While the Bruins exploded for 39 unanswered points in the second half, there is still a sense, as Head Coach Karl Dorrell said after the game, that this team could be much better.
While it's almost inappropriate to call a 39-point explosion as just another baby step, it truly was. The offense hasn't completely turned a corner, but it's at least nearing the turn. And the encouraging part is that Washington game confirmed what we've been asserting since last year – that this team has a great amount of talent, and it's just a matter of the talent shining through for it to be successful.
There were some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons why the offense went off for close to 400 yards against the Huskies, and some reasons why they didn't even do more damage.
The most obvious reason: The receivers hung on to the ball. You can't even characterize it as "hanging on"; the receivers made some phenomenal catches that changed the course of the offensive production of the game. Craig Bragg, while he didn't score a touchdown, had eight catches for 141 yards, and many of those were incredibly key grabs that kept drives alive and led to scores: His diving snag in the first half at the Washington 10-yard line for a gain of 41; a twisting catch down the sideline on a third-and-11 for 25 yards in the third quarter with UCLA trailing 16-14; and another great sideline catch off an excellent throw from Drew Olson where Bragg got his foot in before going out of bounds, for a gain of 24. There were also two other very good, key catches, one by Junior Taylor on a post where he stole the ball from the defender for a gain of 38, and a Ryan Smith catch at the Washington 1-yard line in the third quarter that netted a big first down.
These clutch catches made the difference in at least half of UCLA's points. On one hand it's great that the receivers made the plays; on the other it's a little worrisome that the offense was so dependent on the receivers having to make such big and not-necessarily easy catches. You wouldn't want the offense to be so dependent on its receivers to make the types of catches Bragg did Saturday for it to sustain drives.
The second-most obvious reason the offense did well was the performance of Olson. If you're talking about turning a corner, he rounded a big one against Washington. He made very few mistakes, avoided the rush well, hung on to the ball, and made some of the best throws of his career. You can see the confidence he's gaining with every completed pass. You can see the stronger decision-making, the growing comfort he has in knowing his options within the offense.
Another obvious reason the offense did well: Tyler Ebell found the region of the universe where he thrives – going around a corner. Ebell, with his great instincts and vision, just needs a little room and the opportunity to turn upfield, and he consistently had that chance against Washington. The UCLA offensive coaches used Ebell off-tackle and Manuel White between the tackles, and Maurice Drew in both situations, and it made for UCLA's most successful run production of the season.
Perhaps the most prominent not-so-obvious reason the offense produced: Robert Chai went in at center. With starting center Mike McCloskey suffering a fractured ankle, it's admittedly a cold for us to cite that his replacement was a huge difference in the performance of the offensive line – but it's a fact. Before McCloskey went down in the first half, the offense had primarily been stymied. The run game had no room to run and Olson was getting pressure in passing downs. B.C. – Before Chai – three drives with no points. A.C. – After Chai – the offense converted points on five out of eight drives. When Chai came in, UCLA's offense immediately got on track. It scored its first touchdown after Chai arrived, on a six-play drive where both its running plays and passing plays were effective. From then on, the offense hummed. The running backs had room to run and Olson had time to throw. Isolating on Chai, he played an excellent game. He was never beat, dominated his man in run blocking and contained him in pass protection, and made great switch-offs. Chai appears to be more aggressive and stronger than McCloskey, more able to physically man-handle his man. UCLA's running game, the way it's schemed, is very dependent on the center making plays and Chai's performance against Washington was a key and a spark. Even though it's disheartening to know that a quality contributor like McCloskey will be out for the remainder of the season, Chai's performance was something to be very excited about.
There is still an element that you come away with from the Washington game that the offense succeeded because, yes, the players are executing better, but also because the offense's talent is overcoming the fairly conservative play-calling. The play-calling wasn't as conservative as in the first four games of the season, but it still tended to get conservative in certain key situations, and in this game the talent on the team salvaged many drives. There were a number of third-and-longs in which Olson and a receiver made great plays to keep a drive alive. Too many. You can't expect the offense to continue to make some of the phenomenal plays it did to salvage third-and-longs. And the catalyst to those third-and-longs was the play calling on first and second down. It's understandable, with a young quarterback who's getting experience on the fly, that you wouldn't want to throw too much deep in your own territory. And we've heard the coaches and players cite this reason for the first four weeks of the season. But in this game, as in weeks past, there have been a number of situations where UCLA had the ball in very good field position, many times in the middle of a drive, and it ran on first and second down, which generated little yardage and threatened to kill the drive with the resulting abundance of third-and-longs.
Thank the Lord that the coaches discovered the shotgun on third-and-long. Olson converted many third-and-long situations out of the shotgun. Talking about an obvious observation, Olson is far more comfortable throwing out of the shotgun than he is dropping back, especially on obvious passing downs. A young quarterback who is trying to get through his reads, Olson obviously is benefiting from being able to see the field earlier in the shotgun. He's also more apt to step forward and follow through on his throw. The ball he threw on that deep out to Craig Bragg where he hit him in stride before Bragg went out of bounds was out of the shot gun and probably the best thrown ball of Olson's UCLA career.
The question is: Why is the shotgun relegated to just third-and-longs? With Olson – and Matt Moore – so much more comfortable throwing out of it – it would be great to see UCLA's offense use it on first or second down. And is there a possibility that, gulp, UCLA could run out of the shotgun just to keep defenses honest?
So, while, as we said, the game was a case of finally getting to see the team do what many believed they could do, and then wanting them to do just a little more, the desire to see more really pertains to the offense, and the offensive play-calling. Olson (and hopefully Moore when he returns) look comfortable enough to be able to be more aggressive in the play-calling, perhaps throwing more on UCLA's own side of the field, and having enough confidence in your players to go for the kill and throw into the endzone when you're within 40 yards instead of what seemingly feels like play-calling that is merely setting up for a field goal. To their credit, the coaches have expanded their play-calling as they apparently have gotten more confident in their players, and hopefully they'll continue to take further steps in that more aggressive, creative direction. The coaches have been saying that they don't want to do load too much on the offensive players before they're ready; it looks like the players, through their play-making abilities, are indicating to them that they're ready.
On the defensive side of the ball, there were almost exclusively positives as take-aways from this game, positives concerning the players and the coaching.
The adjustment in the second quarter to have cornerback Matt Ware guard Washington's Reggie Williams almost exclusively had a very big impact on the game. Williams had a big first half, catching 8 balls for 80 yards, but then only caught two more in the second half for 25 yards. Pickett looked to Williams a number of times but Ware had him locked up for most of the second half. This changed the entire complexion of the game. With their main weapon taken out of commission, Washington's passing game was out-of-sync. This reverberated through all phases of the game. With Pickett struggling to find Williams, UCLA's defense pressured Pickett, who was then sacked or forced into bad throws. UCLA's defensive surge as a result got the Bruin crowd into the game, and that energy obviously spilled over to UCLA's offense.
Credit, though, also goes to the UCLA defensive coaches for their second-half adjustments in pass coverage. UCLA was being fairly deliberate in the first half in showing Washington its pass coverage, and Pickett picked apart UCLA's defense for 218 yards passing. The UCLA defensive backs said the coaches tweaked their look a little to disguise their coverages more in the second half. The results: Pickett takes too much time in trying to find his receivers through his reads, throws for only 63 total yards in the second half, and two huge interceptions.
While we've been maintaining that UCLA has some considerable talent through the beginning of the season, that talent was a little due for making some plays. The complaint was, "Yeah, UCLA is talented overall, but it needs some playmakers." On defense that talented showed some considerable play-making ability on Saturday. Jarrad Page's interception and touchdown return was the kind of defensive play-making the team needs. On that play, and others in the game, especially a big hit on Williams when he caught a pass over the middle, Page showed a great ability to break on the ball and make a play.
And if you're talking about playmakers and momentum stealers, Dave Ball was the champ. His sack of Pickett on the first play of the second half that forced a fumble that resulted in a touchdown was the rallying point for UCLA's momentum. The three sacks he had on three successive plays in the fourth quarter was the momentum crescendo of the game. The giant sucking sound you heard was Ball and UCLA's defense taking any life that the Huskies had left at that point He totaled three and a half sacks on the day, and was the focal point of the big momentum switch in the second half.
Also contributing to the momentum switch were the refs. With a series of bad calls -- a mind-blowing inadvertent whistle that called a play dead in which UCLA converted on third down, a bad pass interference call against Matt Clark, and consistently waving off flags – the crowd got energetic in its harassment of the refs. That energy definitely was palpable, and seeped into the UCLA offense and defense. So, don't always assume that bad calls by the refs will hurt you, because in this case it certainly helped contribute to the momentum boost UCLA rode in the second half.
Overall, it was a cathartic game for UCLA's players and coaches. After the game, the smiles and hugs in the locker room felt as if they were coming from mountain climbers who had just scaled Everest. Offensive Coordinator Steve Axman walked through the UCLA locker room with a cigar as if he were a high roller that had just broken the bank at a Vegas casino.
And it was definitely cathartic for UCLA's fans. After feeling as if the Bruin football program has been on a slippery Everest slope for some time, it was as if they finally reached a peak. Not the peak. But a peak. And you could say that now, for the first time in a long time, you get a sense that the UCLA program can at least see the top of Everest.