The theme: It's better to be lucky than good.
What happened: UCLA is generally out-played for most of the game by an inferior team. UCLA's offense struggles, and UCLA's defense saves the day again with a great play and gets 7 points out of it, which is the difference in the final score.
It would also be possible to just keep recycling the same long-running motif of the season, the one that has been the central focus of every game analysis that's appeared on this site: The offensive scheme and the offensive play-calling are limiting the offensive production.
The lack of imagination and creativity offensively in the California game was as much, if not the most, pronounced of any game yet this season. And it was more detrimental to the team in this game than perhaps any other. It contributed to many momentum shifts. "Shifts" might not be the accurate word; it was more like missed opportunities of momentum. There were times when UCLA looked to be grabbing the reins of the momentum horse and then the run-run-pass play-calling deflated that momentum and handed it over to Cal like a gift (a gift horse?). After UCLA had come out and scored off its first possession, it felt like UCLA had the early edge on the momentum ledger. Then, on its second possession, UCLA goes run-run-sack. In the second quarter, after UCLA's defense came up with a big play, Spencer Havner's first blocked field goal, the momentum is just hanging there like a ripe plum for the taking. UCLA, in the ensuing possession, runs the ball four times in a row to force the very familiar third-and-long. See ya, momentum, once again. We barely knew ye. In the third quarter, when the momentum was still hovering out there and waiting for either team to grab it, UCLA continually killed its drives and its momentum with play-calling. On one possession at 8:28 in the third quarter: run-run-sack. At first down at the California 49: run-run-sack.
If you haven't noticed, the run-run-pass play-calling has evolved into run-run-sack.
What's funny is, in a weird, twisted way, you to tend to start to root against the UCLA running game. It's evident that UCLA's stubborn about running the ball. And when it even gets a slight hint that there could be a sliver of running room, it then seemingly has that approach reinforced and runs more. After Tyler Ebell broke off his 82-yard touchdown run that was called back because of a phantom holding call (one of the most infuriating calls of recent years), UCLA seemed to psychologically dedicate itself more to the stubborn running philosophy.
It's now also easy to see that offense is getting scouted really well, as we predicted during non-conference play. Not only is the predictable and conservative play-calling a detriment, but the predictability of the play itself. Arizona and California defenders seemed to know more often where a play was going. Drew Olson's quarterback waggle is now getting shut down quite often, obviously the formation and personnel in the game tipping off the defense. UCLA's quick out patterns are sniffed out easily, on some plays opposing cornerbacks running to the spot of the throw before the quarterback throws the ball without paying attention to where the receiver is. In third-and-longs, the predictable five-step drops for Olson leave him a sitting duck.
All of this combines for an offense that, when it is successful, you get the feeling it's defying the severe odds against it. The drives have a few longshot third-and-longs converted to keep them alive. Or Craig Bragg makes a great catch, or out-plays a true freshman cornerback, as he did on his touchdown catch in the third quarter. It's never based on sound and creative play calling, but mostly on UCLA's offensive talent overcoming the odds against it due to the play calling.
And perhaps the most mind-boggling call of the year so far happened against Cal. With such conservative play-calling, you'd think it'd be safe that when you need a conservative play called, you'd get one. UCLA is up 20-12 in the fourth quarter with about eight minutes left in the game. It's in field goal position at Cal's 29-yard line. It'd be a 46-yard field goal, which is completely within Justin Medlock's range. A field goal would make the score 23-12 and Cal would need at least two scores (touchdowns even) to win. So, the exact situation where UCLA's conservative offense needs a conservative play called, what does it do? It calls a pass. And it calls a pass with play action, on a third and nine. What happens? Olson is sacked for a ten-yard loss and out of field goal range.
This call, more than anything, makes you wonder whether there is much wisdom behind the play calling in general. Is there really a design and cognizance behind the seeming dedication to the run and conservativism?
Perhaps another call that was mind-boggling was never putting Matt Moore into the game. After the first half, Drew Olson had only performed adequately. He had made some good throws when given time. But he didn't do well at looking off his receivers; he struggled to make a decision to throw the ball when he had to; he didn't see the field well, and he lacked a good feeling for the pass rush and had little escapability. These are all aspects of quarterbacking in which Matt Moore is superior and the reason he was chosen as the starting quarterback over Olson to begin the season. It seemed like a pretty logical move to start Moore in the second half, but after coming out of the tunnel at the half with his white UCLA baseball cap on backward and his helmet seemingly in mothballs it not only appeared that Moore wouldn't be starting the second half but wouldn't see any second-half playing time.
You can understand going with a "hot" quarterback. That would be understandable. But there can be some argument about whether Olson is "hot." He's won four games in a row and is 3-0 in the Pac-10. So, there is the opinion that, as long as the team is winning, why make a change? But there is the other, pretty obvious realization that the team has been winning despite the lack of production from the offense. UCLA very well could have had the same production from the offense and Drew Olson in the last two games and lost both games. Would that have spurred the coaches to then use Moore more? It seems like a short-sighted and (again, that word) conservative approach to the situation to not have used Moore at all during this game. Not only was the beginning of the second half, with UCLA up 7-3, a prime situation to give Moore a chance, but midway through the third quarter with UCLA up 14-6 and starting a possession from its own 20. I don't know why Moore couldn't at least had done what Olson did in that down-and-distance situation – that is, hand off the ball twice on first and second down and then get sacked and fumble.
But despite the obvious short-comings of the offense and the offensive play-calling, UCLA still won. Last week we said it was a matter of UCLA not having a break-through with its offense but a matter of time before they reach a breaking point. Well, they averted that breaking point for another week.
And there have been teams in the past, including last year's national champion, Ohio State, that put together pretty incredible seasons by averting breaking points the entire season.
The question is: Can this team, which is currently 5-2 and 3-0 in the Pac-10 (tied for first), continue to win with the defense carrying it and the offense hurting it? Can it actually win the Pac-10 and beat USC with the way it's playing?
This isn't just a matter of being blindly optimistic. This is optimism based on some history here now. UCLA has proven this year that it can win with this big-play-defense-and-a-lackluster-offense formula. With this formula, UCLA has now beaten a team that is the only team to have beaten USC yet this season. This is now Optimism for Pessimists -- with the full realization that the offense isn't going to reach that break-through point this year, but that the defense will be good enough and then, combined with some luck, find a way to win.
That realistic optimism now legitimately exists, to a degree. Before the California game, I maintained that, for UCLA to be successful the rest of the season it would have to have that break-through offensively. Now, I'm not so sure. Football is a game of talent, preparation, and a great deal of luck. UCLA has had enough of two out of those three elements in several games this year, including the last two, to eke out wins. Who's to say that it couldn't continue on its talent/luck streak for the remainder of the season?
To reduce it to that much simplicity, though – of talent and luck – is not giving the defense its complete due. The defense does have talent, and it has been lucky, but it also has had solid preparation and coaching so far this season. While you can point to some defensive weaknesses in the Cal game that allowed Cal to get back in it and force the game into overtime, those weaknesses are miniscule compared to the strengths and accomplishments of this defense this season in carrying the team. And it did it against Cal with perhaps its most important defensive player, Matt Ware, out of the game, and relying on two 5-9 cornerbacks, both who hadn't started a game before this season. The defensive coaches have to be given an equal amount of recognition for their defensive scheme and coaching. Yes, the defense has a great deal of talent to work with, but the defensive coaches have used it and taken advantage of it well. And to keep the defense playing at such a high level and putting them in a position to make huge, game-deciding plays when there is so much added pressure put on them by a non-producing offense is also a credit to the coaches as well.
So, can UCLA continue to defy the odds and win with this formula? Any reasonable and rational person would have to take the odds and bet on "no." You'd have to think that the luck-and-defense formula will eventually run out against Arizona State, Washington State, Oregon or USC. That's where most of the frustration and foreboding is coming from in UCLA fans – the reasonable and rational expectation that this team is destined to hit a wall, and a pretty huge wall at that, with the formula it's used to win. So, while that argument we hear on the message board ("Stop your complaining, they're 5-2 and winning") is gaining some validity, it's also not too realistic. It's as if you're General Custer, convincing your men that you've won over-matched battles before.
But then again, there is some more evidence to be taken from around the Pac-10 that you might be able to use to buck up your soldiers. The teams you have to beat aren't invincible, by any means. Each has shown considerable chinks in its armor (great how that fit into the war analogy, isn't it?). UCLA plays Arizona State next weekend, a team that got smoked by Oregon State, 45-17, which is a team that was soundly beaten by Washington, 38-17, a team that UCLA trounced 46-16 (So, UCLA should beat Arizona State by 79 points, right?). It at least can give you some realistic optimism that the luck-and-defense formula will have a good chance at winning against the Sun Devils. Stanford is next on the schedule and they're 2-3 and 0-3 in the conference. They would seem to be in the same category as Arizona, a team UCLA beat with its formula. November 8th, then, UCLA travels to Washington State, which could loom as UCLA's biggest challenge to its winning formula, being in Pullman on the road. Washington State, though, has generally looked good this season, but not scary-good. They only beat Stanford this week by ten points in a very under-whelming way. The Cougars also face Oregon State and USC in the next two weeks and could get beat up and lose their conference edge by the time UCLA goes to Pullman. Then UCLA has Oregon at home, which has suffered two huge, one-sided losses to Washington State and Arizona State and looks very beatable in the Rose Bowl.
Then there's USC. USC has looked the best in the Pac-10 over the last couple of weeks, but it still is very beatable, as Cal can confirm. Luckily, their offense is their weaker unit and UCLA's luck-and-defense formula might match up well against the Trojans. Or at least, have a chance.
And that's all this luck-and-defense formula might need. A chance.
And what happens if, as we said before, the seemingly incomprehensible happens and the offense does break through, or the coaches do open up the offense more, or Matt Moore does eventually come into a game and provide a play-making spark?
At 5-2 and 3-0, there is now some foundation to have optimism for the season. It is now reasonable to believe that if the offense gets on track it could combine with the luck-and-defense formula to be successful for the remainder of the schedule. Or, for the pessimists who feel the offense will never get on track, it's reasonable to be optimistic now that the team could continue to win on the luck-and-defense formula alone. It's proven it can do it so far...