That's not saying you were writing it as an avid UCLA fan.
That's saying if you were trying to build drama and sustain interest in a story line.
There was enough on display Saturday in UCLA's win against Arizona, 37-17, to be excited about.
But there was also enough to be concerned about.
See, it's the perfect blend of excitement and potential drama to keep a person in their seat to see how this movie plays out.
Most of the potential drama for this team centers around its defense. The performance Saturday did more to finally expose the defense, after so many previews. We hadn't really seen the defense with most of its key personnel and, to be fair, there are still a few missing and not all of them that have returned are 100%. But when you have most of your cast and crew back and performing, there is a threshold when you can maybe get a very good sense of what kind of production you're going to have.
And the trailer wasn't fantastic.
For the first four games of the season, many had been making very valid excuses that the defense needed to get most of its key personnel back, and get its young defensive line some game experience, and it would improve and be solid.
This wasn't an improvement on Saturday. UCLA's defense faced the worse offense in the Pac-10, and gave up 351 yards. They allowed 258 yards on the ground, against a team that had previously been gaining only 106 yards per game rushing.
The rushing defense began the season giving up four football fields worth of rushing yards against Oklahoma State, but they had excuses – the injuries, the inexperience of the defensive line, etc.
There were few excuses to be found against Arizona.
Justin London returned, and was in for probably 20 plays for the game. But even with London, who possibly still isn't close to full speed, the defense couldn't stop Arizona running the ball.
And it's easy to see why. There just isn't that much talent.
The defensive line, for the most part, wasn't horrible. In UCLA's gap defense, they're supposed to be filling gaps. For most of the day they did it. If there is a knock you can make against the defensive line is that most of the time, when the defensive linemen are filling their gaps, they're not coming off their blocks very well. This DL has improved from the Oklahoma State game in that they're holding the line and getting to their gap, but they're taking blockers with them. Unlike last year, with the talented DL that consisted of Dave Ball and Rod Leisle, this defense struggles to shed its blockers.
But again, at least the DL for the most part is in position. The linebackers against Arizona almost never were. The linebacking performance was particularly abysmal.
Justin London didn't make a big impact on the game in his 20-odd plays. There is the last remnant of an excuse to cling to with this defense – that when London does hopefully return to 100% and plays most of the game it will make a considerable impact.
Spencer Havner, God bless him, seemed to be all over the field like in every game this season – mostly because he has to be.
For the other starting linebacker, former walk-on Ben Lorier, who generally played well in his first UCLA start last week against San Diego State, the honeymoon was definitely over. Lorier struggled against Arizona considerably. It was almost completely predictable that if Arizona ran successfully to one side of UCLA's defense, it was to Lorier's side. He consistently got man-handled and taken out of the play. Many times his gap assignment is to the outside of the offensive tackle, and he was either blown back a few yards or sealed out of the play. He's trying valiantly, but just doesn't have the size, strength or ability to play consistently at this level.
Wesley Walker played okay at middle linebacker, starting in place of London. He made a couple of plays, but didn't impact the game near enough at that position for it to have any kind of effect on Arizona's running game.
The Arizona running game plan was a very effective one. With a stable of big backs, their theory was to more or less contain UCLA's defensive line inside and allow their backs to get around the corner, which they did consistently, leaving UCLA's linebackers and safeties the job of making a play. And not only were UCLA's linebackers getting worked, so were the defensive backs. Arizona's blockers often times blew UCLA's linebackers and defensive backs a few yards down the field to either side, giving Arizona's big backs plenty of room to get some steam going. It was very common for an Arizona running back not to be touched until he was a few yards past the line of scrimmage.
How can this be fixed you ask? Great question. Really the long-term answer is UCLA needs more talent. While this collection of players will get better as they get experienced in the next couple of years, UCLA plainly needs more talent in its front seven. Right now, it has Havner, London, and a still unproven Niusulu (he has yet to show he can be an effective starter), and then question marks at the four remaining spots.
In the short-term, this season, London getting healthier and playing more of the game will help. He has the ability to slice through blockers, and penetrate, as does Spencer Havner. But whoever plays most of the game at that other linebacker position when London returns (either the inside weakside position if Havner now stays outside, or the outside position if he moves back inside with the return of London) is going to be key. Wesley Walker would be the projected player, since he was thought to be the starter at the beginning of the season. He also has the most size and strength among the candidates. But it will be interesting to see if UCLA sticks with Lorier at the inside position. Or, will it opt for Aaron Whittington at the outside position instead of Walker?
It was made obvious that a decent running game will be able to exploit UCLA's lack of overall talent combined in its defensive line and linebackers. On any given play there just isn't enough strength, speed or ability in the defensive line and linebackers to shed blocks and blow up running plays.
And if this is what happened against Arizona, who was averaging just 106 yards a game, what happens when this defense faces the #1 rushing team in the conference next week, California? The Bears were averaging 278 yards on the ground per game. That's about the same amount that Oklahoma State is averaging per game. And OSU did its damage against UCLA without being able to keep the UCLA defense off-balance because it lacked a passing game, which Cal has.
This is, again, a great script. UCLA's under-manned defense now facing some huge against-all-odds challenge in its remaining schedule. Will it be able to step up? Will there be some personnel changes that will help? Will there be heroes?
Right now, UCLA's coaches need to come up with a different theory – particularly in its linebacking group – for the rest of the season.
And you can't just advocate stacking the box against the rush. UCLA did that in the first half against Arizona, putting 8 and sometimes 9 defenders in the box, to no impact. In fact, it hurt UCLA's ability to defend against the run, committing so many bodies to the line where, once the Arizona running back had gotten past the line, there was no one there to keep a gain of 25 yards to 10.
And the Arizona game generated some new worries in UCLA's secondary. While it held Arizona to just 93 yards passing, for Arizona, that's a decent day through the air. Arizona, plainly, is a poor passing team. Even so, they had a number of opportunities to really change the game with some receivers that were open deep down the field that its quarterback, Kris Heavner, couldn't hit. UCLA's defensive backs, sometimes in man-to-man since so many other defenders are in the box, dedicated to stopping the run, were beaten on a few deep routes that, luckily, Arizona couldn't complete.
Again, what happens when you have Cal's Aaron Rodgers, probably the best quarterback in the conference, throwing the ball instead of Heavner?
To give out some credit, UCLA's defense epitomized the bend-and-not-break defensive philosophy Saturday against Arizona. They gave up huge chunks of yards, but only 17 points.
Hey, at this point, maybe all we can want out of this under-manned defense is its ability, given the opponent, to bend and not break. Maybe if it can keep opposing offenses from scoring quickly, making them do it on the ground, having to sustain drives. If the defense can keep opposing offenses from not scoring too much it can maybe give UCLA's offense the opportunity to out-score them. Against Arizona, that means giving up 17 points. Against Cal, that probably means giving up 30-40 points. That would be the equivalent of Cal scoring on most of its drives without scoring on many quick, big plays.
You have to also give credit to defensive coordinator Larry Kerr. He doesn't have a great deal to work with in terms of experienced talent, and he's been trying to keep it together with smoke and mirrors. Against San Diego State, the blitzing, aggressive style worked. Against Arizona, early on it was clear it wasn't working and he shifted back to running the base defense more often, which did in fact, give up yards, but didn't give up the big play, and limited Arizona to only 17 points.
It will be interesting – and dramatic – to see what Kerr can pull out of his hat against Cal, just something to give the defense a little edge. Or will it be futile against the first truly good, balanced offense UCLA will face this year?
With the defense not generally stepping up to its challenge against Arizona, the offense did, for the most part.
The simple offensive challenge against Arizona was this: Everyone in the Rose Bowl knew Arizona's defense was going to dedicate itself to stopping UCLA's running game and make UCLA' quarterback, Drew Olson, beat them.
And generally, he did.
It was a clear challenge to UCLA's passing game. The same challenge UCLA offenses have been presented with for the last several years and been unable to overcome.
But, led by Olson, they did it against a good Arizona defense.
It was because of a combination of things – Olson executing, finally UCLA having an offensive line that can protect a quarterback, and the offensive game plan that exploited the weaknesses of Arizona's offense.
First, on Olson. He wasn't spectacular by any means. He still has issues with throwing accuracy. On short throws, there were a number of times when the play was killed because a receiver had to adapt to the inaccuracy of Olson's throw – such as with catches by Marcus Everett, Junior Taylor and others. That bit of inaccuracy is enough to disrupt the timing of a play, say, on a quick out, that is the difference between gaining two yards or giving the receiver an opportunity to break it.
But Olson's decision-making against Arizona was much improved. He didn't force many balls into double coverage, recognized when he needed to get rid of the ball, run or go down and take a sack generally. That improvement in judgment made the difference at the quarterback position for the game.
The offensive line wasn't as effective as it had been in previous games this season. First, it was missing perhaps its best player, center Mike McCloskey. Robert Chai played okay filling in, but in analyzing the line play closely, it was clear that McCloskey was missed. But still, overall, the offensive line is, again, the standout unit on the team. Going against a stacked box by Arizona, it opened up a fair amount of holes for its running backs, and did it particularly in the second half, having worn down Arizona's front seven. In years past when opposing defenses have stacked the box they also have been able to get to the quarterback fairly quickly who was trying to throw around it. On Saturday, Olson was sacked just twice. Olson, when he needed to have time, got it.
The offensive game plan was very effective. It not only finally exploited Marcedes Lewis, it exploited the fact that he was seeing only single coverage, often times by a cornerback, since Arizona was dedicating so much manpower to stopping UCLA's running game. If you want to help your quarterback get in a groove, Marcedes Lewis is nice to have. The game plan mixed a good amount of running and passing plays, and introduced just enough new plays to keep Arizona off-balance. We saw a fullback screen to Michael Pitre for a touchdown; a misdirection pitch; a pseudo option on the touchdown by Chris Markey, and some more movement of the pocket.
Lewis had an excellent game. Easily his best catch was the non-TD catch where he did look like, in fact, he was double covered but went up amazingly high to catch the ball over two defenders. Lewis's performance, and the offensive game plan that got him the ball, will pay dividends the rest of the season. Opposing defenses will have to put double coverage on him. If not, it will be too easy for UCLA to utilize Lewis the way it did Saturday. With defenses having to watch Lewis more closely, it will open up something – either the corners for the passing game or the running game.
A few other notes:
-- It was a bit of a mystery that Maurice Drew sat out the majority of the second half. After one play in the first series where he bounced outside and lost a few yards, he was more or less benched for the half. Some thought it was his groin flairing up, but UCLA coaches denied it – but also wouldn't elaborate on why he didn't play more. It didn't look like he was playing with any less effort. In the second half, when UCLA's running game started to open up, on some of the runs in which Manuel White gained 8-10 yards it seemed potentially like Drew could have had a chance to bust a couple.
-- Freshman running back Chris Markey looks talented, with very exceptional quickness in hitting the hole and keeping his body leaning forward.
-- Freshman receiver Marcus Everett, with the absense of Craig Bragg, looks to have become UCLA's #1 receiver threat. Strangely, Tab Perry hasn't. Perry looks darn good in practice, but it doesn't seem to be translating to the games. He is, though, continuing to block really well, sealing the end a couple of times to open up room for UCLA's running backs.
-- Get Michael Pitre the ball.
-- Freshman defensive end Brigham Harwell, after having a big game against Illinois, has been vastly under-utilized.
You stilll even get the sense that UCLA's offense is continuing to hold back and not show its entire hand. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking, but it seems like the offense is still going about its business in a measured way and not really letting down its hair completely.
Well, that just creates more drama – because if UCLA's offense is keeping something under wraps, this is the week, against Cal, to unveil it.
This defense generally gives you a feeling of scary vulnerability. During the Arizona game, with UCLA leading the entire game and most of the time by not less than 13 points, you still had an eery feeing that the lead could be lost quickly. During the Arizona game, it was easy to come to periodic conclusions that Arizona was the better team on the field. Their offense was moving the ball better than UCLA's offense for most of three quarters, and its defense was by far more effective than UCLA's defense. It not only gives fans a sense that UCLA is vulnerable, it tends to give opposing teams the same feeling. In post-game comments by many Arizona players, they said they always felt during the game that they were as good as UCLA and just were hurt by bad breaks and their first-half penalties. That's not the kind of feeling you want to allow opposing teams. You want to go up by 20 points and give them the feeling that you're dominating them and they don't have the means to come back. Perhaps, with this defense this year, that will never be the case.
The Arizona players who felt that they were merely hurt by shooting themselves in the foot could have a decent case. In the second half, when Arizona limited its penalties, the teams played to a 14-14 tie. In the first half, when UCLA took a 23-3 advantage, there were three teams on the field – UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona's penalty team. UCLA's most effective offense and defense in the first half were Arizona's penalties. In one scoring drive for UCLA in the first half, it drove almost three quarters of the field but actually only gained 30 or so yards itself, getting the rest of the yardage on Arizona's penalties.
If there was any kind of questioning of UCLA coaching for the Arizona game, it was the curious series to end the first half. With five minutes left in the half, and leading 16-3, UCLA starts a drive from deep in its own territory and frustratingly looks like it's just going to be content with running out the clock for the half. Hey, five minutes is plenty of time to mount a standard drive, and with Arizona's penalties bound to kick in an extra 20 yards or so, you had to think it was doable. When UCLA then discovers it could possibly get into field goal range when it reaches mid-field, it had already run down the clock three minutes. It then ran down the clock 30 seconds before calling a timeout (it did appear, though, that Drew Olson was trying to check out of a play at the line of scrimmage into one that he couldn't in that given formation, which made UCLA call the timeout). It went on to drive the entire field (of course, with the help of an Arizona penalty) and score on the Marcedes Lewis touchdown pass where he was assisted in being pushed over the goal line by the entire offense, which had to be one of the most inspiring touchdowns scored by a UCLA team in years.
But the movie script now in its second hour, it's building suspense and it's now time for the movie to heighten the drama as it heads toward the final act. Here's some heightened drama for you: UCLA is 4-1 against teams with a combined record of 6-15, with four of those wins coming against 1-AA teams. It now will face teams in the next month with a combined record of 15-4. That includes the #8-ranked team in the country, Cal, who outplayed the #1 ranked team in the country on the road (and UCLA plays them in Berkeley) Saturday, and #15-ranked and undefeated Arizona State, in Tempe. Then after that, it faces a pretty decent Stanford team that could have made the case it out-played Notre Dame on the road on Saturday. Then the Bruins play Washington State, who is 4-1, and then play Oregon in Eugene, which is always tough, before facing USC.
To put the task the defense has in front of it in perspective: UCLA gave up a total of 48 points to the two worse-scoring offenses in the Pac-10 – Arizona and Washington (and that's even with the 31 points UCLA allowed Washington factored in). Coming up on UCLA's docket, in order, is the #1 scoring offense (Cal), #3 (ASU), #4 (Stanford), #6 Washington State, #7 (Oregon) and #2 (USC). More perspective: Washington and Arizona, before this weekend, were averaging 15 and 13 points a game. UCLA's next two opponents, Cal and ASU, were averaging 48 and 34.
UCLA, as of right now, would definitely be getting points against Cal, Arizona State and USC. It probably would be a fairly small line against Stanford that could go either way by then. The line could also be close to a pick ‘em against Washington State by that time. And then Oregon more than likely will have put some games in its win column and be favored at home against the Bruins, or at least it would be close to another pick ‘em.
So, to continue to heighten the suspense and drama, it wouldn't be a stretch to say these next six games will probably be the biggest factor in defining Karl Dorrell's performance at UCLA so far in his tenure. If he loses four of them, and ends up 6-5, he's probably still in no man's land, a place where been since he arrived, where he's still considered undefined If he loses five or even six of them, the fallout could very well be similar to the Bob Toledo fallout of 2002, and Dorrell's own fallout of last season, when he lost the last five games of the year. Now, if he can win three or four of them, it'd probably be enough to be viewed as moving in the right direction, and would go along way in defining him in a positive light and probably give recruiting the boost it needs to get over the hump from a talent-perspective.
We've all bought our tickets, our popcorn and Junior Mints. We're halfway through this flick, and it's captured our interest and emotions. We're on the edge of our movie theater seat waiting to see if this ends up a story with a Hollywood-type ending, or one of those black comedy indies where it ends in tragedy.