OSU: So Close, Yet So Far

Our Xs and Os guy, Steve Waters, returns to analyze the Oklahoma State game, providing a few fresh perspectives, and also applies that analysis to UCLA facing Illinois tomorrow...

The game between the UCLA Bruins and the Oklahoma State Cowboys demonstrated how close, but yet how far, the Bruins are from playing a complete game on all three sides of the ball.

On the positive side, the O generated 443 yards of total offense, one of UCLA's best outputs in recent years. Spearheading the attack was Manuel White Jr., the streamlined 240-pounder who looked Skip Hicks-esque while running for a 60-yard TD to tie the game.

The Manster did it all for UCLA on Saturday, running the ball effectively, moving the pile on almost every touch, and demonstrating his great hands. The 3rd-and-5 angle-route pattern vs. an OSU blitz that turned into an 18-yard gain and a first down was a thing of beauty. White's combination of fitness, ability to take a hit, size, speed, power, receiving prowess and blocking ability make him one of the top RBs in the country this year if he remains healthy throughout. If the 60-yard TD run doesn't lead off his highlight film this year, then the 15-yard carry around the right end punctuated by a kangaroo-like leap over an agile-but-ankle-biting DB will.

Of course, even the Manster can't do his thing unless the big boys up front put their hats on the bad guys. And probably the most positive aspect of Saturday's game was the play of the OL. Pass blocking was stellar—rarely was Drew Olson pressured while throwing the ball. And the OL was good enough often enough to enable the Bruins to gain 191 yards on the ground, one of the best ground attacks since the Oregon State game in 2002.

One of the best illustrations of how improved the OL play was over last year was White's long TD run. On the play, both Robert Cleary and Ed Blanton were able to fire out from the backside and cut the OSU NG and DE, putting them on the ground prone. Without the backside DL scraping along the line in pursuit, the Manster was able to find a huge lane right up the middle of the field. After ignoring a few hand tackles, White showed his fitness and speed by being able to outpace the OSU DBs for paydirt.

The entire O, but especially the OL, must also be given credit for avoiding the rash of penalties so common to first games. Granted, there was probably just as much holding going on as in any other game; the lack of flags might have more to do with the zebras not wanting to steal the game as anything. But the OL seemed more athletic and fit than prior years, and as a result didn't resort to desperate measures because they weren't getting beaten as much. The much improved discipline (no false starts, etc.) is something Bruin fans expected from Karl Dorrell when he was named head coach.

Another beneficiary of the improved OL play was Craig Bragg. One of Bragg's biggest gainers was the result of the OL giving the DO enough time to search for an open receiver, time CBra used to find an open spot in the zone as OSU's D widened in concert with the DO's movements. Once CBra subtly moved counter to the D's flow, the DO found him as a safety valve, and CBra did the rest for 33-yards on the play.

The other big play CBra made in the passing game was the perfectly thrown bomb he hauled in on the first half's last drive. CBra is the only UCLA WR who has demonstrated that he knows how to go up for a ball at its highest point and how to come down with it, even though he trapped it on this occasion. By any standard, CBra's catch was a thing of beauty, in no small part because he expertly landed a foot barely inside the sideline.

Another highlight for the Bruins and Bragg was the almost-TD punt return of an OSU punt in the 4th quarter. If Craig had been able to find an extra gear to just run by the punter instead of trying to juke him, things would have gotten very interesting as UCLA would have tried for two to get within a field goal.

And Justin Medlock's 52-yard field goal gave ample evidence that the Bruins have a weapon that could prove extremely useful as the season progresses.

However, the negatives outweighed the positives on this day.

First and foremost was UCLA's inability to stop OSU's running attack. Yes, OSU has a dominant OL and blocking FB, and a spectacular running back talent in Vernand Morency. (Anyone who fails to appreciate Morency's insane ability to decelerate to zero in three steps, let defenders fly by, and then accelerate again just isn't a true football fan. Not to mention his razor sharp zig-zags through the line and secondary. All at 215 pounds. Remember, Morency's 261 yards was not even a career best. He's done better before.)

Yes, UCLA was missing CJ Niusulu, and particularly Justin London. Heck, even Tim Warfield. And yes, Kyle Morgan and Brigham Harwell were less than full speed and played sparingly. Bottom line, UCLA's front seven was a far cry from what the Bruins could have put on the field at one time.

But the biggest failure was one of imagination. Defensive coordinator Larry Kerr failed to imagine the success that OSU might have running the ball to their strong side (TE, wing and FB along with C, OG and OT). If Donovan Woods can be given credit for anything, it was consistently changing the play at the LOS to put the Cowpoke's running game at an advantage. OSU's six blockers matched up exactly with UCLA's six defenders (DT, DE, OLB, ILB, CB and S), leaving one Bruin in the position to not only beat his blocker but also to tackle a back with a full head of steam as talented as Morency without giving up a slew of yards. And the Bruins weren't able to do it.

But Kerr never employed a five-DL front, or stacked his safeties right behind his ILBs in an effort to stop the run and make OSU throw the ball. Even the adjustments Kerr made only slowed OSU down to just over five yards a carry in the second half, a number that won't get it done. While the Bruins at times cheated up their safeties, the defenders were spread laterally over a wide area and never massed themselves at the point of attack. Overall, too little, too late.

The success of the OSU running game should illustrate to fans how razor thin the margin is between making the tackle for little gain and missing the tackle for 10+ yards. MLB Dan Nelson was extremely challenged to fend off a huge OG and/or monster FB in Shawn Willis and get to the OSU tailback. Maybe London makes that play regularly v. OSU. But all it takes is one or two misses to make a difference, given the 12-yard cushion UCLA's safeties would often start with.

In some instances, OSU was just too fast and quick for UCLA's defenders. The misdirected pitch play bedeviled UCLA time and again as the DE would completely ignore the TB bellying wide and instead dive inside. With the DE out of the way, Morency was now in a 1-on-1 situation with Wesley Walker or Spencer Havner, since CBs Marcus Cassel and Matt Clark were usually being blocked five yards downfield by a Cowpoke WR. And quite often (painfully often), Walker and Havner were no match for Morency in the open field. Most Ds want three or so hats on the ball each play, and OSU consistently put UCLA into situations where there was only one hat, meaning that yards after contact were to be expected.

There were some bright spots on the D side, particularly Spencer Havner. The knock on Havner has been his level of physicality. While he's an absolute superstar in the passing game, his ability to consistently defeat a stellar FB like Brandon Drumwright of Colorado and tackle a back like Chris Brown has been questioned. For the first half, it appeared those questions were being answered in the negative, as Morency ran wild up the middle (fertile hunting ground for an ILB), and Spencer donned a grey shirt with a bum shoulder.

However, all that changed in the second half as Havner played like a man possessed, or at least one totally unaware of the scoreboard and the rushing totals. The Bruins may have lost the game, but Havner left the field as the best defensive player to step foot on it that day.

And while the O gained a lot of yards, Bruin fans have to be disappointed (or maybe it's encouraged) that the total wasn't up around 600 with the point total around 40.

The points failed to materialize in part because of ball security issues. Compared to top flight teams, the Bruin ball handlers carry the ball like they've never heard the phrase "high and tight." No balls got poked away or stripped this game while CBra, Tab Perry or the Manster swung it "low and away," but the opportunities were there if OSU had been a step faster at times. Eventually the Slowpokes got their fumbles the old fashioned way…they EAARRRRRNNNEEEEDDDD it with some great sticks right on the ball, killing two promising drives.

The INTs speak more to the kind of day Drew Olson had. Unfortunately, many of the mechanical flaws present in the DO's game last year were still visible v. OSU. While the DO is clearly much stronger, and able to gun the ball farther on a line, and more accurately on the go route, he still has three major problems:

1. He carries the ball on his dropback at his numbers instead of up by his jaw/cheek. With the ball held low, his throwing motion naturally proceeds to…(cue up the second problem)
2. Result in a ‘wind up' that takes the ball even lower (waist level) before coming up three-quarter arm.

The DO's wind up wastes precious time. He's not exceptionally quick, so he's not ending his drop any faster than your average D1 QB. So while he's winding up, the WR is waiting for the ball and the DB is jumping the route. The DO is painfully aware of this, and tries to compensate by throwing the ball faster. Now the ball is harder to catch because it is traveling with more velocity than a WR can handle from a distance of 15 yards. The result is WRs who try to cradle the catch instead of snagging it in their mitts, which leads to more drops (look for ricochets that carom off yards downfield) or DBs thieving the ball from you because you let it travel an extra yard and into their grasp. Hence the poor completion percentage and the appearance that the Bruins never throw to an ‘open' receiver. Hence the INTs because the release point is low and the wind up is long and DTs can read where the ball is going and have time to send the signal from their walnut-sized brain to their oversized hand to "Raise Hand, Smash Ball." Just kidding, big uglies.

The DO would have a much faster release, much better touch on seam routes and slants, and much greater accuracy if he would watch tape of Cal's Aaron Rogers every day and try to mimic his mechanics. Carry the ball high, then take the ball up and forward as you step towards your target. The DO might also lose the really bad habit of patting/waving the ball around before throwing a pass. Talk about a timing killer. Maybe then the Bruins could take advantage of the huge size discrepancy they had over the smurf-like, but highly aggressive, DBs from OSU.

Still, even with the flaws, the DO racked up 252 yards passing. The Bruins have that many weapons catching the ball, especially running after the catch. If Junior Taylor had tried to catch that bomb with his hands instead of his chest, he might not have bruised his collar bone and picked up another 30 yards for the passing totals.

It is amazing to think that UCLA gained 443 yards with relatively unimaginative and limited playcalling. There were no toss sweeps, even when OSU's D was cleared gassed and unable to run 10 yards without somebody cramping up due, no doubt, to over liberal use of creatine-like substances during the off-season. There were very few play action passes, even though UCLA did a great job of establishing the run and gaining the respect of the front seven. Did we see one instance of the DO about to execute the hand-off for the stretch play, but then pull the ball back a la Peyton Manning and fire a bomb to CBra running all alone up the seam after an inside release? If we did, I must've missed it while visiting the little boy's room…

There was too little use of Marcedes Lewis over the middle or on drag patterns or on delays. There was NO use of Michael Pitre on screens or as the ace back. As upset as some were about the failure to get Manny White the ball last year v. Colorado, that's how upset I was this year about the failure to use a fast and bruising power runner in the second half when the Bruins needed to show OSU a new look.

The Bruins could have kept the same playcalling and still gained 600 yards if Maurice Drew had a better day running the ball. On at least three occasions, MoD was asked to run the stretch play. His OL had created a moving wall of flesh, they were locked into the DL and LBs and had them on roller skates, and all MoD had to do was take the ball wide to get a decent gain, if not break one a la ASU. However, MoD decided instantly to cut it straight up the field instead, for no gain twice, and for the disastrous fumble on the third.

If MoD learns to read his blocks better, exercises a little patience, and improves his lateral cutting ability (he never seems to be able to run parallel to the LOS and get outside when the D collapses on the blast play designed to go up the middle), both Manny and MoD might gain 1,000 yards this year. With his sub 4.4 speed, I'd love to see MoD challenge the D to the sideline, a move that will fatigue the D if nothing else and maybe open up opportunities for Manster or Ironhead Pitre between the tackles.

Looking forward to Illinois, I expect the D to be much better, but for the O to be worse.

The Illini present an O much better suited to UCLA's strengths on D. They're not as committed to the run as OSU is (who is?) because they don't have the OL/FB/RBs that OSU does (who does?) At this point, the Bruins will relish the opportunity to sack the passer or snare a pick after facing the single-wing attack of OSU. Look for Bruce Davis to get on the sack board with two, and for Havner to pick off a Jon Beutjer pass. The key to the Bruins' success on key could well be how much Dan Nelson improves from game one to game two. There is plenty of pride on the defensive side of the ball, and they'll be looking for redemption.

With all the potential the Bruin O has, even with the DO's mechanics, why expect execution to fall off? Simply because of regression to the mean, and the fact that Illinois will have game film. Unless UCLA changes it up a little, the Illini will play to UCLA's down, distance and formation tendencies and probably guess right far more often than not.

The Bruins will still gain about 350 yards total, with Manster again cracking the century mark. Expect the Bruins to come home with a much needed 31 to 24 victory.

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