The Cal game was probably UCLA's worst performance overall as a team this season, but it's a testament to how good this team is since it still did what it had to do, and that was blow out Cal.
It was the team's worst performance mainly because it might have been the offensive line's worst performance, combined with a show of a little vulnerability on the part of the UCLA's tough defense and some unnerving penalties.
That's just a little vulnerability.
The defense still held Cal to a decent net 328 yards, with about 90 yards of that coming in the 4th quarter against UCLA's second-string defense.
But the Cal running game had the best day against this UCLA defense yet this year, getting 127 yards, and quite frequently picking up solid gains through the middle of UCLA's run defense. Joe Igber, the Cal running back, was a bit different than the type of runner UCLA had faced previously – small and hard to get a hold of. The Cal running game employed some nice misdirection, which created some holes, and, for whatever reason, the UCLA linebackers weren't as prominent in stopping the run as they have been this year. Robert Thomas, who has had the best season by any linebacker in the nation so far this year, was relatively quiet against Cal.
But still, UCLA overall held Cal to 3.8 yards a carry.
The defense, though, reaffirmed some of its stronger points. The biggest one is: If you catch the ball against this defense, you're going to pay. There are some headhunters on this team like Marques Anderson and Ricky Manning that have to be putting fear into future opponents.
So you can take it either way – depending on which type of person you are. If you're a positive person, you can look at it that UCLA's defense, on an off night, still was dominant. Or if you're a pessimistic person, you would probably think that this showed there might be something to worry about – that UCLA's defense showed some vulnerability against the worst team in the Pac-10. You choose.
The offensive line didn't have a very good game, especially early on. Cal's defensive line did some nice shifts, which confused UCLA's offensive line, particularly in pass protection. Cal registered 5 sacks in the first half, mainly due to missed blocking assignments, but the OL also missed some blocks. In the second half, UCLA made some adjustments and improved. Steve Vieira, subbing for usual starter Shane Lehmann at right guard, got beat a few times in the first half. Again, it's a case of how you want to look at it. Was this an aberration on the part of the OL? They had easily their best performance a week ago against Washington and now their poorest performance this week. Was it because of the absense of a starter? Or is it a sign that UCLA's offensive line has some weaknesses that a better team than Cal could exploit even worse than the Bears did? It was pretty clear that the offensive line had started out solid this year and then has steadily improved every week – until this week.
The penalties you'd hope were an aberration. UCLA was the least penalized team in the Pac-10 heading into the Cal game. But not only was the team hit with a good amount of penalties, but some extremely costly ones. Cal's touchdown drive in the first half was kept alive twice by UCLA penalties. UCLA committed four unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Cory Paus gets a huge amount of credit for winning this game. He was under some great pressure and not only did he keep his head, didn't make any mistakes, but he threw the ball extremely accurately, especially under duress. Paus's best throw of the night was when he hit Mike Seidman on a 42-yarder, with Cal's rush in his face, having to step up in a quickly collapsing pocket. Not only was it a good throw, but he found the receiver who was open. He was accurate in his short passes, his long throws, the throws that required touch and, dumped off the ball to secondary receivers under Cal's pass coverage with a rush that was in his face. Now, for optimists and pessimists alike, you'd have to admit that Paus's performance was encouraging. It could definitely be a sign that, with the accumulation of Paus's experience, his grasp of the offense and his growing confidence and comfort running the team, he's starting to do the things that need to be done to get the offense to more effective.
The most encouraging aspect of the offensive unit was the wide receivers and tight ends. With its most experienced wide receiver, Brian Poli-Dixon, out, the young and thin receiving corps stepped up. Ryan Smith, Tab Perry and Craig Bragg all had good games, catching the balls thrown to them, and getting yards after the catch. Mike Seidman also looked great, not only catching that 42-yarder from Paus, but catching one earlier in the game and shedding tacklers for a first down.
Many critics are pointing to the 50 yards or so DeShaun Foster got in the game when UCLA was up by 4 touchdowns, saying that UCLA was padding his stats. Probably true, but there could also be a case made that Foster unluckily had some yards taken away from him. Foster had a 40-yard run called back in the first half, and another 15-yarder called back in the second half. He was one tackle away from breaking off a big run all game. And the one run in the second half, if he stays in bounds, he has another 40 yards and another TD. The issue really isn't whether Foster's stats were padded, the issue is: How much of a gambel is it that Foster is still in the game in the second half when UCLA has an insurmountable lead? It's another issue that the optimists and pessimists might tangle about. One side of the coin would say it's good for UCLA in many ways to get Foster more yards when the game has already been put away. His Heisman candidacy brings UCLA media attention, and helps with recruiting. And the other side would say it's unduly risking injury to the best player on the team, in a year when UCLA has a chance to make a championship run. Again, you make your own call.
There are probably some things to take into consideration, though, when trying to decide if you're going to take away optimism or pessimism from the Cal game. The UCLA coaches have been pretty wily about what they're doing. The Cal game was, in many ways, used to set up the more challenging games coming up on UCLA's schedule. First, the coaches committed to the passing game far earlier than they had ever done in a game this season. It wasn't a matter that Foster was getting shut down (he had been shut down in the first half before and UCLA kept giving him the ball). It was more a matter that UCLA felt Cal was a good opportunity to 1) Get Paus sharper and give him more confidence throwing the ball, 2) get its young receivers some catches and some confidence with Poli-Dixon out and 3) send a signal to Stanford, Washington State and Oregon that if you stack the box against UCLA, it is fully capable of burning you through the air. Also, UCLA is keeping so much of its playbook hidden, knowing full well that it could beat Cal without opening it up, while also keeping it as a surprise for the rest of the schedule. In that same vein, UCLA has blitzed very little over the last two games, knowing that its defense could hold against the Washington and Cal offenses without having to blitz – which enables it to keep many of its blitz packages secret from upcoming opponents. The plan here is somewhat of a calculated risk; instead of doing everything you can to win the game that week, you keep some close to the vest and use what you have to to win. Like with anything else, if it doesn't work, you look like a fool. If it works, it's genius. So far this season, it's worked.
Starting next week UCLA gets into the part of the schedule that truly determines the success of its season. It faces three ranked teams with a combined record of 19-1, with two of the games on the road. The UCLA coaches took the risk – knowing that if they held back some of its arsenal and could get to this point undefeated, they'd hold many cards against these three next opponents. If you're pessimist, you can take from the Cal game that UCLA didn't look sharp heading into the make-or-break part of its schedule. But if you're an optimist, you can look it as UCLA still not having played an "A" game, relatively healthy, with so many weapons left to unwrap…