UCLA's season has been full of dreary and tough-to-watch football games, but, while Saturday's game against Oregon State was really no different from a qualitative standpoint, the Bruins finally came out on top again for the first time since the Arizona game in early October.
In the battle of bad run defense vs. bad run offense, UCLA's bad run offense came out on top, with the Bruins rushing for 5.6 yards per carry and well over 100 yards (in the initial BROCast, I said that the rushing offense didn't generate that much, but the live stats weren't updating well). Oregon State fields arguably the worst rush defense in the Pac-12, but we still didn't think UCLA would be able to do what it did on the ground, and that was nice to see.
UCLA certainly seemed to open up its offensive rotations quite a bit more, with Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks seeing a lot more time in the backfield, and Theo Howard getting a significant number of snaps at receiver. Starks and Stephens were both pretty impressive for what they brought to the table. Stephens is very much the slasher we talked about in fall camp, and he had one beautiful long touchdown run negated by a holding penalty. His future seems very bright. Starks, for his part, seemed to generate two and three-yard gains with ease, thanks to his bulk and power, and that will likely prove useful in short yardage situations going forward.
Howard finally got a chance to shine, and he was a significant piece of UCLA's offensive attack, even if his stat line seems a bit pedestrian. He had five catches for 30 yards, but he also drew two penalties against the Oregon State secondary and was generally difficult for the OSU defenders to match up against. Hopefully he continues to see time over the final two games so he can show some real development, but obviously he has a very bright future. He even threw a block!
UCLA seemed to use mostly a spread look, which might give us a vision of what the offense could look like next year. Against Oregon State, it certainly seemed to help the rushing attack to not have a fullback and tight end indicating where the run was going to go on every play, but we'll see how it looks against USC and California to end the year.
Mike Fafaul was OK in this one, with the only major mistake a bad interception in the end zone from the one-yard line. In his defense, that play should not have been called, as it was a slow developing roll out opposite his throwing shoulder, and UCLA had actually shown an ability to run on short yardage with J. Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi already. Even still, Fafaul has to know better than to throw that ball -- luckily, it didn't end up costing UCLA too much.
The defense was generally pretty good, despite the final score for Oregon State. The Beavers were effectively gifted 21 of their points from a opening drive fumble by Sotonye Jamabo that was returned to the goal line, a tricky punt return that set the Beavers up on the 14 yard line, and then a fumble by Jordan Lasley that was returned for a touchdown. So, essentially, Oregon State scored 3 points when the Beavers were given a field to drive, and that's about all you can ask from a defense.
Now, watching the game live, UCLA wasn't quite as dominant defensively as it was last week against Colorado. The secondary wasn't quite as lock down as it has been, with Fabian Moreau having some minor issues against Victor Bolden, and Nathan Meadors also having one noticeable blown coverage where he fell down. On the bright side, Randall Goforth iced the game with a pick-six, and had probably one of his better games of the season, with a couple of critical stops as well.
Takkarist McKinley was once again very impressive. He had six tackles and a sack, along with another tackle for loss, but it felt like so much more because he hit the quarterback so often. Oregon State's tackles aren't great, but McKinley made them look significantly worse than they are. You could make an argument that McKinley was the major reason any of the games were close over the long losing streak -- he's been that important for UCLA this year.
We're encouraged by the youth movement, since it indicates some forward thinking from the staff. Getting Stephens, Starks, and Howard reps can only help UCLA next year, and they rewarded the team by actually contributing significantly to the win as well. While obviously we would have liked to have seen them contribute a bit more to this point, it's still a good thing to see them out on the field. Hopefully that continues.
UCLA, for the most part, stuck with its freshman specialists last night. J.J. Molson was very good on field goals, nailing a 49-yard kick near the end of the first half. Austin Kent had some more struggles punting the ball, with five punts for under 180 yards, but we'd still like to see him get the majority of the reps over the last two games, under the assumption that he will likely be the starting punter next year and needs the reps. Stefan Flintoft had one of the last punts of the game for UCLA, but that might have simply been a situational thing where he's the inside-40 punter. Even then, we'd like to see Kent get as many reps as possible in as many situations as possible.
If you could just throw out the fumble, Lasley was arguably UCLA's best offensive player on Saturday, with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown as well as the punt return off the block for a touchdown. He has big-play ability, and it's exciting to think about what he and Howard might be able to do next season (and somewhat depressing to think about what they might have been able to do this year if they had been afforded more time early).
Our mantra for the last few weeks has been that the season is already over, and that UCLA should play for next year in terms of playing time allocation and scheming. We think that's what UCLA is essentially doing over the last couple of weeks, with more young guys getting reps and more of a movement toward a spread-like system that the Bruins might utilize next season. In theory, UCLA is still in the hunt for a bowl game, but even if you consider the Bruins favorites against California in the final week of the season, given the way the Bears have tanked, it's hard to think of them as anything other than significant underdogs against USC next week. The Trojans looked dominant against No. 4 Washington on Saturday, and their defensive line, which more or less owned the Huskies offensive line, could really cause UCLA some issues. We'll get into that preview next week, but it's hard to see an obvious path to victory for the Bruins.
But that's next week. For now, UCLA can bask in a win. They've been hard to come by this year.
And -- who knows -- crazier things have happened than a bad UCLA team beating a very good USC team.