placed well and covered well, and it seemed like there was a mix-up in where Searl was supposed to place some of his punts later in the game.  It led to the back-breaking 68-yard punt return by Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver with about 5 minutes remaining to put up the Buffaloes 20-10. 

The Colorado loss was UCLA’s fourth in a row on the season. UCLA hasn’t lost four in a row since 2009, in Rick Neueheisel’s second year (when it lost five in a row), but that year the Bruins still finished with a winning record, 7-6 (which was Neuheisel’s best season, by the way).  So, UCLA fans are understandably irate, and vastly disappointed with the 3-6 season, especially when expectations were so high, with many pre-season prognostications picking UCLA to, at the least, win the Pac-12 South. 

So, immediately after the game I was asked on the BRO Premium Football Forum for my take, and it was clear that the natives wanted someone to lead them with pitchforks and torches.  

We don’t usually discuss any kind of coaching changes during the season, in either football or basketball (there was an exception, however, with Steve Lavin, we’ll admit, but we learned our lesson).  It’s just not appropriate, and mostly premature, because you don’t have all of the information to work with that you’d get from a full season. As I’ve said, the opinion of athletic departments and big-monied donors is based quite a bit on what type of note the season ends on.  If UCLA, say, puts it together for its remaining games, and beats Oregon State, USC and Cal, that would greatly impact the collective mindset of the decision-makers at the end of the season.  But if, more realistically, UCLA goes 1-2 (or 0-3) and there’s this kind of ugliness element to those losses, particularly against USC and the season-ending game against Cal, then it’s safe to say that we anticipate changes will be made to the coaching staff.  

There are a couple of thoughts, though, I'd like to end this piece with, to provide you with what is probably the proper overarching perspective of it all. 

While people were foraging through their garage for their pitchforks and lighting their torches last night after the game, this was one comment that was posted on the BRO Premium Football Forum. It comes from longtime BRO subscriber, House of Bruins: “This is a game, played by kids, for entertainment. Nothing of consequence has happened here. Life will move on.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Then let this also sink in to properly complement that perspective: UCLA has made some strides in the Jim Mora era to potentially make it competitive at the highest level of college football. It’s now time for UCLA to have high-quality, innovative coaching and schemes that are as good as any in the game.  There's an opportunity here for the program to move to the next level, and UCLA now needs to do what it takes to make that happen. 


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