No matter if you thought UCLA would win, lose or tie against Utah, you were speculating. It was not only the first game of the season and you had very little to base any supposition on, but UCLA was a team that had many unknowns inherently.
The game answered some of the unknowns, while some remain, and that's natural since it was only the first game of the season.
One of the biggest pre-season unknowns was Ben Olson, the 23-year-old sophomore quarterback who was going to, finally, make his first career start. He was considered the #1 prospect nationally coming out of high school in 2001, and there had been endless talk about his potential. After he came to UCLA, his talent was obvious, but he struggled in practice at times. I think he would even tell you himself that he had just an okay fall camp.
But Olson lived up to all of the hype and then some Saturday, with a truly spectacular debut, throwing for 318 yards on 25 of 33, for three touchdowns. If you whip out your calculator, that's a completion rate of over 75%. UCLA footballs hadn't been thrown that accurately since Troy Aikman. In fact, Olson had the best debut of any UCLA quarterback since Tommy Maddox when, in 1990, he threw for 353 in his first start.
It was truly a beautiful thing to watch. UCLA hasn't had a clearly pro-level quarterback in many years, and watching Olson Saturday run the UCLA offense projected an elite-level aura onto the UCLA offense that guys that Marcedes Lewis and DeShaun Foster have given it in the past. Drew Olson, last season, had a fantastic year, but with the DO there was always a raw scrappiness to his game, even in 2005 when he was so effective. BO brings an elegance, like Aikman, to the UCLA offense.
Now, of course, it was just his first start, so there will undoubtedly be days for Olson that aren't as storybook as Saturday. But, for Bruin fans, you now have one unknown answered – that Ben Olson is the real deal, and that you have some years ahead of you (probably a couple) of watching a clear-cut future pro running UCLA's offense.
Overall, the Utah game, though, beyond Olson, didn't fill in too many other unknowns for the UCLA fan. And that's okay, it's what makes the season fun, alluring and mysterious.
UCLA won the game because it simply took over the second half. UCLA owned the momentum in the first quarter, gaining 147 yards to Utah's 61 in the first 15 minutes. The Bruins came out in their first possession and, in just 2:25 put seven points on the board when Olson hit tight end Ryan Moya on a slant for a 16-yard touchdown. It was so effortless that you thought UCLA would be able to move up and down the field all day. Even after UCLA's second drive, you still believed it, when UCLA took over possession at its own 3 yard line and drove to the Utah 29 before Justin Medlock missed a 46-yard field goal barely left. Olson had gone a perfect nine for nine in his two series, and the tenth ball he threw was perhaps his best to that point, laying it our perfectly on a short post to tight end Logan Paulsen in the end zone that seemingly was a touchdown before Paulsen allowed it to be stripped out of his hands by a defender.
Even though the Bruins were only up 7-0 after the first quarter, there was nothing that would lead you to believe that they wouldn't continue to move up and down the field catching pretty passes from Ben Olson for the remainder of the evening.
But then that fickle flirt, Momentum, swung over clearly to Utah in the second quarter. UCLA had a number of failed drive attempts, and Utah moved the ball. By the half, Utah had pulled ahead of UCLA statistically, gaining 208 yards to UCLA's 206. The score was 14-10 and, at halftime, you truly thought that the game easily could go either way by the display of the first half.
But UCLA took over the game in the second half and owned it. They kept Momentum from going to the other side of the room and dancing with Utah the rest of the game. And you can speculate endlessly why, but since it's just the first game of the season, it is just speculation. A football season is like a mystery; you get more and more clues throughout the season and then you're able to put together a pretty solid conclusion. This first game against Utah was just the opening act, so we still don't know that much.
But in guessing why UCLA took over in the second half, it looked liked Utah went flat, for one. Perhaps the 100-degree heat on the field took its toll on the Utes. UCLA realized that it had the time to throw the ball deep instead of dinking it short or underneath, and there were a few critical completions of big yardage that put UCLA in the position to win the game. UCLA's defense played tougher in the second half than in that one drive in the second quarter but, also, you have to attribute some of that, also, to Utah's offense simply not being very effective. There were plenty of balls thrown behind receivers on critical plays.
So, of course, with every first game of the season, there's the question: Is UCLA good, or is Utah bad, or a bit of a combination of both?
It's still too early in the mystery to answer. We can certainly analyze and over-analyze UCLA if it helps you answer that question, though.
UCLA's offense was good in some aspects, not so good in others. The quarterback spot – flying colors.
The offensive line was good and bad. It provided Ben Olson plenty of time to throw the ball. I don't think he was even touched in the pocket all day. We said in fall camp that if you give Ben Olson time, he will be very effective and pick apart a defense with his precise throws, and that's exactly what he did. The OL was excellent on this front, as were the tight ends and running backs in picking up their assignments on Utah's blitzes.
The OL wasn't good in run blocking, and the UCLA offense was, overall, miserable in gaining yards on the run. You'd have to think that after that performance UCLA's big priority is going to be trying to fix the run game. Really, if you look at it, the UCLA running game hasn't been great for a couple of years, averaging an acceptable but not great 160 yards per game on the ground a year ago. And if you remember, those were some very tough yards earned by a bruised Maurice Drew.
First, and here's the excuse that many will say they're tired of hearing, but it's the truth: Utah stacked the box. They commonly snuck in eight or nine defenders within the tackles to specifically stop UCLA's run game. We thought that'd be Utah's defensive plan before the game and it was. The theory was to make the rookie, over-hyped quarterback Ben Olson have to beat you through the air. The problem that Utah quickly discovered was that Olson wasn't over-hyped and he did. But for any running game this side of the Big Ten, it's hard sledding when you're trying to run against eight or nine guys.
So, that's the excuse, albeit a valid one. The inexcusable was the overall poor run blocking. UCLA's OL couldn't get a push down the field and, many times, were pushed back. The interior OL didn't have a good day run blocking, with center Robert Chai and guard Chris Joseph physically getting beat quite often.
Also, though, UCLA's running backs looked pedestrian. In the recent past, when UCLA hasn't had great run blocking, you had Mo Drew, who was pretty good at creating on his own when nothing was there. UCLA's current running backs are those solid guys we've talked about that, if you give them a hole, will more often than not get you a good gain, but they aren't great at creating gains when there isn't much room there. And sometimes in this game it seemed the running backs were slow to the hole, even if that hole was small and fleeting, and actually made some incorrect reads. True freshan Chane Moline got extended time Saturday, with UCLA looking for someone who might spark the running game. The running backs have gone from unknown to a concern, especially Chris Markey, who didn't have a great fall camp and looks flat running the ball. It might just be that, in the spotlight as the starter, he doesn't look near as good as he does as the back-up off the bench.
UCLA had only a handful of decent runs from scrimmage. Most of them were when UCLA was able to get the running back into space, on the cutback, or on the one pitch it executed. Perhaps UCLA's OL, being athletic, are better when they're able to get out and run? Former UCLA offensive coordinator and OL coach, Tom Cable, didn't run off-tackle much because he said that UCLA didn't have the OLs that were athletic enough to get out and run. It seems they might be now. The running play that easily gave a UCLA running back the most room was the one, lone pitch in the second half to Chris Markey.
The receivers overall, have to get good marks for the game. There were a couple of big drops that really contributed to UCLA giving up the momentum in the second quarter. There was Paulsen's touchdown pass and another drop by Junior Taylor which would have been a first down. But there was a few things to be excited about among the receivers. First, tight end Logan Paulsen had the best game of his young career, catching five balls for 90 yards, making him UCLA's leading receiver for the game, and perhaps making the play that really broke open the game and gave UCLA the permanent date with Momentum: On UCLA's first possession of the second half, Olson threw over the coverage down the middle (the middle of Utah's pass coverage was soft the entire game) and found Paulsen who rambled for 46 yards to the Utah 15-yard line. Even though Taylor dropped a touchdown pass two plays later, UCLA then scored on a 19-yard Olson strike to Matt Willis to go up 21-10. Paulsen had a couple of other very good plays also, on one advancing the ball up the sideline after the catch for good yardage and on another making a one-handed juggling catch. One other unknown resolved: Logan Paulsen, while he's not Marcedes Lewis, is going to be a very good target for Olson. It's the Scandinavian Connection: Olson-to-Paulsen.
Olson spread the love around the UCLA receivers, with 10 players catching balls Saturday. Olson's first seven completions went to seven different receivers. There might not be one star in the bunch, but success like this as a group is completely acceptable. Brandon Breazell looked like, as we've said before, the potential play-maker in the bunch, making the catch of the day on a third down, going up high over the middle and having to athletically twist around to come down over the first-down markers. Of course, Marcus Everett had that one clutch catch, a TD catch in the fourth quarter on a jump ball in the end zone. He also had another nice one that showed his great hands that was then overturned by the officials after reviewing the replay, revealing that his foot was barely touching the sideline when he came down with the ball. Matt Willis, the converted trackster, had his best day as a footballer, catching 4 balls for 40 yards and the one touchdown, continuing to be the favorite target he became in fall camp when the other receivers were out.
Probably, if you had to say something negative about the receivers, it would be their seeming penchant for stopping their routes and coming back to the ball for no reason. It did, luckily, create a couple of pass interference calls. It's almost as if the UCLA receivers are so used to having to come back for underthrown balls.
Another unknown now known: New Offensive Coordinator Jim Svoboda called a very good game. There had been some concern about the play-calling but it's not going out on a limb to say that the play-calling was an improvement over Cable's. Now, this is only one game, and one offensive game plan. But UCLA threw the ball often on first down. It wasn't stubborn in trying to doggedly establish the run, even when there wasn't any running room, like it did under Cable. It mixed up the pass plays imaginatively, using roll outs, screens and throws to the flats well. It looked like Utah couldn't get in a rhythm in its pass rush against UCLA in part because of the play-calling. It was good to see that the offensive mind trust recognized that UCLA, in this offense and with this personnel, is a throw-to-establish-the-run team, rather than the other way around (And with the way the running game looked, opposing defensive coaches will probably now realize it, too. It will be interesting to see if UCLA still sees stacked boxes). There was a lapse somewhat in the second quarter, when the play-calling got a little conservative, throwing short too often when Olson clearly had time to go deep. But that could still have been a matter of wanting to make sure Olson was in a groove and not get him knocked around early. Overall, this might have been one of the most exciting aspects of this game – the fairly dynamic play calling.
The defensive, statistically had a good game, holding what you would assume would have to be a high-powered offense (Utah averaged 431 yards and 39 points per game last season) to just 287 yards and 10 points.
It ended up being a good match-up for UCLA – with Utah being a team that didn't run the ball between the tackles but optioned it outside quite a bit, giving UCLA the opportunity to use its team speed and swarm ball carriers. Utah only gained 112 yards on the ground.
That could be a little misleading when considering the rest of this season's schedule. If you watch the tape of the game closely, UCLA's defensive line didn't do really well against the run. The interior tackles weren't necessarily blown off the line like they were a season ago, but they struggled physically to hold the line quite often. It definitely still is an unknown – and a huge concern: whether UCLA can stop a power-running team, or even limit them.
Without a sack to its credit you might think that UCLA's defense didn't do a good job rushing the passer, which would also be not quite accurate. Utah's quarterback, Brett Ratliff, threw inaccurately for a majority of the game and you could conclude that he's just not very good. Or there is also the conclusion that UCLA's pressure caused him to hurry his throws quite a bit. It could be a little bit of both.
UCLA's linebackers didn't really make a big mark on the game, but weren't a liability either. Middle linebacker Christian Taylor had an okay game, sometimes out of position and sometimes not able to make the play physically. He was in position quite often, though, and when he's able to run in open field he pursued ball carriers well.
UCLA's defensive strength, again, looks to be its secondary. It provided generally good coverage on Utah's receivers, which isn't an easy assignment, almost always working out of a nickel or dime alignment and many times man on man. Alterraun Verner, the freshman corner, might not see as much playing time the rest of the season since he was constantly in the game when UCLA was in a nickel or dime. For a 17-year-old true freshman, he had a bit of a fairly tale game, with a great step-in-front interception that he returned for a touchdown, and then ripping the ball out of a Ute's hands to create a turnover. Utah consistently went right at him, throwing and running the ball, and despite a few lapses, Verner performed very well. The other corners, Trey Brown and Rodney Van, also had good days, especially in run pursuit. The safeties were very good; Chris Horton showed why he's considered the next big thing defensive with some aggressive play. If Horton had hands, he would have had an interception himself when he jumped a route well. Dennis Keyes was generally good, despite a couple of lapses, getting juked a couple of times and getting burned on Utah's only touchdown pass. UCLA definitely had luck bounce their way a couple of times in coverage, with one pass bouncing off Keyes' face mask and another off his arm.
UCLA has to send a "thank-you" note to Utah's Head Coach Kyle Whittingham. The coach subbed in back-up quarterback Tom Grady in the second quarter, in a planned move to get him some experience. With Utah owning the momentum in the quarter, Grady's throw for an interception by Verner really was a huge turning point, with the Mo then swinging back to UCLA, which is never relinquished again in the second half.
One recurring worry for Dorrell's program has been the lapses in game organization over the last three years. Having to take timeouts on offense to get players on the field, a few boneheadish choices here and there, etc. This game wasn't without them. UCLA had stopped Utah on three downs but then gave them the ball back when UCLA had 12 men on the field on a punt. It had to call timeout in the second quarter to get the right people on the field for the offense. There were players running on and off the field at the last second, right before the ball is snapped, a number of times. Admittedly, UCLA is working out the kinks of six new assistant coaches, but you'd like it not to be an issue – and not to ever hurt UCLA – this season.
Probably the other most glaring issue were the five fumbles that UCLA – incredibly luckily – recovered themselves. It was a day when the ball just seemed to bounce UCLA's way, with Ben Olson fumbling a few himself, but right to a Bruin, or out of bounds.
UCLA and Dorrell showed its class after the game when it awarded the game ball to Robert Kibble, the safety suffering from multiple sclerosis who was in a wheel chair Saturday.
From a schedule standpoint, it was a huge win. As we've pointed out, UCLA's schedule gets treacherous later in the season, and UCLA needs to make sure it gets every win it should in the first half of its schedule. UCLA was clearly the better team on the field Saturday, having the superior athletes and team speed like we had believed they would. So, it was critical that UCLA held serve and won this game.
They didn't necessarily win it in overwhelming fashion. There are still many unknowns. But one of the biggest unknowns was answered pretty significantly on Saturday – whether Ben Olson would live up to the hype. Now, will Olson have bad days? Probably. He's going to go up against some pretty crafty Pac-10 defensive coordinators who usually scout out UCLA pretty well by the second half of the season. But he did very much prove that he is a potential star, and someone who has the capability of carrying the program for the next couple of years, like a Cade McNown or Troy Aikman. He's the guy UCLA needed, and he lived up to it Saturday.