I received about eight phone calls at various times Saturday night.
Every caller was of the same variety, mostly: "What's up with this team? What's the problem?"
Every caller wanted to narrow it down to one specific problem, but the reality was - there was more than one problem that contributed to UCLA's dismal performance in beating Washington Saturday night, 21-17.
Just counting on one hand:
-- No running game
-- Bad performance by the quarterback
-- Bad game planning
-- Lethargic and flat
-- An average defense
(You didn't know I had six fingers, did you?)
Let's start with the defense. What's the surprise here? Did you all really think that this year's edition of the UCLA defense had suddenly turned into the Tampa Bay Bucaneers? We've told you from before the season - and during the first three games - that UCLA would have to out-score every opponent to win. We told you that this defense was young and inexperienced in its d-line and on the corners, and that it was going to give up some yardage. It showed in the first three games that this defense isn't the best at pursuing ball carriers and making sure tackles.
Yeah, it was fun for a few moments, after the Oklahoma game, to convince ourselves that this defense could actually be good. And really, they're not horrible. They make you cringe sometimes, and they give up a lot of yardage, but they make critical plays toward winning the game and they aren't losing the game for the team. I mean, Washington scored only 17 points, and it felt like about 35. If you would have been told that Washington would score only 17 points going into this game you would have said, "Great, so UCLA wins 44 to 17, huh?"
No, if this game would have been lost it wasn't on the defense's head. They played how you would expect them to play.
You would, though, like to have better games from the up-the-middle seniors, like Justin London, Spencer Havner and Jarrad Page. It seems like it's almost a random thing week to week if London will be the old, effective London, or the possibly-injury-hindered London that badly pursues ball carriers. This week it was London Version B. We don't know if London's sub-par performance against Washington was due to being nicked up this week in practice, but it was sub-par.
With Havner, while he made some plays and some tackles, there were some key, glaring mis-tackles and bad pursuits. There were times, also, where Havner simply didn't look like he was playing hard. In the second half, on one Washington pass play in the flat, he stopped his pursuit just a few yards from the receiver, and the receiver broke a tackle and headed up field for 7 more yards while Havner was a bystander.
Page, while he can be very good at times, is still undisciplined enough that he produces one bad play for every couple of good plays he makes. He got called for the roughing the kicker penalty, which gave Washington a fresh set of downs in UCLA's red zone, but then, in Page's style, he redeemed himself with a shoelace tackle on a Washington running back that saved a touchdown a few plays later. In this game, that ratio of good plays to bad for Page might have been a little higher on the side of bad plays, though.
And UCLA was obviously having issues at that cursed free safety position. After Dennis Keyes had the game of his life against Oklahoma two weeks ago, he made many mistakes early against Washington - out of position and bad pursuits - that the UCLA coaches were using true freshmen Robert Kibble and Bret Lockett for a good portion of the game at the position.
UCLA simply, is an average defense - both against the run and the pass. While it seems there's a trend among UCLA watchers to praise the defensive line, I still don't see it. Yes, Brigham Harwell is making some plays, and Justin Hickman. But while the line can make occasional plays they are consistently getting beat on the line of scrimmage. On running plays, the d-tackles for the most part are getting pushed back and the d-ends are getting contained. And when your back seven aren't pursuing well or wrapping up on tackles, that makes for some easy running for opposing offenses.
Wesley Walker, the senior linebacker who has been injured for the first three games, played well in his limited minutes, and that perhaps might give UCLA one more experienced player that can help stop up the hole in the dam.
Against the pass, UCLA's defensive backs are, well, average, at this point. The best cover guy, Trey Brown, got beat a couple of times, but also had a few good plays, especially in terms of open-field tackles. The other starting corner, Marcus Cassel, is a weakness on the defense. Cassel just simply isn't physical or aggressive enough in coverage. He sometimes gets beat, and then other times when he actually has good position he is too passive and allows the catch to be made.
This is probably how it's going to be for the season, folks. This is the 2005 edition of the UCLA defense. They're going to give up chunks of yards. Opposing running backs are going to flash upfield untouched. You're going to be cringing. You're going to watch, almost seemingly in slow motion, as quarterbacks scramble for first downs, side-stepping bad tackles and looking like Jim Brown. You're going to be covering your eyes on those third-and-16s. You're going to then uncover your eyes and be amazed that the other team only allowed 17 points.
In this game, the defense always seemed to be hanging on by a thread. You felt they were just one big Washington play away from unraveling altogether. For most of the game, you thought it was just one Washington score away from it being over.
But again, this is what we expected. This isn't anything different than what we knew this defense to be. Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr, honestly, has been a magician in being able to make up for the obvious lack of talent and experience he has in personnel. But every once in a while, the opposing offense is going to have a good gameplan, and there just simply isn't much Kerr can do to make up for the defense's weaknesses.
Offensively, however, UCLA did vastly underachieve in this game. It came from a combination of an off performance by quarterback Drew Olson, an overall lack of energy, getting out-schemed, and possibly a nagging problem in the run game.
First, Olson. In watching the game a second time, he actually didn't have as bad a performance as I thought he did in watching it live. The biggest problem he faced was getting his passes tipped or arm hit in the pocket, which led to the one huge interception in the second half. It's hard to determine what caused all of the tipped passes - it does seem like Olson is stepping up a bit too close in the pocket to the on-rushing linemen when he throws. But that's what he's supposed to do, step up into the pocket to throw, rather than stepping outside. Washington seemed to take away those clear, wide passing lanes he had against Oklahoma.
Olson also tried to force too many balls into covered receivers. The fault here is split - between Olson, making bad decisions, but also with the UCLA offense's inability to get its receivers open. Washington, again, did a great job of scheming against UCLA's offense, taking away UCLA's short passing game effectively. The Husky coaches obviously made the big effort to stop UCLA's running game by playing its back seven up, but also to play tight coverage in the first 15 yards and make UCLA try to beat you deep. It was almost the opposite theory of Oklahoma, who gave UCLA its short passing game.
What's frightening is that Washington's defensive game plan might be the blueprint to defend UCLA's offense. Take away its running game and its short passing game and make it try to beat you vertically, which UCLA is probably limited in being able to do, without any real deep ball threat among its wide receivers, particularly with the loss of Junior Taylor. UCLA, in its first three games, took what opposing defenses gave it, but in this game, it stubbornly tried to get what the opposing defense had done specifically to try to take away. UCLA needs to, at least, throw the ball down the field to stretch opposing defenses if it hopes, at all, to open up its short passing game and running game.
The running game has now become a worry. For two games in a row it's been anemic. Yes, Oklahoma and Washington stacked the box. But Washington did it less than Oklahoma did and were still successful in defending against UCLA's running game. Much of it probably stems from UCLA's lack of a vertical passing game, which allows defenders to cheat and play up. Probably some of it is UCLA's predictability, tending to run out of the same sets, which works like a tell in poker for opposing defenses. UCLA doesn't have a wide array of running plays and tends to run out of the same formations, so it's vital that UCLA's play-calling is dynamic and unpredictable if it hopes to catch defenses off-guard. Against Oklahoma, UCLA used its passing game to open up things, and it was effective. Against Washington, seemingly thinking that they'd be able to run against the Huskies, UCLA went back to being stubborn about establishing a running game. UCLA should just probably assume for the rest of the season that it needs to establish its offense through the air. If it can't run against Washington, which was second to last in the Pac-10 in rushing defense coming into this game, than it more than likely won't be able to stubbornly run down the throat of any Pac-10 defenses.
If you've sensed an underlying theme here that UCLA got out-schemed in this game, you're perceptive. While, yes, UCLA's players didn't perform well, and the team was flat for a majority of the night, UCLA thoroughly got out-schemed. UCLA's coaches had definitely out-schemed Oklahoma two weeks ago, but Washington's coaches had a much more effective game plan against UCLA on both sides of the ball. While it's also trendy to say that this Washington team is not as bad as they appear, and that they're improving, they simply aren't very talented and, overall, aren't very good. Washington's coaches have to get a great deal of the credit for making this game as competitive as it was. Contrasting UCLA's coaching job in the Oklahoma game and this game made it plainly obvious just how big of an impact a gameplan is in the effectiveness of your units.
A few other random observations of the game:
-- It was either a touchdown, with the Washington running back making it over the goal line on his initial push, or it was a fumble, with him losing the ball on his second effort before crossing the goal line. It wasn't really possible that he was down at the one-yard line. The line judge who was the only referee to signal a touchdown on that play also was the only one to signal a touchdown on Isaiah Stanback's subsequent sneak, which also didn't appear to be a touchdown. That line judge looked like he wanted to personally get the game over.
-- That was a big "what-if" play, and there were a number of them. What if Rodney Van doesn't make that dumb block in the back on Maurice Drew's punt return for a touchdown? What if Washington doesn't get called for an iffy hold on Rankin's touchdown run in the fourth quarter? What if the refs didn't determine that the ball was uncatchable on the pass interference of a Washington receiver in the endzone? What if Drew Olson had hit Brandon Breazell on that long pass on the first UCLA drive of the game? It was a game that you felt if UCLA had one big play they'd get the momentum, of if Washington had one more big break itd be over.
-- Marcus Everett's run after the catch on UCLA's final drive was the play of the game. Everett had earlier dropped a first-down pass, but he's such a reliable, steady type he always seem to redeem his mistakes, and that was huge redemption.-- UCLA will have to consider using Justin Medlock as a punter if Aaron Perez doesn't show some quick improvement.
-- Andrew Baumgartner continues to be an amazing story. The walk-on got the call on probably the most critical play of UCLA's four-game season when, on 4th and 2 on UCLA's final drive, Olson rolled out and threw to him for the first down.
-- UCLA's defense looked like they struggled to get aligned for most of the game. Some of the players afterward said it was a matter of not being able to hear the defensive call with the noise and it was inconsequential, but it seemed like the scrambling right before the snap to get lined up properly was the cause of at least a couple of successful Washington plays.
-- It was a bit surreal when UCLA scored its touchdown to draw within 17-14 on one side of the field, and the women's water polo team actually out on the field at the other goal line getting introduced by the p.a. announcer.
-- We've said this in the past - but booing your own team is just bad form. We know UCLA fans have been through a great deal and are quick to pull the hook on their support because of it, but write a letter to the athletic department, or put up an irate post on a message board. Don't boo. It's classless.
If UCLA had lost this game, it would have effectively erased all of the advancements the program had made this season. And while winning the game, at least, kept UCLA alive in terms of its win/loss record and its national rankings, the game did create some serious doubts about the team. While we maybe thought we had some answers to many of the questions after the Oklahoma game, the questions are back, along with some new ones. Will the offense ever be able to run the ball? Will UCLA be able to scheme against defenses trying to take away the run and the short pass? Can UCLA's defense continue to give up so many yards but limit opponents' scoring? Will UCLA's pass defense hold up against the pass-happy Pac-10?
Which is the real Drew Olson?
You'd like to look at it, though, that winning this game was a huge accomplishment, one that the program wouldn't have been able to pull off in the last two years. With your offense sputtering, your defense playing poorly, and your coaches getting out-coached, they still won. Rather than believing that this game exposed UCLA as a team that's not much better than Washington (shudder), you'd like to look at it as a much-better team that overcame all of those bad elements on a bad day to win.
As with everything in history, progress is made in stops and starts, in a step backward, then a couple forward. When turning the corner on something, you don't smoothly ride around the curve, you tend to hit a few potholes and get thrown into a ditch sometimes. This Washington game was definitely a pothole on UCLA's road to respectability.
The road sign up ahead reads: California.