OSU ran the ball. Often. They had 75 offensive plays from scrimmage, and they ran on 67 of them. And they pounded UCLA's inexperienced, young and injured defensive line.
As predicted, UCLA's offense looked better. It still has the same West Coast philosophy, but is completely different in terms of plays and play-calling. And, predictably, UCLA's defense was made of Swiss cheese.
In terms of how the actual game went, there were some critical series, and critical mistakes by UCLA. The two turnovers within OSU's 15-yard line were easily the two biggest plays of the game. The biggest among the two perhaps was running back Maurice Drew's fumble at OSU's 14 in the second quarter, with UCLA driving toward a touchdown. The score at the time was 14-14, and UCLA was about to go in for a go-ahead score. After Drew's fumble, UCLA deflated on both offense and defense, and OSU got pumped, putting up two successive, unanswered touchdowns, which was the difference in the game.
The second turnover was Drew Olson's interception in the 4th quarter. UCLA was down 31-20, with about 6 minutes left, at OSU's 12-yard line.
Those two plays proved to be the most decisive in the outcome of the game.
If UCLA doesn't turn over the ball and scores on both of those possessions, it's a different ball game. It not only gives UCLA more points, but takes away the points OSU got as a result. Even if UCLA just scored on the drive in the second quarter where Drew fumbled it's a different ball game. After that fumble, UCLA never recovered offensively.
In fact, your general impression of the offense in this game was probably good. Without really analyzing the game in detail, or watching a tape of the game, any UCLA's fan overall impression of it would probably be generally: "Offense is better, defense was atrocious."
And that probably is generally true. But interestingly enough, if you look closer, it might not be. At least, the offense still has some serious questions. Yes, under new coordinator Tom Cable it was completely different than last year's offense. But last year aside, this game, if you looked at it closely, still brought up doubts about the offense. Once Drew fumbled the ball, the offense went into a funk from which it never really recovered. It was almost as if the offense is so fragile mentally that once they showed a little chink in their armor, a little doubt, they got out of sync.
UCLA gained a total of 443 yards for the game, but only 138 yards in the second half, and only 78 passing. And 50 yards of that came on one play, the screen to Drew in the fourth quarter.
Drew Olson attempted only 11 passes in the second half, after attempting 25 in the first half, and had only four second-half completions.
At halftime, after UCLA's productive offensive first half, if someone would have told you that Oklahoma State was going to put up only 3 more points for the rest of the game, how much of your house would you have bet that UCLA would have out-scored them in the second half?
If you had, you would be homeless right now.
What happened? Well, first, it's difficult to narrow it down to one simple, self-contained explanation. Many different factors contributed. Among them:
-- OSU's defensive backfield was very effective. Their quickness really came out in pass coverage, often times jumping routes and getting in front of the pass. UCLA receivers struggled to get open for most of the day.
-- While we have to be thankful for the change in Cable's play-calling overall from last year, it was very evident that UCLA's offense went slightly conservative (Ah! The dreaded "C" word) in the second half. In fact, the conservativeness seemed to start during UCLA's last drive of the second half. With three and a half minutes left and UCLA down by two touchdowns, with possession at its own 20, you would think UCLA would come out throwing. Eight of the fourteen plays they ran in those three and a half minutes were running plays, which was a bit surprising, given the situation. Hey, it did still get UCLA down in scoring range after Olson hooked up with Bragg for a 38-yard pass play that gave UCLA the ball at the OSU 7-yard line. It did, though, take almost all of those three minutes to get down there, which made them have to hurry the last set of downs, unsuccessfully, and kick a field goal.
What was also curious about some of the decisions in that drive was calling timeouts on first downs. UCLA, having three timeouts at the time, ran the ball on first and second down, and then let the clock run. Then twice they gained first downs – and then curiously called timeouts. If everyone isn't aware, in college football the clock stops on first down, so it seemed a bit wasteful to use two timeouts on two first downs when the clock was ticking away on first and second.
The second half turned more conservative offensively also, as evidenced by the second-half offensive stats above. There was one critical period of the game, in the fourth quarter, where it seemed to particularly hurt UCLA. With UCLA down by 11 points, it needed at least two scores to tie or win the game. With a full quarter to go you wouldn't have to abandon your running game entirely, with plenty of time to run your base offense, and get at least two more possessions and be able to pull out the game. But that might not necessarily happen if you decided to run the ball more, and eat up time. That might be questionable especially when you know the OSU offense is going to run on every play and eat clock when they get the ball. But, curiously, UCLA ran the ball often in the fourth quarter. It ran it on first down, and then second and long, from deep in its own territory. It did it on two successive possessions, after (miraculously) UCLA's defense had stopped OSU's offense.
Then, even more curious: UCLA gets down to OSU's 14 yard line after Maurice Drew's screen pass and run. So, you're at OSU's 14 with 6:47 left in the game. Your running game's moving the ball. Wouldn't this then be the time to actually get conservative? You wouldn't want to force an interception since you desperately needed this touchdown. Then, of course, Drew Olson did exactly that, throwing into double coverage and getting intercepted. It wasn't really a matter of being conservative, but that UCLA picked the wrong time in the fourth quarter to get conservative.
Of course, again, it must be said that, after last year, Bruin fans are generally grateful for having what was evident as a drastically new approach to calling plays in this game. So, let's not go too overboard on the "C" word after just one "C"-ish half.
-- The players, on both sides of the ball, obviously were worn down by the heat in the second half. When skill guys get tired, they lose focus and things like timing patterns and such go a bit awry. It could have been that Cable sensed this, too, and thought that, with his ground game working, if he could score by running the ball he could also effectively eat up clock and keep the ball out of OSU's hands.
-- Drew Olson had just an okay game. He made some basic throws, and some solid decisions, checking down to receivers a few times well. He made a very good throw to Bragg on that deep ball in the first half. But Olson, all in all, missed on a good number of opportunities. There were a number of times on incomplete passes where he tried to force a ball into a covered receiver, when he had another receiver wide open. The interceptions came on forced throws. He threw a few too many bad balls. He missed on a couple of crucial throws, particulary on the first series of the game when Marcedes Lewis had a step on his defender, that would have been huge plays.
Now, last year, and even the year before, you could generally make excuses for Olson. He was a true freshman and then a true sophomore, so he was young and inexperienced. He was also saddled both years with poor offensive lines. Last year, Olson was under fire on pass plays almost immediately after the snap. Teams blitzed him, also knowing that UCLA's running game wasn't much of a threat. But this game took away all of those excuses. UCLA's offensive line was stellar. In fact, this game was probably the best performance by a UCLA offensive line in three years. They didn't allow one sack, and OSU's rush probably touched Olson just a few times. They opened up very good holes for the running game. So Olson had the element of surprise to throw, since UCLA could run, and he had plenty of time to do it, with UCLA's offensive line doing an excellent job containing OSU's pass rush. Olson is now also a junior, and in his second year in this type of West Coast, timing offense, and it's not applicable to use the inexperience card anymore.
To give more props to the offensive line, all of the individuals played well. Robert Cleary, for starting his first game, had a very good one. Center Mike McCloskey was excellent. Steven Vieira, Ed Blanton and Paul Mociler were all better than solid. They commonly pushed OSU's defensive line a few yards off the ball and tied up their individual defenders on almost every play.
The impression of the defense, as stated above, was that it was atrocious. And generally, you can make that case. But looking closer, you also have to give the defense some credit. After allowing OSU 28 points in the first half, it gave up just three in the second half. It generally looked better in the second half, making some adjustments and Spencer Havner stepping up and having a very good second half after having a poor first half and suffering an injury to his shoulder.
What did happen to the defense was understandable and, as we said, predictable.
Let's go over the defensive line again: UCLA lost its top five defensive linemen from last year and its top six of seven. Then you'd have the guys who would have stepped in and started after they left and, among those guys, UCLA has lost three starters, one other starter was injured this week but played, and probably its next best defensive lineman was dismissed from the program. You end up playing sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen and walk-ons.
We had pointed out all of this for a long time and before this game, but it even still tended to not capture just how under-manned UCLA's front line was. The game did, though.
But overall, again, it was easy to understand that the defensive line generally got crushed in this game. Every one of the linemen alternately got crushed. There really wasn't one who didn't, including JC transfer and projected starter Kyle Morgan, who got some playing time.
Interestingly, redshirt freshman Bruce Davis got his share of being crushed, but then also showed flashes of being able to out-quick his opponent. It makes you realize that Davis has talent, but is playing far too many minutes far too early in his career. Same goes for the likes of JC transfer and true sophomore Justin Hickman and redshirt freshman William Snead. On the revised roster, Snead's weight is 228 pounds. He went up against two tackles that weighed 300 pounds apiece. From a weight and strength standpoint that would proportionally be like an average adult male going up against a typical middle schooler. The middle schooler doesn't have a chance. The defensive ends generally were sealed throughout the game so any OSU ball carrier could just turn the corner and there was seemingly only green grass ahead of him. So, the point here is: You can't blame these players. Davis, Snead and the rest are actually better prospects than you might have actually anticipated and have a chance to be good in the future. But because of injuries, bad depth at defensive line and poor recruiting there for the last few of years, they're playing far before their time.
And while the defensive line was getting beaten up, probably the bigger glaring defensive weakness was with the linebackers. Dan Nelson, in his first start, put in a willing effort, but was overwhelmed. Wesley Walker, in his first start, had a pretty forgettable game. He was consistently out of position, making what looked like to be incorrect reads, and then, when he was in position and had a chance to make a play, was juked horribly a few times. Havner, as was stated, looked asleep in the first half, and then came back to have a second half that basically propped up the entire defense. But much of that open green grass the OSU running backs saw was equally the fault of the linebackers as it was the defensive line.
The second half played by the defense gave UCLA fans a glimmer of hope. If you also add in the possibility of getting some of the injured players back, then the glimmer gets a bit brighter. C.J. Niusulu was sorely missed. The interior d-line badly needs someone who can hold the line of scrimmage. Kyle Morgan, hopefully, will recover fully from his knee injury and provide more strength on the end. And Justin London's playmaking ability, perhaps, was the most missed element on the defense.
So, while there is some glimmer, there is a whole lot of fear, too. UCLA fans wanted UCLA to stack the box for this game, which they did, and it still didn't have an impact. UCLA at one point had 10 players in the box, and most of the time had 8 or 9. And perhaps the most worrisome is that OSU gained 426 yards on the ground with no element of surprise. What happens when UCLA faces teams that have a balanced offense, when UCLA's defense doesn't actually know what the opposing offense is going to do? After this game, though, you'd expect that most teams will run on the Bruins until this defense shows it can stop the run.
A few other observations:
-- When Manuel White has it going in the first half, especially moving the pile between the tackles, and then UCLA gets itself down to the OSU 14. It's questionable why the ball is handed off to Maurice Drew for a run between the tackles on the play he fumbled. It seemed that, with White rolling, in the redzone, between the tackles, White might have been the better call.
-- Punter Chris Kluwe had a couple of very effective punts, pinning OSU back within their own five-yard line. He did, though, make a blunder when he shanked a punt in the second quarter from UCLA's own 15. The punt went just 25 yards, setting up OSU at UCLA's 40 for a quick touchdown that had them go up 28-14. It was a critical time in the game, with momentum shifting away from UCLA to OSU, and the bad punt hurt.
-- UCLA was penalized only three times for 20 yards. While we don't have time to look it up, that had to be the least UCLA had been penalized in a game for quite a while. But, on the other hand, it might have also been that this officiating crew couldn't seemingly pull out the flags from their pants. There were a couple of obvious pass interference calls that weren't recognized. One was an obvious P.I. on Craig Bragg at OSU's 35 in the third quarter on third down with UCLA driving. Another was an offensive P.I. committed on Matt Clark (but Clark probably committed one himself later that also wasn't called).
A friend of mine called me during the middle of the game and said, "Every year UCLA either has a good offense or a good defense, but they never have a year they can put together both."
It does conjure up some fantasies. What if Tom Cable had come in last year and UCLA's offense was close to the one we saw in this game – and it was combined with last year's excellent defense? Karl Dorrell would probably see his program in a lot different place. That first season might have spelled 8 or 9 wins and a recruiting class with more impact players. But that is just a fantasy.
But why is it that UCLA putting together a good offense and a good defense in the same year is such a fantasy? It, as does everything in college sports, comes down to recruiting. UCLA hasn't been able to sustain enough superior recruiting to bring in consistent talent that would give you a better chance of having two good units in the same year.
And when it comes to recruiting and Dorrell's program, this is a vastly critical season. Right now, Dorrell is still living mostly off the talent he inherited from former head coach Bob Toledo – the likes of Craig Bragg, Marcedes Lewis, Tab Perry, Manuel White, Justin London, Spencer Havner, Ben Emanuel, Jarrad Page, Mike McCloskey, Ed Blanton, C.J. Niusulu, etc. There has been a bit of a drop-off in recruiting the last three years, with far less impact guys like those coming into the program. While there is the issue that Dorrell needs a few years to get the program in order, working to turn it around from the standpoint of attitude, work ethic, organization and support, he needs mostly to get it done from a recruiting standpoint. And after a few average recruiting years, this is the big one. Right now, many recruits are watching UCLA closely this season to see if they want to sign up. Dorrell needs a season to be able to hang his recruiting on, or the level of talent in the program could degrade. Which means, while he might turn around the program completely in all of the other aspects, recruiting and talent is where it needs most to be turned around right now if he hopes to have good teams in the next few years.
Will he be able to pull out a successful season – and a successful recruiting year? After this opening game, the stage is definitely set and the pressure has just been turned up a notch...