Cal Review: The Bubble Bursts

Our Xs and Os guy, <B>Steve Waters</b>, does a thorough analysis of the loss last Saturday against Cal, and looks ahead to Arizona State...

Pop. Whoosh.

I don't think UCLA fans need to be told what that sound was. But just in case.

That was the sound of a truly balanced team composed of confident play-makers and great strategists bolting to a 14-0 lead, establishing their supremacy, and essentially controlling the game from start to finish.

And was that the sound of an imbalanced, slightly anxious team and coaching staff coming face-to-face with its own limitations and the reality of a difficult upcoming homestretch and losing its confidence?

The 45-28 loss to the (44 from southern) California Golden Bears wasn't as close as it looked. When the game was in the balance in the first quarter, the Bruins just didn't show up. The O didn't generate a single first down. The Golden Bears had eight. The O only gained 30 yards. The Golden Bears gained 120. The O ran 14 offensive plays; the Golden Bears ran 23. The Bruins completed 2 of 4 passes; the Golden Bears completed 5 of 9. And the Golden Bears outscored the Bruins, 7-0.

Most interestingly, the Cal Bears' DL made the first four tackles of the day on run plays. Not LBs or DBs: DL, like Brandon Mebane, Lorenzo Alexander and Ryan Riddle. There's no need to put eight or nine in the box, as so many are distraught about, when your DT can set up on the outside eye of SG Steven Vieira, slant to the TE (which happens to be the short side of the field), beat the SG through the hole, and nail the RB toting the pig for a loss or no gain.

On D, the Bruins were slightly better. But after weeks of playing "bend, don't break," the Bruin D reverted to classic Bob Field "bend…THEN break" philosophy. The Bruins did force five punts, but they allowed so many runs and passes of 10+ yards that they allowed a season-high 550 total yards and 45 points.

Yes, the Bruins fought back to tie the score. But that is cold comfort. Every time the Bruins issued a challenge, the Bears batted it away like a bothersome cub. The respective starts have already been mentioned. But then there is Cal's TD drive after the Bruins knotted the score. There is the stop the Bears put on UCLA to start the second half. And there is the stoning of UCLA's run game on 3rd and 4th down and one from the Cal 10.

Big teams and big players make big plays in big games. They don't whiff on all four 3rd down conversion attempts in the first half.

Apart from the Bruins' inability to impose their will from the opening whistle, the most disconcerting takeaways from this game are that the competition is getting a bead on UCLA's offensive attack, and that the D is weak on fundamentals.

Karl Dorrell recognizes that defenses have been adjusting to his running attack; the Bruins almost always run the stretch play to the TE/strong side of the formation, especially to the short side of the field. If the SE to the weak side is split tight, then the Bruins might run that way. But like all good leaders, Dorrell realizes that acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it. Sounds simple, but you'd be surprised. We'll see what counter-moves the UCLA braintrust makes to get the running game gashing again. We know that one move is to insert 17-year old Shannon Tevaga into the starting line-up for WG Robert Cleary, a move reminiscent of Kevin Brown taking over the OG spot last year. Of course, if Tevaga were forced into the starting line-up because of an injury to Cleary, we would be bemoaning the Bruins' luck, because few would expect true frosh Tevaga to be better than RS JR Cleary at this point in their development. That expectation may still hold true, as Tom Cable and Karl Dorrell roll the dice and refuse to be complacent.

One thing that has helped UCLA this year has been running from passing sets, such as three wide and an ace back. However, there hasn't been much passing from obvious running sets. Tom Cable unveiled a three back set, with double offset FBs, against Cal, and tried to run blast plays with little effect and much teeth gnashing. But the first time UCLA presented that set to Cal, Marcedes Lewis was split wide right…and the CB gave him a 10-yard cushion. A quick lateral pass to Lewis and a surge forward by Marc would bring about 2nd and short at worst, and a new 1st and 10 as a nice consolation.

Another move that yielded positive results was the use of the lead draw play, a slightly delayed hand-off that shows as a pass first, which provides enough time before handing the ball off for the DL and LB to show themselves, take a gap/side, and allow the OL to get into them and push them apart. Manuel White showed great vision and anticipation on successive running plays to get the Bruins down to the 15, where Drew Olson then threw the perfect pass to the gigantic Lewis: high and right over the middle.

But the Bruins showed very little offensive imagination to get the running game going, apart from the whirling overhand lateral to Maurice Drew that he rocketed forward for a nice gain and a first down.

On the defensive side, when fans think "fundamentals," they probably think of tackling. But it starts earlier than that. The most fundamental defensive skill is dealing with a blocker, and knowing what to do when the blocker is winning the battle on a play. The Bruins made numerous mistakes against Cal in their gap responsibilities, such as LBs taking on lead blockers with the wrong shoulder, or LBs not filling the hole hard enough and fast enough, thereby giving J.J. Arrington the opportunity for a career day, which he seized, much as Vernand Morency et al. did. A prime example of this was on Arrington's final TD run from 9 yards out: Spencer Havner scrapes to the outside, and is in perfect position to take on the FB and stuff the run at the LOS…but Havner mysteriously puts on the brakes, the FB pancakes him, the RB continues accelerating through the hole, running in a straight line, and has too much force (mass x acceleration) to be denied the end zone. The fundamentally sound play would have been to attempt to knock a couple of inches off the FB's listed height in the program, which would have had the ancillary benefit of stress relief. And we all know how important that is.

Another lacking fundamental that is just killing the Bruins on D is how the DTs and NGs deal with double teams. Not the Jenna Jameson kind, either. The kind where two 300 lb. OL, usually the C and OG, try to stand up the DT and drive him backwards. Accomplishing this gives the O an easy 4 yards minimum as long as the RB hits the hole, because the LBs are now disrupted: their ability to escape their own blocker is lost, because there is nowhere to go. They can't see the ball carrier any longer. They have to give ground.

Bottom line, a D can't stop the run if its DT/NG don't handle the double team appropriately.

So what's a guy to do? Incredible interior DL like Mike Patterson actually beat the double team a ridiculous percentage of the time: he turns his body sideways and slices one shoulder between the double, and then keeps driving forward in that position until he is in the backfield, disrupting the play.

What a DT/NG shouldn't do is stay square to the double, stand up and then get bowled over a couple of yards downfield. When your interior DL lead the team in pancakes, from the syrup perspective, not the spatula perspective, that's not a good sign.

Not every DL is Mike Patterson, and able to beat the double consistently. The next best thing is for the DT, once he senses a double, which is pretty easy to do when you think about it ("hey, there are TWO of them trying to kick my ass!!!!"), to submarine the whole enterprise. Low man wins in football. Dive straight for the OL's ankles, give no more ground, create a pile, start bear crawling forward, start looking for the RB's feet, and reach out to grab one if possible.

If the Bruins don't take drastic measures to foil the simple "up the middle" blast play that is a staple of every playbook, but that every other D in CFB (literally!) can stop consistently, the Bruins will be lucky to win another game this season. Giving up over 250 yards of rushing a game is no way to go through life. Oregon State at its worst didn't allow over 250 yards of rushing per game mid-way through a season. A Larry Kerr D at Colorado State never allowed that many yards per game. Are the UCLA players that much worse than the players Kerr had at CSU all those years?

Given the gap control D the Bruins run, to keep a RB out of the secondary, one defender near the point of attack must not only beat his blocker, but must also tackle the RB, who is usually the other team's best athlete. If the O times it right, the blocker engages the defender just as the RB arrives, which is why you so often see Justin London or Havner trying to tackle the RB with one arm…because the other is still involved in shedding the blocker. Throw in a little discreet, close to the vest holding, and you can see the challenge. One innovation I'd love to see Kerr try is an 'eagle' set, where SS Jarrad Page would essentially become a LB backer, positioning himself just in front of the umpire, much like Lance Briggs played at Arizona. With the ILBs filling hard and fast, there would be no one to block Page, and those 10 to 15-yard runs might be kept to 2 or 3 yards.

The other fundamental that is lacking is tough play on the corner. Even if the Bruins make a couple of good plays against the run, the enemy O can always make it up with a deep out, even on 4th and 6, when you'd expect the CBs to be pressing the coverage to avoid giving up a cheap and easy first down. As heartbreaking as it is for a fan to see an opportunity slip away, it must be doubly frustrating for the players to see the chink in the armor exploited at crucial times.

Looking forward to Arizona State, the Bruins do stand a good chance to take this game, a game they badly need if they're going to finish above .500 on the year.

The Bruins seem to have the Sun Devils' number, as they have Washington's, and Oregon and Washington State have UCLA's. Dirk Koetter and Andrew Walter don't seem to have the patience to nickel and dime the Bruins to death. The ASU running game has been anemic due to depletion in their RB ranks. And the Bruins have a great blueprint to follow after USC ripped ASU 45-7. What could be simpler?

The Bruin O inspires more confidence, even with the two game rushing attack slide. If Cable can get Drew Olson confident early with some simple completions, like screens or quick outs or a post-up by Marc Lewis, the Bruins might be able to use the pass to set up the run, as they did in last year's victory over ASU.

Bottom line, I expect the Bruins to take the Sun Devils 31-24.

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