Illinois Analysis

After UCLA beat Illinois 35-17 Saturday, you get through the initial euphoria of winning for the first time in 11 months, and then get through some of the sobering questions that still linger. Does it leave you with an optimistic or pessimistic view for the reason of the season?

This was a game, first, of relief.

By beating Illinois 35-17, UCLA ended a six-game losing streak that goes back to last October.

It also puts the season in a far greater optimistic light. If UCLA had lost this game, they would have effectively backed themselves up into a corner in beginning the season 0-2.

There were plenty of things to be positive about. The offense continued to be able to move the ball and put up points. The offensive line had its second consecutive excellent game, which hasn't been able to be said for many years. The offense went on the road and didn't get rattled. You could make the case that the defense had a better overall performance and a few of the injured played and look to be on their way back to recovering.

But while desperate UCLA fans might tend to indulge the oasis of optimism after this game, the more balanced UCLA fan might be wary that this could be a bit of a mirage.

So, here's a warning: If you're feeling really positive and optimistic about the win over Illinois, and because you haven't felt anything like it in quite a long time and want it to last a little longer, which is completely understandable, maybe you shouldn't continue to read this. It's not that this is going to be a negative analysis (and actually it ends on a positive tone, so if you want to skip on down, that's fine, too), but one that works a bit as the voice of reason, a reminder about a few sobering points.

Sobering point #1: Illinois is bad. They were picked to finish last in the Big Ten. They haven't beaten a Division 1-A school since 2002 (their only win last year was against Division 1-AA Illinois State and last week it was against 1-AA Florida A&M). Their coach is on a very hot seat. They played without their experienced, sixth-year senior quarterback for the entire second half.

Sobering Point #2: While UCLA's defense didn't give up over 400 yards on the ground like they did against Oklahoma State, it gave up 208 yards on the ground, 5.1 yards per carry and a total of 456 yards to a pretty poor team without its starting quarterback for a half. And even though UCLA got back some players on defense, and you can repeat to yourself that it was better than it was against Oklahoma State, if you look at it from the perspective of how bad Illinois is, the defensive performance wasn't much better than it was against Oklahoma State.

The defensive line continued to get crushed for most of the game. While you have to give an enormous amount of credit to the young and inexperienced guys who are trying to play on that defensive line, to be coldly honest, they were getting buried, by an Illinois offensive line that will probably prove during this season to be pretty bad.

Defensive coordinator Larry Kerr is trying to mask his defense's deficiencies in many ways. He's shuttling in 12 different defensive linemen, hoping that keeping them fresh can offset their talent/experience disadvantage. He used a couple of different alignments, such as with three down linemen and a linebacker lined up standing over the center in passing situations, to keep the Illinois offense on its toes. He's trying to use the athleticism and quickness of his linebackers and safeties to make up for the defensive line, with run blitzes where they run down the ball carrier from the backside. UCLA made that goal line stand in the first quarter where they held Illinois on the 3-yard line by having its linebackers cut down the runner from the backside on two successive plays.

Kerr's trying to get his talented players back "into the fold," as head coach Karl Dorrell would say, as quickly as possible. Defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu, who didn't practice this week and didn't even dress for practice, played about 10 downs against Illinois. Niusulu got his knee scoped about a week and a half ago and was thought to be unable to play for about three weeks. But he made the trip and apparently the doctors cleared him to play Friday. Middle linebacker Justin London played about 15 plays himself, coming back earlier than expected from the dreaded high-ankle sprain. Defensive ends Brigham Harwell and Kyle Morgan, who had their knees scoped about three and a half weeks ago, played.

At this rate, defensive end Kevin Harbour, who isn't expected to be cleared to play by October, should be ready next week, right?

On one hand, it's such a relief to see these guys on the field, to see the names of Niusulu and London on the back of jerseys with the first-string defense. But on the other hand, it was also worrisome to watch London play. He was obviously not his real self, unable to cut well and play at full speed, as it looked like Niusulu was. It's a bit distressing to watch that, worrying that they could aggravate their injuries seriously by possibly being rushed back, and realizing just how desperate the UCLA coaches are with this defense to play these guys before they're 100%.

Worrisome was the fact that UCLA's coaches are still scrambling and experimenting to try to find a better short-term fix while these guys return to 100%. Wesley Walker started at middle linebacker, with redshirt freshman Aaron Whittington starting at Walker's outside linebacker position. Walker had a better game against Illinois than he did against Oklahoma State. He's probably better on the interior than he is outside where more quickness is needed. Undersized Whittington, as he has in practice, showed some promise, showing good quickness and pursuit. But man, is he skinny. And a few times he was pushed around considerably.

The defense, overall, if you take into consideration that Illinois isn't very good, had a worrisome performance. They really couldn't stop a bad Illinois offense. Of Illinois' 11 legitimate drives, UCLA really only stopped them on four. If you take away Illinois's careless and unlucky turnovers and a bad call on a very clear pass interference on Marcus Cassel in UCLA's redzone, the opinion of the performance of UCLA's defense – and perhaps the outcome of the game -- is quite a bit different. There is always the two-sided argument of whether to give credit for a turnover to a defense or to place the blame for it on the offense, but at least a couple of Illinois' turnovers you could probably blame more on Illinois than give UCLA credit for them. The fumbles weren't a result of huge hits, just Illini not taking care of the ball. On Cassel's PI, if Illinois gets that call, which on the TV instant replay looked obvious, they have a first down at the UCLA 17 and at least a field goal out of a drive that resulted in a fumble and no points.

With UCLA facing a team that had what is just a mediocre passing game, but then also lost its starting quarterback, UCLA's passing defense wasn't particularly good. There were missed assignments and some soft spots in the secondary. The obvious player to blame for the Illinois wide receiver being wide open in the end zone for the touchdown is Ben Emanuel. The young safeties, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, seemed to get more playing time after that (especially with Jarrad Page sitting out due to cramps and his heel injury), and they got beat on a critical deep ball in the second half that led to an Illinois field goal. Matt Clark got called for a hold, and luckily Marcus Cassel didn't get called on his PI. The secondary, though, going up against really no wide receivers of particular note, would probably get a grade of a C for the day.

And where was Eric McNeal?

And speaking of pass defense, UCLA's pass rush isn't particularly ferocious. UCLA did get a sack from Wesley Walker on a blitz, but most of the time it can't generate too much pressure on the quarterback even when it's blitzing. And this is so supposed to be the best aspect of the young, inexperienced but quick UCLA defensive linemen.

So, while you might think that UCLA's defense improved in its second week, it very well might not have. It just happened to go up against a far less effective offense.

Sobering Point #3: The offensive line has looked fantastic, truly. But what happens when UCLA faces a very good defensive line? Illinois's was bad, and it was Oklahoma State's most pronounced weakness. Has the good performances of the UCLA offensive line been that good because the UCLA line is that good – or because the two defensive lines they've gone up against were mediocre?

Okay, so if you decided to actually read beyond the warning at the top of the article and stayed with it this long through these sobering points, you deserve to be rewarded now with some positives.

Quarterback Drew Olson improved. He seemed to make less poor decisions, threw better balls, and seemed like he has started to get that, even though he's not a scrambler by any means, the element of a quarterback being able to scramble to pick up yards now and then is vital to any offense's success. He did miss on some throws. It seems his big issue could be getting the ball over the defensive line, getting a couple more balls batted down in this game like against Oklahoma State. But overall he made some strides in his development. And it always helps when you have plenty of time provided by your offensive line.

The running backs had a great day, combining for 239 yards, with Maurice Drew responsible for 142. They are getting some nice holds provided for them, but they are running the ball very well. It's uncanny how Manuel White can move a pile. When he seemingly gets stopped, and enveloped by a group of defenders, the pile then often moves another three to five yards. He has now made two beautifully graceful plays in two games – hurdling over a defender against Oklahoma State and catching an Olson swing pass at his ankles without losing balance. Drew showed his great balance, ability to break tackles, and speed in the open field.

The offensive line, so far in two games, has been the star of the team. If they don't have the two performances they did, UCLA is easily 0-2. Center Mike McCloskey again was dominant. Robert Cleary had a good day containing his man.

The UCLA coaches are obviously leaning on UCLA's offense to be able to move the ball consistently on the ground to eat up clock and keep its defense off the field, and the UCLA offense has responded very well. UCLA only threw the ball 21 times while running the ball 47 times, and averaging 5.8 yards per carry. You'd have to go pretty deep into the UCLA archives to find the last time UCLA ran the ball 47 times and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. And when you have a defense you need to keep off the field and you have an offense that can gain 5.8 yards per carry, why the heck would you ever throw?

The team was only penalized three times for 20 yards against Illinois. It's a new world for UCLA football, when over the last few years it was very common for UCLA to have upward of 10 penalties in a game for over 100 yards.

On the defense's front seven, you have to hope that the appearance of a few guys in this game indicates that they are indeed on their way back to being 100%. London will have to regain his old form. If he does, and you can get back Tim Warfield to back him up, the middle will be good. Whittington looks to push Walker on the outside, and possibly have the chance to overtake him as he gets more game experience. Everyone needs to do whatever the can to keep Spencer Havner healthy and on the field, with Havner getting a career-high 17 tackles a week after he set his career high of 16 against Oklahoma State. But with those four healthy – London, Havner, Whittington, Walker and Warfield – the linebackers have a good mix of proven talent and experience, along with some promising youth.

On the defensive line, it's a bit more worrisome, but there is at least a ray of hope from this game. Kevin Brown, when he wasn't jumping offside and getting chewed out by Dorrell (great to see Dorrell's fiery side, by the way), he generally played okay. If Niusulu can get back 100%, you have your two legitimate starting defensive tackles. Converted offensive guard Eyoseph Efseaff played against Illinois for a couple of series and had three tackles, more than Brown, true freshman starter Kenneth Lombard, second-stringers Noah Sutherland and Robert Garcia combined (Lombard, Sutherland and Garcia had no tackles between the three of them). He looked clueless out there at times, looking like he was still trying to block someone rather than get off them and tackle a running back. But at least, compared to the other defensive tackles, he held his ground and wasn't blown off the line. It's pretty evident that Efseaff is going to have to play a major part at defensive tackle this season for the defensive line to be even semi-effective. At the defensive ends, Justin Hickman had a decent game. While he's still physically getting dominated at times, he has enough strength to combine with very good quickness to be active and around the ball. Bruce Davis was physically overmatched. The obvious star-to-be, as we all could anticipate, was true freshman Brigham Harwell, who had a couple of very good series in the second half where he collected a total of five tackles and two huge ones for loss. Now, since this is the sober analysis, you don't want to get too carried away with Harwell after just a couple of good series. But he showed such great quickness to side-step his blocker and pursue, you'd have to think that Harwell will be competing for a starting position sometime this season. You'd think that because Kyle Morgan, who UCLA really needs to step up after his injury, hasn't yet. Morgan is key, since he is really the only defensive end on the team with legitimate high-major size and strength at this point. You'd want to believe that his ineffectiveness at this point is mostly due to the recovery from his injury.

So, this game perhaps gave you a glimpse of what could unfold on the defensive line: with Niusulu and Brown getting most of the reps on the interior, with Efseaff rotating in, with just limited reps being given to Lombard and Snead; and with the defensive ends being shored up primarily by Hickman, Harwell, Morgan and Kevin Harbour, when he returns. It's reasonable to think that UCLA's defensive line could possibly get to the point sometime in the next month where the entire defense and Kerr aren't trying to use gimmicks and 12-man rotations to mask the defensive line.

The most optimistic aspect of the season after this weekend is just how poor UCLA's upcoming opponents appear to be, and you could probably say that, while UCLA needs to get its defense healthy, it's going through a part of its schedule that it could use the smoke and mirrors and make it through. Washington, next week's opponent, looked atrocious against Fresno State last week (the Huskies having a bye this week), and most Husky observers think it could be one of the worst Husky teams in recent memory. After Washington, UCLA has a bye, which will help get it healthy in time for San Diego State October 2nd. The Aztecs are probably better than the Huskies, but UCLA will be playing them at home, with a team that could be the healthiest it's been this season up to that date, and with UCLA's offense probably gelling even more. Next is home against Arizona. So, UCLA very well will be favored to win its next three games. If it can do that, and get its defense healthy, and develop Efseaff, Harwell, Harbour and Morgan, UCLA could be 4-1 and in a quite a bit better state when it goes to California October 16th.

But even looking at the entire rest of UCLA's schedule leads you to be a bit optimistic. While any sober, objective UCLA fan would come away from the Illinois game realizing some of the sobering points and questions about this team, it also stands to reason: UCLA plainly has a pretty weak schedule and it could end up being good enough to go on a considerable run.

The sober, objective point is: Neither Oklahoma State or Illinois were really very good. So, the question naturally is: What happens when UCLA actually plays someone good?

But, looking at UCLA's schedule, then, your second question is: When do they actually play anyone good?

Cal is good, with a very potent offense, and obviously USC is. But the rest of UCLA's opponents – Arizona State, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon – don't look to be particularly intimidating.

At this point, even with it still unknown just how good UCLA's offensive line is, you'd put the UCLA offense up against the defense of any upcoming opponent, save USC. And UCLA's defense, while it might have a great deal of questions, only really has to face two particularly explosive offenses in Cal's and USC's. Perhaps the offenses of Arizona State, Oregon or Stanford could be formidable, but it's questionable at this point.

So, while it seemed before the Illinois game that timing could really hurt UCLA, that they could get too far behind the eight ball in losses because of injuries and offensive development, timing now, due to what is evolving into a favorable schedule, could be UCLA's advantage.

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