Illinois Review

It wasn't pretty, but UCLA will take the win over Illinois, 6-3, Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The defense was stellar, but where do you begin with the offense? It appears pretty clearly that the outlook for the season depends on the offense finding a way to "click"...

Since UCLA and Illinois seem to have a penchant for 6-3 thrillers (UCLA's victory over Illinois in the 1991 Hancock Bowl was also a UCLA 6-3 victory), then UCLA and Illinois need to agree to stop scheduling each other, and cancel the scheduled meeting next year.

Fans should not have to watch four quarters without seeing a touchdown.

But then again, fans at the Rose Bowl did see some touchdowns, it was just the little, minor detail of UCLA receivers holding on to the pass to complete the play and the touchdown.

At a minimum, the score should have been 20-6.

But then again, you could add up the boneheaded Illinois mistakes and flubs, including some pretty significant dropped passes of their own.

Really, there were so many flubs on both sides it's really impossible to determine what the score might have been.

But it was evident that these weren't two very good teams playing on Saturday. For UCLA, though, it has a chance to be a good team, with some very good talent and a very good defense. But its offense is problematic at this point.

Actually, though, the game gave you a sense that there is hope for UCLA's offense. There is hope for a few reasons: 1) The offense actually executed better Saturday, despite all the drops, 2) The running game looks far more effective with Manuel White at tailback (also with Pat Norton running interference for him at fullback to complete the 500-lb. backfield), and 3) the offense has too much talent. If the coaches can devise plays, devise a game plan and call the plays that will exploit the playmakers on the team, UCLA's offense has a chance.

But the defense has to get first mention here, holding a pretty good Illinois offense to 3 points and 283 total yards, an offense that had been averaging over 30 points a game for the last several years and 460 a game so far this season.

UCLA's defense is doing many things well, and it has stifled both the Colorado and Illinois offenses. Neither could run the ball against UCLA, and neither could throw the ball with any significantly consistent success. What's really key is how it seems the opposing team's brain trust has drawn up an offensive game plan against UCLA that almost completely removes throwing the ball down the field against UCLA's defensive backs. They seem to know that they don't want to be throwing the ball into the teeth of Matt Ware, Ben Emanuel and Jarrad Page and would rather throw underneath and try to take what those three will give them in a short passing game.

The defensive line again had a solid game, stuffing Illinois' running game, keeping them to 67 yards on the ground. That's an average of just 77 yards UCLA's defense has allowed rushing in its first two games. The line is getting it done by executing Larry Kerr's scheme well, filling their gaps, playing off blocks and putting themselves in a position to make plays. It still seems curious that neither Colorado or Illinois chose to run off-tackle much, since containing the ends seems to be UCLA's weakness in defending the run. But tackle-to-tackle, UCLA's front seven has had two good games. Illinois generally stayed away from Rodney Leisle, but that gave others a chance to step up. With the line filling its gaps, the linebackers and safeties are getting a lot of tackles against the run.

Senior defensive end David Tautofi played with the second team DL, seemingly more confortable than freshman Junior Lemau'u in Kerr's zone blitzing scheme where he has to drop back into coverage quite a bit.

Brandon Chillar, as the cliche goes, was "all over the field." He is making plays against the run, but was excellent again Saturday in pass coverage. Not only is Chillar taking advantage of his athleticism, he's become a very sure tackler, wrapping up and dropping ball carriers as soon as he hits them. He again led the team in tackles this week with 13.

Overall the team's tackling has been excellent, with opposing ball carriers going down after a first hit from a UCLA defender. And the defense swarms, and punishes ball carriers with waves of hits. It's definitely a pleasure to watch when an opposing ball carrier turns up field and you know that UCLA's defensive speed will swarm him and stop him consistenly. There was only one play by a Illinois running back or receiver where they advanced the ball significantly after the initial hit.

Justin London, UCLA's sophomore middle linebacker, had a vastly improved game against Illinois compared to Colorado. He made some great reads on running plays, and filled his gap with some explosive quickness. That quickness was also very evident in his pass interception. His improved play from week one to week two was probably the most heartening among the defensive players.

In his first two games of the season, it appears that Matt Ware has grown into the player we've been expecting. First, he looks extremely confident and comfortable on the field, very much like an experienced veteran. His covered skills have really shored up and his tackling is also very dependable.

There were a couple of instances where UCLA DBs again gave up a big cushion on an obvious 3rd-down passing play to give the Illinois receiver an easy first down catch. It's still curious when it's 3rd and 5, and a UCLA cornerback is playing 8 yards off the receiver.

Filling in for starter Matt Clark was a tag team of senior Keith Short and sophomore Marcus Cassel, both of whom played solidly. Short was called for the PI early in the first quarter and looked like he jumped on the receiver as a result of nerves. But on Illinois' last, potentially game-winning drive, he made a couple of big plays, one a gambling step-up to just nick a touchdown pass that the receiver behind him couldn't then catch. Curiously, it didn't seem like Illinois fully recognized that it should exploit the loss of Clark for most of the game.

The defense had only one sack in the entire game -- a very significant one by Mat Ball in the 4th quarter to shut down an Illinois drive – but it did put pressure on the Illini quarterback, Jon Beutjer, throughout the game. The first-string line gets it done more through strength and smarts than quickness and with a fairly elusive quarterback like Beutjer, they pressured him but missed finishing him off a number of times for sacks. UCLA also blitzed signficantly less against Illinois than it did against Colorado, finding itself in more preventive situations this week.

The challenge for the defensive line appears to be fatigue more than anything else. The coaches are trying to give the starting DL consistent breathers by subbing in the #2 DL routinely, but fatigue still seems to be a factor. The DL, for both the Colorado and Illinois games, has been quite a bit more vulnerable to the run late in the game.

While Spencer Havner played, he didn't start (Wesley Walker did). And while Havner played fine, he might be some cause for concern. He's been hampered by injury since fall camp, and didn't seem to be the same player we saw last year as a freshman All-American, and is still obviously not himself with Walker starting in place of him.

You also have to hand it to UCLA's 12th man. The delay of game penalty Illinois suffered on third and two from UCLA's seven in the third quarter was a direct result of the noise the alumni section produced on the south end of the field. That penalty contributed to Illinois not converting their third down and having to kick a field goal, which ended up being the difference in the final score.

Overall the defense was stellar, but as Head Coach Karl Dorrell said, it's encouraging that they're this good but still with room to improve.

If the defense continues to play like it has in its first two games, it's a fairly easy conclusion to draw that UCLA's season will depend on how much better its offense can get.

For UCLA to have a successful season, or even a winning season, the offense will have to get considerably better.

While we cited that UCLA's offense showed flashes of promise, it still has played against two fairly mediocre defenses in the last two weeks and has scored only 20 points and gained 447 yards. It's going to have to improve vastly and do it pretty quickly.

Some of the promising flashes:

-- Manuel White's ability to get yardage running from the tailback position. You might be giving up the potential for breaking off a big touchdown run, but his ability to break tackles and move a pile after a hit made the difference in the running game Saturday. The offensive philosophy – to run when you want to run rather than by getting the defense off-balance and uncertain as to what play you're calling – is better suited for White at tailback than Tyler Ebell. At least, it appears to be better that White receive more carries generally, with Ebell providing a supplemental change of pace. Maurice Drew, though, might also provide that supplemental change of pace even better, with a superior ability to break tackles over Ebell.

-- Drew Olson again had a solid game, which you wouldn't get from his stats since UCLA's receivers dropped so many throws. He's probably not going to ever be a big-time, improvisational playmaker, and he sometimes doesn't get through his reads quickly enough, but he still is executing well, and more times than not hitting his targets on his passes.

-- UCLA's receivers continue to get open. Craig Bragg can only be covered if he's doubled or draws pass interference (which wasn't called). There were so many drops in this game it's really difficult to even work out what the difference would be offensively and on the scoreboard, but it would have been pretty significant.

-- The offense sustained more drives, and for longer periods. While it didn't convert those drives into points, it did look like it was starting to get more in a groove in moving the ball down the field.

But here is the vast array where the offense is lacking:

-- Obviously, the dropped passes. After the game the coaches and players mostly attributed it to nerves and the receivers pressing, trying to make big plays. You do have to attribute it to a degree to something highly unusual when Craig Bragg drops two balls in one game. He might not have dropped two balls in his first two years at UCLA total.

-- Not using its playmakers extensively enough. While it's difficult, again, to draw this conclusion completely since you can't quantify what kind of play-making might have gone on after all of those dropped passes, it does still seem that the offense isn't geared as much to giving someone like Bragg the opportunity to create. A jailbreak screen to Bragg would be a nice addition to the play-calling, one that has been very effective for him in the last two seasons. While Junior Taylor also hasn't exactly proven he should have the ball in his hands more, he also doesn't seem to have his talents exploited in this offense. If Idris Moss, too, can hold on to the ball, is a potential playmaker, creating extra yards on his 16-yard reception in the second half.

-- Adjusting to blitzes. Not only from a player perspective but a coaching perspective. In fact, the players did a better job of picking up the blitz than the coaches did in adjusting to Illinois' constant blitzing. Illinois blitzed more often than it didn't, and it seemed like the play-calling didn't adjust. It was very typical that UCLA would run on first down, gain short yardage, and get a second and long. It would then pass on second down, bring Olson back into a deep, pocket drop and Illinois would blitz, pressure Olson and he'd have to dump the ball, run or take a sack. If UCLA didn't pass but ran on that second-and-long, Illinois still blitzed and generally plugged running holes and contained the play. Other than what UCLA did to itself (dropping passes) this was the primary disruptive force working against UCLA's offense on Saturday, and it continued throughout the day without any adjustment.

-- The offense is a dink-it-down-the-field type of offense and lacks plays that could be turned into game breakers. This offense, to put points on the board, has to be very efficient at executing its short passing game and running game. If not, just a couple of badly executed plays or one dropped ball, and the drive stalls. The offense seems to need more balls being thrown downfield, plays that give the offense's playmakers more of a chance to break it open for a touchdown and not demand that the offense drive 80 yards for every score.

-- Marcedes Lewis having a bad game. He's going to probably do this on occasion. He's very talented, but still very young and is still learning how to stay focused.

The performance, overall, was an improvement over the Colorado game. UCLA cut the yardage it was penalized for in half. There were still some incidents that you might attribute to an inexperienced sideline. In the third quarter, UCLA had to call time out when it didn't have enough men on the field for a punt. Generally at the beginning of the second half the team came out with poor energy and focus – and thus poor execution. Sprinkle in a couple of penalties and some dropped passes and the third quarter was scarily looking like Colorado redux for a while. But overall for the game, there was improvement in unforced errors.

To keep everything tempered, though, it's not a stretch to say that Illinois – and Colorado – are just plainly average football teams. UCLA's defense, while it has performed well, has yet to really face a superior offense. And (with a shudder), UCLA's offense has yet to face an elite defense.

That is, until next week.

But we'll take the defense for the season. The issues with the defense, as we said last week, are generally insignificant. The only real, long-term issue will be if the offense sputters like this for the season, UCLA's very good defense will struggle to hold up under the pressure and fatigue.

But on offense, the Illinois game did give you a kernel of hope that it could just be a matter of the offense "clicking," as Dorrell said in his post-game comments. It might not be that the play-calling drastically changes, but that UCLA gets better at execution, catches passes, its young talent shakes off the nerves and finds focus, and it generally finds the right combination of players.

It'd be nice if they could do all of that before they board the plane for Norman, Oklahoma...


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