Illinois Game: Reality

Steve Waters, in his weekly column, analyzes the Illinois game and whether UCLA lived up to, exceeded or failed to meet expectations...

For some of you, this game was as painful to watch as that bad case of the 8-clap you got back in ‘Nam. MAN, that burns!...Incoming! (just kidding)

The Fighting Illini of Illinois certainly didn't roll over and quit when faced with the thought of playing UCLA, especially the Illini defense, led by LBers Matt Sinclair and Winston Taylor, DE Derek Strong and S Marc Jackson.

Fortunately, the Bruin defense was up to the challenge and was the primary reason why UCLA won the game. When was the last time UCLA held a perennially powerful Big 10 offense to less than 300 total yards? As Ron Turner said, "They have a great defense."

The Bruins this year have done a great job of gang tackling; very few times have ball carriers broken tackles and gained additional yardage. Conditioning is a huge reason why UCLA is gang tackling better. Maintaining the conditioning edge will be crucial to the success of the defense as the season wears on.

For that reason, I loved watching this game.

Consider this: While UCLA ran 40 plays in the first half to Illinois' 30, the Illini reversed the tables in the second half, running 40 plays to UCLA's 28. Without stellar conditioning, the Illini wear down UCLA in the second half and punch in a late TD for the win.

Once again, the "Ty Willingham @ Notre Dame" equation Karl Dorrell is following to win FB games in his first year is apparent: tough, opportunistic D (4 TO's, only 283 total yards, minimal penalities) + conservative, turnover-free O (OK, 1 TO, but rushed for 149 yards with minimal penalities) + great special teams (2 for 2 FGs, thunderous hit on K-O return, great punt returns, 2 punts at or inside 10, fumble recovery off a punt coverage) = winning FB.

Rushing Offense: Illinois didn't stack 9 in the box, as expected. They often played a 4-4 offset stack (four DL with four LBs/DBs lined up roughly between them) or a 4-2 front with a 7th defender (#54 Winston Taylor) as a roving MLB set 6 yards off the LOS, similar to Lance Briggs at Arizona. Both of these fronts were pretty conventional looking (DL over the OGs and OTs), and adding in the fact that IL didn't stunt very much, IL's defensive scheme enabled the UCLA OL to get a bead on their targets before the snap. It looked like UCLA used more man-blocking schemes in this game than zone-blocking schemes. Winston Taylor was almost always unblocked as the roving MLB, but he didn't make the tackle until the Bruin ball carrier was 3+ yards down the field, once he waded through the DL and LBs in front of him.

One guy who had a good game run blocking was Ed Blanton, who was getting into his target and moving him backwards like he was on rollerskates. Runs to the right side tended to be pretty effective.

The Bruins ran the ball intentionally 28 times, with Manuel White getting 18 carries that he turned into 102 yards. Tyler Ebell provided a great change of pace, and netted 43 in 8 carries. Maurice Drew got the other 2 carries, and gained 4 of the hardest yards of his football career, judging by the body-shaking hits he received.

Regarding the running plays UCLA ran, Dorrell was true to his word: The Bruins ran basically the same running plays as last week. There were no toss sweeps, no draws/delays from any formation, let alone the shotgun formation, no fullback traps, no reverses to FLs, etc. So the scheme didn't change. (There was a slightly new wrinkle when Olson handed the ball to Manuel White and faked a reverse!) However, the personnel used did change, as did the sequencing.

In the first half, the Bruins had 1st and 10 14 times, and they ran the ball 7 of those times (50%). The Bruins averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 1st and 10 in the first half, with a high of 16 and a low of 0. That'll work…

White got the first 3 carries on 1st and 10, and gained 6 yards total. Ebell carried it the next four times, and picked up 24 (6 yard average).

In the second half, UCLA ran the ball 8 times on 1st and 10, and only threw it twice. The Manster toted the pig 6 of those 8 times, pounding for 38 yards, a 6.3 average, with a high of 9 and a low of 4. That's outstanding work by Manny, Pat Norton, and the OL (Steve Vieira, Eyoseph Efseaff, Mike McCloskey, Paul Mociler, Ed Blanton, and Shane Lehmann, who was in quite a bit for Vieira at LT). The "weakside isolation" play was particularly effective: Run a fullback lead play to the non-TE side when there are only 2 DL and a LB to that side in the box. Three blockers for three defenders and one of the best 250 pound running backs in the nation…gotta like that arrangement if you're UCLA.

At one point in the second half, Dorrell put the Bruins on the Captain's back and had White run the ball 7 straight times, producing 2 first downs and a 2nd and 6. That particular drive started with 8:48 left in the game, and ended with 3:02 on the clock, eating up 5:46 in the process. It didn't end in a game-clinching touchdown, but it was an impressive display of "four minute" offense, the kind the Bruins need in crunch time to play keep-away and secure victories.

All in all, the Bruins' running game conformed to what we expected going into the game:

- Run between the tackles the majority of the time

- Run the "stretch" play to allow the RB to bounce outside or cut it straight up the field

- Rush for 100+ yards

- No new running plays this week

Passing Offense: Expectations were not met in this aspect of the game. The culprits were:

- Dropped passes: 2 sure TDs, 5 total. The Bruins are at ground zero, and appear to have reverted to their pass-catching habits under the previous regime. Instead of catching the ball with their hands extended, thumbs together, many of the receivers are trying to trap the ball with their forearms, shoulder-pad breastplate and stomach, with predictably unsatisfying results. This "difference between winning and losing" issue is the one that the players and coaches have the most control over.

- Failure to throw successfully on 1st down: In the first half, UCLA tried to pass 7 times on 1st down, much to BRO's enjoyment. However, it only produced 2 completions (Idris Moss for 16 yards, Ebell for 5 yards), one sack on a blitz by Matt Sinclair between Efseaff and Vieira, and 4 incompletions, including Craig Bragg's drop of a TD, Ebell's inability to handle a hot shot from Drew Olson, and a drop by Marcedes Lewis. Both passes on 1st and 10 in the second half were incomplete. The Bruins need to do better than 2 of 9 if the passing on 1st down strategy is going to work.

- Putting Drew Olson into difficult 3rd and long situations: Drew didn't make the catastrophic mistake that cost UCLA the game, but he wasn't able to replicate the tremendous resourcefulness he showed v. Colorado, pulling 1st down after 1st down out of his…hat. And forget the ‘long' part. UCLA started the game going 0 for 7 on 3rd down attempts. All were attempted passes, and drops, non-calls on PI, knucklers, sacks, etc. were among the reasons why the Bruins didn't convert. The Bruins were 2 for 10 in the first half on 3rd down, all passes, and 3 for 7 in the second half, but 2 of the conversions were 3rd and 1 runs by White.

- Inability of UCLA to handle IL's inevitable attempts to blitz Olson: The lack of confidence that UCLA was prepared to handle numerous blitzes was justified. Usually the damage was done when the OG and C double-teamed the NG, and a LBer blitzed between the OT and OG, coming through untouched on Olson. The most obvious answer when the RB is out in the pattern is to have the OG pick up the blitzer, and leave McCloskey to handle the NG. Whenever Tyler Ebell is the RB in an obvious passing situation (2nd or 3rd and long), teams seem to blitz up the middle in order to make Tyler pick up the freight train LB. So far, he's done a great job of delivering a blow, but the LB is not being slowed down much and the QB ends up being flushed out of the pocket.

Overall, this was a very challenging game for Drew Olson. There were the drops, there was the pressure from IL blitzes…and so when he had a chance to make some plays, that may have caused him to grip the ball tightly and knuckleball some throws, such as the near pick and the deep out to Bragg that was very mistimed. Some of the slant passes had a lot of mustard on them, to which UCLA's WRs seem allergic.

As expected, the Illini bracketed Marc Lewis whenever he ventured near the middle, taking away the bread-n-butter "seam" that worked so well v. Colorado. He didn't early touches, didn't get into the game, dropped his first pass, and it went downhill from there.

Many will question the pass blocking. Almost every time Illinois got pressure, a blitz (5 to 7 rushers) was the reason why. Once IL realized that UCLA didn't have an effective counteraction to pressure, they blitzed on almost every obvious passing situation. In my opinion, there are three areas that have to improve: the coaching staff needs to call plays on obvious passing downs that have ways to beat immediate pressure, the coaching staff needs to ensure the blocking schemes don't double or triple team a DL while leaving one or two LBs/DBs to storm through untouched, and the DO needs to get rid of the ball more quickly.

I was very impressed with Olson's ability to avoid the sack. He showed a very good feel for the pocket's integrity, and flushed out at least 3 times in the first half to the right, courtesy of good protection from Blanton and his long arms. The hitch in his throwing motion resulting from the relatively low place where he holds the ball (chest-high) hinders him when he is on the move. Drew naturally takes the ball down from his chest to his hip and then up and over the top, and it is a lot to accomplish in one step; not to mention, it gives the DB a fraction of a second to really close on the WR.

Even when the DO was sacked, he minimized the damage with his ability to feel the pressure and limit the yardage loss.

Bottom line, while we saw UCLA display some good passing patterns, the Bruins were "completion challenged." The big plays off play-action didn't materialize, such as post passes, corners or drags across the field.

Rushing Defense: The Bruins massively exceeded expectations regarding run defense. Excluding sacks, UCLA held IL to 76 rushing yards on 24 carries, a 3.2 average. Why was this such an impressive performance?

First, in my opinion, the Illinois OL was much better than the CU OL. The Buffs had more rushing yards than IL did because they got the corner with a couple of reverses. Ron Turner made a strategic mistake by running his OL and RBs right into UCLA's wheel house. So even though the IL OL, led by LT Sean Bubin, who had a great game holding….errrrr, blocking Dave Ball, Asi Faoa and Junior Lemau'u, was much stronger physically than the CU OL, they got less because they played to UCLA's strengths.

Second, UCLA presented a conventional "7 in the box" front well over 50% of the time, and yet still managed to shut down the blast plays with EB Halsey toting the rock. The Bruins didn't have to resort to trickery to succeed.

Third, not only did Brandon Chillar have another dominant game stuffing the run, but his running mate Justin London was a joy to watch, subtly scraping down the line and then driving forward to fill the hole and drop Halsey like a stone. JLon made a quantum jump in performance from game one to game two. UCLA is developing some real playmakers at LB.

UCLA's front 7 as a whole did a great job all game long of executing their individual assignments. One time, C.J. Niusulu beat a double team from the C and RG and delivered a huge hit to Halsey for a 1 yard loss, the kind of penetration from the NG UCLA fans have been dying to see for the last five years.

Passing Defense: There's good news and bad news…so we'll cover the good news first.

UCLA did a little better than I expected:

- Expectations were: UCLA get 3 or 4 sacks. UCLA only had 1 due to the design of IL's passing attack, Beutjer's skill at handling pressure, and Babcock's ability to hold Mat Ball (who had a spectacular game at DE, with one sack and the hit that caused Chillar's INT!) without getting flagged. If the refs throw the flag (and Bubin was guilty, too!), that's almost as good as a sack.

- Expectations were: Hold IL to < 300 yards passing. Check!, only 216

- Expectations: Give up no more than 2 TDs passing if that. Check!, a big, fat goose egg (although Kelvin Hayden dropped one where he got behind Ben Emanuel)

- Expectations: Get 1 or 2 INTs. Better than that, got 3, one an absolutely spectacular play by Matt Ware, and another was an almost more impressive play by Justin London. Many scoffed when it was explained that the MLB has deep middle zone responsibility in the cover 2 scheme…but there was 240 lb, 4.9 40 JLon getting 30 yards deep to cover IL WRs and TEs on seam routes.

- Expectations: Keep IL around a 60% completion rate. Check! 26 of 42 is 62%...

However, Illinois almost won this game because they pecked away at UCLA with passes underneath UCLA's zone and ample cushion provided by the CBs, especially on the last drive. Unlike previous UCLA Ds, the CBs wouldn't always back pedal on the snap when they provided a big cushion; sometimes they would "roll the coverage up," jam the WR, and squat on the route. This scheme allowed UCLA's athletic DBs to gain a measure of fearful respect from IL, and Beutjer never played with the arrogance you'd expect to see from one of the nation's top gunslingers. Maybe Matt Ware's phenomenal play to jam the WR, run with him, turn and locate the ball, and then make the over the shoulder INT had something to do with Beutjer concluding, "Hmmm, they can play me tight and cover deep. Bad mo' jo…"

Keith Short and Marcus Cassel filled in for the MIA Matt Clark, and both played with little visible anxiety in their eyes and body language. They knew they could play with these guys. Like good shortstops, they kept everything in front of them and didn't allow any big plays.

While the DBs are looking very comfortable in pass coverage, Brandon Chillar is still a work in progress. Recall that BC was a SSLB last year, while Spencer Havner was the WSLB, a position that requires the player to be comfortable defending slants and drags. There were a couple of plays where BC let the IL WR get inside position (ie, he overran the play) on a slant or a drag, and a completion ensued. If Chillar can nail down pass coverage, he will be one of the most complete LBs on the west coast, if not the nation.

Compared to previous UCLA Ds, I loved seeing the situational substitution Larry Kerr employed. The nickel with Nnamdi Ohaeri was very effective because NO is such a brick: he's a legitimate threat to blitz, he tackles like a LB, but is also an outstanding cover guy.

UCLA even employed a dime package, especially in the second half, going with 3 DL (the DEs and one DT), bringing in Dennis Link for the 2nd DT, and leaving Ohaeri in for the SSLB. Even with a 3 man rush, The Boss, Ryan Boschetti, was able to shred 3 IL OL on one play and almost get a sack of Beutjer, and world-class bit of pass-rushing.

All things considered, this was a great effort by the pass D against a quality offense, one that is similar to Oklahoma's except OU runs many, many plays from the shotgun, which UCLA didn't see at all from IL, in a surprise.

Special Teams: Again, I consider pretty high expectations met:

- Expectations: UCLA continue its great punt coverage. Check! On 10 punts, only one was returned…the muff that Tim Warfield recovered.

- Expectations: Craig Bragg get another great return. Check! Some in the stands considered Bragg's returns our best chance of generating offense. If not for (legitimate) holding penalties on Ben Lorier and Nick Carey, UCLA would have gained about 30 or 40 yards of field position.

- Expectations: Medlock make his 1st FG as a Bruin. Check! Not just one, but two. His 48-yarder was a beautiful kick that he didn't pull at all. Nice job keeping your head down, CalHeelsKid! Or is it HitItLong?

- Expectations: UCLA dominate the special teams game, because they're that good and have that much talent to put out there. In my opinion, check! From the thunderous hit by Akil Harris to the two Chris Kluwe punts being downed inside the 10, the Bruins were clearly had the more dangerous Special Forces out there. BTW, who is "Curtis Clue-way?" Whoa Nelly, Keith, do some prep work!

Overall: For an LA team not to score points is an unforgivable sin, unfortunately. An offensive effort that only generates two FGs is just that…offensive to LA sensibilities, no matter how well the D plays. Hey, at least the unis are nice! Finally, a fan can make out a player's numerals once he gets his shirt wet.

Many of the base expectations were met: UCLA committed fewer penalties, they won the turnover battle, they looked organized offensively getting in and out of the huddle, they kept their QB healthy, they ran the ball when they had to, and they played tough defense.

Another positive is that UCLA has come out of the gate strong in both games. The Bruins have outplayed both CU and IL in the first quarter, setting the tone that UCLA is not to be taken lightly.

However, they dropped way too many passes, which killed drives and literally took points off the board. And the Bruins had no answer to Illinois' blitzes. Many football experts consider the Fighting Illini a mediocre team at best, so anything short of a blowout is tantamount to a moral defeat. There may not be moral victories, but apparently moral defeats are alive and well.

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