First there was the fumble of the fumble recovery on the kick-off. How many of you thought, "Uh oh, it could be one of those nights…"? Did you think, "What is Garo Yepremian doing on campus?" Or did you wait until the end of the first quarter, after numerous penalties, five possessions but no points, and the general assessment that UCLA was being outplayed before getting anxious?
We should be thankful for a win. Because this game was so close that a play or two here or there could have put the Bruins on the short end of the score. Just because the D had San Diego State's O under control for almost the entire game doesn't mean that a fluke play wasn't possible at any time. I guess this one feels like a moral defeat, given the drubbing the Bruins administered last year.
But hey, any weekend that delivers a UCLA win and a USC loss is a great weekend.
The performance of the O was a carbon copy of the Illinois game, absent the drops and the running game.
On the whole, the O failed to meet expectations on most measures, by only producing 323 yards of total O, scoring on only 15% of its possessions, punting 6 times, losing 4 fumbles (including a snap exchange between Drew Olson and Mike McCloskey), allowing 4 sacks and numerous "hurries/hits," dropping one TD pass, and only netting 65 rushing yards.
Much was made about SDSU's #2 NCAA ranking in yards allowed. But remember that SDSU has played two 1-AA teams, hapless Texas El Paso (52-7 losers to Arizona), and a Clarett-free Ohio State. No one really thinks that SDSU will end up the year in the top ten of defenses unless something radical happens each week to all of SDSU's opponents at the most fortuitous time. Don't believe the hype.
Like most opponents, SDSU loaded the box on UCLA with 8 or 9 defenders. But that didn't stop UCLA from trying to run the ball.
Even when the Aztecs had only 7 in the box on rushing plays, they were seemingly able to squash UCLA's rushing attack by determining when and where the Bruins were going to run the ball. Based purely on down and distance, and vertical/horizontal location on the field, the Aztecs' D seemed to know where to be, which put them one step ahead of the Bruins' O all night long. The safeties, Marcus Demps and Marviel Underwood, were able, once they read ‘run,' to head straight for the spot off-tackle, where more often than not they connected with Manuel White and Maurice Drew.
Does MoD seem to like to run into people? His carries are usually heard all over the stadium.
If SDSU can scheme UCLA like this, this is a very bad sign for UCLA moving into Pac-10 play.
UCLA did add a reverse to the run package for this game, gaining 10 yards on UCLA's first play from scrimmage. But it wasn't seen again, although it appears to be an easy gainer at least once a quarter. Not to mention, running reverses introduces a seed of doubt into the D, which might sell-out to stuff the run a little more slowly if they knew UCLA would regularly make them pay for over-committing.
Another bright spot in the running game was the Bruins' ability to convert on 3rd and short. The Bruins had four 3rd-and-3s or less, and Manny White converted three of them, with MoD failing to convert the fourth.
Besides being unable to run the ball, the other highly distressing aspect of this game was UCLA's inability to deal with the blitz.
SDSU regularly sent 5 or 6 rushers at Drew Olson, and the Bruins never displayed an effective counter-punch: a sure-fire, high percentage outlet that would quickly make the DC reconsider his strategy.
Mike Sherrard, using his experience as part of the 49ers offense as context, conveyed during the television broadcast, that receivers in this style of offense don't have ‘hot' routes when they read blitz. They run the patterns called regardless of what the D shows.
Too often this season, Olson has been left without anywhere to go, and the results are getting more dire: 4 sacks this week, and 2 lost fumbles. Paul Mociler gave up two sacks. Steve Vieira and Ed Blanton looked good pass blocking throughout the game, although a "T-E" stunt (DT goes out, DE loops to the inside) got Vieira/Eyoseph Efseaff (and Olson) one time.
On the second fumble, SDSU ran a very effective blitz: SDSU was in a 4-4 alignment on 3rd and 4. The OLBers were, in reality, DBs. UCLA was in the I with twins left. On the snap, the RDE took Vieira wide, Eyoseph Efseaff helped Mike McCloskey with the DT in the gap between them. When the LB blitzed, followed by the OLB/DB to the O's left side, MoD could only pick up the LB. Marviel Underwood, the DB, almost lassoed Olson, but by then Kirk Morrison (the LB) had time to recover and separate Olson from the ball. Only if Efseaff didn't help McCloskey could this blitz have been thwarted. Olson couldn't have gone to Manny White in the flat as soon as he saw blitz, because Drew didn't know if Underwood was coming or not.
Given this background, it is amazing that Olson completed 18 of 28 passes for 258 yards, 2 TDs and no INTs.
Drew threw a number of absolute strikes on inside routes to Junior Taylor that was beautiful to behold. Rather than get flustered by the pressure, or frustrated by the disconnect between play design and defensive attack, the DO kept his poise and showed physical and mental toughness.
This was easily Olson's best game as a Bruin. Yes, he made mistakes, but he also made plays. The bombs to Craig Bragg and Junior were perfect. Given how often UCLA sees single coverage on its WRs, going deep is always an option this year unless the game gets out of hand and the CBs play way off.
Of course, Olson is nowhere without receivers who catch the ball. And Saturday, they did, and with their hands no less. Junior Taylor was great, making almost every catch with his hands, and every catch looked extremely sure. His concentration level was evident when he battled CB Jacob Elimimian for a pass batted into the air that he kept his eye on and pulled in with just his left hand. Finally, Junior is showing the form he demonstrated throughout spring practice.
Ryan Smith also caught the ball with his hands all game long, and was rewarded with a TD, a score he doesn't get if he tries to trap the ball against his chest. And it is a great thing to see Marcedes Lewis running free on a crossing route and have the pass delivered right on the numbers. Rumble, young man, rumble! (Too bad Shane Lehmann didn't have one thrown his way. Talk about rumble!) Let's hope that Marc's ankle is okay.
However, this passing O is a far cry from what we expected, and what it could be. For example, there was one completion to a RB tonight: a checkdown over the middle to the Manster, which he pushed forward for 8 yards. While not sexy, that option is there more often than not. What's wrong with a safe, first down completion for 8 every third set of downs? Especially when the D is rushing six and playing man across the board.
Against SDSU, we saw no screens, no swings, no flares and no wheel routes. Given that LBs are typically outmatched when covering RBs, and there have been plenty of times where UCLA's RBs have drawn single coverage, the lack of production and usage has been striking. Tyler Ebell has struggled to catch the ball, but screens, checkdowns and swing passes are easy ways to get #2 past the first wave of defender and into open, green spaces.
The delay draw is another option that has been too infrequently seen, especially for a back with Ebell's vision and ability to find and hit whatever holes are there.
Injuries and dropsies are the primary reasons why the TEs haven't been a bigger part of the passing offense. But another worrisome development was SDSU's ability to defuse the waggle passes that are such a key part of the passing O, especially getting the ball to the TE. SDSU's DEs didn't fall for the fake and kept Drew Olson inside them almost every time UCLA ran the waggle pass. If other teams are as disciplined, what will UCLA do as a counter move to make the D pay?
As the Bruins step up in class and play higher caliber opponents, the RBs and TEs represent the safest, surest mismatches in the passing game that the Bruins will have in their favor.
Now that the officials have thrown the flag when UCLA's receivers get interfered with, you can short the zebra's stock. Our quota has been reached. Don't expect any more calls this year. I'm serious.
Well, the numbers certainly look gaudy:
- 230 total yards allowed
- only 110 yards passing allowed
- 2 INTs (another great pick and return by Spencer Havner to change the complexion of /save the game, and a highly entertaining pick by the former HS FB, C.J. Niusulu, that he almost Medlocked away on the return)
- only 10 points allowed, 7 on a late, irrelevant score
But beneath the glossy veneer of a low yardage, low score result, I have some concerns.
One that can be supported with some data (always a good thing) is that SDSU ran for 120 net yards, with Lynell Hamilton almost cracking the century mark. Maybe there's no shame in that, because the true frosh looks like a great blend of size and speed. But if the Bruins are going to have trouble with DeShaun Foster-type backs, what's going to happen when they meet up with Adimchinobe Echamandu?
The second, more subjective, concern is that SDSU had chances to make plays downfield all night long, but Matt Dlugolecki just couldn't deliver the rock. Unfortunately, UCLA won't see as mechanically-challenged and inaccurate a QB for the rest of the year.
The final, and highly subjective, concern is that the UCLA D didn't play very hard Saturday. In a way, my worst fear was realized. The rush seemed to lack the reckless abandon we've seen in earlier games. Tackles weren't exactly bone-jarring, and they weren't of the gang type. There were some plays where UCLA defenders resembled matadors when it came to taking on blockers. Ole!
For example, on Michael Franklin's TD run (from a very unusual Big Bunch formation), the Bruins treated it like a concession score. "Okay, you outfoxed us. I'm not gonna take on your whole team, though…go on in." Hey, football is a tough game; guys get hurt every weekend, and maybe discretion is the better part of valor.
But I got the impression (and watching the game on TV/tape almost always results in crankier reviews) that UCLA felt superior to SDSU and expected to steamroll them. It's one thing for fans to feel that way; it's another if the players do.
And maybe this helps to explain the rash of personal fouls that UCLA experienced this game. Late hits, etc., are often an expression of two things: contempt/lack of respect for the opponent, and frustration. In the back of their minds, the Bruins probably felt that they had enough of an edge over SDSU that they could spot the Aztecs a 15-yarder here and there and get away with it. Plus, the season has been very frustrating to date. And this game was certainly a very frustrating one, right from the start. The O was misfiring, the zebras were maddening, the Aztecs were getting away with murder, SDSU was keeping UCLA off-balance, whatever.
While it wasn't limited to the D, the D seemed to succumb to the temptations more. Jarrad Page got tagged with 2 late hit penalties, I believe, one to give SDSU a first down on 3rd and forever. And Rodney Leisle got ejected, forcing him to sit out the first half of next week's game against Washington. Which might give Asi Faoa a chance to shine at DT against a heavily pass-oriented team.
(One point about the personal fouls: an aggressive D is a good D. There's a fine line here. Yes, we know how BRO's love to moralize: "That's inexcusable!" But recall the 2001 season. The Bruins are cooking. They crush UDub and put QB Tyler Barton in the hospital overnight with their pass rush. But Dave Ball gets a roughing the passer penalty for slamming Barton into the turf. BT is no Pom Pom Pete, so he reads Ball the riot act. The Bruins play as if they're walking on eggshells the rest of the season and never intimidate another team all year.)
The LBers for UCLA all had great games against SDSU. HC Tom Craft proclaimed before the game that UCLA has a better D than Ohio State does, primarily because its LBers are more athletic. Now that the game is over (and UCLA remains on SDSU's schedule in the future), it would be surprising to see Craft revise his sentiments. Justin London led the Bruins with 11 total tackles, Brandon Chillar had 10 (3 for loss), and Havner had 7, including 1 sack to go along with his pick.
Could it be that the Dell Dude emerges as the heroic playmaker on D that regularly rides to the rescue when UCLA is in trouble? The safest bet so far is that one of the LBers will lead the way.
Justin London had his best game as a Bruin, and is growing by leaps and bounds every week.
UCLA's D gave SDSU a lot of 5 DB/2 LB/4 DL (nickel) and 5 DB/3 LB/3 DL (dime) looks. The most effective zone blitz by UCLA was when DT Niusulu stepped away from the rush and looked for the TE on a shallow crossing route. Doogie was kind enough to oblige, and his inexperience showed, because he never saw CJ until after the pick.
I'm tempted to say the Bruins played this one pretty close to the vest. Maybe there are more tricks in Larry Kerr's bag. But I wouldn't be surprised if UCLA has displayed all the defensive sets/blitzes/coverages it is going to use this year.
The Bruins easily gained a draw, which is what UCLA needed to do at a minimum. Justin Medlock was money on FGs, Chris Kluwe didn't outkick the coverage and dropped a couple inside the 20, CBra had a 50+ yard punt return (called back, of course) and one much shorter in vertical yardage but much greater in number of steps taken, and the young pups, Mil'Von James and Joe Cowan, had resounding punt coverage tackles as gunners. Unfortunately, Mil'Von seemed to get worse then he gave, as he staggered to the sideline.
As expected, UCLA's superior athletic talent (SDSU's returners didn't remind anyone of Jeremy Bloom or Antonio Perkins) carried the day in special teams play.
Overall: While UCLA certainly didn't "tank," they didn't come out sharp, focused and determined to end this one early. If they had really tanked, you wouldn't be reading this, because ‘Operation Meltdown' (for the site) would have commenced, and the board would be unavailable.
So how should we assess the second quarter of the year? Recall that Karl Dorrell breaks the year into four quarters: the pre-season, the non-con schedule, the Pac-10 schedule, and USC.
The pre-season was successful, if for no other reason than that the Bruins got in excellent physical shape.
But what about the non-conference slate? From an outsider's perspective, I expected a 2-2 record before the season started, winning the two at home and losing the two on the road. Actually, I even acknowledged that 1-3 wouldn't surprised me.
But given the way UCLA has played on O, from an entertainment value, a reasonable grade is a D. The O just hasn't moved the ball well enough, and the penalties/turnovers are a big reason why. It was great to see the passing game get untracked tonight, but there was still plenty of ‘three yards and a clod of sod'. The D has been solid. The special teams have had moments, both good and bad. But the Bruins overall, players and coaches, have looked ragged.
Luckily, the second quarter grade is not the final grade. Most would admit that the third and fourth quarters are more important to UCLA fans and the program than the first two.
It will be interesting to see if Dorrell has been sandbagging on O. It seems as if just a few minor adjustments could provide UCLA almost infinitely more options in the running game. Fixing protection schemes on blitzes is a much more systemic problem, one that UCLA fans (and QBs) may be saddled with all season.
A season of frustration might be worth it if UCLA comes out with an innovative gameplan v. USC that catches the Trojans completely by surprise. But after the Cal game, it seems that a nice run/pass mix, a mobile pocket, and a reliance on the TE might be all that's needed.
One major question heading into the Washington game (besides proving/disproving Phil Snow's assertion about UCLA fans not caring about defense) is, who's the QB, assuming Moore is fit enough to give it the ol' college try next week?
I would be shocked if it wasn't Drew Olson. Not only is Matt Moore likely to be limited physically come October 4th, Olson now has 3.75 games under his belt with the OL, WRs, RBs, etc. There has been progress made, and going back to square one, even square one point five, is probably too risky with so much left to still accomplish this season.
The most plausible scenario to me is to work Moore in for a series or two in the first or second quarter to get his feet wet. Then, with Arizona up the next week, a team UCLA should handle easily, Mackovic or no, Dorrell will have the option to play Moore the entire game to get him back in the flow.
Just Look Good, Baby!