UCLA was definitely lucky in beating Arizona Saturday, 24-21.
Arizona should have won this game. They missed two very makeable field goals; were driving and in at least field goal range when their young but talented quarterback Kris Heavner threw one interception; Heavner made another costly interception in a forward pitch that Rodney Leisle intercepted and ran for a touchdown; and the Arizona defense jumped offside on a UCLA field goal attempt, which gave the Bruins a first down at the Arizona 8-yard line and led to a Manuel White touchdown.
If Arizona doesn't make any mistakes and makes its field goals, it wins 30-10.
And that's really the way the game felt – as if UCLA had lost 30-10.
But heck, we'll take it. UCLA lost a game against Colorado that it should have won. Now the Bruins won a game it should have lost. So they're even. Actually you'd rather have the Pac-10 and the non-donference loss, so UCLA comes out a little ahead.
In analyzing the game, though, it's tough to ignore the obvious. Arizona was easily the better team on the field. If you had never seen either of these two teams previously and had no prior knowledge of their personnel, after watching the game you would have concluded that Arizona was easily the better team and had more talent. Other than Oklahoma, UCLA has looked like the more talented team in its other five previous games, and despite a few punt returns, it even matched up pretty evenly in the Oklahoma game.
So, how does this happen? How does one of the seemingly worst teams in the nation this season look like the better team than UCLA?
The contributing factors:
-- First, Arizona isn't that bad, and they're getting better. Since getting Heavner playing time, they've actually played pretty decently. And as Karl Dorrell said all week, they have nothing to lose so they can experiment. It's not too much of a stretch to think that they'll give the teams remaining on their schedule a game. You can probably even bet on them when they face Washington at home November 8th.
-- UCLA, of course, looked flat. The defense, for the first time this season, looked ordinary. Not only were they getting run on and thrown on easily, but there were a number of breakdowns in coverages, the defense lined up incorrectly or was scrambling to get lined up, and its tackling was lethargic, to say the least. It's very sad to make this reference, but every time a UCLA defense has breakdowns in pass coverage and can't tackle it inspires flashbacks of the infamous Miami game of 1998.
-- UCLA looked to be out-schemed and out-coached. The defense was baffled by Arizona's offense, which previously was the worst in the Pac-10, averaging only 248 yards a game before facing UCLA, where it amassed 519. All season long we've been maintaining that UCLA's run defense was vulnerable to off-tackle runs, and this game it came to fruition. Arizona's Clarence Farmer bounced outside time and time again after finding no running room inside and found open real estate. Many times when UCLA blitzed from one side of the field, it looked like Arizona knew it was coming and executed a play to the opposite side. Arizona's blockers picked up UCLA's blitzers perfectly, most of the time beating the UCLA rushers to the position where they were going to be. Arizona's quarterbacks were obviously told to step up into the pocket and exploit the soft middle of UCLA's defense, which they did repeatedly. Even as bad as that monstrous run by quarterback Nic Costa (How fast is he?) was that he took straight up UCLA's gut on a scramble, Heavner really hurt UCLA's defense when they had a rush on him and he merely stepped up and gained 4 yards repeatedly. Instead of losing 5 on a sack, he gained four.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona's defense looked like they had been in on a few UCLA offensive meetings. They looked like they recognized most of the plays UCLA was going to run, and on which down. And UCLA's play-calling played right into their hands. The Arizona defense is extremely vulnerable to the pass, especially without being able to mount a pass rush. But UCLA stubbornly stuck to their establish-the-run first approach, probably to the delight of the Arizona brain trust.
Through five games, UCLA's defense has held up the charge of this team. While the offense was sputtering, or starting and stopping, the defense was steadily dominating its opponents. It not only kept UCLA in its first five games, but directly contributed to winning them by creating points, as it did against Arizona.
The Arizona game, though, was a glimpse of a side of this team that you would fear: Where the offense is sputtering and the defense isn't having a good day.
It's too much to expect a defense to have a dominating performance every week, especially with UCLA's tough schedule, one of the toughest in the country, plus going twelve straight weeks without a bye. This was a week you could have easily anticipated a defensive letdown, and it happened. But having been the main contributor to UCLA being 4-2 at this point in the season, it's easy to give the defense some slack and allow them this poor effort and mis-step.
The offense, though, is still not near being able to carry a game when the defense isn't. And again, it's getting tiring, but so much of it seems to stem from the conservative playbook combined with the conservative play-calling.
We had said that, after Pac-10 teams get to study UCLA's offense enough, they'd be able to scheme against it pretty easily. This looks like exactly what we saw in the Arizona game. Arizona's defense doesn't have great, standout talent. It was last in the Pac-10 in overall defense coming into this game. But being able to scheme against UCLA's offense seemed to make up for the lack of talent and performance and made it look like one of the elite defenses in the conference. UCLA seems to use a very limited number of plays in every game. There are a couple of running plays that are designed to go tackle to tackle. In the passing game, there are short outs, an occasional slant, some posts, drags, running back screens and flairs, and then every week there are a couple of more plays introduced. But in every game, it seems like there are only a handful of plays – and those plays are run over and over. Some plays from the previous week seemingly get tossed out of the game plan for that week and aren't available. Some plays or sets that have been consistently successful in previous weeks get ignored the next week (very few shotguns against Arizona).
The play calling then exacerbates the problem. You start with a limited number of plays that the defense has to prepare for, but when you run them in a limited number of down-and-distances, you're making it even easier on the defense.
And for the most part, the play-calling conservatism truly continues to hamper UCLA's offense, and it does so not when UCLA is in bad field position, but when it's in good field position. In UCLA's first series of the game, it mounted a decent drive. It featured fairly conservative play-calling, but did throw on first down, used some running back swing passes and receiver quick hitters, and mixed it up. Driving the field in such a methodical manner, though, demands that an offense will have to convert on so many critical plays, those pesky third-and-longs. By dinking and dunking, it puts a great deal of pressure on the offense to sustain movement down the field.
But in this first drive, UCLA moved the ball by dinking and dunking to the Arizona 20 yard line. Now, in striking distance, without the excuse of having to be conservative in your own territory, UCLA runs the ball on first and second down. Then Drew Olson throws an interception.
On its second possession, UCLA gets excellent field position after a great Craig Bragg punt return – a first down at the Arizona 18 yard line. Two runs up the middle to Manuel White puts Olson in a third and long, and he throws incomplete to Marcedes Lewis in the endzone.
There were at least a few more times during the game when UCLA had very good field position and opted to go very conservative in its play-calling again.
These drives – especially the first two -- really hurt the Bruins. The come away with only three points (a field goal after the second possession). Not being able to cash in on good field position and solid drives hurts you on the scoreboard, but also both physically and mentally tires an offense. You can't expect a team to get all of its offensive scores from methodical, dink-and-dunk drives. And it's especially draining when the team sustains a dink-and-dunk drive and comes away with no points – or very little – to show for it.
UCLA's offense, in the first half, had a chance to put up some points on the board and probably take the air out of Arizona early, but didn't capitalize. So much of it seems to come from UCLA getting suddenly extremely conservative within an opponent's 40-yard line. Many times the play-calling mixes up passes and runs to get down the field, albeit still with conservative plays, but at the opponent's 20-yard line, it runs the ball on first and second down. Within the redzone, on a shortened field, and if, because of nothing else, the defense is packed tighter, it's obviously going to be more difficult to run. The players and coaches have said that the offense is conservative, running on first and second down, primarily when it's backed up in its own territory. But the conservatism that is hurting them continues to really surface when UCLA is in scoring distance. This has made the offense fail to convert on its long drives. It fails to convert on good field position. Having expended a great deal of energy to get down the field with a dink-and-dunk drive, it's more often than not failing to get enough points out of it.
Now, again, as we've said in the past, this offense can work and be hard to defend if 1) You have great talent and 2) You have experienced, seasoned personnel. It's a stubborn kind of offense that insists on doing things its own way rather than taking what the defense gives it, and it would work if you can satisfy the these two criteria.
The problem is – UCLA isn't satisfying these two criteria. The offensive personnel are getting closer to satisfying criteria #2 – getting more experienced, knowledgedable and comfortable in the offense. But it's a question of whether UCLA has the material to satisfy criteria #1 – primarily in its offensive line. The offense is geared toward stubbornly running the ball, whether or not the defense is stacking the box. To do so, you need some elite offensive linemen. This isn't necessarily saying that UCLA's offensive line is entirely to blame for the ineffectiveness of the offense, but rather, just about any offensive line would be culpable running this offense in college. It would be very difficult to put together an offensive line talented enough to be able to run against a stacked box down after down.
The stubborn running game would also work if you had a truly elite running back, which UCLA probably doesn't. It has three good running backs, but not one of the caliber that is going to be able to make plays consistently on his own.
Now, this is just a complete armchair analysis (as all of this is, of course). But it seems when the UCLA coaches can diagram out a series they're far more creative. Usually UCLA's first series mixes up plays well, a series that UCLA's coaches have scripted going into the game. And interestingly enough, when Matt Moore entered the game for his two series against Arizona, the play-calling opened up a little more. It's a pretty good bet, too, that the two series for Moore were probably scripted.
Again, from the arm chair: Is it that UCLA's coaches can't be as creative when they have to call plays on the fly during a game?
Overall, there were a few positives to take from this game. The defense, while not playing consistently well, did make some big plays that saved the afternoon. Tyler Ebell is slowly proving he could be the most effective running back among the three. Drew Olson had a solid game, but didn't get many opportunities. For another week, without the individual play-making of Craig Bragg and even Junior Taylor, UCLA loses this game.
The big take-away you get from Tucson, though, is the realization that UCLA's defense is vulnerable. It's not super-human and can't carry the team in every game (even though, while it didn't have a good game, it still carried the team against Arizona). And this is to be expected. As stated above, it's too much pressure to expect UCLA's defense to be dominating every game, especially with UCLA's schedule.
And given that knowledge, that UCLA's defense isn't super-human, there's the stark realization that UCLA is going to need its offense to be far better than it is if it hopes to make it through the next six weeks of the Pac-10 season successfully. Pac-10 teams are going to have UCLA's offense scouted and schemed increasingly better. And while everyone has been saying that the UCLA offense is moving toward a break-through point of where it will be "clicking," it seems more like the offense is moving toward a breaking point. Either Pac-10 defenses will continue to improve in their scheming against the UCLA offense and UCLA will continue to employ its stubborn, limited play-calling, or the UCLA offense will have to open up, especially in scoring position – and begin to realize it has to take what the opposing defense gives it and adapt its playcalling during the game to exploit it.
UCLA is 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-10, which puts it in good shape in the Pac-10, being only among three teams total (Washington State and Oregon State being the others) without a conference loss so far. But the Pac-10 looks to be a very rocky road, given how UCLA performed against Arizona, and after putting the Washington win in perspective (the Huskies now appearing to be pretty bad, losing to Nevada Saturday). UCLA's defense looks to re-group. They've proven their worth in the first five games, and even on a bad day made the plays to help UCLA win.
But it will all come down to UCLA's offense. Because to win the Pac-10 title, there will be times in the next six games when UCLA's defense is getting beat, and it's not making the plays it needs to win, and the responsibility of winning a game will be on the UCLA offense.