Arizona State Game: Crunch Time

Steve Waters analyzes the Arizona State game in detail. UCLA's defense was, obviously, a problem, and looks to continue to be a question for the season. Can the productive offense be enough to overcome it?

At times, it's easy to mistake the UCLA Bruins for the Portland Trailblazers or Dallas Mavericks of the ‘80s: whenever they would play the Showtime Lakers, they would promptly fall behind by 20 in the first quarter as Magic, Big Game James and B would blow them off the court with break after break. But then they would claw their way back into the game – the Lakes would forget to play D, or forget to box out, and the Mavblazers' talented players would get some uncontested shots they would drain. "It's nervous time at the Fabulous Forum!" Sometimes the Trailricks would even take the lead. But never fear, because the Lakers would get serious, flip the switch and win going away.

And so it was as the Sun Devils jumped ahead 14-3, eventually fell behind 42-31 with just over seven minutes left, and then stormed back to win 48-42.

How else to describe this team that has allowed five of seven teams to march down the field and score (four TDs, one FG) on its first possession except Clipper-esque? And the record on first possessions could be worse; only Arizona was legitimately stopped: Illinois got a bad spot on a 4th and inches blast play from UCLA's two.

For whatever reason, the 2004 Bruins have not come out ready to play defense with emotion and intensity. Instead of throwing Pedro-class heat, it's been more like BP meatballs. The result is that even teams like ASU look like Barroid Bonds.

And the passivity on D to start the game seems to have transferred to the O: the Bruins have scored only 3 points in the 1st quarter of the last two games.

Allowing the opponent to have the ball first, offering no resistance as the opponent marches down the field for six, going three-and-out, and facing the prospect of being down two scores a few scant minutes into the game is no way to consistently win football games. Winning programs consistently score first, force their opponent into errors, and stretch the lead. So it seems the decision to defer possession until the second half has backfired on UCLA in recent weeks.

Because the O is clearly the strength of the Bruins in 2004. The Bruins have fairly easily handled teams they have managed to get the jump on: Illinois and Arizona. Perhaps the D isn't quite at the mercy of the opposing O; once behind, maybe the pressure is on the opposing OC to make great calls and appease the armchair quarterbacks roaming the ‘net. Bottom line, it is easier for a football team to play from ahead than from behind.

Except, apparently, in the last seven minutes of a game with a double-digit lead.

College football is a humbling game: a guy can go from hero to goat in a play. Case in point is Trey Brown.

You don't have to be an astute observer to have realized that UCLA started performing better on D when Brown replaced Marcus Cassel at right CB. Matt Clark started off the game strongly, with an interception on a deep out, and a couple of other strong defensive plays on intermediate outs. But nearly every time Andrew Walter threw left, the Sun Devils prospered, and Cassel failed to punish ASU for coming his way.

Once Brown entered the game, he began playing a more physical, aggressive style. For example, on the first play of the second quarter, the Bruins crowded seven defenders into the LOS, signaling a blitz. Walter picked it up, and audibled. The Bruins stayed crowded along the line, and sent seven after Walter on the snap. So Walter took a quick three-step drop, and fired a slant to Derek Hagan on the left…but Trey Brown delivered a solid blow just as the ball arrived, and jarred it loose with his well-timed lumber.

When was the last time you saw a UCLA CB play the slant so well, and dislodge the ball loose without getting flagged for PI?

Later on, with the Bruins down 21-17, Brown made the key turning point play of the game for the Bruins when he picked off a Walter pass by niftily jumping in front of a deep curl route. The pick almost led to a TD for the Bruins – if Brandon Breazall had not slightly slipped trying to make a play on a deep strike from Drew Olson (the DB had completely lost his footing), he would have pulled down the stone for an amazing turn of events. As it was, JMoney, Justin Medlock, nailed a career-best tying 52-yard FG to get the Bruins within a point at half, 21-20. Watch for The Blade to make that play next time, or one like it.

However, it is a truism of football that whenever a new CB comes into the game, the seasoned, opportunistic QB will go after him with a vengeance. Kinda like UCLA went after Josh Golden, new or not. But I digress.

Everyone will remember the hitch-and-go for the TD to Hagan. But the completion two plays before may have been the one that got inside Brown's head and played with his confidence.

ASU's Terry Richardson was split left and released straight up the field on the snap. Brown was playing a bump coverage with some cushion, and barely tried to get a hand on Richardson, which allowed him to run free up the sideline. Critical mistake #1. Brown then made critical mistake #2: he hovered in the flat zone, instead of deepening with the WR. As a CB, Brown had help over the top from FS Ben Emanuel. But Brown needed to help Emanuel by getting a decent jam on the WR, instead of a forlorn wave. When he didn't, and stayed in the flat zone instead of running with the WR, the infamous ‘hole' in the cover 2 zone opened into a gaping maw, which Walter exploited for 37 yards.

With the big gain on his mind, Brown may have gotten too caught up in redemption and bit on a double-move. Welcome to college football.

All things considered, Trey Brown played a great game for the Bruins. Gary DeLoach may have found a suitable bookend for Matt Clark. ASU features a deep-to-intermediate passing game, which gives the CBs some ball-in-air time to make an attempted play. Stanford uses more of a traditional WCO (short passes to the backs and WRs), so Brown's superior hitting ability relative to Cassel could prove to be a real benefit in limiting RAC. UCLA's CBs have been noticeably passive this year, so another physical presence on the O's left side couldn't come at a better time. Using Brown's physicality to jam WRs at the LOS could also be used to disrupt the timing of the passing game.

Other positives for the Bruins on D were the big hits delivered by safeties Jarrad Page and Ben Emanuel on ASU's superfrosh TE (and heavy Bruin recruit) Zach Miller, and sacks by Bruce Davis and William Snead.

Bruin pass rushers and blitzers this year have failed to generate enough steam to break an egg at times. And unfortunately we saw that continued in the ASU game. But Davis and Snead consistently played fast and aggressively at the DE spots v. ASU. Davis' sack occurred when he split the OL who were doing a Chip-and-Dale routine ("After you." "No, after you!"), and Snead's happened when Jarrad Page spied Zach Miller, giving Miller the impression Page was blitzing. Miller stuck with Page, leaving Snead to bowl through the RB assigned to pick him up and take Walter down. Too rarely has any Bruin blitzer blown through a blocker this year, which is hard to fathom. But look for more Snead as the season progresses.

Ben Emanuel led the Bruins with 10 tackles, but you have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. How far downfield was Ben making these tackles? The Sun Devils gained the following amounts of yardage on tackles credited to BE2: 29 run, 15 run, 14 pass, 19 pass, 13 run, 4 run (3rd and 1), 37 pass, 5 run (1st and goal from the 8), and -6 run (yea!). Emanuel wasn't playing on ASU's side of the field.

Unfortunately, the Bruin DL seemed glued to the ASU OL. Were they being held? Were they unable to shed their blocker? Until the Bruin DL improves in this critical area, allowing 120 yards rushing will seem like a good day.

Moving on to the O, it is safe to say that the reason the 2004 Bruins are more enjoyable to watch than last year's squad is the offensive prowess UCLA is exhibiting. The O certainly did enough to win the game for UCLA: score 40+ points for the first time this year; rack up 535 total yards, including 210 on the ground and 325 through the air (the first 300+ game for Drew Olson); complete 30 passes (66%) to 10 different receivers (including 10 to the RB positions, 3 to the TE position, 9 to the SE position, and 8 to the FL position). The usage of the RB position in the passing game is especially promising because it opens up the intermediate game for the WRs and TEs.

Drew Olson had the best of games, and the worst of games. His completion and yardage stats were among his best ever; however, the four interceptions that he threw were killer. It's amazing that the Bruins were even in the game given the points lost and given up on the turnovers. The good news is that the DO seems to be throwing a very catchable ball!

The DO made some of his best throws ever as a Bruin, such as when he hit Joe Cowan in stride for 29 yards. What made the play so exciting was the timing: just as Cowan turned to the inside, the ball practically impaled him, leaving him no choice but to retain possession.

However, there were still times where the DO released the ball late and was behind the receiver, most notably on a drag across the middle to Marcedes Lewis, who had man coverage. If the ball is in front of Marc, Lewis may have gained another 15 to 20 yards, maybe even a TD.

Another one that got away was at the start of the 4th quarter. Lewis ran a corner route and was wide open, but the DO held the ball a beat or two too long, the rush cramped the DO's motion, and he ended up putting the ball high and behind Lewis, who was unable to adjust. Given how much green there was around Marc, that one had big play written all over it.

The copious completions are a testament to how much the Bruin receivers overmatched the ASU defenders. The Bruins were open all day, and only some poor decisions on the INTs kept UCLA from racking up even more yardage. The Sun Devils had a more effective pass rush than any other opponent so far this year, and ASU's ability to put the DO into a phone booth, where he couldn't comfortably step into his throws, highlights some of the limitations of the DO as a QB. While arm strength is often overrated, one place where it does help is when the rush is collapsing the pocket but the QB is still able to get the ball out and away with sufficient mustard.

Tab Perry certainly benefited from a huge physical advantage over Josh Golden. Not only were most of his catches on Golden, but he forced Golden to commit three PIs, only two of which were called. Guys like Perry never seem to get the calls consistently. Perhaps this game will signal a turning of the corner for Tab, and he won't get mugged on fly patterns without drawing a flag.

Speaking of physical advantages, wasn't it nice to see the Bruins finally isolate Marc Lewis in the red zone? I don't know if we'll see it again this year or ever, but the one-handed catch #19 made was an absolute thing of beauty. Just don't let the NFL scouts see the film. IMO, the Bruins better use Lewis as much as possible while they have the chance.

After a two-game hiatus, the Bruins were able to re-establish the running game. While Maurice Drew wasn't able to run wild a la Washington, the combination of Manuel White and Chris Markey helped pick up the slack. MoD had some key runs, no doubt. But it is easy to see that the D is expecting MoD to run off-tackle on every carry, and they are flowing to those points with the slightest hint. It is now up to Tom Cable to find different ways to get MoD the ball, such as on delayed releases out of the backfield, or the lead draw. Also, MoD is a great decoy at this point, similar to what Reggie Bush has become for Southern Cal. It will be interesting to see what, if any, misdirection the Bruins employ using MoD in future games.

The sigh of relief and concomitant let-down the D experiences when MoD isn't on the field helps explain in part the success Chris Markey has experienced toting the pig. Not physically imposing in stature, Markey is blessed with the bravery and vision to blaze to the line at top speed and then make the one cut at the appropriate time. The OL has confidence in Markey, and the Bruins now have an effective three-headed monster in the backfield.

Speaking of OL, given that we didn't hear Shannon Tevaga's name mentioned much, the kid must have done a pretty good job! The times I isolated on Tevaga during the game, he performed very well, blowing the legs out from underneath the DT when he was on the backside. Nice to see a baby Bruin perform so well the first time out.

One of the truisms of football is that you have to be great on 3rd down to win games. Against ASU, UCLA was neither great on O or D on 3rd down. Throwing the ball on 13 of 16 3rd downs, the Bruins only succeeded on 4 of those 13. What if those nine failures, two of which were INTs and three of which were sacks, were successful half of the time? When the pressure is on, the DO has to elevate his game. Checkdown to a back instead of getting sacked by the rush. Focus even more on the mechanics of throwing the ball instead of rushing a throw and wobbling a duck over and behind a WR at the first down stick.

On the defensive side, the Bruins allowed ASU to succeed on 12 of 23 3rd and 4th down plays. Although Andrew Walter looked terrible at times, he played with poise and confidence on big plays. Was he toying with UCLA? Did he just need the extra drama in his life? After all, Dan Fouts informed us that Andrew is without a girlfriend at this time. Whoa Nelly was too busy jocking the St. Louise Cardinals to offer any speculation as to why.

Looking forward to Stanford, the Bruins are facing a perfect storm.

The Cardinal has a strong running game with J.R. Lemon and Kenneth Tolon.

The Cardinal has a superior WR, Evan Moore, who is tall and fast and heavily utilized.

The Cardinal has a talented QB who can beat you with his arm or legs in Trent Edwards.

The Cardinal has a strong D that stymied Southern Cal for most of the game.

The Cardinal staff won the chess game last year.

Stanford got beaten up last week vs. an underrated Oregon squad, yielding 10 sacks in a 16-13 loss. But UCLA doesn't play D up front like Oregon does. Edwards will crawl out of his hospital bed to suit up for this one.

Bottom line, I expect the Bruins to give up a lot of yards and points, and to lose a shoot-out to the Cardinal 45-31.

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