First off and most importantly: Don't those uniforms look great?
Many fans and sports writers are asserting that the Ohio State game presented new questions about this UCLA team, a team that before the game had a good list of questions. But while the Ohio State game did present some questions, it certainly answered quite a few. And the questions that do surround this UCLA team aren't really new, but the same ones that have lingered for the last several years.
The biggest question about UCLA's offense heading into this game was whether UCLA's passing game could be effective. In the Alabama and Kansas games it looked anemic. Cory Paus was struggling, the receivers couldn't get open, pass protection was poor, the ball wasn't being thrown to the tight ends, etc. But in the Ohio State game, UCLA made a big step in proving that it can be effective through the air. Cory Paus was sharp, throwing the ball accurately and with zip. He found room in the pocket to give him enough time to get the ball off. The pass protection, more or less, was very good, especially against a team that could be the toughest pass rushing team UCLA faces for the rest of the season. The receivers held onto the ball. UCLA discovered a good, solid receiver in Ryan Smith, Tab Perry's hands were glue and Brian Poli-Dixon made a great, diving catch. The tight ends looked great, catching three balls. So, the passing game took a quantum step forward in its development, against a very good defense. It's quite easy to envision this passing offense resembling the effectiveness and scoring-punch of recent UCLA offenses.
What kept points off the board against Ohio State wasn't the ineffectiveness of the offense or the passing game, but the turnovers. If you throw out the turnovers, Ohio State really only stopped two UCLA drives the entire game. If you eliminate just a couple of the turnovers this game should have resembled a blowout. If UCLA had gone up by the three touchdowns it probably should have by the third quarter, Ohio State might have deflated. Knowing that they were an inferior team but were only one more turnover and a touchdown away from going ahead or tying the game was what probably kept them in the game mentally and emotionally in the second half.
And, after the first drive, where UCLA scored a touchdown on a pass from Paus to Smith, it seemed like the UCLA offense would walk through OSU's defense. In fact, the entire game, you kept telling yourself, if UCLA could just stop turning the ball over, the offense is moving the ball well and it will eventually score some more points. But UCLA never stopped turning the ball over. Ohio State has to be given some credit for forcing the turnovers but, in reality, UCLA's fumble-itis was Ohio State's best defense.
And, actually, we have to look at it as a good thing. UCLA had 7 turnovers. DeShaun Foster himself fumbled the ball 4 times. And UCLA won the game. Look at it in the way that OSU exposed UCLA for not protecting the ball well enough – and now that will become a big priority for the coaching staff. And again, this weakness was exposed and the team still won. You'd rather have it happen this way, and have the coaches now make it a big priority to correct, than have it happen possibly against Oregon November 10th when UCLA could be playing for the Pac-10 championship.
In analyzing the offensive story of this game, without considering the turnovers, it was a tale of two different offenses. In the first half, UCLA came out conservatively, running the ball quite a bit, handing it off to Foster. And that was actually fine, since Foster was getting and exploiting some holes for solid gains. In the last couple of years, if UCLA's running game would have come out against an opponent and had some of the solid running room that it did in the first half, it's very understandable how the UCLA coaches might have felt that UCLA would wear down the OSU defense and more running room would open up. It was entirely unpredictable that the exact opposite was the case. OSU's running defense tightened up. OSU's frontline seemed to get stronger throughout the game and UCLA's offensive line seemed to wear down. You always think that you want to keep the opposing team's defense on the field as much as possible to wear them out, but this looked to be a case of keeping the opposing team's defense on the field wore down your own offensive line. But, as the running game tightened up, UCLA's passing game loosened up. There were some nice glimpses of the UCLA passing game of old – the roll-outs, the shifting pocket, the precisely-timed outs, the drop-offs to the fullback, and the ball being thrown to the tight ends – that you hadn't seen in the first two games of the season. But the problem was, the passing efficiency didn't co-exist with an effective running game. Eventually OSU realized that they had essentially shut down UCLA's running game and could tee off on the passing game.
Now, again, take into consideration this could be the most talented defense UCLA sees all year. OSU has a very good front seven, and its defensive backs are excellent. UCLA gained good yardage on this defense, and most encouragingly, through the air. You have to get the most encouragement from the fact that, against this defense, Paus had time to throw most of the time. If there's one factor that will decide whether the passing game does well the rest of the season is the amount of time Paus has to throw and, in this game, against a good defense, he had enough time.
So, if UCLA can get its passing game and running game working well simultaneously, this offense has a definite chance to be explosive. It's proven in the first three games against some decent defenses that it can move the ball pretty well when even the passing game or the running game isn't working.
Ironically, while many fans and sports writers are questioning the scoring effectiveness of the offense after this game, they seem to be saying that UCLA's defensive questions are answered. While it was a very good defensive performance, the questions still completely linger: How will this defense do against a good offense? Particularly a good passing offense? OSU's passing game was pathetic, as was Alabama's and Kansas's. Right now, the situation UCLA finds itself in is remarkably similar to last season: Having beaten an Alabama team and a Big Ten team with poor offenses, it now heads to the state of Oregon for its first Pac-10 game on the road against a high-powered offense. The real question of this team will not be whether UCLA can move the ball or score some points; the real question will be whether UCLA's defense can continue to play well when it actually plays against a good offensive team.
There are signs that this year the defense will be different. As we've always maintained on this site, there is no substitute for experience. This is a defense with quite a bit of experience, including some old, experienced guys like Kenyon Coleman, Ken Kocher, Marques Anderson, Ricky Manning, Ryan Nece and Robert Thomas. In a post-game interview, Coleman was asked why this defense is different that those in the past two years, since it's the same personnel, and he said, without missing a beat, that it was due to experience.
So far this season the hands-down MVP of the team is Robert Thomas. He is playing like a true All-American, all over the field, slicing through the line for tackles-for-loss and sacks, and making great open-field tackles.
So, while you'd like to believe it's a new era for UCLA football, one characterized by a strong defense, that new era needs to be forged by a UCLA defense against the good offensive teams of the Pac-10.
A few other items to consider:
UCLA, for only the second time in two years, made our ticket stubs worth a half-dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. That is, UCLA scored first.
Joe Hunter is quietly becoming a good cover corner.
The execution of the screen pass is, to say the least, an adventure. It doesn't appear that Paus throws that pass well, with too much air under it.
The injury if Mike Saffer. Perhaps UCLA's best and most experienced offensive lineman hurt his knee and more details will be available today. It's possible that the loss of Saffer during the game contributed to UCLA's ineffectiveness in providing running room as the game wore on. Steve Vieira, a redshirt freshman, would be the man expected to step up and hold the fort at right tackle.
The play-calling, while starting out conservatively against Ohio State, started to branch out. UCLA threw on first down a few times in the second half, and quite effectively. Now, with signs that the offense can move primarily because of the passing game while the running game is ineffective, Coach Toledo will continue to open up the playbook more.
UCLA's fullbacks and tight ends are weapons it can't neglect. Matt Stanley is good for at least 4 yards anytime he touches the ball, whether it's on a dive or a swing pass. The tight ends look very swift and smooth in the backfields of opposing defenses.
DeShaun Foster better hang on to the ball, or he won't be hanging on to the tailback position.
Manuel White needs to get some playing time and get his hands on the ball.
Special teams is, also, an adventure. Nate Fikse is perhaps the second MVP of the team behind Thomas so far this season, but he did seem, in the Ohio State game, to take too long to get his punt off. His kick-offs, though, are a major weapon, as is his ability to pooch punts within the 20-yard line. Now, if only the punt coverage knew to down the ball five yards inside the field rather than five yards inside the end zone. There were cracks in the armor of Chris Griffith's perfection. And when a UCLA punt returner gets ready for a punt, the entire bleachers at the Rose Bowl are mumbling, "Just catch the ball."
Probably all of the questions that remain about this team will be answered next week when UCLA goes to Corvallis to face Oregon State. While Oregon State has some questions of its own, it's still pretty well accepted that its offense is going to be the first real substantial challenge for UCLA's defense. With UCLA's offense showing they can move the ball, the points will come (as long as they don't commit seven turnovers a game). But perhaps the primary and central question to the UCLA football program of the last several years could finally be answered in Oregon State, or it could be perpetuated: Will UCLA's defense be able to shut down a good offense?