Last year, the Bruins struggled to a 20-10 victory over the San Diego State Aztecs. The Bruins were dominant on D, but odious on O, mustering only 65 yards on the ground.
This year, the Bruins used the nation's 7th best running attack to bludgeon the Aztecs into a 33-10 going away victory, with Maurice Drew doing the major damage (21 carries, 161 yards, one TD and one hellacious spin-move). MoD continues to read his blocks and is almost always flowing to the outside as the Bruin's zone blocking scheme moves the pile.
The D also stepped up, playing its best game of the year by far, spearheaded by the linebacking corp of Spencer Havner (14 tackles, 1 pick for six), Wesley Walker (9 tackles, .5 sacks, 1.5 TFL, and 2 pass break-ups, one a gorgeous, leaping, one-handed deflection at the goal line), and Ben Lorier (7 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 vicious cheap-shot at SDSU QB Matt Dlugolecki's knee). Is Ben on scholarship yet?
This linebacking trio played so well, and was so reminiscent of last's year unit, that I'm loathe to see it broken up. To start, Spencer Havner's greatest strengths are in the passing game. The SSLB is very involved in pass coverage to the twins or flanker side, and Havner's presence would essentially shut down the inside routes to his side, allowing double-teaming on the outside routes. After posting 14 tackles in his first game at SSLB this year, Havner demonstrated he can be as much a playmaker at SSLB as at WSLB. In fact, he's probably more of a "big play" maker at SSLB.
Another revelation has been Wesley Walker. Walker officially arrived with the TD-saving deflection on the first drive of a game, a drive SDSU manufactured with screens, reverses and the benefit of a roughing the passer penalty. Walker has rapidly improved his run-stuffing prowess, standing firmer and firmer each game since taking over for Dan Nelson (who took over for Tim Warfield, who took over for Justin London, who swallowed the spider, which wiggled and jiggled and jiggled inside'im) in game two. All things considered, Walker seems a better fit at MLB than he does at SSLB, where he apparently struggled at times during fall camp, giving ground to Aaron Whittington.
But the most pleasant surprise was Ben Lorier. Lorier was an unsung hero of the Washington game; his insertion to the huddle curiously coincided with the Huskies only gaining 57 yards on the ground in the second half. Lorier is thick yet fast enough to physically handle the job, albeit versus two (admittedly) less than powerful running teams, and mentally disciplined enough to be in the right place at the right time; ie, fulfilling his assignment. It was great to see lil' Michael Franklin, SDSU's scatback, start up the middle, see the DL collapse inwards, start to bounce outside, but only to be met head on by Lorier and dropped like a stone. And as mentioned earlier, Lorier seems quite content to be the Luca Brasi of the Bruins.
So the paradoxical situation UCLA finds itself in is that its three best LB talents are Havner, Walker and Justin London, not necessarily in that order. But its best "LBing unit," especially given London's ankle problems, may be SSLB Havner, MLB Walker and WSLB Lorier. Frankly, I hope that Karl Dorrell and staff keep London out yet one more game. If JLon does play, I hope that we see Walker at WSLB (the other ILB spot), which would allow Havner to stay at SSLB.
After allowing an opening drive field goal, the D only gave up one TD the rest of the way. The TD drive started when Dlugolecki nicely executed a play-action fake that drew the LBs up, and leading receiver Jeff Webb was left with enough space on a deep "in route" to allow himself to reverse pivot and okie-doke Matt Clark badly. Five straight running plays later, and the Aztecs reached the promised land.
However, for the rest of the game, the Bruins' D looked respectable. They controlled the LOS, they occupied the OL, and they enabled the back seven to make plays, providing some pressure of their own. They faced a spread O, which uses a high number of screens, halfback leads, reverses, option and short passes to move the chains. The Bruins used a lot of nickel, which got Eric McNeal and Chris Horton on the field, which is always a treat to watch. Given how well the Bruins handled SDSU, UCLA should be well-prepared for Arizona, which runs a very similar O. However, if UCLA had a hard time catching up to Michael Franklin's jukes, how well will Mike Bell (and later JJ Arrington and Reggie Bush et al.) do?
The most pleasing aspect of the game for me was seeing the Bruins take control of the game and not relinquish it. After the yielding the opening FG drive, the Bruins scored 27 straight points. Grind on. They scored on their last possession of the first half, and their first possession of the second half, an emotionally devastating blow to any opposing team. Could this team have a killer instinct?
Of course, that all depends on Drew Olson, the little girl with the curl.
The DO was not very, very good in the first half, misfiring to the tune of a 7 of 19 effort. No doubt, the DO had his moments, most notably the beautiful seam pass to newbie Marcus Everett that set up the end of first half FG. The perfect TD pass to Tab Perry was made under much duress. The step-back sidearm dart to JJ Hair was a fluid play. And if Hubert Caliste (Hubert?) hadn't prevented Junior Taylor from using his left had to catch a beautiful bomb, or if Tab Perry had made that layout catch, the DO's numbers would look much better.
But in a freaky way, the DO is morphing into Cory Paus before our very eyes. As I live and breath…
Both good at throwing the long ball…check. Both struggle to complete short slants…check. Both underutilize their TE with All-World potential…check. Both throw the short stuff too late, too hard and too inaccurately…check. Cory had a thumb problem his JR year—what is the DO's reason? At least the 2002 team had a guy like Scott McEwan to step in…who steps in for the DO? Brian Callahan? Or David Koral?
Yet once again, the DO came back with a strong second half, going 7 for 10.
Still, "(F)ool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." How so very true that is. Until the DO demonstrates that he can come out calm, cool and collected, like he did v. Illinois, it will be hard to muster serious optimism about the Bruins' chances against top flight teams like Cal and ASU. If it takes extra filmwork or a pre-game guided meditation session (Phillip Jackson is available, I hear), the investment would be a wise one.
The games the DO seems to do best in are games where the playcalling gets the ball to Marcedes Lewis early in the game. Set up the big man for an easy lay-up to start the game, and the O just seems to flow. No team has yet to come close to stopping the play-action roll-out corner route to Marc…there's no shame in running it a couple of times a game until they do. FWIW.
It will be interesting to see if the playbook remains as limited v. Arizona as it was v. SDSU. There were no draws or screens called, for example. The swing pass did re-emerge, and the halfback pass from MoD to a pretty good looking Michael Pitre (until he got tripped by Joe Cowan and landed very awkwardly on his left shoulder) were great developments. But there were moments where the play calling seemed repetitive.
Even OC Tom Cable admitted, "They did amazing things defensively in terms of playing a goal-line short yardage type defense on normal downs and getting away with it. We just started to take advantage of what they were giving us instead of forcing it."
(Wow, maybe *they* should have played Oklahoma State. I guess the supposition about the Aztecs being willing to take outlandish risks is accurate.)
Maybe taking what the D is giving will include greater use of double-move routes, draws, screens, and intelligent use of trickeration (halfback passes and reverses, primarily). Maybe a double-move route would finally motivate a zebra to drop a flag when a Bruin WR is being mugged with the ball in the air. I'm not holding my breath…however, there was one dubious PI call in UCLA's favor, and I think the quota is now exhausted for the decade. Deal with it, Bruin Fans!!!
Other notes of concern are the declining production of Manuel White, MoD getting concussed returning punts while Captain Helmet preened for the FSN West 2 cameras, and Billy Mac's on-air gaffes (UCLA constantly chop blocks, failure to know that UCLA switches its OL from side to side.) Sounds like the punt return issue is handled (Jarrad Page is taking over), but getting the Manster untracked is priority #1. Otherwise, Chris Markey and/or Derrick Williams need to get some shots.
Looking forward to Arizona, the Bruins should control the game on the defensive side of the ball, and prevail as a result. Arizona's OL looked young, flabby, and breathing heavy v. Washington State, which has some smaller, lighter speed rushers. While Kris Heavner, aka The Dry Heave, completes a high percentage, as long as the UCLA defenders keep the ball in front of them, they should do quite well, maybe even picking a couple or causing a couple of fumbles on jarring hits or well-placed strips.
However, the loss of Mike McCloskey will definitely hurt the O. Fumbled snap, anyone? (Tartar, of course.) Unless the DO comes out relaxed and in a groove, the first half could be a waste.
Bottom line, I expect the Bruins to struggle on O but dominate on D, and ride the leg of Justin Medlock for another Pac-10 win, 23-14.