ASU Review: Luck, Defense & Playmakers

UCLA gets another win this week against Arizona State with its improbable but winning formula. Despite the continued limitations of the offense, the team is now 6-2, 4-0 and a Pac-10 championship contender...

Last week the theme was Luck and Defense.

This week it is Luck and Playmakers.

With some considerable luck and the benefit of some playmakers on UCLA, the Bruins again win a game that they very well could have lost.

But heck, I'm a believer now in the winning force that is propelling this team. They're 6-2, tied for first in the Pac-10 at 4-0, and who's really to say that they couldn't continue to win games with this winning style?

Well, I know, plenty of fans. And obviously plenty of media since UCLA still has yet to convince anyone that they're a team to be reckoned with, still not in either Top 25 poll.

Last week there was much discussion after the "Luck and Defense" article about what exactly is luck in sports. Is there actual luck involved, or do you make your own luck, and therefore are responsible for what transpires? There are plenty of instances where a team does create its luck, either good or bad. And even if you concede, and give a team 100% credit for those events (which is a big concession because even though you force a fumble, the ball still has to have that lucky bounce), there are also still almost purely lucky events that happen.

Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter spraining his ankle could be one of the best examples.

Without Walter, Arizona State went from a fairly good team to a pretty bad one. It is a testament to the difference an experienced, talented quarterback makes on a team. Without Walter, and with a shaky true freshman in Sam Keller running the show, ASU's offense was completely ineffectual. It really did provide a good perspective, one in which UCLA fans should maybe note: Watching Keller run the ASU offense, the Sun Devils suddenly looked very one-dimensional and vanilla.

And while we're digressing, it only again emphasizes how important it is in college football today to have a good quarterback, and to cultivate recruiting and quarterback development so that you not only have talent at quarterback, but experience. Really, if you don't have talent at quarterback, and you don't recruit well enough to get enough talent to where you're mostly utilizing older, more experienced players at the position, it's very unlikely you'll succeed at the college level. If there was one primary reason why former head coach Bog Toledo probably lost his job it was quarterback recruiting. After Cade McNown, he brought in one elite level quarterback prospect in J.P. Losman, who lasted a few weeks before transferring. After McNown, Toledo failed to bring in a quarterback that could execute his offense successfully. I've always believed that Toledo, after McNown, started to believe it was the superiority of his system that had made him successful and didn't want to kowtow to any superior quarterback talent, and that he could plug in an average quarterback and still be successful.

But, in getting back to the ASU game, If Walter doesn't tweak his ankle, this is a different experience. UCLA shut out ASU in the second half. And while the UCLA defense has had a tendency to do well in second halves this year, you'd have to chalk up most of this to the loss of Walter. Before Walter went out, UCLA's defense was perhaps looking somewhat average.

So, there was some considerable luck, again, that helped UCLA to the win.

But there were also some playmakers.

In this game, there were a number of plays made that were extraordinary – that were due mostly to the talent of the player than the scheme or the play. The two UCLA touchdowns were primarily both great plays made by the players rather than brilliant strategizing. The drives that produced points were established and kept alive by a number of great plays by certain players – who are seemingly succeeding despite the limitations of the offense.

We said at the beginning of the season that it would be tough to keep the talent of the UCLA offense down, even if it's the UCLA offensive scheme that's doing it. And this looks to be proving out game after game.

Where would this team be without Craig Bragg? He's made more improbable plays that were either scores or led to scores than anyone this year. He is the clear MVP of this team this season so far.

Now some would argue that this is not giving its due credit to the scheme – that the scheme is responsible for giving the opportunity to the playmakers to make plays. But that simply doesn't look to be the case. It's not as if, through inspired play-calling, the plays are keeping defenses off-balance. It's not as if through great schemes, the wide receivers are finding themselves wide open for easy touchdown receptions. It's not as if the blocking schemes are consistently keeping defenses off-balance and guessing, and therefore creating consistent holes for the running backs to run through. No, this is Craig Bragg, Maurice Drew, Manuel White, Matt Moore, Drew Olson, Tyler Ebell and Marcedes Lewis making plays.

Even with Matt Moore at quarterback, and the UCLA offensive coaches seemingly more inclined to throw, and throw on first and second down, the offense is still vanilla and predictable. Because it just isn't the offense that is vanilla, it's truly that each week's game plan is vanilla. If you put together an offense with even the accumulated limited variety of offensive plays we've seen this season, you'd have some diversity. You'd have slants, screens, swing passes, end arounds, pitches, shotguns, rollouts, passes to the fullback and more. But how much of those did we see this week against ASU? Yeah, the coaches will say that, after scouting ASU (or whatever the week's opponent is), this was what they conceived as the best game plan and plays against that opponent's defense. But isn't, first and foremost, diversification the best foundation of any game plan? It seems like the offensive game plan every week consists of UCLA recognizing potentially a few plays that could be effective against that week's opponent and then only using those few plays in that game – and throwing out a majority of the playbook.

Why didn't Matt Moore roll out in this game? Why didn't he throw from the shotgun? Okay, maybe in scouting the ASU defense the coaches thought these didn't offer the best chances of being successful. So, maybe you don't do it all game long, but wouldn't you do it just a couple of times to keep the defense off-balance? UCLA keeps calling the same plays over and over in the same game that opposing defenses are easily keying. Combined with how readable the UCLA offense is overall (e.g. they almost never throw the ball when Craig Bragg is not in the game, etc.), it seems like UCLA is handing over an advantage to the opposing defense every week.

In football, there is a simple fact that gives the offense an advantage over the defense. The offense knows what it's going to do and the defense can only guess and react. The best offenses exploit this advantage.

UCLA, though, in going 6-2 so far this season, has defied common sense. While on one hand you can recognize that UCLA has enough talent to be 6-2, even to be 7-1, there have been a number of games they easily could have lost because of the limitations of their offense. You can recognize that UCLA has the talent to be 6-2 but not the production on the field. So, it not only defies common sense, but defies any kind of sense.

But the question continues to be: Can UCLA's non-sensical winning formula hold up for the rest of the season? The formula of Luck, Defense – and now – Playmakers, propelled them by one more road block in ASU. And that was a considerable one. It keeps UCLA atop the Pac-10 standings and very much in the race for the conference championship for probably at least two more weeks (not withstanding a loss to Stanford this week).

Many of the skeptics will point toward November 8th when UCLA travels to Pullman to take on Washington State as the moment of truth for UCLA. The O.K. Corral of the season. When UCLA's winning formula meets reality and probability. And they're probably right. But at this point, there is every reason to believe that, with UCLA's luck, Matt Ware will return by the Washington State game, the Cougars' quarterback Matt Kegel will twist an ankle, Craig Bragg will make an improbable catch for a score, and Rod Leisle will intercept another pass.

But also, if you're living off the formula of Luck, Defense and Playmaking, you're living dangerously. And there is absolutely no way you can look past a seemingly gimme game like Stanford. The oddmakers aren't. UCLA opened as only 5 ½-point favorites over the Cardinal.

I guess the oddmakers haven't bought into UCLA's winning formula yet. They'll all be kicking themselves when they still haven't bought into it after UCLA beats Miami for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. In that game, Brock Berlin will break his hand when he hits it on the helmet of Dave Ball and Brandon Chillar will return a blocked punt for the winning touchdown.


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