Usually when I do these commentaries, I review the tape of the game, over and over again.
This week, you can't force me to watch the tape of the Washington State game again.
Having now, after close to two days, let the loss to Washington State sink in, and its implications, I think there are bigger-picture questions and analyses that might be more appropriate than specific analysis of the game.
First impression, overall, of the season, in the aftermath of the game: The teams UCLA played in its first six games weren't very good, especially offensively. The teams were either inherently not very good or limited because of a key injury when UCLA faced them. If you wondered last week why UCLA, with one loss, was lower in the BCS standings that Michigan, with UCLA having beaten Washington, who beat Michigan, it's very simple. UCLA's opponents this season are tanking. Michigan was getting more credit for beating Miami of Ohio than UCLA was getting for beating Ohio State. UCLA's victories have come against teams that are a combined 20-28. And if you throw out the one win against Washington, who is 7-1, the other five wins have come against teams with a combined 13-27 record. That doesn't do you well in the BCS, but even more importantly, it doesn't do you well in preparing for teams like Stanford and Washington State. The only aberration to this whole theory here is Washington, but they fall into the category of a team that wasn't at full strength, missing their starting quarterback, when they faced UCLA.
So, what really happened is, after starting 6-0, UCLA had visions of greatness due to playing sub-par teams, but the question is: Was it a matter that UCLA's visions have really been put back to Earth or was UCLA's team really potentially great? It's probably a little bit of both. We probably won't see the amount of talent on a UCLA team like this one has for quite a while. Combining a #1 recruiting class with some inadvertent holdovers from the class before it, like Marques Anderson and Kenyon Coleman, makes for a very talent-laden team. There definitely was a chance for greatness here. There was the overall talent. But what happened in the last two weeks shows that you need to have talent at some very critical positions, and healthy talent.
Is the defense great? What happened in the last two weeks is that UCLA's defense went up against two of the best offenses in the country. Against one of them, they got burned for a half. Against the other, they basically shut them down. So, UCLA's defense, despite showing some vulnerability in the last two weeks, which you'd have to expect since it was facing two great offenses, has more or less shown that there was greatness here. Yes, it had critical breakdowns in the first half of the Stanford game, but it has proven over the last three halves it's played that it was a superior defense that lived up to the label of greatness. In 11 games, you should allow your defense to break down for one half sometime during the season.
Is the offense great? Well, that's a pretty easy question to answer, and at this point in the season, it's pretty evident that the offensive side of the ball is the primary reason why this UCLA team's hopes for greatness have been dashed. With the defense doing its part, when it finally faced some teams with good offenses, what the team needed was the offense to help the defense, score some points and hold onto the ball. The offense, in the first six games was shaky. When it went up against a decent defense, such as with Ohio State, it was scary. In the last two games, it's faced defenses that were fairly good, but they were also teams complemented by good offenses. Just as the best offense is a good defense, it, of course, swings the other way – the best defense is the best offense. Stanford and Washington State have decent defenses, but their offensive squads are so good, score so many points, and can eat up so many yards and clicks on the clock, that it vastly helps its defense be effective by being off the field. UCLA's offense kept putting UCLA's defense back on the field. Just as UCLA proved a few years ago – that if you have a great offense you need a good defense to win big, this year it has proven that, if you have a great defense, you need a good offense to do it.
So, what's wrong with UCLA's offense? That's actually pretty simple to answer, too, but not necessarily easy to access responsibilty. UCLA's offense has become one-dimensional. We saw it all last year and we've seen it all this year. Opposing defenses stack the box against UCLA, intending to shut down DeShaun Foster and the UCLA running game and dare UCLA to beat it through the air. In the first six games of the season, UCLA faced teams that, even stacking the box, weren't good enough to stop UCLA's running game – while they also didn't have good enough offenses to keep their defenses off the field. In the last two, UCLA has faced teams that have good offenses that eat up time and score points, and they've combined that with the same defensive philosophy to stack the box against UCLA and stop DeShaun Foster – and it's worked. Washington State went to a five-man line. But Oregon destroyed the Washington State defense a week before, almost entirely on the ground. And why? Because Washington State had to defend Oregon's ability to throw the ball.
Now, why should stacking the box against a Bob Toledo-coached UCLA team, one with an earned rep from the past of being able to eat up big chunks of yardage through the air, be able to be taken advantage of this way? There are two critical reasons why UCLA's passing game just isn't effective enough that it enables other teams to stack the box against Foster – the quarterback position and pass blocking. Even though the wide receivers this year have dropped a few passes and maybe blown a couple of routes, I don't think you can really put the wide receiver unit in the blame column, though. Even without Brian Poli-Dixon, the receivers had toted their weight. Perhaps this last week against Washington State, because of injury (Poli-Dixon, Ryan Smith, Tab Perry), you might have been able to place some blame on the performance of the wide receivers just a bit. But still, really not enough to take enough blame to get them in the same blame spotlight with the quarterback position and the pass blocking.
So, what's the problem with the quarterback position? The execution of the position hasn't been consistently good enough over the last couple of years. Cory Paus, as a redshirt sophomore last year, made an appropriate amount of mistakes and blunders (especially having been hurt quite a bit) for a redshirt sophomore in a complicated throwing offense. But this year, Paus has performed below expectation for a redshirt junior, having only shown flashes at being good but not consistency. UCLA coaches, perhaps, like just about anyone in their position, expected Paus to be better this year than he's been. Paus has secretly been nursing an injured thumb since summer, which has hurt his effectiveness, but only to a degree. I don't even think Paus would blame the injury to his thumb entirely as the reason why he hasn't been as effective as he'd like to be this season.
But it's truly not fair to just blame Paus for the inconsistency and ineffectivness of the quarterback position this year. UCLA hasn't recruited an elite, impact quarterback recruit since Cade McNown in 1995. And McNown was a complete surprise since he wasn't considered an impact, elite recruit himself. Since McNown came to UCLA in 1995, UCLA has only brought in four scholarship quarterbacks that stayed longer than a month. Those four are the four on the squad right now, Scott McEwan (who came to UCLA in 1997), Paus and Ryan McCann (both 1998), and John Sciarra (2001). Two walk-ons, Drew Bennett (1996) and Roman Ybarra (2000) also came in during that period. This simply is not enough talent to have on the roster at the most important position on the team, especially in Bob Toledo's offense. You hate to admit it, but UCLA was hurt by the J.P. Losman ordeal, but it's not the biggest thing to blame when it comes to snags in UCLA's quarterback recruiting. UCLA didn't bring in a scholarship quarterback in 1999 because of the Losman incident, but also failed to bring in one during the fall of 2000. Not that a redshirt freshman would be the answer this year, but certainly a redshirt sophomore, or another junior or senior might have been. When it comes to quarterback recruiting, if you can't get the really elite quarterback recruit, which you're just plainly not going to get every year, you at least should bring in a consistent flow of scholarship-level talent. Because there is always the chance that one of them could be a Cade McNown. UCLA has lacked both the elite talent at quarterback since McNown's departure and even enough scholarship-talent level bodies at the position. In 1996, UCLA brought in a walk-on Bennett. In 1997, Scott McEwan, a perennial back-up. In 1998, Paus and McCann. Paus has lived up to what you could reasonably expect, given how he was evaluated as a high school player, while McCann has been a disappointment. In 1999, UCLA has nothing to show for it. In 2000, there was walk-on Ybarra, who has since left the team. In 2001, John Sciarra, another prospect that isn't considered elite. Why has this happened? I personally don't think you can blame the UCLA coaches for not getting the really elite quarterback recruit. They have tried dilligently in the last few years but have just missed on the recruits, as it can happen in recruiting. But, still, the lack of success at quarterback recruiting since 1997 is directly responsible for the quarterback situation that UCLA finds itself in now.
The other biggest factor that has contributed to UCLA's lack of success in its passing game in the last couple of years has been pass protection. UCLA allowed the most sacks in the conference last year and they're close to the bottom this year also. UCLA quarterbacks have been under some tremendous pressure in the last couple of years, and the reason why is a complicated, feeding-upon itself kind of phenomenon. Simply, UCLA's offensive line hasn't been really good at defending against the pass rush. But UCLA's tight ends and running backs have also been sub par. But also, it's difficult to block well when many times you're passing in obvious passing downs. With UCLA's offense being fairly one-dimensional and the box stacked, UCLA has found itself in quite a few third-and-longs in the last two years. UCLA's lack of mobility at the quarterback position has also greatly hurt it's effectiveness. Just about every effective passing offense has sometimes been saved by an improvising, scrambling quarterback. UCLA lived on it with McNown. We've seen what it can do against UCLA in the last couple of years. It's an element that UCLA has more or less severely lacked in it's offense.
So, given all of these factors, UCLA's ineffectivness at its passing game is a phenomenon where each element contributes to the ineffectiveness of the next element, feeding on itself. First, the phenomenon starts with a lack of a playmaker at quarterback. Lacking a playmaker, UCLA has been reluctant to really unleash its passing offense since McNown left. Not only because there isn't confidence in the quarterback getting it done, but also a fear that the quarterback will make a mistake that will get you beat. So, UCLA, with DeShaun Foster, in the backfield, feels more confident handing the ball to DeShaun Foster. Who wouldn't? Especially this year with UCLA having a great defense, you'd be even more inclined to not go to your passing game. UCLA opponents, though, know this, and have devised their defensive game plan to stop UCLA's running game and make UCLA beat them through the air. This makes for those third-and-longs, which is almost unfair to Paus or McCann, many times having only that one chance to make a first-down completion, with a defense ready to tee off on you.
So, how does UCLA solve the problem? In the future, years down the line, it'd be nice if they could get a very talented quarterback. But even if they can't, how can it make its passing offense at least effective enough that opposing defenses won't stack the line and have to play UCLA's passing game honest? First, that will start with consistency at quarterback. If an opposing defense has 8 guys in the box, that's leaving wide receivers one-on-one with their defenders, which forces them to give the wide receivers a decent cushion, which, in turn, opens up the possibility of an offense to easily complete short passes. UCLA has tried to do this this year, but hasn't been successful, and probably hasn't tried it enough. Also, the short passes usually come out of short drops, which keeps the quarterback safe from pressure. Utilizing its tight ends more, which UCLA has also attempted to do in the last few weeks, also is good to burn defenses that stack the line, with defensive backs commonly matched up against tight ends. Shifting pockets, rolling out your quarterback, etc., are all things that can help an offense be more effective in completing its short, basic pass. When a defense commits to stopping one aspect of your defense it makes it self vulnerable to something else. UCLA has allowed opposing defenses to commit to one single-minded philosophy, but has failed to exploit it. UCLA has tried it this year, with only limited success, which has then seemed to make the coaches gun shy at continuing to attempt it, which is understandable again when you have DeShaun Foster in your backfield. You'd almost rather take your chances on giving the ball to Foster against a stacked line. But, if the UCLA offense is going to be effective this year, and stop the defensive philosophy it's been seeing for the last several years, it's going to have to dedicate itself to opening up defenses with the pass. Of course, give the ball to Foster at the beginning of the game to see if there is running room. But if not, go to the air. Opposing teams now have adopted the stacked line as the rote method for defending UCLA, and whether it happens this year, next year or the year after that, the only way UCLA is going to offset it is they can prove they can beat you through the air. UCLA should be dedicated to finding innovative ways to beating the stacked line, because beating that defensive game plan is the #1 key to the success of the program right now.
Again, this pretty much begins with having a playmaker at quarterback. Not so much an elite, super athlete, but at least someone who can execute the short and medium-range passes enough to exploit the stacked lines and move the ball down the field this way. While it was almost impossible to predict, it seems like Scott McEwan might be the best short-term answer to solve the problem. Paus has, at times, been capable of doing this, but McEwan looks to be core consistent in doing it right now. He, at least, deserves a chance to see if he can. Give McEwan the chance to complete the season, then, with Paus returning a year older, wiser and healthier, give him his chance next year to prove he can also execute effectively enough to pull defenses out of their stacked lines.
If UCLA can get more effective in its passing game, the last two games of this season and the bowl game could be a huge opportunity for UCLA to send a message to its future opponents that they have to play them honestly. Because next year, UCLA's opponents will continue to stack the line and dare it to beat them through the air, but UCLA won't have DeShaun Foster, which will make it even more difficult to gain yards on the ground. Or Perhaps without Foster as a crutch, UCLA will have to dedicate itself to its passing game. But no matter how you "stack" it, the only way UCLA is going to get out of this line-stacking rut is through the air. And it should start digging itself out now.