Everything about this game that could trick UCLA did.
As foreshadowed, Stanford used the blitz to make Saturday as stressful for Matt Moore and UCLA fans as a "Night of the Living Dead," "Female Troubles," and "Blue Velvet" triple-header. This game had me reaching for my oxygen canister and playing Bobby Vinton tunes after the first Ryan Smith drop.
Eleven total sacks on the year…and Stanford pulls eight out of their goody bag to drop on the Bruins. Suffice it to say, there is ample blame to spread around. Given how often the entire set of Cardinal rushers seemed to converge on the QB, whether they rushed anywhere from 4 to even 8, there were many breakdowns by the protection, including the OL and the backs. There were more than a few sacks where some UCLA blockers didn't touch anyone, although Stanford was sending the kitchen sink. Far, far too often, two Bruin blockers double-team one guy, while another runs past untouched to wreak havoc with a vicious hit on the QB.
While most BROs primarily lamented the loss of Manuel White for his ability to blast for punishing yards, the Manster is also the best blitz-blocker UCLA has in the backfield. Pat Norton and Tyler Ebell didn't perform comparably against Stanford.
The second biggest culprit in UCLA's inability to beat the blitz was the lack of a ‘hot' receiver on the vast majority of plays. Only teams with superior athletes at QB consistently beat a blitzing D by trying to maximize protection: the D can always send one more rusher than the O has blockers, because the QB doesn't count. Sometimes the O guesses right, keeps in enough blockers to handle the number of blitzers, and actually prevents the blitzer/rusher from disrupting the play, but it takes superior line play to pull this off without failing at least 4 or 5 times in an 80 offensive play game.
If the QB can regularly slip the free rusher, or shrug off the hit and still deliver the ball, the O can succeed even if the OL isn't great. However, UCLA isn't blessed with that kind of QB on the roster.
The other, typically more successful, way to beat the blitz is to run clever ‘hot' routes so the QB can release the ball before the blitz gets to him. For example, the TE might release off the line and run for the spot where the MLB was just before blitzing the A gap, or the back might slip through the line to get to the same place. Another option is for the back to run an ‘angle' route, where he first heads for the flat, but then angles back to the middle of the field. Sometimes a slant, a ‘sluggo' (slant and go), or quick out to the WR will work, or an outright 9 route (the bomb/fade), but any normal WR pattern (like curls, deep outs, deep ins, deep posts, etc.) just takes too long to develop.
Also, asking a QB to run looking back over his shoulder much faster than the speed with which the pass rush is collapsing the pocket is a little much, especially after the D has registered its 3rd or 4th sack of the day. Relieving the QB of the burden of reading the D while dropping back is one of the biggest benefits of the shotgun.
But maddeningly, about all we saw Karl Dorrell's offense try to run against Stanford's blitz were typical plays, especially in the second half. The game plan and plays called exhibited no plays designed to beat the blitz, burn Stanford, and disabuse them of the notion that blitzing UCLA is an effective tactic. UCLA didn't even try a draw. As UCLA tried to protect more and more, keeping both backs in, and even the TE at times, the cause became more and more hopeless, because the best receivers to beat the blitz are the backs and TEs getting into the space of the middle of the field.
Rather than try to beat the D to the punch with jackrabbit releases, Karl Dorrell had the Bruins hunker down and withdraw into a shell of max protection like a turtle when it is the least bit threatened. Once Stanford smelled blood in the water, and had a taste of success blitzing UCLA on long yardage situations, they visited the chum line frequently. The Cardinal had two sacks on 1st and 10, three sacks on 2nd down (7, 10 and 16 to go), and three sacks on 3rd down (3rd and 5, and two 3rd and 12s). Any time the Bruins confronted a long yardage situation, the Cardinal had them at their mercy and ended many Bruin drives that way.
As if the protection and play design deficiencies weren't enough, the Bruins picked a horrible day to drop the balls that did come their way. There were at least a half dozen drops on the day.
So the protection was completely unacceptable. The system was completely unacceptable because it didn't provide a solution to the problem Stanford was presenting. If anything, the scheme in 2003 is more futile handling serious pressure than last year's offense was, which is saying something. For whatever reason, the OL is struggling to identify the proper D the front seven are, and call out blocking patterns that are effective at neutralizing the blitz.
So what's a QB to do? Once Matt Moore was beaten, battered and bruised, and the Cardinal players had dove at his front leg a few times, and the realization emerged that there was no safety valve/outlet receiver to dump the ball to, the writing was on the wall: the Bruins had been outmaneuvered again. The opponent had seized the initiative with aggressive tactics, and UCLA had no countermove that it attempted to implement, if it even had one in the back-pocket. Thus, it was only a matter of time before big plays went Stanford's way to put the game in their win column.
Ask any DC his most fervent wish, and "hitting the QB" is at least #1A, if not #1. "Destroying the run" might be #1. On this day, Stanford's DCs got their wish.
What makes it all the worse was how on fire UCLA started offensively. Consider this:
- Of the game's first 37 plays (including punts and kick-offs), UCLA had the ball for 26 offensive plays (1 punt). Stanford only had 9 plays, excluding ‘no plays', punts, kick-offs, etc.
- Of the 26 plays, 17 were ‘positive' (3+ yards, or gain a 1st down/TD), and only 9 ‘wasted', a 2:1 ratio that was way ahead of UCLA's season average of 1:1. The most negative play UCLA had in this stretch was the sack of Moore which lost 8 yards and forced UCLA's sole punt.
- UCLA gained 114 yards on those 26 plays (an average of 4.4 ypp), produced 9 first downs, and one TD. Stanford produced 32 yards on 9 plays, for 2 first downs. If UCLA could have sustained this production, they were on pace to go well above 400 yards for the game. The average YPP was low, but often that will rise once a D is fatigued.
- Matt Moore was on fire. Of 11 planned passes, he was sacked once and scrambled once for a first down. The 9 times he threw the ball, he completed 7 for 61 yards, almost every throw perfectly on target to a wide-open receiver. Moore was victimized by the drop of a perfect pass to Ryan Smith that would have been another 15 to 20 yards easy. His 7 completions produced 5 first downs, 3 of them on 3rd down.
- Moore completed passes to 7 different receivers, with no completion gaining more than 12 yards (3 times, twice on slants to Craig Bragg and Smith, and once on medium middle pattern to Marcedes Lewis).
- He threw the ball left (threw the ball left!!!!) 3 times, and completed all 3. He was 2 for 2 going over the middle. Only Ryan Smith's drop and Moore's dubious decision to throw a bomb to a well-covered Smith marred Moore's nearly perfect start.
- The running game was grinding, too. Maurice Drew toted the pig 11 times for 42 yards and 1 TD, picked up 3 first downs, had 7 positive plays to 4 wasted plays (almost a 2:1 ratio), broke a few tackles, avoided a few more, had some yards taken away due to penalty, and would have gained some more if his wheels hadn't gone out from under him. His 3rd and 2 pick-up was instrumental to keeping the 18-play, 94 yard TD drive alive; he bowled over an unblocked LBer to get the 1st down.
- Tyler Ebell was a little less effective: 4 totes, 11 yards, one first down, and 2 wasted plays to 2 positive plays, with no broken tackles.
- The Bruins were very effective on 1st down: 11 chances, 7 positive plays. Three of four passes were successful (23 yards) and 4 of 7 runs were successful (20 yards). The success continued on 2nd down: 9 total chances, 5 successful plays, going 2 for 3 on passes (17 yards) and 3 for 6 on runs (21 yards). But UCLA was best on 3rd down: 5 for 6 conversions, 3 of 4 through the air (22 yards) and 2 of 2 on the ground (6 yards).
- Note: Kevin Brown was the right guard during this period of UCLA domination.
The turning point of the game was Stanford's answering TD drive. Stanford converted 3 third down plays (a 3rd and 8, a 3rd and 2, and a 3rd and goal from the 2) on the 13 play drive. Unfortunately, UCLA exhibited massive confusion once again defending against a play-action pass when in the goal line D, giving Stanford a gimme TD when TE Matt Traverso was wide-open in the corner. Stanford even ran the double-tight, triple I formation that Arizona used so successfully against UCLA.
On the 3rd and 2 conversion, Stanford ran a delayed hand-off to Kenneth Tolon that worked perfectly: UCLA's DL read pass, and they were so intent on sacking the QB that natural running lanes emerged, so Tolon exploited the over-aggressiveness for a 20-yard run, the biggest play of the drive. The next play was a beautiful blitz beater: UCLA sent SS Jarrad Page and MLB Justin London up the middle on 1st and 10, but Stanford countered with a shotgun formation, and then a delayed angle pattern by TE Alex Smith. Stanford subtly gave the look of a screen, Smith opened up to the outside, and then went back inside, caught the ball about 2 yards deep, and fooled the LBers for a 9-yard gain.
Statistically, the D had a great game. Stanford only gained 206 yards total, and only 91 of those were through the air. However, the D wasn't able to make the big play very often. UCLA had one sack, courtesy of Dave Ball, and one pick, a beautiful play by Jarrad Page. But UCLA once again forced no fumbles, although the Bruins had many chances to rip at the ball once the carrier was stood up. Stanford also had enough success running the ball, especially using the delayed halfback hand-off from the shotgun and the toss sweep from the bunch formation, to keep UCLA's D off balance.
Comparatively, Stanford also had pretty good statistics, holding UCLA to 287 yards because of 56 yards in losses. But in the second half, Stanford's D made a critical play on each of UCLA's first six possessions:
- Drive 1: UCLA, riding a big punt return from Craig Bragg that he wasn't quite able to take to the house vs. the Stanford punter, is going in for a game-tying touchdown until Ed Blanton inadvertently reaches around from behind and pokes the ball free from MoD. Of course the ball flies right to Oshiomogho Atogwe who effortlessly fields the bobble like Ozzie Smith handled a bad hop.
- Drive 2: Matt Moore throws a slant to Craig Bragg that is low and a little inside, but Bragg is able to channel Sinjin Smith just enough to dig the spike and bump it directly to Trevor Hooper so that he can once again display the perfect hand-eye coordination one obtains from living on a farm.
- Drive 3: Consecutive sacks on 2nd and 3rd down.
- Drive 4: The Drive That Wasn't. First UCLA allows Stanford to apparently convert a 4th and 10 play via an 18-yard completion to Alex Smith, but the officiating gods smile on UCLA and remove the scales from the umpire's eyes long enough for him to see a Stanford OL grab CJ Niusulu's face mask, negating the play. However, rather than getting the ball back, punter Eric Johnson (who put UCLA inside the 20 four times during the game) poochs one that Bragg can't catch on the fly, the guys blocking the gunners don't hear Bragg yell, "Fire!" and the ball hits Marcus Cassel in the back of the calf, which of course Stanford recovers. Shades of Alabama 2001, just different. Disheartened, UCLA gives up the impossible-to-overcome-the-way-the-O-is-playing TD a few plays later.
- Drive 5: After three positive plays in a row (two completions and a PI penalty on SU), Moore is sacked and fumbles.
- Drive 6: The Bruins have picked up two 1st downs, but on 2nd and 10, Moore is sacked for a 6-yard loss, killing the drive.
Tell me if you've seen this formula for success before: an aggressive, sack happy D that doesn't give up big pass plays + a conservative O that doesn't self-destruct + deciding special teams plays = upset win over a more talented team.
Now UCLA knows how Cal feels, because the shoe is on the other foot.
The decisive special teams plays came on punt plays, naturally. As the punting game goes, so goes the Bruins.
First, Luke Powell returned a line-drive punt from Chris Kluwe 90 yards straight up the middle, highly reminiscent of previous Bruin coverage lapses. What made this TD return doubly deflating was that Page returned his interception to Stanford's 45 with 3:33 left in the first half, plenty of time for UCLA to at least get a field goal and take a lead into halftime. However, Stanford's D rose up and UCLA's O bowed down, and a humiliating 3-and-out later, Powell had stuck a dagger into UCLA in what amounted to a 14-point switch.
Then there was the muff involving Cassel and Bragg.
The crazy thing is, even though UCLA looked like they were running in molasses all day long, unable to get any separation from Stanford's secondary or overwhelm Stanford's O, the Bruins still had a chance to win it. Especially when UCLA faced 4th and less than 1 on its own 34 yard line with 45 seconds left, even though they were scratching and clawing to have gained 24 yards in 1:23.
Stanford crowded the line and had at least 8 in the box, ready to deny the quarterback sneak that everybody knew was coming. Stanford appeared to be selling out on the play. So what better chance would the Bruins have to catch the Cardinal by surprise, roll the dice, run a play-action pass, and make Marcedes Lewis, Drew Olson, Karl Dorrell and Steve Axman heroes for a day? The gamble couldn't have ended up worse than the alternative, although we'll never know.