Last week, UCLA won 37-17, and the game was ominous, in many aspects.
This week, UCLA loses 45-28, and there are so many things to be positive about when it comes to the rest of the season.
Quite simply, UCLA's loss against Cal Saturday was by far a more promising indication of how the team will do for the remainder of the season than UCLA's win against Arizona the week before.
And at the very least, it's all out in the open now. We've finally seen this UCLA team play against a very good team. Before, after going 4-1 against some generally mediocre-to-bad teams, it was all just speculation. Now we actually have something to go on.
And even though everyone might not be feeling rosy after Saturday's loss, heck, it's not too bad. It's actually quite a bit better than you might have anticipated. The Cal game wasn't near as ugly as you might have thought it would be. UCLA was in the game for much longer than you might have thought, and you never got a sense that Cal was completely dominating the game and trampling a completely inferior opponent. It wasn't like they jumped out to a 42-7 lead at halftime. In fact, a few breaks here and there, a converted third down and UCLA might have been right there.
You didn't get a sense that the defense, even though it gave up 500+ yards and huge plays on the ground, was as destroyed as you might have anticipated, or as the statistics might indicate. Probably because the Bears were leading only 7-0 at the end of the first quarter, and UCLA's defense was doing that bend-but-don't-break thing pretty well for a good portion of the game.
Yes, there are obvious issues with the defense. But we knew that. At least this game proves that this defense, with those issues, still wasn't completely wiped off the field by one of the best offenses in the country.
And again, this game was enlightening. It made you come to terms with reality on so many issues for this team – and particularly for the defense. First, the defense just plainly isn't very talented. Brigham Harwell, the true freshman defensive end, revealed this. Starting for the first time ever, as a true freshman, still nursing a sore ankle, Harwell is easily the most talented defensive lineman on the team. That proves just how under-talented the DL is. Watching him play, you see what a talented player can do, using superior quickness to get around his blocker and pursue the ball carrier. It also shows you just how the other defensive ends can't do this. Kevin Brown, the sophomore defensive tackle, has a chance to be pretty good, but he's mostly playing on potential right now, as is Harwell. With C.J. Niusulu not playing because of an inflamed ankle (which could be a result of the illness he had this week), there is so little talent on the defensive line, it's alarming. Actually, converted offensive guard Eyoseph Efseaff, who started his first game in Niusulu's place, didn't play too badly, occasionally being able to shed his block and make a tackle. But UCLA went deep into its depth chart at DL, as it has all season. And we've been told that, with young and inexperienced players, it's best to use depth and keep them fresh. But there is a contradictory theory that you only use depth if you have legitimate depth that can play competitively at this level. As of right now, there aren't any other DLs who can play effectively. Wouldn't you rather have a tired Brigham Harwell and Kevin Brown in the game?
But how poorly UCLA played against the run Saturday isn't just the defensive line's fault. More alarming is the fact that UCLA played with its original starting linebacker group, and the linebackers played very poorly. Not only did Spencer Havner have his lowest total of tackles for a game yet this season (five), he didn't play very well. He was constantly either blocked on a play, going the wrong direction or filling what appeared to be the wrong hole. Justin London, making his first start back, was similarly as poor. He also got blocked pretty effectively for most of the game or chose the wrong hole to fill. Wesley Walker was almost non-existent, but as an excuse, he only played a portion of the game since UCLA was using safety Eric McNeal as a nickel linebacker a good amount. There is also the issue that the linebackers look to be very intent on taking on blocks at the line of scrimmage, with seemingly no intention of shedding them and making a tackle, without their heads up, looking for the ball carrier. This is a gap defense, where defenders are assigned gaps to fill. But when a linebacker is filling a gap, he's also supposed to be able shed a block and make a tackle. Strangely, it doesn't look sometimes like the objective of UCLA's linebackers are to do that.
In UCLA's secondary, the safeties generally kept the defense from completely falling apart, while the corners struggled. Marcus Cassel was off-balance and didn't make a play on a touchdown pass, and was pulled for true freshman Rodney Van. Van then missed a tackle and allowed an 80-yard touchdown. Matt Clark had some good moments, particularly in run defense, but got hurt in coverage a couple of times, which is understandable, playing against Cal's offense and quarterback. Safety Jarrad Page was easily the best defender on the field for UCLA, making plays, getting tackles for loss, and making game-saving tackles. Free safety Ben Emanuel also probably had his best game of the season, getting a couple of big tackles for loss and making some big-play saving tackles.
Overall, you'd have to expect the under-manned and inexperienced defensive line to perform this way. You'd have to also expect there'd be some trouble at the one cornerback position, with a new starter, Cassel, there. But the most foreboding aspect of the defense was the poor play of the supposed talented and experienced linebackers against Cal. You, of course, have to concede that London isn't playing at 100%, but many times it seemed it wasn't a matter of cutting on his ankle, but decision-making.
But all in all, again, it could have been must worst. Cal scored 45 points and even if that's what this site predicted they'd score in the game, it still was on the conservative side. It wasn't unreasonable to expect Cal to score in the 50s. But they didn't. And they piled on the points in the fourth quarter rather than jumping out to a big lead early.
Looking back, of course, we're outfitted with 20-20 hindsight so, of course, we're going to use it. The key element in this game was the fact that the UCLA offense didn't take advantage of Cal's slow start nearly enough. Yes, it was only down by a touchdown at halftime, but Cal struggled to put the ball in the end zone for the first quarter and a half. During that time, UCLA's offense sputtered. Why? It's hard to determine. But from the layman's perspective, it looked as if UCLA's offense came out of the box with a very conservative game plan. It ran the ball nine out of its first twelve plays. Two consecutive pass plays weren't called until 7:12 left in the second quarter, on UCLA's fifth possession, with UCLA down 14-0. Up until that moment, UCLA had garnered only one first down in four previous possessions.
Now, again, we would never presume we know what we're talking about in formally second guessing UCLA's play calling. But in this site's Cal preview, we surmised that UCLA would have to pass the ball to be successful – that a new dedication to the passing game would be needed to beat Cal's defense, which is so geared toward stopping the run. We understand that, with the good running game UCLA has shown so far this year, that it wanted to test Cal's defense against the run early and see if it could establish a running game. But heck, that's a lot of testing -- four series where you run two out of every three plays and never call two successive pass plays, and can't garner a first down? That could be called some serious confidence in your running game -- or stubbornness.
If UCLA would also indulge itself in a little self-scouting this season, it might also realize some things about its running game: In recent weeks, it's slowed down, against defenses that are good against the run and that are now scouting UCLA's running game well.
UCLA might have also self-scouted itself to realize that against Arizona, the best defense it had faced this season up until this week, it was only successful offensively because it threw the ball.
We're not advocating here that UCLA would suddenly become pass happy. But in recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of its own offense, and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing defense, it would seem that dedicating the first four series of the Cal game to establishing the running game might have been excessive.
It made UCLA fall behind 14-0, a deficit it could never overcome the entire game. From that point on, though, UCLA played Cal fairly evenly, on the field and on the scoreboard.
And when UCLA did, in fact, call two pass plays in succession, on its fifth possession of the game midway through the second quarter, it probably wasn't coincidental that it was on the first drive in which UCLA scored.
This bit of a conservative offensive approach is then strangely inconsistent with UCLA's attempt, with 17 seconds left in the first half, to not just take the ball into halftime. Drew Olson passed the ball, from his own 39-yard line, to Michael Pitre, who then fumbled, giving the ball to Cal in its own territory. It's not that we're questioning the decision to try to get some kind of points in the last 17 seconds of the first half, but it was inconsistent with how conservative the offensive decisions had been in the first half leading up to that situation.
Drew Olson had a similar game to the one he had against Arizona, which is, again, promising. He threw for a career-high 299 yards and four touchdowns. He made generally good decisions again, his decision-making having improved. But it still seems that his throwing accuracy is limiting him and the passing game from really breaking out. There seems to be an excessive amount of throws that are just a bit off, enough to fall incomplete, or enough to break up the rhythm of the route. One screen to Maurice Drew in the second quarter with UCLA trailing 28-14 on a third-and-15 was thrown behind Drew. It appeared Drew had plenty of room in front of him, at least those 15 yards he needed for a first down, but he had to spin to try to catch the ball, which Olson floated behind him, and couldn't catch it. UCLA was at the Cal 40 yard line at the time, and driving. Cal took over, and took its next possession into the end zone for the seal-the-deal touchdown to make it 35-14 in the fourth quarter.
Now, you could make a case that we're nitpicking against Olson. But it seems, at this point, for Drew Olson to really take that next step in his development, he'll have to execute better, particularly in getting the ball more efficiently into the hands of his receivers. To his credit, he might have thrown his best ball of the season when he hit Joe Cowan on a 46-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, hitting him in the hands in perfect stride while Cowan was covered well. There is hope that Olson will continue to improve in his accuracy as he gets more comfortable. He definitely has improved his accuracy from last season.
Recognition has to be given to UCLA's special teams. They have consistently played well this season, so much so we've taken them for granted, especially in kick-off and punt return coverage. Not one kick or punt has been returned for really significant yardage. It seems that the younger, more enthusiastic players have added some energy and punch to the special teams, a good call on Head Coach Karl Dorrell's part.
But overall, even though UCLA lost, this weekend put UCLA's potential for the season in so much better focus. Admittedly, after last week's unconvincing win against Arizona, the rest of the season looked a bit bleak. At the time it looked like UCLA's defense wouldn't be able to contain anyone, and that the bend-and-don't-break philosophy was more of a fluke than anything else. It also left you unconvinced that UCLA's offense would be able to move the ball consistently against good defenses. In fact, the entire season through the Arizona game had led you to believe both of these assessments.
But the Cal game was a break-through, in a way, for getting a handle on this team and it's potential season. The bend-but-don't-break defense might not be a fluke. Yes, they're going to give up huge amounts of real estate on the ground, but they could actually be effective in limiting the amount of points opponents put on the board. They limited Cal, maybe the best overall offense in the country, to one touchdown in the first quarter, and only 45 points overall (that's not sarcastic). With Drew Olson continuing to improve, the offense has shown it can be effective throwing the ball and carry the offense in the last couple of weeks, and doesn't have to depend so stubbornly on its running game. We've now discovered this, really, for the first time this season because it was on display for the first time against an actual good opponent.
Plus, they get back Craig Bragg.
At the same time, the Pac-10 shifted around a bit this weekend also. Up until last week, Arizona State looked like it was a potentially emerging power. Then it was dominated by USC Saturday. It was dominated in a way that UCLA wasn't by Cal, a team that looked to be superior to USC the previous week. So, at the very least, this gives UCLA quite a bit more promise against the Sun Devils in Tempe this Saturday. This is a game, because of this weekend, that went, in our mind, from probably being chalked up in the loss column, to one that UCLA definitely could win.
UCLA's next opponent, Stanford, then edged Washington State in Pullman. Stanford had appeared to be a better team than the Cougars so far this season, but the Cardinal didn't dominate, and didn't put themselves in a more formidable light, by any means. And it made Washington State, the team UCLA will face after Stanford, quite a bit less formidable. And both of those games are at home, in the Rose Bowl.
After that, UCLA will go to Oregon. Up until this point, the Ducks had appeared like they had just been beset with some bad luck primarily in going 2-3. But it beat Arizona in a very unconvincing fashion this last week, 28-14. The week before it barely edged Washington State, 41-38, in Pullman. Stanford, actually, looked quite a bit better than Oregon against the Cougars. And Oregon has already lost two games in Autzen Stadium this season, which could be unprecedented in recent years, one in which Arizona State beat them pretty soundly. So, while many had been probably notching the Oregon game into the loss column, too, when projecting out UCLA's season, this looks to be a very winnable game now.
And against USC, who knows?
But at least, after this weekend, against a clearly elite opponent, UCLA showed it has enough to be very competitive in the games remaining on its schedule. It looks like, now, it has a very good chance of winning 3 or 4 of its remaining five games, and adverting the end-of-the-season crash it has experienced the last couple of years. But make no mistake, it will probably have to win 3 or 4 of its remaining five games to, in fact, advert the emotional end-of-the-season crash it's experienced in recent years.
And if there was anything that this UCLA team proved about itself in this game against Cal, which offsets it from recent UCLA teams, is the heart it displayed. It was almost like one of the trashy Hollywood slasher movies where Jason just can't die and keeps getting up off the floor. Every time Cal appeared to give UCLA a knock-out blow, UCLA came right back, to what looked like Cal's repeated astonishment. You almost felt that, with 2:30 left in the game and UCLA down 38-28 that it very well could still win – because of the no-quit resolve this team showed throughout the game and, actually, throughout the season.
No matter where you are in your opinion of Karl Dorrell at this point, everyone would have to concede that the character and heart that he's instilling in this team and the program is admirable and one, as UCLA fans, to be proud of.