We have many things to be thankful for this week -- friends, family, food -- but the main thing we should all be thankful for is the merciful end of the 2016 UCLA football season. UCLA lost 36-10 to California (yes, Cal!) on Saturday, which capped UCLA's 4-8 season and kept the Bruins at arm's length from any potential bowl game.
UCLA lost by 26 points to a 5-7 Cal team. The Bruins scored just 10 points against what was arguably the worst defense in the country, and was almost certainly the worst defense in the Pac-12 coming into the game. UCLA was shut out in the first half, and, in all phases of the game, were outworked, outplayed, and out coached by a Bears team that simply cared more about the outcome of the game than UCLA did.
There isn't really anything to glean from the game itself. Every phase of UCLA's football team played worse than it had at pretty much any other point throughout the season. As has usually been the case under Jim Mora, the team looked emotionally spent after the USC game. The only thing that kept UCLA in the game into the third quarter was Cal's inability to punch the ball in the red zone. The Bears settled for four field goals, two of them from within ten yards of the goal line, in the first half.
Cal ran 102 plays to UCLA's 54, which speaks to both UCLA's ineptitude on offense and UCLA's inability to get Cal off the field on defense. The Bruins were truly dreadful offensively. Again, this was against the worst defense in the Pac-12, but UCLA managed just 260 total yards for an average of under five yards per play. Mike Fafaul, who'd been OK at times this year, had his worst, most inaccurate game against the Bears, but he wasn't helped by an offensive line that didn't pass block well, a running game that averaged just 3.5 yards per carry against the worst rush defense in the Pac-12, and a receiving corps that dropped balls.
So, UCLA finishes the season 4-8, with two straight blowouts to end the season. USC was semi-justifiable, as the Trojans have the best talent in the Pac-12 and are peaking right now, but the Cal loss was impossible to justify. The game felt very similar to many late December Bay Area bowl games over the years, with UCLA looking and feeling like a team that was just playing and coaching out the string. At some point, UCLA will have to start to show the emotional maturity to be ready to perform in games the week after the USC game, since that is going to continue to happen every other year.
The Bruins had some opportunities in this one, mostly created by the defense. Randall Goforth dropped two interceptions and Adarius Pickett dropped a sure pick-six late, and if all of those get caught, perhaps UCLA would have been sparked somewhat. Then again, perhaps not. UCLA was so unable to do anything offensively that unless each of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, UCLA probably still would have lost the game.
The offseason begins now, and it'll certainly be an interesting one. The situation is similar to, if significantly more extreme than, the situation that faced UCLA after last year's disappointing 8-5 season (how quaint that seems now). As we've talked about, we've heard that Mora will almost certainly be back next year, so the next step is figuring out what needs to change under him to have a credible team next year.
The Bruins will have to come up with some major answers on the offensive side of the football. Switching to Kennedy Polamalu's offense this offseason was a disastrous mistake, and it was a disaster even prior to Josh Rosen's injury. The inability to run the ball between the tackles as part of an offense built around the concept of running between the tackles was crippling from the jump. In review, the offensive scheme change was more a product of wishful thinking on the part of the coaching staff than any reasonable assessment of the personnel within the program.
And now UCLA no longer has time for wishful thinking. Hopefully Mora is going to do the conscious and intensive internal review that he intimated he would do last night, because there is much to be done. UCLA evaluated its personnel very poorly in the offseason and during the season, and built an offensive scheme around players, especially on the interior of the offensive line, that it didn't have. This -- changing entire schemes four years into a coaching tenure -- is a failure of identity. When you look at what Chip Kelly did at Oregon, or Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford, or any number of other programs with real, established identities, they didn't try to reinvent their offenses in year 5. From the beginning, they built the offensive and defensive schemes that they wanted to run, and stuck with that. At the beginning of a coaching tenure, you have the luxury of spending years installing and recruiting to the scheme you want to run; midway through a coaching tenure, you no longer have the luxury.
UCLA still has the players that were recruited to run Noel Mazzone's spread offense, and those types of players and linemen would fit most any type of spread, tempo offense. So, returning to some form of that offensive scheme would be the obvious thing to do to get UCLA's offense back to something that's, at minimum, watchable. Continuing to run a pro-style, or power-style, or whatever you want to call the offense UCLA tried to run this year would probably lead to much the same issues next year, since UCLA isn't going to land a great class of offensive linemen, and what's in the program is not capable of running that sort of scheme.
Obviously, there's a valid question now whether this is all salvageable. UCLA has now declined in performance in two consecutive seasons, and while we don't think talent is a problem, it's fair to say that UCLA's talent is not on the upswing. Where at the beginning of Mora's tenure, we talked about how the staff was doing such a good job of assessing the talent within the program and fitting players to particular positions to take advantage of their strengths (Anthony Barr to linebacker, Datone Jones to 3-4 end, Xavier Su'a-Filo to guard from tackle), that sort of internal assessment of talent has become a weakness as the staff has recruited more and more of their own players. It's probably completely reasonable for a staff to be very objective about players they didn't recruit, but less so about players they did recruit, and that has played out over the last two years especially.
There's also the issue of staff changes, and while we don't want to get into specifics of who might be gone and who might stay, it's hard to fathom sticking with the status quo. UCLA has absolutely made some mistakes in hiring over the last few years, and absolutely needs to nail the next big hires it makes -- and we would very much prioritize college assistant coaches over NFL ones.
But all of this will require a level of introspection that few football coaches show mid-tenure. The conservative nature of most football coaches lends itself to sticking with their processes, and not overly rocking their own boats. For the most part, coaches tend to think tactically rather than strategically. So, while fans outside might see a 4-8 season as a sign that drastic changes need to be made from the top down, many coaches might see it in a different light, where they just need to teach the players to block, tackle, kick, and throw better, as if a block here, a tackle there, and a made kick here would have made all the difference.
Obviously, we don't hold to that line of reasoning. In our estimation, strategic changes need to be made, especially on the offensive end, and as we wrote about in our USC review, doing some kind of audit of the talent, scheme, and coaching by a relatively unbiased third party would probably be worthwhile as well. Is that a thing that happens in college football? Maybe not, but this staff has shown poor judgment in personnel and scheme choices, and could use an extra set of eyes.
We'll see over the coming weeks and months exactly how serious UCLA is about improving next year, and what kind of steps they staff is taking to improve upon what was a wildly disappointing 2016 season. For once, UCLA does not have a bad bowl game to play in, which should give the staff plenty of time for reflection and improvement.