SDSU Game Analysis

The UCLA/San Diego State game goes shockingly to expectation, with UCLA exploiting its elite offensive talent, and UCLA's defense still not proving much...

Well, that game went pretty much as predicted.

In fact, in our preview, we predicted the score would be 41-20, and the actual final score was 44-22.

Damn, we're losing our touch.

But, actually, if UCLA hadn't scored that last gimme field goal and SDSU hadn't attempted that two-point conversion, we'd be right on the mark.

That's just not only an indication that we're pretty good at this stuff, but mostly just how really predictable this game was.

It wasn't that difficult to predict that UCLA's offense would have its way mostly with SDSU's young and unproven defense, which it did.

It was pretty easy to foresee that Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis would be huge forces.

And while it maybe was a little more difficult to predict that UCLA's defense wouldn't be able to stop SDSU's offense, it wasn't that tough.

UCLA's defense played at the level you would expect, with the personnel it has, facing the offense it did. UCLA struggled to stop SDSU's offense for most of the game, with the Aztec offense eating up huge chunks of yardage driving the length of the field repeatedly.

But what did you expect? Did you expect the redshirt freshman and true sophomore starting tackles to completely dominate inside? Did you expect the very young cornerbacks to manhandle SDSU's veteran receivers?

It just wasn't going to happen. SDSU has a solid offensive line with a very good running back, facing a UCLA defense that looks, again, to be one that will struggle in defending the run. SDSU gained 402 total yards and 156 on the ground, with a time of possession of 33:09. Now, you might cite that SDSU had very poor field position, so it was prone to gaining more yards. Yeah, that's true, but if UCLA's defense was able to stop SDSU's offense easily, they would have stopped them anywhere on the field. On the first play from scrimmage for SDSU, their running back Lynell Hamilton cut back on a misdirection and gained an easy 10+ yards and every UCLA fan got the de ja vu shivers.

Overall, it was a poor defensive effort, due mostly to UCLA lacking the defensive horses.

Without Kevin Brown, the young defensive tackles made a valiant effort but more or less didn't fare well. Nathaniel Skaggs, the redshirt freshman starting in Brown's place at nose tackle, struggled, looking like he was a bit overwhelmed, mentally and physically. Brigham Harwell, starting at the three-technique, didn't have a particularly noteworthy night. In fact, the two back-up tackles, Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline, tended to fare better. Moline, once again, was surprising in that he held his own on many of his reps, being famously undersized while also being a true freshman. Late in the game, Moline looked to still have good energy, and showed very good quickness on two successive plays, one where he ran down a screen pass and made the tackle.

With the interior defense struggling, the UCLA defense just doesn't have enough big impact players to compensate. Spencer Havner, the senior inside linebacker, was in Havner form, all over the field, making a total of 13 tackles, including one sack. He didn't play a great deal when it looked like the game was in hand, but after SDSU had driven the field a couple of times late in the second half, UCLA sent him back out to try to help get SDSU's offense off the field.

It's just not generally a good sign when your leading tacklers on the team are all linebackers and safeties.

Justin London, the senior middle linebacker, had a disappointing night, to a degree. He generally didn't make many mental mistakes and was around the ball, but when he was around the ball he couldn't tackle it. In a sequence in the second quarter, he got juked by SDSU's 6-6 quarterback, Kevin O'Connell, on two successive plays, one where he had an easy, clear sack but over-pursued without discipline.

It was kind of the defensive theme of the night – over-pursuit with poor tackling. The third starting linebacker, Aaron Whittington, was a common culprit himself. On one blitz in the first half, Whittington had O'Connell in his sights, but dipped too far inside and O'Connell easily stepped outside and gained 9 yards on the scramble.

You can probably expect UCLA's defensive coordinator Larry Kerr to put the defense though some basic, fundamental pursuit and tackling drills next week in practice.

There were echoes of past UCLA defensive nightmares. Defensive end Justin Hickman gets a nice sack, looking quick and nimble on a stunt in the first quarter, forcing a third-and-17 situation. But SDSU then converts on a long pass play where the receiver was given far too much cushion, one that stretches beyond the first-down sticks. In the third quarter, UCLA comes out and scores a touchdown to open the second half and goes up 31-6. UCLA fans collectively hope that the Bruins would take control of the game and shut down SDSU at this point. But the SDSU offense comes right back, drives the field almost effortlessly in just 2:59 and scores a touchdown to make it 31-14. This was, by no means, with the game in hand and UCLA's second-string defense in. This was with most of UCLA's starting defense still in the game.

Kerr has tended to get the blame and wrath of UCLA fans in recent years when the defense has performed like this. It's difficult to really assess how a coordinator is performing, unless you yourself know football as well as a coordinator. But at the very least, Kerr didn't have a "vanilla" defense Saturday against SDSU, and was trying various things to get UCLA's defense on track. He switched up alignments repeatedly, utilizing nickels and dimes, the three-four, at one time five down linemen, blitzing often and run blitzing. He even gambled a couple of times with blitzes where he got burned, one called against a SDSU screen. But you still have to respect the aggressive play-calling, and recognize that Kerr is trying to do what he can to make up for his lack of impact personnel on defense.

If we were to second-guess Kerr, which is why we're here, he might have stacked the box a bit more to limit the run, and earlier, to keep O'Connell under wraps, while forcing O'Connell to beat you through the air.

Besides Havner, there were some other good individual efforts. UCLA looks like it might have some at least serviceable defensive ends, with Hickman, Nikola Dragovic and Bruce Davis (converted back to DE from LB) having solid games. Davis had a few impressive plays where he looked far too quick for his blocker. UCLA's pass rush looked pretty good, probably being the best aspect of the defense, seemingly due mostly to the pressure applied by Hickman, Dragovic and Davis.

Another bright defensive individual note was John Hale, the freshman linebacker, looking comfortable and aggressive in his first college game. Toward the end of the second quarter, he made a very nice tackle on a SDSU screen, and looked quick to the ball when he was in the game.

Luckily, though, for UCLA, they faced an offense with an inexperienced quarterback that also doesn't seem to have the offensive scheme to make use of its primary offensive weapon, running back Lynell Hamilton. Hamilton looked like a potential NFL tailback, and while he got 24 carries, still didn't seem to get the ball enough, or in the right situations. O'Connell, while he's got to be one of the most athletic 6-6 quarterbacks around, constantly side-stepping defenders and making substantial scrambles, fortunately for UCLA showed his inexperience throwing the ball. He threw a couple of interceptions that were inexplicable – one on a roll where he must have gotten the team's uniforms mixed up for a split second, throwing the ball to three UCLA defensive players, with Michael Norris being the one closest to it to pick it off. Those interceptions really hurt SDSU, with Aztec drives being killed both times by O'Connell's errant throws.

UCLA was also just about what you would expect on offense. It was the Drew and Lewis Show, with UCLA aptly utilizing and featuring its two elitely-talented offensive players.

UCLA fans have bemoaned the under-utilization of Marcedes Lewis in the past, and in fact some on the message board still thought he didn't get the ball enough against SDSU, in a game where he set his personal record for receptions and yards (with 7 for 131). I guess if Lewis isn't touching the ball on just about every other play you can tend to think you're under-utilizing his talent. Against SDSU, it did appear that he couldn't be stopped, especially when he started the game split out wide, looking like another species against SDSU's 5-9 cornerback Donny Baker.

Maurice Drew can keep pace with Lewis in terms of his freaky talent. On just 11 carries he gained 114 yards, being taken out for most of the second half with cramps, which is a very smart move on UCLA's part (why risk getting Drew injured. In fact, why was Marcedes Lewis in the game in the fourth quarter?) Drew had two of the most electrifying plays in recent years in this game, with his punt return being one of the best single highlights you'll probably ever see this season. Catching the punt, Drew did an immediate spin to avoid a tackler, which was breathtaking, but then once he found open field, his acceleration to the end zone was also breathtaking.

UCLA's primary job on offense this year is to keep the Drew and Lewis show healthy. With the way UCLA players get injured in practice, they should be excused from practice for the rest of the season.

Quarterback Drew Olson had a respectable day. As we've said, he looks incrementally improved, making better decisions and able to improvise better. He made a couple of regrettable over-throws to receivers who were open that probably could have led to a couple more touchdowns. But he didn't make any really drastic mistakes, which is what you want him to do primarily at this point – not beat you.

While you can't draw any final conclusions on UCLA's receivers from this game, since they didn't get the ball thrown at them much and there were those over-throws, their lack of influence on this game also stems from UCLA recognizing its strengths and going with it – which is Drew and Lewis. But other – better – defenses are going to key on Drew and Lewis and UCLA needs other weapons to compensate. It was very good to see Brandon Breazell make a couple of nice plays, getting the only reception for a wide receiver in the game, and looking very good on a reverse which he took for 25 yards to the SDSU one-yard line. It was very disappointing to see Joe Cowan, who is trying to live down a rep as a ball-dropper, have a throw go through his hands.

UCLA's offensive line, breaking into two new, young starters, had just a passable performance. If you take away Drew's 64-yard run, UCLA would have gained only 127 yards on 34 carries, which would be just a 3.7 yards per carry average. Given that SDSU's front seven were breaking in six new starters, it's a bit worrisome that UCLA's OL couldn't entirely dominate them. It fared better in pass protection, giving up just two sacks, with one looking like it was due to UCLA's receiver's being covered, and generally giving Olson enough time to throw.

Back-up running back Chris Markey started the game sluggishly, with there being quite a contrast between his running and Drew's explosiveness. But once Markey got warmed up, he got in a better groove, and looked like he was trying to take up where Drew left off, capping a good performance with an excellent punt return of his own.

By far UCLA's most effective phase of the game was its Special Teams. With great punt returns from Drew and Markey, great coverage on both punts and kick-offs, UCLA had a huge advantage in field position the entire game. Even rookie punter Aaron Perez, who struggled last week in practice, had a good, 45-yard punt with good hang time on his one opportunity of the day.

There was one aspect of the game that was particularly disappointing, that is a nagging issue. UCLA had to call two timeouts in the first half seemingly because it couldn't get a play into the offense efficiently. After also being called for a delay of game, Drew Olson was visibly impatient with getting the plays in. After a couple of years of this being an issue it's just not acceptable anymore.

It was, ultimately, very good for UCLA to finally get an opening day win, something it had been unable to do in the first two years of Karl Dorrell's tenure. It was very good to see UCLA trying to take advantage of its strengths offensively, Drew and Lewis. And it's reasonable to expect that UCLA's offense will be fine for the season. When you have Drew and Lewis, it's tough not to be. Probably the huge, deciding factor in which way this season will go is UCLA's defense, whether it will show improvement against the run, in particular. It could be the difference between what most UCLA fans would believe is a successful season and one that isn't.

Pretty much as predicted.

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