Stanford Review: Turning the Corner?

UCLA accomplishes its best all-around effort in the two years under Head Coach Karl Dorrell in its win, 21-0, over Stanford Saturday. Is it the beginning of the UCLA program actually turning the corner?

Maybe you can attribute it to Halloween.

Because it was obvious that the UCLA defense was possessed Saturday in the 21-0 win over Stanford, or some other defense was playing as the UCLA in disguise.

Could anyone ever have predicted that UCLA would shut out a team this year? Any team? Much less a team of the offensive caliber of Stanford?

It's really intriguing how all of this works. Head Coach Karl Dorrell has been telling us for some time that if you keep working hard, keep trying to improve and correct the small details, there will be a time when you turn the corner.  Well, if Dorrell ever wanted to be able to hold up an instance where that cheerleadish mantra definitely proved to be true, this would be it.

In trying to determine why there was such a dramatic difference Saturday in UCLA's defense, you'd have to attribute it to a number of small, contributing factors - that all added up into a substantial impact:

Justin London was, obviously, closer to his old self for this game, looking quite a bit more mobile than he had at any time this year.

The defensive line easily had its best game.  It looked like it's beginning to kick in for some of the younger players. Defensive tackle Kevin Brown had his best game as a Bruin. Brigham Harwell, while he didn't make a tackle, was too quick for the Stanford offensive tackle to contain many times and disrupted plays, making Stanford's quarterback, Trent Edwards, have to step up repeatedly.  Redshirt freshman Bruce Davis might be figuring it out. True freshman defensive tackle Chris Johnson, in his few reps, was penetrating.  Nikola Dragovic, at left defensive end, looks to now push Kyle Morgan.
Overall the defensive line was filling their gaps far more successfully than they have all year.

The secondary had its best day of the season for coverage. They repeatedly had Stanford's good receivers blanketed, leaving Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards looking around frantically and finding no one to throw to. 

Cornerback Matt Clark stepped up his game again even moreso, to the point where he'd have to be considered for post-season honors.  He had some excellent breaks on the ball, and did a great job overall in coverage. 

On the other side of the field, redshirt freshman Trey Brown, making his first start at the other corner position, played very well also, showing some real aggressiveness in coverage and run support.  He's so physical that when he jammed the big Stanford receivers on the line it looked they couldn't get by him easily. Brown was third on the team in tackles, with 8.

The linebacking unit really had an excellent day. Spencer Havner, after two un-Havner like games, was back in form. Wesley Walker had a solid game, filling his gaps well, as did the linebacking trio on a whole. A few games ago, they looked like they were content on just taking out blockers, but Saturday against Stanford they were shedding blocks and making tackles.

The experienced, talented safeties both lived up to their experience and talent. Jarrad Page has consistently been excellent all season, and was again. Ben Emanuel, in the last two weeks, had played well, and he followed that up with another good game. 

Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards did, in fact, struggle, as many have pointed out, and that clearly contributed.  He was consistently inaccurate in his throws, couldn't find open receivers, had to scramble nine times and threw three interceptions.  He also got progressively worse, with his concentration obviously breaking down in the second half.

And you have to give some considerable credit to UCLA defensive coordinator Larry Kerr. It wasn't just the back seven who kept Trent Edwards looking around frantically for an open receiver. Kerr put enough pressure on Edwards but also tweaked his defensive coverage a bit this week to confuse Edwards.   He didn't blitz nearly as much, which really helped pass protection, providing help for Brown and not leaving him on an island. It also particularly helped on run defense. He used Jarrad Page to blitz, as opposed to the linebackers, which kept the linebackers more in position to make plays against the run. Also, many on this defense have shown a tendency to over-pursue, or fill the wrong holes, and then not have the athleticism to correct themselves.  Not blitzing as much lessened these mistakes and kept the ballcarriers in front of the defense.  It also seemed to settle down Havner, giving him the feeling he didn't have to hit a homerun on every play, which led to less mistakes in this game thatn in the last couple of weeks.

One change that might have made a difference was Kerr moving to the coach's box for this game. He had previously called the game from the sideline. This might have enabled him to see things better.

When the UCLA defense looked like it could be at its lowest point of the season last week against Arizona State, and in some disarray, Kerr really put it together against Stanford.

UCLA fans have to savor some of these facts of the defense's performance:

 UCLA gave up only 83 yards rushing. Yes, that was for the entire game, not just the first quarter.

It wasn't until about 4 minutes left in the first half before Stanford's offense completed a play that went for more than 15 yards.  Until that pass to tight end Alex Smith with just a few minutes left in the game that went for 71 yards, UCLA only allowed three plays that went over 15 yards. 

Now here's some truly astounding facts.  UCLA didn't give up a true run from scrimmage by Stanford that went for over 10 yards. Two plays that go down in the books as running plays gained 10 and 13 yards. One was a scramble and one was a reverse.  In fact, UCLA only allowed three running plays that gained over 5 yards the entire game. It allowed only 2.5 yards per rush.

Stanford gained only 307 yards of total offense, averaging just 3.9 yards per play.

Take a moment and immerse yourself in that.  Just let it wash over you like bubbles in a nice, warm jacuzzi. Defense feels good, doesn't it?

It wasn't, however, a complete game for UCLA. The offense, you could say, was just moderately efficient. It produced just 14 points, while gaining 423 yards.  It did move the ball on Stanford generally pretty well, but didn't get as many big plays as usual and then was hurt by a couple of turnovers that definitely contributed to keeping UCLA's points down. 

And to make an excuse for the offense not scoring that much, really, in the second half, that wasn't their intention. UCLA knew in the second half that all they had to do was kill the clock.  On their last drive in the fourth quarter they started with 9 minutes left. From their own seven, they drove the ball to their own 21 with throwing the ball only once, eating up 6:20 on the clock. Olson only threw the ball four times in the fourth quarter.
That might not put points on the board, but in that game situation, that's a very effective offense. 

Drew Olson was what we can now expect of him - just good.  He completed 60% of his throws, and didn't make many mistakes (and was actually ripped off on the interception call).  He was hurt more by UCLA's receivers dropping very catchable passes.  It was good that Craig Bragg returned to action because, without his five solid catches, the receivers might have been a detriment overall in dropping those balls. It appeared that Stanford did a good job of minimizing Marcedes Lewis, but when that happens, and other receivers have opportunities to get open, someone needs to. Or, at least, hold on to their passes.

The running game was very good, gaining 246 yards rushing against a team that was allowing just 117 per game.  The running backs, generally, had an excellent game, except for a Maurice Drew lost fumble and a few runs here and there that didn't look greatly inspired.  Drew played very well, with his punt return for a touchdown being particularly critical.  Without it, UCLA would have been holding onto a 7-point lead for a majority of the game - a lead that could easily evaporate with one turnover or one small mistake.

The player(s) of the game - and the MVP of the season for this team - is the offensive line.  They dominated the game, opening up some tremendous holes for the running backs and protecting Olson well throughout the day. 

And one of the most unsung collective heroes for the season has been special teams. You only have to remember back to last year to know how critical an impact special teams can make on a game and a season.  Special teams, many times, aren't noticed until something bad happens.  And on punt and kick-off return, nothing bad has happened all year.  Punter Chris Kluwe has been stellar in recent weeks, and was again, consistently pinning Stanford inside their 20.  Kicker Justin Medlock finally missed a field goal (two, actually) but, heck, he's human. 

So, even though it wasn't a complete effort - with the offense not scoring enough - it was probably the most well-rounded and balanced effort in a game under Dorrell in his two seasons.  You don't really want to use the phrase "turn a corner," because it implies that the problems are behind you. Most of the time it's only good to use that phrase when you're well down the road and you can look back and see the corner you turned.  So, maybe we should just say that this game possibly could be the equivalent of UCLA going into a turn.  To go around the corner completely the defense would have to perform similarly for the rest of the season. And after Saturday, any well-balanced UCLA fan might think there's as good a chance of that happening as it not happening.  You could easily make a case that, after Saturday's performance, UCLA's defense could get better. The one question at cornerback looks to be more solid now. The linebackers have put it back together and Justin London is playing more like his old self. The defensive line has improved. And Kerr looked like he had a better scheme, given his personnel.

So, where does that leave us for the season?  Well, still in the middle of that potential corner.   While it's always said that you never want to look past a game, that's really only for players and coaches. As an Internet site, it's our job to irresponsibly look past the next game. So, with Washington State appearing like they're progressively crashing and burning in the last three weeks, having lost their starting quarterback, let's prematurely chalk up that game in the win column. That would give UCLA that magical sixth win, which makes it bowl eligible. But really, a 7th regular season win is the one that really has the magic this season, if you consider all of the issues weighing on Dorrell's regime.  It would clearly indicate that Dorrell's program is improving, and has turned that corner. So, again looking ahead prematurely, but realistically chalking up a loss to USC,  the game two weeks from now in Eugene against Oregon is now the game of the year. There were two big pivotal games this season, at Arizona State and at Oregon.  The Bruins screwed the pooch against Arizona State so they have one more chance, one more game to help propel them around the corner.  If UCLA beats Washington State and Oregon, looks respectable against USC and then wins its bowl game, it could very well end up in a not-so-bad bowl like the Holiday Bowl or the Sun Bowl. No matter which bowl, though, it would be playing for an even more magical number of 8, as in wins, in that bowl game.

Dorrell definitely will have something to build on and sell by winning 7 or especially 8 games this season.

So, that's where the program is.  It's driving a big bus, with a bunch of players, coaches, and fans all riding in it. It approached "the corner" last weekend, but threw a wheel. This week, it got out, fixed the flat and is now about halfway through that corner. 

In the next several weeks, we'll see if it will succeed in completing that turn around the corner...

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