The True Corner-Turning Game

So many games have been the called the "corner-turning" one this season. But that corner definitely got turned when UCLA beat ASU, 45-35, Saturday night, and UCLA was led by a guy whose name now should take its rightful place alongside the names of other UCLA heroes...

Everything is right with the world.

This is the way it should be, the way we expect it to be. UCLA's offense owns the game, and UCLA's defense gets just a few stops, just enough, to give the UCLA offense the opportunity to out-score its opponent.

Given UCLA's strengths and weaknesses, on both offense and defense, if you had to write a script for how reasonably this game would go against Arizona State, this would have been it. There weren't many surprises. Perhaps the fact that Drew Olson threw for 510 yards was a bit of a surprise, but just in its slight excessiveness, not in his basic effectiveness.

We said in the preview that this game would probably mirror the Oregon State game, and it felt very similar. UCLA's offense established its effectiveness early and then just had to keep ahead of Arizona State's offense in scoring.

So, many out there ask: Why can UCLA play like this against Arizona State one week, and then get trounced the week before against a seemingly worst team in Arizona?

Because, like we said in the preview, UCLA actually matched up better against Arizona State. And a very wise football guru once told me, "It's all about the match-ups."

Arizona had a strong defense, one that stymied UCLA's offense. That put UCLA's defense on the field too much. Arizona State's defense is poor, which allowed UCLA's offense to take over the game.

Even conceding that basic give-and-take, UCLA's offensive game plan was a good one, a better one than it was last week. Yes, a lot of that might stem from the fact that UCLA was facing a worse defense, but it seemed that UCLA's offensive philosophy shifted a little in the last week.

Could it be that UCLA's coaches are realizing (gulp) that UCLA is a passing team?

The UCLA offensive philosophy has been one that first emphasizes the running game. Run the ball early, and if you can't gain yards at least start wearing down the defense so that it will crack them open on the ground later in the game.

That has proven not to work sometimes this season.

Be it that UCLA knew it could throw against ASU, it threw the ball early and often, and successfully. But it also seemed to have a bit of a realization mixed in there that instead of running early (and unsuccessfully) to open up the defense later, why not throw early (and successfully) to open up the defense later? Wouldn't you rather be scoring points off throwing the ball while you're loosening up the defense rather than gaining two yards up the middle on predictable runs?

Maybe I'm just reading into this game plan for ASU, but it seemed like the UCLA coaches started to realize that this offense, with its personnel make-up, and with where its talent lies, with its injuries, is a much better passing offense than a rushing offense.

I know, that's probably blasphemy.

In the games where UCLA started out slowly, they still threw the ball early, but they didn't throw the ball as often as they did early in this game.

On UCLA's first initial few drives, it attempted 10 passing plays and only 5 running plays. Obviously, that 66% passing-to-running ratio was pretty successful, resulting in three touchdowns. It also resulted in 295 yards passing and 21 yards rushing. Now, of course, that's a little inflated since UCLA rattled off pass plays worth 91 yards, 56, 60 and 44 yards in the first quarter. But even if the yards gained on those plays were merely modest, the fact that UCLA is completing them successfully is the point.

Face it. UCLA is a passing team.

One indicating factor why maybe the UCLA coaches are facing this is, in drawing up the game plan against ASU, they went to the pass early. In the past, against a team that was poor against the run like ASU, UCLA's offensive game plan would have been to stubbornly insist on running the ball. It was the mindset, "Hey, this team doesn't defend the run well and we're a great running team and we're going to win by exploiting that match-up." But UCLA didn't do that in this game. It showed some inspiration in the game plan, more of the mindset that, "Hey, our running game hasn't been effective, with injuries to our OL limiting it, so we're going to take advantage of our strength, and that's passing the ball." While it might not have been that significant to just the casual observer, it did seem to be a departure for UCLA's offensive brain trust. It seemed like the first time in a few years that UCLA had self-scouted itself well, soberly realizing what it actually does well and not so well, rather than on insisting it is what it isn't. I believe it was the first time since Tom Cable has been offensive coordinator that he didn't emphasize the run game early against a team that was poor in its run defense.

And baby, it worked.

Drew Olson threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns -- in the first quarter.

. Another difference in the offensive philosophy was another seeming realization – that UCLA's offense isn't efficient enough to work its way down the field executing the West Coast Offense. It can't dunk and dink its way 80 yards with predictable runs and short passes. In fact, not many offenses other than that of the Indianapolis Colts can. UCLA needs the big play. It's lived off them all year, and in recent weeks it hasn't gotten any, and probably, because it hasn't been attempting them as much. That all changed against ASU. That philosophy was different from the first play from scrimmage, when Drew Olson threw a strike on a deep slant to Joe Cowan, who then raced 91 yards for a touchdown. UCLA's offense looked to throw vertically more in this game than in probably any other yet this year. Now again, this could have been just a weekly game-plan thing, something that the UCLA coaches recognized in the ASU defense and thought they could exploit this week. But it also seemed to signify an overall recognition from the UCLA coaches that UCLA's offense needs to go for the big play to keep its offense rolling and getting first downs. Maybe again I'm reading into it, but it seemed that UCLA's offensive philosophy in this game looked to create the big play more often than it did in past games, when many times the big play resulted from just a short play being busted open.

In the second half, UCLA began to be able to run the ball. It ran for 58 yards in the first half, and 92 in the second. In fact, UCLA's ability to run the ball in the second half was a significant factor in the offense owning the second half. On UCLA's two drives that put it up 42-28, the Bruins ran the ball very effectively. It's pretty obvious, at this point, that ASU's defense (and any defense in this situation) is now back on its heels. Heck, when UCLA's thrown for over 300 yards, back on your heels is about the only place you can bee. So, then, the predictable running plays, the ones that go for no gain or a two-yard loss in the first quarter, now aren't as predictable. It's a lot easier for a defense to key on a predictable running play when they're fresh and disciplined in the first quarter, then when they're tired in the second half and flinching from all the yards being gained through the air.

So, the question is: Will UCLA continue to utilize the philosophy of the pass (with some vertical passing) opening up the run against USC? It's easy to make that call against ASU's defense. How about against USC's?

One aspect of UCLA's passing game being so effective was how much time Olson was afforded. UCLA tended to move his pocket and launch point very effectively, but the offensive line pass-blocked far better against ASU than Arizona. Noah Sutherland played extensively at strongside tackle in this game, and it appeared he made a big impact in containing ASU's edge rush.

UCLA's defense is quite a bit better when UCLA's offense owns the game. And it's quite easy to figure out why. UCLA's rushing defense is very poor, so early in the game, generally, when teams are trying to establish its running game, UCLA's defense looks porous. In the second half of a few games this year, like the ASU game, opposing offenses have to throw the ball more to keep up with UCLA's offense. That greatly benefits UCLA's defense and makes it highly more effective. What's funny, though, is that opposing offenses would probably be smarter to still run the ball in the second half against UCLA. Even though the clock is running when you run the ball, you'd have a good chance of gaining as many yards as throwing the ball, and the clock would stop to move the chains with every first down, or a runner going out of bounds. It would be strange, given accepted football concepts, to predominantly run the ball in the second half when you're down by two touchdowns, but that's what teams should do against UCLA this season.

And opposing offenses would have better odds of not turning over the ball, which is what did in Arizona State in this game. On the four ASU possessions when UCLA actually stopped them in the first three quarters three came as a result of turnovers – off passing plays. Derek Hagan, ASU's star receiver, was responsible for two of them. It was also very lucky for UCLA that Hagan might have had his worst game of the season, fumbling balls and dropping a number of passes. If ASU hangs onto the ball, and converts on the drives it was sustaining before the turnovers, this is a different ball game. All UCLA needs is a couple of turnovers from the opposing offense, that gets the door open just enough for UCLA's offense to be able to take the advantage it needs to win.

So, while most sane UCLA fans have come to terms with the reality of UCLA's defense this year, the other insane ones are still pondering: How good could this team have been with just an average defense? Why is this defense so bad?

Well, we're here to indulge all UCLA fans, from all walks of life, even the insane ones. So, we'll indulge you a little here. No one is insane enough, though, to truly contemplate the first question. If UCLA had had just a decent defense this season it'd be certainly playing in a BCS bowl, it'd probably be ranked #4 in the country and undefeated and playing for a potential national championship against USC in three weeks.

Okay, wasn't that frustrating?

Question #2: The defense is this poor because, first, there have been some injuries. If you watch a tape of the game, it's still is clear that the defensive tackles are getting blown off the ball on almost every down, and that UCLA's defense, with that huge weakness in the middle, is just trying to scramble to compensate. Brigham Harwell made a couple of nice plays, one where he got penetration on a running play and had a tackle for loss. But on most of the plays he too is getting beaten. But even with the injuries, and let's even concede a general lack of elite talent, how can this defense be so bad? It's tough to determine. You have the one side of the case that makes a reasonable argument – that there are defenses with less talent out there that aren't as bad as UCLA's. If you buy into that you have to put the majority of the blame on the coaching. You then have the other side of the case that will argue with the injuries and the lack of talent, which is also a reasonable argument.

At this point, it's not a cop-out, but you have to think it's the most reasonable to think it's a bit of both. UCLA would be much better if it had Kevin Brown and C.J. Niusulu as its defensive tackles. It would be much better if it had a healthy Justin London. It would probably actually be a good defense. But at this point, three years into Dorrell's coaching career at UCLA, the evidence is mounting to support the simple assertion that, given what the coaches have had to work with, the defense shouldn't be this bad. UCLA has had very poor defenses in two of Dorrell's three years, and in the one year it had a good defense, My god, it should have been since it was stocked with players now playing in the NFL.

But speculating about UCLA's defense is more of a season-end endeavor. Beating Arizona State is something that you have to take pleasure in right now. The win was a key component in a season that's been labeled the one where Dorrell's program "turns the corner." At 9-1, even if UCLA loses to USC and in a decent bowl game, it finishes 9-3, and it would still, overall, be considered a successful season and a very strong step in the right direction. Beating ASU was critical. The win gets it that little edge it needs to be considered a successful season. It shakes the monkey off the back of the program that it's been bearing for a few years, the onus that it collapses late in the season (it's only Dorrell's second win in 11 post-October games). We heard all this week from important recruits that they didn't put much stock in UCLA's loss to Arizona, that the Bruins were still an up-and-coming program. The win against ASU will help to support that concept in the minds of recruits, in a recruiting year that will probably make or break Dorrell's future at UCLA.

And while it's a team game, and there are so many players on this team that deserve accolades, it's probably impossible to accurately capture the role Drew Olson has had in UCLA's corner-turning season. All season long, the underdog quarterback, the one who had beared the wrath of UCLA fans for three years, showed that he has the stuff of heroes. His story this year has been a storybook. And against ASU, the storybook had another fairy tale chapter. On senior day, his last home game in the Rose Bowl, Olson had the best day of his career, going 22 for 27, for 510 yards and five touchdowns. It was just 4 yards short of setting the all-time UCLA record for most yards passing in a game, the mark of 513 set by another UCLA hero, Cade McNown, in 1998. With the five touchdowns, Olson has passed for 30 on the season, which is a UCLA record, surpassing McNown (25) and another heroic name, Troy Aikman (24). Olson, on the season, has passed for 2, 909 yards, which is 562 yards short of the single-season record of 3,470 set by McNown in 1998.

Because of his accomplishments this season, Olson is more and more being mentioned in the same breath as other UCLA heroes.

And so often in life you should be judged by the company you keep.

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