The UCLA players and coaches seem to be doing everything right this year – that is, not on the field, but when talking to reporters.
UCLA is not talking national championship like they were last year after that misleading 3-0 start. Last year, Ryan McCann had a big case of foot-in-mouth when, after going 3-0 in non-conference, he said last year's team was the best in the country. They've learned their lesson; they now know how certain victories, even 3 or 4 to start a season, can be deceiving.
That is not to say that this UCLA football team isn't very good. It's only saying that the UCLA players and coaches suspect that they're very good, but once again, this week's game didn't present an elite opponent to eliminate any doubt.
The knock on UCLA's defense so far this year has been that they hadn't really faced a good offense. And OSU quarterback Jonathan Smith had the biggest case of foot-in-mouth himself yet this year when, before the game he said UCLA hadn't faced a good offense yet. Well, Jonathan, as many have pointed out, it still hasn't.
But the thing is, if UCLA keeps putting Ws up on the schedule, dominating opponents like it did Saturday, it could still have questions every Monday about the strength of the opponent they just beat – for the rest of the season. Bottom line: If everyone, including myself, still has these questions December 3rd, two days after UCLA beats Arizona State, I'll gladly acknowledge that UCLA hadn't beaten an elite opponent as long as its 11-0. In other words, there really isn't a potentially "elite" opponent on UCLA's schedule. The best candidates on the schedule for elite status are Washington and Oregon, but neither have looked particularly impressive, especially this last week when Washington had to come from behind to beat lowly, winless Cal, and Oregon didn't exactly dominate winless Utah State.
So, trying to determine how good this team really is given its strength of opponent is really a moot point.
Analyzing their play without it being dominated by the context of the strength of their opponent is probably the more appropriate. And a helluva lot more fun. So, here we go…
What's impressive about the victory is that the offense really isn't clicking on all cylinders. Cory Paus is still not humming. He started this game 2 for 10 and missed some pretty easy passes in the first half that were drive killers. One pass to Matt Stanley in the flat, if Paus leads him correctly and keeps the pass within the lines, it's a touchdown. If he just hits the fairly easy passes, UCLA could have mounted the rout quite a bit early than it did and the score could have been in the 50s. So, what's up with Paus? It's interesting because it seems like his problem is the inverse of what it was last year. Last year, it seemed, he struggled to throw the long ball but was very efficient in the short passing game. This year, he's right on the money throwing the long ball, but is struggling to complete the short, basic pass. There are some very good signs, though. Paus definitely keeps improving, and the cold stretches in the game are getting shorter. He seems to be gaining more confidence in his offensive line to give him protection, and more confidence in his receivers to get open. As he's attempted more short passes, his effectiveness has slowly improved, and as he gets more comfortable, given these factors, he'll more than likely continue to get more efficient. Right now, the one glaring weakness on this team that is holding it back from being truly elite itself is the execution of the short passing game. If Paus can get more efficient here, the team could actually live up to many of the pundits' hypes.
DeShaun Foster reinstated his name in the Heisman Trophy race with one of the best performances of his career. Most importantly, Foster has gone the first four games of the season without an injury, which could be a first for him. Secondly, even if his style of running is frustrating to you, you have to admit he's effective. While you might want to see him hit a hole with quickness rather than bouncing around, it's getting to the point that you'll accept that, and the occasional run that loses 3 yards, for those really spectacular runs where tacklers are bouncing off him like Superman. In fact, the one touchdown run in the second half of the OSU game when Foster shedded four tacklers and then tip-toed down the sidelines into the end zone had Keith Jackson calling him Superman. But, given how good Foster is, it still might be great to see Akil Harris a little more, just to throw off opposing defenses by having to defend a different style of runner. And it was very impressive the way Akil hit that hole for his 50-odd yard run. Once Foster has pounded a defense like meat tenderizer, to bring in the fresh legs of Harris, legs that hit holes quickly, would seem like a great, not-fully realized weapon for the offense. And while I'd like to see Foster get his yards and get listed in the Heisman watch every week, I'd more like to see the offense demolish defenses.
The play-calling was good, if not very good, against Oregon State. It's easy to call plays when you're running back is getting 5-7 yards a carry most of the time, but the coaches threw on first down, threw in situations where they have run previously this year, which was very encouraging. You found yourself second-guessing the play-calling far more in this game than any game so far this season.
The one play, though, that is easily the most second-guessable in the playbook is the running back screen pass. So far this season it's been the worst executed in the playbook, but the OSU game might have provided a clue as to why. When the UCLA offense ran the play with Foster it was a mess. When they ran the play with Manuel White, is was very effective. Anazyling the difference it's simple: Running a screen play for a player that has the entire defensive unit keying on him might not be a great idea.
But don't you think Manuel White is scary when he gets moving with the ball in the open field?
What's probably the most encouraging about the offense, and the most critical, is how the offensive line seems to continue to work and correct its deficiencies. In the first couple of games, they looked deficient at pass protection, but have vastly improved in the last couple of games (You have to give credit to the running backs also, for improving on picking up blitzes). The OL also looks more precise in its run blocking.
With Tab Perry down with a concussion, it was the perfect time for Brian Poli-Dixon to step up, and he did. He's not going to out-juke anyone, he's not Freddie Mitchell, but there is an obvious advantage he has over DBs because of his size that he needs to keep exploiting the way he did in this game.
Defensively, there is quite of bit of credit to dole out. It probably starts, though, with Phil Snow. Many might say that he inherited a talented team that was finally experienced and mature, but the schemes, a few interesting wrinkles, and the blitzing in this game was probably the best defensive play-calling and game preparation by a UCLA DC in a long time. I don't think one blitz in this game was ineffective, either resulting in a sack, a hurry, or a tackle for loss. And it was mostly the unpredictable nature of the blitz package, with the blitz coming from a different position just about every time.
This game has to mark the most times that Kenyon Coleman's name has ever been called. Coleman probably had the best game of his career, being all over the field, getting a sack, overwhelming his blocker on just about every passing down and even being used in pass coverage. And when it comes to Jason Stephens, the issue with him has been for the last four years: He's talented, but when will his light turn on? I think we c