The gutty Bruins clawed their way to an improbable come-from-behind 37-31 victory over the Washington Huskies. It was improbable on two levels: first, who would have imagined that the Bruins would fall behind a Keith Gilbertson "coached" team 24-7? And second, who would have imagined that the Bruins would come back from said deficit by gashing the Huskies with an insatiable running game?
Let's start with the comeback! For the second year in a row, the Huskies went from being completely in control of the game with an easy ‘W' in sight to having their season turned upside down and their confidence shattered. Last year, the D triggered the comeback when Dave Ball harpooned Cody Pickett in the end zone, making him cough up the ball, which Rodney Leisle recovered for a sixer. And the rout was on.
The culprit this year was the gashball O Tom Cable has nurtured in just three short games, spearheaded by the Pocket Rocket, Maurice Drew. The numbers are Pop Warner-esque: 322 yards on 26 carries, with TD runs of 47, 62, 58, 15, and 37 yards. One TD run came on a 3rd and 13. Twice the Bruins ran a toss sweep, and MoD is still running if the goal line didn't get in his way. How did our Bruins get so productive on the ground?
It may not start with MoD, but we will. The young man's progression as a running back over three games has been nothing short of phenomenal. After a poor decision-making game v. Oklahoma State, MoD cleared his head, trusted his coaching, and re-dedicated himself to reading his keys as a running back when given the ball. But it is his fearlessness, his willingness to hit the line at near top speed that separates him from the pack of wannabe pig toters. Not to mention his ability to take and deliver a hit. There is nothing more fun for a Bruin fan right now than to see UCLA run the stretch to the strong side, to see the weakside (Ed Blanton and Bob Cleary) shoot those long bodies forward and blow the DL's legs out from underneath them (eliminating the backside pursuit), and to see the strongside form a moving wall of flesh and muscle that alternatively drives/pancakes the defenders in the box, opening a wide-open three-lane highway for MoD to jet through, inevitably gashing the opponent for huge chunks of yardage. No wonder UCLA can run on 3rd and 13 at this point.
MoD and the blockers (including Marcedes Lewis and Michael Pitre) seem to have a great rhythm together. They know they have to get a seam opened fast, because MoD is hitting the line on fire. But they don't have to hold it long, because MoD is jetting through and into the secondary.
And once MoD gets into the secondary, most DBs are at his mercy. Arm tackles won't usually get the job done on the brick of a back. Not the way MoD corners through the turns. And the stellar downfield blocking by the Bruin WRs (especially Tab Perry) has been instrumental in UCLA popping numerous big running plays this year. (What a welcome departure from last year.)
How much better can MoD get? After breaking school records for yards gained and TDs scored, I doubt we'll ever see another statistical performance from MoD like that again. The challenge will be to see if he can maintain his same reckless abandon and continue to beat the FS and SS with regularity, while managing to hold onto the ball.
How did our Bruins get so productive on the ground? Here's part two of the answer: a total commitment to and belief in the running game as an all-purpose solution. Need points quickly? Run the ball. Need to eat clock? Run the ball. Third and long? Run the ball. First and 10? Run the ball. Behind by 17? Run the ball. Third and five late in the game? Run the ball with a misdirection pitch play. A 60-yard TD run is as good as a 60-yard TD bomb, right? Grind on.
So what was going through Tom Cable's mind as he watched UCLA misfire to a 24-7 deficit? Was he hoping that Dashaun Goldson's insecurity was going to goad him into a stupid smack-talking penalty and give UCLA a cheap 15? (Maybe not, but it changed the momentum of the game.) Whatever OL coaches/offensive coordinators think about when they're at work, Cable clearly didn't panic. Grind on. He continued to work the body even though the opponent had landed some straight right hands and was ahead on the judge's cards. Of course, he met with almost immediate results--after four carries, MoD had three TDs and was averaging just over 42 yards/carry. It's easy to refute possible criticism about being conservative when the running game is that explosive. But the running game is that explosive because the Bruins will run anywhere, anytime, from any formation. Sure, UCLA will run the stretch play about 20 times to the strong side per game, but that still leaves 40 to 50 other plays the D has to worry about. While the FB has yet to tote the ball, there is misdirection in UCLA's running game because of the propensity to run from passing sets and to run without regard to down, distance and time left. Grind on. Grind it out. Grind.
Of course, now that the Bruins have established a definite team personality on O, it is perfectly permissible to call a play-action pass on 1st and goal. Nay, encouraged…
Manuel White (not Wright) continues to make a great contribution to the running and passing attack. His 84 hard yards further cement the legitimacy of a "Thunder and Lightning" rushing attack. Any Saturday, either back is a threat to go for 150. (Now, if the Bruins can get some carries for Chris Markey and/or Derrick Williams...)
The fear from where I sit, after watching the Bruins gash their opponents with student-body strong left and student-body strong right, is that DCs around the league will realize that the stretch play can be blown up if the SSLB attacks the TE as soon as he reads stretch. If the SSLB is willing to sacrifice his body (and stats) and succeeds at submarining the TE just to create a pile at the point of attack, the back's momentum will be stopped and he'll be left with nowhere to go. We'll see if DCs across the Pac make this adjustment.
If they do, look for lots of penetration on the play side as the explanation if the Bruin running game starts to stall. The Bruins seemed to have more trouble running the ball on 3rd and short then they did on 3rd and long. In any event, Phil Snow stayed true to form and failed to make radical adjustments even though his D was getting embarrassed to the tune of 424 rushing yards on 54 carries, a 7.9 average. I'm feeling you, Huskie fan!
If the running game starts to stall, the Bruins at least have a legitimate passing game to employ. Yes, Drew Olson will have one or two poor throws a game, like the bomb that morphed into a duck or the passes tipped at the LOS because of the DO's low release point and mechanical idioms. The DO hasn't yet earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with the best QBs of the Pac-10. But he surely might if the Bruins continue to win and he's part of the reason. Being able to timely tuck the ball, scoot for a first down, okie-doke a LB for some additional yards, and withstand a big hit from a ferocious MLB will do a lot for a QB's rep if he times it right.
As the DO got warmed up in the second half, he played almost flawless ball. Nine of 10 in the second half, he connected two times with Junior Taylor on 3rd and long to keep the chains moving. Once was during UCLA's last possession of the game on 3rd and 9; the DO was able to hit Junior on a simple crossing pattern (a very easy, high-percentage toss), and Junior gained about another 14 yards to make it an 18 yard gain and get the Bruins out form beneath their own goal post. On the day, UCLA was 10 of 14 on 3rd down.
Given Craig Bragg's shoulder separation (on a beautiful skinny post pattern that put the Bruins on the Huskies' doorstep), some might think that Tab Perry might become the #1 WR option going forward. But my sense after seeing the Washington game is that Olson will look for Taylor in crunch time.
Of course, no receiver has been more valuable to the Bruins v. the Huskies than Charles Frederick. Yes, he caught a TD pass this game, but Frederick has dropped more passes v. UCLA than Taylor has caught in his UCLA career. Luckily, Frederick didn't let us, his most devoted fans, down this year either. First he allowed Marcus Cassel to strip a pass out of his hands on a fade pattern, and then he dropped a sure first down on a 3rd and four crossing route with the Huskies up 24-20. Both plays were huge, because if he makes them, the Huskies may have gotten another two scores. In his defense, as Whoa Nellie pointed out, "He was being pounded from the rear by a Bruin defender…" at times during the game, so he may have been understandably distracted.
Just as we're sad to see no more of Frederick, Huskie fan is probably distraught at the thought of not seeing the UCLA D anytime soon. When else this season will the Huskies have a chance to run so freely, so unencumbered?
Contrary to popular perception, I don't see the defensive line as the primary culprit for allowing 219 yards rushing in this game. The DL did a good job of controlling runs that went straight up the middle. But the LBs and safeties seemed to blow some assignments when Kenny James or Shelton Sampson would bounce it outside.
Last year, the bounce outside played right into UCLA's hands. The DE (Dave Ball or twin Mat Ball) would slant to the center, the RB would naturally try to bounce it outside, but usually Brandon Chillar was there in a flash to just smother the RB as he tried to gain the edge.
This year, the Bruins just aren't able to put enough heft and playmaking on the field at LB. Spencer Havner and Wesley Walker are playing quite well, with Walker, filling in at MLB, playing his best game as a Bruin. He delivered a blow when tackling, and blitzed with abandon.
However, Aaron Whittington struggled while he was in the game before getting hurt. His instincts are very strong, which allowed him to force one fumble on an option pitch, but his lightness allowed even Casey Paus to shrug him off on a blitz and proceed to make a play.
My unsung hero of the game was Ben Lorier. Once Ben entered the action, the Bruin run D improved considerably. Lorier was able to hold the point of attack and had enough of a body to make plays for the Bruins. It will be interesting to see if the walk-on will continue to contribute until Justin London (He Who Is Sorely Missed) can regain full confidence in his ankle.
So why did the run D flounder v. UW? Most of the Huskie yards were gained to the outside: bounces outside, or option plays. The LBs weren't there in some cases, and in others the DBs didn't provide adequate run support.
One thing readers should keep in mind is that DBs play the pass first. Usually, before the snap, each safety will communicate to the CB on their side who has run support responsibility: "sky" means safety does, and "cloud" means the corner does. If the option play is run, and the coverage is "sky", the safety has responsibility for the pitch back (using an inside out angle), and the CB is supposed to play the WR soft and ensure that it is not an option pass.
The problem with sky coverage is that the safeties have a long way to run. If the pitch back is faster than the safety and beats him to the corner, the RB is almost guaranteed to gain 5 to 10 yards. If the safety overpursues, the RB can cut back on him and really pull off a big gainer. Yes, the safety can make a lot of tackles and look good stat-wise, but often at the expense of giving up a lot of yards on the outside.
The cloud coverage allows the CB to attack the pitch back from an "outside in" angle as soon as play motion comes towards the CB. If the CB is very quick and aggressive, it is possible to hit the pitch back before the pitch is released, or just as it arrives. An unsettling development, from the O's perspective. The safety in this situation has pass responsibility.
The Bruins shut down UW's running game the times that UCLA's CBs were given primary run support responsibility. Matt Clark knifed in expertly and took the RB's legs, often for a yard loss.
Or maybe Clark just got tired of seeing his team pummeled and decided to freelance, ala Miami. We don't need no stinkin' pass coverage: read run, play run. Make'em burn you with a halfback pass. Given the struggles UCLA has stopping the outside run, more "outside in" run support seems to be in order. If Ben Emanuel is still working to regain last year's form, then Larry Kerr may need to gamble occasionally and send both DBs to support the run as aggressively as possible. One thing Kerr did do was use backside pursuit from a DE like Bruce Davis or a blitzing LB like Havner to scrape down the LOS and run down the RB before he turned the corner.
While the run D was more bad than good because of the exposure outside, the pass rush had some decent pressures…but it too was largely unsatisfying. Too often, blitzes from Eric McNeal, Emanuel and Whittington failed to deliver. Sometimes they came in too fast, too out of control, and the QB easily slipped the sack. Other times (and most distressingly) they lost their nerve at the last moment, and attempted to dance around a blocker instead of going right through him. The lack of a balls out pass rush was not just limited to blitzing LBs and DBs; unfortunately, UCLA's DEs had a very poor day getting to the passer.
It is easy to be spoiled after watching the Ball brothers rush the passer last year. They were both so big and strong that their attack angle was about 45 degrees: they drew a straight line from their stance to about 7 yards behind the LOS, and stuck to it. Often, they met at the QB: one would force the QB to pull the ball down and step up in the pocket, and the other would use that moment (unbeknownst to the OT lacking eyes in the back of his head) to swim move the OT to the inside and make the sack, with the first mopping up.
This year could not be more different. The DEs (Kyle Morgan, Justin Hickman, Bruce Davis and Nikola Dragovic) do not seem to be making any indent as they rush the passer. They are essentially moving perpendicular to the LOS; they're getting up field, but they are creating a huge passing lane, and even a huge running lane should the QB decide to tuck it. Hopefully we'll see the DEs butch up in future games and take a more aggressive line to the QB. Morgan in particular is a guy who needs to elevate his level of play and start making a noticeable contribution. Brigham Harwell is another guy who was largely invisible during the UW, perhaps because he received so few snaps.
Of course, the pundits take every opportunity to mock and ridicule UCLA's D, regardless of contra-indicators. For example, Whoa Nellie couldn't help himself, and declaimed, "Poor tackling has been a problem for UCLA since Miami and 1998…", apparently completely disregarding the Bruins' 18th ranked D last year, and the defensive players UCLA has put into the league since then, including Kenyon Coleman, Ken Kocher, Dave Ball, Rodney Leisle, Marcus Reese, Robert Thomas, Ryan Nece, Brandon Chillar, Marques Anderson, Ricky Manning Jr., and Matt Ware.
Of course, some ridicule is deserved for the terrible decision Karl Dorrell made to resort to trickeration on a critical 4th down situation. Rather than man up and run a play to win the game decisively, or run down the clock, punt the ball inside UW's 20 and dare UW's O to go 80 or 90 yards for the win, Dorrell decided to put the game's outcome in a line judge's lap. Luckily, it worked out for UCLA. And the good news is that the Bruins seem to have a leader who will admit to his mistakes and attempt to learn from them.
Looking forward to San Diego State, the Bruins face a dangerous opponent. Why dangerous? First, the Aztecs have nothing to lose. They are the decided underdog, and probably always will be. And this "nothing but upside" mentality enables HC Tom Craft to pull out all the stops. The Aztec D, aka the Dark Side, is fast and strong, albeit it a little undersized. They will be completely devoted to blowing up the running game come Saturday, led by MLB Kirk Morrison. Expect nine in the box and a tremendous effort to get penetration at the point of attack. For those of you who saw the SDSU-Michigan game, you know what to expect. Michigan was unable to run the ball effectively on the Aztecs.
The "nothing but upside" mentality for Craft extends to the offensive side of the ball. Expect a fair amount of trickeration from Craft; one effective play is a fake "shotgun option" shovel pass to a WR coming underneath the LOS. Given that SDSU's WRs are bigger, stronger and faster than UCLA's LBs, expect Craft to have QB Matt Dlugelecki swing it wide and pitch it short as much as possible. Jeff Webb is the leading WR threat for SDSU.
The Aztecs miss Lynell Hamilton, but Michael Franklin is short, fast and very tough. He throws the half-back option pass well enough to get a TD vs. Michigan. And look for SDSU to use a bunch formation near the goal line and to run a toss sweep…after racing to the LOS, lining up, and attempting to catch the D out of position. Given that they ran that play twice in a row v. UCLA last year, I'd guess they'll do it again.
Dlugelecki's mechanics are decidedly poor: he practically sidearms the ball. A strong push and a well-timed arm raise could generate enough pick opportunities for the Bruins to get a little healthier in the turnover margin.
Make no doubt, the Bruins will have their hands full with the Aztecs. The Bruins are depleted at LB, missing London for another week due to an ankle injury, and Aaron Whittington due to a hip pointer. Tim Warfield is still recovering from his broken leg. That means Ben Lorier, the unsung hero, will start against SDSU as the WSLB; Wesley Walker will again man the MLB position (and he's getting better and better), and Spencer Havner is the odd man out, being moved to SSLB. However, SSLB has its advantages: more blitzes, and more involvement in the passing game. Havner does both extremely well.
And if the Bruins are thin at LB, it is nothing compared to the DL situation. CJ Niusulu and Kenneth Lombard are out. Former record-setting G Eyoseph Efseaff is scheduled to start at NG for the Bruins. True FR Chris Johnson will back up Yo. Luckily, SDSU's OL situation is as dire as UCLA's DL/Front seven is.
This game has a bad feeling if you're UCLA fan. Will the O continue to run the ball so authoritatively? Will Craft's trickeration get SDSU some cheap scores? Will UCLA's penchant for giving away the ball continue?
Bottom line, I expect the Bruins to struggle all night in pulling out a 24-21 victory in a nail-biter down the stretch.