UCLA did it without some key personnel on defense, and really, with an anemic passing game. And then on top of that, they really only played for 2 and ½ quarters.
And they didn't play really well for even those 2 and ½ quarters.
So, actually, UCLA fans should be very encouraged.
While there was plenty of aspects of the game to be excited about, let's first discuss some of the worries.
The primary element of the team that wasn't effective was the passing game. And it wasn't just obviously that quarterback Drew Olson didn't have a good game, which he didn't.
Olson had a bad day throwing the ball, throwing over, ahead and behind the receivers on most throws, doing it with too much on the ball sometimes, and other times forcing a throw into a receiver that wasn't open and not recognizing one that was.
But for the first two quarters, it also seemed that UCLA's arrogance in running the ball and its inability to recognize the routes that were open was as much of the problem as Olson's bad day throwing the ball.
San Diego State went to a stacked box early and often. UCLA, pretty jacked on itself because of the success it's had rushing, kept running the ball right into that stacked line – on first and second down – leaving the offense with many third and longs. It didn't also help UCLA's stubbornness in running the ball when Maurice Drew cracked off another 50-yard touchdown run. That might have gotten offensive coordinator Tom Cable even a bit more stubborn to continue to run the ball.
We know the objective here against San Diego State was to win the game as easily as possible without giving away anymore of the offense that it needs to. If UCLA could run the ball and beat SDSU by 20+ points it certainly would. After next week's Arizona game, UCLA will face a tough stretch, going against possibly the best team in the Pac-10 in California. Then it will have to go on the road against a good Arizona State team and then face an improved Stanford team. So, actually the choice to run the ball continually into a stacked box isn't as much arrogance and stubbornness as it is UCLA's choice to try to get a win without showing its complete hand on offense. And well, you can't necessarily argue when it still gained 205 yards on the ground and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. It's really quite a feat given the fact that it went against a very good defense with a stacked box.
But you can argue, probably, with the passing game plan. SDSU was stacking the box, leaving UCLA's wide receivers in man coverage, often times against a safety. UCLA's offensive line only allowed one sack all day and generally did well keeping the pressure off Olson, even when those 8 or 9 SDSU players in the box then rushed Olson. But the coaches chose to throw short, with quick outs and slants, possibly thinking that it had to get the ball off quickly. Maybe it needed to employ a little less arrogance about how well its offensive line run blocks and a little more concerning how it pass blocks. Olson would have had plenty of time to throw the ball down the field and pick apart the deep seams of SDSU offense. When it finally did, in the third quarter, on one drive, it was effective.
So, really there is plenty to take away from this to be positive about (aren't we in an optimistic mood?). The offense gained over 200 yards on the ground against a good defense that stacked its box; when it did employ the correct offensive philosophy of attack as it did in the third quarter, it was effective – for that one drive to open the half. UCLA drove the field and scored on the Olson pass to Tab Perry in the endzone, to go up 27-3.
But then, after that third quarter drive, UCLA quickly went back into don't-show-anymore-of-its-hand mode on offense and tried to merely ride out the game for the win. So, it's even more encouraging that, at that point, there were 19 minutes left to play in the game and UCLA's defense, now backing off from its earlier aggressive style and playing prevent, only allowed SDSU seven more points.
Because there was a little doubt there for a while that UCLA's defense could actually pull that off.
UCLA's defense had for the entire game up to that point had been very aggressive and creative – and effective. It was blitzing quite a bit, on obvious running downs, employing zone blitzes, and using various different alignments. There were three down linemen quite often, on even first or second down. Back-up safety Eric McNeal came in on the first defensive series as a nickel back and while he played centerfield most of the time safeties Ben Emanuel and Jarrad Page operated as pseudo-linebackers. All of this was very effective in off-setting SDSU's spread offense. Even though UCLA only had one sack, it kept constant pressure on their quarterback, Matt Dlugolecki, forcing him into too-quick of throws. It also brought up so many defensive players to defend against the run that UCLA shut down SDSU's running game for the most part, particularly in the first half before UCLA closed down its entire show. With another safety in the game, playing essentially as a linebacker, UCLA was run blitzing and then running down ball carriers from the backside, using its quickness and speed. It's a great strategy: hopefully get your four down defensive linemen to be able to physically hold the line and plug their gap, and then have linebackers, safeties and corners curl in around the line and bring down the running back from behind.
It worked. It even worked when SDSU recognized what UCLA was doing. UCLA even kept doing it and SDSU called play after play designed to offset pressure – screens, receiver screens, delays, draws, shovel passes, etc. But UCLA had so many quick guys flying around on the perimeter that they eventually ran down the ball carrier. This defensive philosophy really helped UCLA contain its ends. In previous games, opposing ball carriers had been able to bounce outside to almost completely open grass. In this game, UCLA had defenders taking good angles from the outside.
Credit has to go to a few of those defenders. The linebackers had easily their best game of the season. Spencer Havner missed on a couple of assignments, but then made every assignment. His interception and subsequent touchdown was the momentum-turning point of the game. You could feel that SDSU wasn't even in the game after that. Wesley Walker had easily his best game, filling in at middle linebacker for Justin London, being in position much of the day and making some big plays. Ben Lorier, the former walk-on starting at the other inside linebacker position, played well early, then had a few lapses, but had a good overall performance for the game. He was in position most of the day, and made sure tackles.
The safeties also generally played well. McNeal got blocked out of a few plays early, but then got comfortable and played well. Jarrad Page played solidly, and Ben Emanuel came up with a big play in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-two at UCLA's nine-yard line when he stuffed SDSU's big running back Brandon Bornes for a no gain, giving the ball back to UCLA's offense. Emanuel needed something, since he wasn't playing particularly noteworthy and got called for a silly personal foul on SDSU's first series of the game, which helped them drive to their field goal.
UCLA's defensive line needs to get some credit. Without C.J. Niusulu, they performed well. Converted offensive lineman Eyoseph Efseaff did a good job filling in for Niusulu, holding the line and filling his gap most of the time. After not using a big rotation against Washington two weeks ago, UCLA went back to it against the non-conference opponent this week. It's still a question of whether the DL is more effective with the better players getting most of the downs or trying to keep them fresh by shuttling in 12 guys.
The two biggest standouts on UCLA's defense, though, were its two corners, Matt Clark and Marcus Cassel. With UCLA blitzing its linebackers and safeties, it put quite a bit of pressure on UCLA's corners, especially when matching up against SDSU's good receivers. But both Clark and Cassel had very good games, giving up just a few completions, and often times covering SDSU's receivers man-to-man perfectly. Clark perhaps had his best day as a Bruin, making great plays all over the field, particularly in not allowing running backs to get around his corner. His interception was textbook coverage – exactly the way DB coach Gary DeLoach preaches it in practice.
It was uncanny how UCLA's defense was effective when it was aggressive, and not when it was passive. You couldn't find a game that more often proved that being aggressive and creative on defense equals effectiveness. Every time UCLA threw a different alignment at SDSU, or blitzed, it was effective. Every series when it went back to the base 4-3 and didn't blitz, it got hurt.
And when it went up 27-3 in the third quarter, that's what happened. The aggressive defensive strategy was then scrapped. Now, it's understandable. You're up by four scores and there is only 19 minutes left in the game. It would have been improbable to think that SDSU could score quickly enough to make this a game, right? And, the theory being, if you did continue to gamble and blitz, you'd give them the potential opportunity to score quickly, exactly what you didn't want them to do. If they were going to score, they were going to have to sustained long drives and consume clock.
It's a good theory, but after SDSU got the ball and UCLA went into its prevent defense, SDSU scored its touchdown in a drive that took only 2:46 off the clock. At this rate, with a whole quarter left, they could have scored five more times.
Again, the theory is understandable, that you wouldn't want the defense to give up quick scores and gambling with blitzes and such makes you vulnerable to that. But not blitzing and allowing SDSU's quarterbacks time in the pocket for the first time in the game made UCLA as vulnerable. In the first half, SDSU's Dlugolecki never had enough time to look down the field further than 15 yards. In the second half, with UCLA not blitzing, SDSU's quarterbacks then did have the time, and were effective in finding receivers down the field. So there's the argument. What's better at preventing the big play? Will blitzing make you vulnerable, or will it hurry the quarterback consistently enough that he doesn't have enough time to throw downfield for the big play?
In many games, it's probably most dependent on what kind of playmaker the quarterback is. Against SDSU, Dlugolecki and his back-up, Kevin O'Connell, just aren't very good, and aren't great playmakers. The only way they can actually make a play is if you give them time.
Probably most of the disappointment with UCLA's defense calling off its aggressive style in the second half came because, when combined with UCLA's offense then also going into its let's-run-the-clock-out mode, it makes for a boring game and secondly, especially in this game, seems to make UCLA more vulnerable to what it's trying to prevent.
When UCLA, though, was playing its aggressive style of defense, it was exciting. Give defensive coordinator Larry Kerr credit for its philosophy and design, and recognizing that his cornerbacks were good enough to stay with SDSU's receivers and he could go right to the aggressive blitzes. Even though SDSU's offense was obviously a shell of what it should be having lost three starting OLs, UCLA's defense is a bit of a shell of what it could be, too, and you have to give Kerr credit for putting together a defensive strategy that masked that effectively against SDSU and played to UCLA's defensive strengths.
It was probably most encouraging to see true freshman wide receiver Marcus Everett live up to the billing and have an impact on the game. He had two very good catches, one a spectacular leaping grab for a clutch first down in that decisive touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Tab Perry is potentially too good not to get the ball in his hands more often.
Ditto on Marcedes Lewis. This was potentially the game for Lewis to be exploited, with SDSU stacking the box and so much space down the field in the seam. But UCLA threw to the sideline too often.
After UCLA's future opponents get the tape of this game, you can probably expect more stacked boxes more often. It's the tune UCLA has been hearing for the last five seasons. The question is, though, is this UCLA offense different than past UCLA's offenses in being able to beat you through the air and get defenses out of their stacked box? So much is dependent on the quarterback, and as of right now, you'd have to say it was questionable whether Drew Olson can do it. But, also, so much of being able to be effective in throwing and offsetting a defense's stacked box is the offensive line's ability to withstand blitzes and protect its quarterback, and this offensive line seems far more capable of doing that than any in the last several years.
There's also the theory that Tom Cable is smarter than all of us. Could he actually be setting us up – and setting up all of his future opponents – into believing that UCLA's passing game can't beat you? Is he playing possum here, wanting future opposing defenses to feel they should stack the box so he can then unleash his down-the-field passing game?
Realistically, with UCLA's potent running game, you can probably expect each week for UCLA to see if it can run the ball, even after its opponent stacks the box. You have to, least test it, to see if, even with a stacked box, if the opponent can stop UCLA's running game and Maurice Drew. But when it's in the middle of a Pac-10 conference race against some pretty formidable opponents in must-win situations, I think you'll probably see UCLA able to exploit a stacked box, mainly because of the effectiveness of this offensive line in protecting Olson.
The SDSU game, then, was a bit of a snoozer in the second half, but it did provide us enough to be excited about. The offense, as laid out above, has the capability of being very exciting, especially if an effective down-the-field passing game is indeed being kept under wraps. And if UCLA continues to get more defensive players available to play, like C.J. Niusulu, Justin London, Aaron Whittington and even Kevin Harbour and Tim Warfield, it's exciting to anticipate how they could perform in the aggressive style we saw Larry Kerr employ in the first half of SDSU.
In other words, hopefully this isn't the extent of the capabilities of this team, but it has room to grow. The difference between a successful and unsuccesful season definitely hangs in the balance...