Analysis of the Rice Game

In its home opener at the Rose Bowl Saturday night, UCLA beat up lowly Rice, 63-21. The question is: What can you actually take from this game?

There are some very basic conclusions to take from a 63-21 drubbing of Rice.

It's probably pretty safe to say that UCLA's offense is pretty good. It is probably anywhere in the range from good to very good, to potentially one of the ten best in the country.

Now, you might then think you don't have enough information to draw any conclusions about UCLA's defense. It's played two games, one against an option team, Rice, that ran the ball 49 times (Rice only threw the ball 17 times, when it was trailing most of the game by three touchdowns).

But I think there is enough to draw some conclusions about UCLA's defense.

Put it this way: UCLA will have to outscore its opponents this season, and luckily it has the offense to do it.

This is not intended to be a downer after UCLA won by 42 points. A victory like this – against anyone – is certainly a huge boost to the program. It takes a good team to score 63 points on anyone. It takes a team that not only has talent, but has decent depth and experience, and good coaching.

UCLA is good team. A good team that will have just an average defense.

The Bruins might not be playing to get into the Rose Bowl for the BCS Championship game, but this team could be very similar to the one that went 10-2 in 1998, a team that had what former USC coach John Robinson called the best offense he had ever seen in college football. If you remember, it was a team that averaged 39.6 points per game, but it also gave up 28 points a game. Games that year against Oregon (41-38, in overtime) and Oregon State (41-34) typified the season.

Again, UCLA might not find itself playing its last regular season game to see if it makes it into the BCS Championship like it did that year in the "Hurricane Bowl," when it lost to Miami. It might not get 10 wins. This offense also might not be as good as the offense that year. But the dynamic of the season – one where a prolific UCLA offense has to outscore its opponent to win – might end up being very similar.

Hopefully that's not the case, and this team's defense shows that it's capable of being solid, at least.

So far, it's questionable. It's questionable for two main reasons – its proven veteran stars are not playing at the caliber they need to be, and UCLA is trying to make up for a young, inexperienced and undersized defensive line.

The defensive line looked better against Rice than it did against San Diego State. It's hard to attribute it to the line getting so much better in a week. Certainly, since they are so young, you'd have to figure in some improvement from game one to game two. But a great deal of the improvement was because they played a far worse opponent in the second week.

In fact, too, the line wasn't that much better. They didn't get blown back off the line of scrimmage three or four yards like they did against San Diego State. They improved in getting leverage, getting low and undercutting their man to create a pile up. But the young defensive tackles were beaten on just about every down, most of the time taken out of the play, with a big hole through the middle as a result.

True freshman Chase Moline was easily the best defensive tackle, and he got better as the night wore on. He struggled early, but then got his wind and starting playing at least evenly with the Rice offensive line. By the second half, Moline registered a few plays where he actually beat his man. On one series, he got worked into the ground on one play. Then he bounced back on the next play, beating his man to make a good tackle. He then played pretty well for the rest of the half.

Brigham Harwell, the sophomore three-technique, struggled again. He was getting plied open and thrown off-balance most of the time. Nathaniel Skaggs, who lost the starting job to Moline, looked better, throwing off his man a couple of times, but still struggled most of the game. Kenneth Lombard struggled most of the game also, then turned in a couple of nice plays toward the end of the game. On the play where linebacker Christian Taylor picked up the Rice quarterback's fumble and scored a touchdown, it was caused by Lombard quickly side-stepping his blocker and sacking the quarterback, causing the fumble.

It's pretty clear that UCLA's defense is very soft up the middle. Many of the big plays that Rice had resulted from holes created up the middle, when UCLA's DTs were thrown aside or driven into the ground.

UCLA's veterans – meaning particularly Spencer Havner, Justin London and Jarrad Page – also played collectively better against Rice than against SDSU. But they still didn't play collectively really well. And it's critical that these three play really well and carry the defense, having to make up for the young DTs.

Justin London improved from SDSU, looking more balanced, not over-pursuing as much and making more certain tackles. Havner and Page, though, missed some tackles and took some bad angles on ball carriers that shouldn't be happening to guys with their experience. In the first half, during one series, Page took a bad angle on a Rice ball carrier and got beat around the corner. On the next play, to the other side of the field, he redeemed himself, running down the tailback on an option. But then on the next play, one in which Rice quarterback Joel Armstrong scored a touchdown on a keeper, Page made a very poor attempt at a tackle, not using his arms to wrap up Armstrong, who bounced off Page and ran ten more yards to the goal line.

When you have an interior defensive line that's going to be sending a lot of ball carriers your way, guys like Havner, Page and London have to take good angles and make sure tackles.

Because much of the rest of the other back seven aren't doing it very well. The pursuit and tackling wasn't as bad as it was against SDSU, but it still wasn't good. Aaron Whittington again missed a much-needed sack in the first half that more than likely would have halted a Rice scoring drive, but whiffed on the tackle, the Rice quarterback merely side-stepping him. Also throw in the fact that UCLA was only good about 50% of the time in tracking the Rice quarterback and running back on the option. Many times UCLA defenders almost seemed oblivious to the fact that Rice was running an option, pursuing the quarterback and ignoring the tailback. A couple of times, two UCLA defenders both went after the quarterback and didn't track the tailback. Safety Dennis Keyes, on one play late in the second half, literally ran to the wrong side of the field on an option, which opened up the field allowing Rice tailback Tommy Henderson to gain 14 yards. And it wasn't as if Rice came out in some new-fangled offense. Even after all the talk that Rice coach Ken Hatfield might drastically alter his offense, he ran essentially the same offense he's run for 12 years.

This was also with UCLA stacking the box quite often, putting 8 or 9 players on or near the line of scrimmage to try to stop the run.

Again, this isn't supposed to be a downer. Just a little reality check, to keep things in perspective, which is much needed with UCLA's next opponent being Oklahoma. If you want to cite that UCLA's defense did better against Rice in its second week, you need to realize that Rice's offense is pretty bad. And UCLA gave up 21 points, and allowed Rice to sustain drives far too easily. And those weren't points put on the board against UCLA's mop-uppers, but against UCLA's first-stringers. Navy held Rice to 13 points a year ago. And keep this in mind: If you're trying to use this as any kind of indicator of how UCLA's defense will play against Oklahoma and its stud running back, Adrian Peterson, you're talking two completely different universes of football players. There's the Azusa Pacific level-player that had the Rice uniforms on last night, and then there's the potential NFL players wearing Oklahoma uniforms. There are maybe two players on the entire Rice team that could even play for Oklahoma, its defensive end John Syptak and its punter, Jared Scruggs. And Syptak probably wouldn't start.

Again, this isn't a downer. We're just trying to keep everything tempered within reality.

UCLA's offense, though, is something to definitely get excited about. As any good defense keeps you in any game, UCLA's offense looks to be good enough this year to keep them in any game, like in the 1998 season.

Not only did UCLA's offense look talented and experienced, it looked smart. It was perhaps one of the most diversified UCLA offenses in any one game we've seen in while, with the ball being thrown vertically, to a variety of receivers,with two tailbacks in the game at the same time and one being used as a receiver, and the fullback carrying the ball from scrimmage.

It was also very smart since it used perhaps its biggest weapon – Marcedes Lewis -- very effectively.

Now, you might argue that Lewis only catching two balls for 27 yards isn't utilizing him effectively, but Lewis is so good and such a worry for opposing defenses he might be more effective as a decoy than anything else.

Rice clearly decided they were going to attempt to do three things primarily on defense in this game: 1) Bracket Lewis in coverage 2) stack the box and 3) pressure the quarterback. They were successful in #1, with Lewis sometimes drawing two and three defenders. But is it really successful if it leaves a 6-2 receiver like Junior Taylor in one-on-one coverage against your 5-8 cornerback? While Junior Taylor had a career night, catching 5 balls for 93 yards and two touchdowns, you almost have to give some of those stats to Lewis, since he was the guy providing Taylor the open field. Taylor capitalized, too, using his big body well in shielding off those small DBs. Uncannily, his easiest catch, one that was probably a touchdown, he dropped at the three-yard line in the second half.

Rice wasn't successful in their #2 and #3 defensive priorities. In stacking the box, they tried to take away UCLA's running game. Now usually this, at the very least, opens up the passing game, but Rice was unsuccessful in stopping the run also, so it was doubly ineffective. Then, as an extension of priority #2, its priority #3, pressuring the quarterback, also failed, with UCLA's O-line and backs picking up blitzes very well for almost the entire night.

The true difference in this game for UCLA was the effectiveness of its quarterback Drew Olson. It was probably his best game as a Bruin, going 18 for 25 for 296 yards and three touchdowns. He not only threw the ball well, but played very intelligently, almost always getting the offense into the right plays at the line of scrimmage after reading the defense, which almost completely negated Rice's pressure. He was composed the entire night, and you can now see that he has enough experience in the offense that, when he has time, he can make the right throw accurately.

Many observers might think that Maurice Drew essentially only playing a half is tragic, that at this rate he's not going to get the stats that could lead to Heisman-type hype. First off, there aren't any other patsies on the schedule like Rice, so this probably won't happen again. The question with Drew last year was his durability, and the more UCLA can keep Drew on the sideline the healthier and more durable he ‘s going to be for the season. I know it might not be fair to him, but as soon as UCLA got up by three touchdowns in the first half I would have been happy to see Drew hang up his cleats.

The offensive line had a good game, going up against a sub-par defense and a D-line that they outweighed by about 30 pounds a man. It was good to see that, in a game when they should have been dominating, they were.

The offense looks to be blossoming, not just from a personnel standpoint but in a scheme standpoint. You saw some new developments in scheme and play-calling against Rice. The most dramatic was Drew being used as a receiver with Chris Markey in the backfield. The play-calling wasn't conservative at all, but aggressive, throwing on first down, or second and six, and mixing in long and short throws, screens and receiver screens, and moving the pocket.

What's exciting is that there is still so many ways this offense could develop. Brandon Breazell has been mostly potential for the last two years but is now starting to deliver on his potential, giving the wide receiver group the quickness and big-play making it needs. The two freshman tight ends, Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen, made their first career receptions, and they bring more dimension to UCLA's passing game. Probably the guy who is the biggest untapped resource on the offense is fullback Michael Pitre, who looks unstoppable after he squares his shoulders to run up field with the ball. It's great, though, that he carried the ball twice from scrimmage in this game (that's twice the amount of carries the fullback had all last season) and scored a touchdown.

If you're a UCLA opponent and were scouting UCLA's offense from this game, you were probably disappointed to discover that you can't dedicate your defense to stopping Marcedes Lewis or Maurice Drew only. This game – with the receivers doing well (nine players caught at least one pass against Rice) -- will make future Bruin opponents have to play UCLA's offense honestly. Especially since Drew Olson now looks capable of utilizing the rest of his offense when either Lewis or Drew are taken away.

Redshirt freshman punter Aaron Perez looks to be a pioneer in a new approach to punting. Punt the ball 35 yards or so, away from the return man, with only three seconds of hang time so he can't get under it, and then master the ability to get the ball to bounce down the field 10 to 15 yards. This method takes away the return and you get a net 45-50 yards per punt.

As many have cited, including Head Coach Karl Dorrell, the excessive penalties were disappointing. UCLA was flagged 10 times for 95 yards. At one point in the first half it looked like Rice might gain more yards through UCLA penalties than it could through its offense. It did, in fact, get more yards through UCLA penalties than throwing the ball (63 yards on the day). The penalties did lead directly to a couple of Rice scores, the one most significant being Justin London's completely unnecessary roughing the passer on Rice's first drive, which gave them back the ball and sustained their touchdown drive.

All in all, you have to take the Rice game with a pretty formidable grain of salt, just because Rice is so bleeding bad. As stated above, though, it takes a good offense to score 63 points regardless. On the other hand, if you're going to recognize that, you also have to recognize that a defense is questionable allowing Rice 21 points. You can't have one without the other, unless you don't want any kind of reality check.

The true reality check is a week away...


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