One-Third Season Review

The football season is one-third over and, even though there is still so much left to prove for this UCLA football team, it's time to take at least some stock of the season. The defense has over-achieved while the offense has under-achieved, and it can't stay that way if UCLA hopes to finish the season successfully...

We have been maintaining for the first few weeks of the season that there wasn't enough information to really conclude anything about this UCLA team.

There still really isn't. To put it simply – UCLA's offense has looked mediocre, UCLA's defense has looked good, but the Bruins have yet to face what you would call a "good" team. It hasn't been truly tested yet.

But one-third of the football schedule is in the books, and we do have enough stats and rankings to back up some assertions, so it's time to take stock anyway.

The Bruins are 3-1 and very much have a chance to achieve a successful season.

So far, though, they haven't won over too many believers. Coming into the season, UCLA was asserting that they deserved respect nationally, and even after the first two wins of the season, they claimed they should be ranked in the polls.

They then tripped up with the loss at Washington.

The three wins, also, haven't been overwhelmingly convincing. To open the season UCLA beat Utah, a team that just got trounced by Boise State last weekend, 36-3. UCLA then beat Rice, a team now 1-4, and beat them by only 26-16 (Rice went on to get beaten by a total of 107-14 in the following two weeks by Texas and Florida State). UCLA lost to a team less talented than itself in Washington the next week. Last Saturday, then, UCLA beat one of the worst teams in 1-A college football, Stanford. The Cardinal have the third worst defense in the nation (117th out of 119 teams), but UCLA could muster only 10 points directly from its offense without the direct help of a turnover or the defense scoring itself.

The combined record of UCLA's first four opponents is 8-12, and that's with two not-very-good-teams, Utah and Washington, at 3-2 and 4-1.

Let's just say that UCLA hasn't exactly faced the tough part of its schedule yet. The Bruins' next four opponents are a combined 13-5, and two are ranked. Plus, while UCLA played three of its first four games at the Rose Bowl, two of the next four games are on the road -- against the two ranked teams.

The Bruins, quite plainly, will have to improve their play if they hope to gain some leverage on the naysayers. If UCLA holds serve, which is playing at expectation level, that would mean beating Arizona this weekend and Washington State in three weeks at the Rose Bowl and then losing against Oregon and Notre Dame on the road in between. To move toward getting the UCLA football program out of its lack-of-respect rut, over the next four games UCLA would have to beat either Oregon or Notre Dame while also holding serve against Arizona and Washington State.

To do so, UCLA's offense will have to go through a considerable rejuvenation. The defense is doing its job, even playing beyond expectation, you could say, but the offense is sputtering (An aside: Will UCLA ever have a season when it puts together both a good offense and defense?).

The offense has had its different issues in each of the four games. Against Utah, it couldn't run the ball, while the passing game was exceptional, as was quarterback Ben Olson. There were message board threads about a Heisman candidacy and jumping to the pros early for Olson in the week following the Utah game. Against Rice, the passing game came back down to Earth – with a thud. After gaining 318 yards passing against Utah, the offense amassed only 124 passing yards against Rice, while Olson threw an interception, was sacked four times, and lost two fumbles. To its credit, Rice has proven to be a decent defense against the pass, keeping the passing games of both Florida State and Texas under wraps. But against Washington, UCLA's passing game proved that it had some issues. Washington was one of the worst passing defenses in the nation and going into the game it was easy to believe that UCLA's passing game would get back on track, having the hiccup against Rice, which was possibly understandable. But it definitely didn't get back on track, but went further off-track. It was a strange game, however, with possibly much of the blame for the passing game failing due to some very poor play-calling. Last week against Stanford, the play-calling improved, and the passing game did marginally. UCLA got more receivers involved, particularly the tight ends, with Olson passing for 223 yards. But Olson was out-of-sync, missing some wide open receivers and, on other plays, not even seeing them. Sometimes, too, there weren't receivers open downfield.

The running game was completely stagnant against Utah, had a huge game against Rice, and then has looked merely okay in the last two games against Washington and Stanford. Utah tried to take away UCLA's running game, and it succeeded. Rice has one of the worst defenses against the run in the country. UCLA gained 143 yards against Washington, which has proven to be a pretty good defense against the run, third in the Pac-10 behind UCLA and USC. The Stanford game is where UCLA's running attack really tripped up, gaining just 166 yards against the absolute worst rushing defense in the nation, which, on average, is allowing 282 yards per game on the ground (320 per game before it faced UCLA). Chris Markey was leading the Pac-10 in rushing before the Stanford game and if there was an opponent on the schedule he needed to fatten up on it was Stanford. But Markey ran for 88 yards.

So, really, at this point, UCLA's offense is a complete enigma. If anyone can predict how either the passing or running attack will come out and perform in any given week they need to set up a store shop on Ventura Blvd. with a neon "Psychic" sign in the window.

The running game looks to be the easiest aspect to get a handle on. It's third in the Pac-10, gaining 173 yards per game. If you throw out the Utah game, it would be 195 per game. So far, the running game has done well in two of its four games, and perhaps played to expectation against Utah, and under expectation against Stanford. For a running game, that's not bad.

The passing game has had one good game, against Utah, which was stacking the box against the run. It then has under-performed and struggled in the three other subsequent games against Rice, Washington and Stanford. It really hit bottom against Rice, struggled to get itself off the mat against Washington and then had a little more success against Stanford, but nothing to garner any legitimate confidence.

Overall, the big concerns with the offense heading into the second third of the season are Ben Olson and his ability to execute, whether the team has enough playmakers to put some quick points on the board, and the play-calling. It appeared that Olson lost confidence in the Rice game and has been trying to get himself back to the level of the Utah game since. It's easy to recognize Olson's talent and it's not hard to believe it's a matter of time before his efficiency improves. The playmaker issue is a difficult one to analyze. While you can see that UCLA lacks the big playmakers of last season, it's hard to acknowledge how much of UCLA's lack of offense is due to a lack of big-time talent at the skill positions, or just the offensive brain trust's inability to utilize them better. And that leads us to the play-calling, which was abysmal against Washington, the coaching staff admitted, but was improved against Stanford. The issue, though, as it has been every year under Karl Dorrell, is that UCLA's offense becomes very predictable as the season goes on, with the Pac-10 able to scout UCLA's offense far more successfully in the second half of the season. With the offense not executing as well as it could, UCLA's offensive coaches will have to continue to be "aggressive," like they've said since the Washington game, in their game plans and play-calling, to facilitate UCLA's players in their execution. It's far easier to execute a play if the defense doesn't know what you're doing.

The offensive line has been solid to date. It couldn't open up running room against Utah, and it broke down in pass coverage against Rice (which also wasn't entirely its fault), but has been more consistent in pass and run blocking in the last two games. Given its opponents, the OL has performed decently, showing some susceptibility in its interior against bigger, more smash-mouth types of front sevens. Many close to the program feel that this OL is a fairly good one, but young and improving each week as they get more experience.

Overall, the remainder of the season will probably hinge on whether UCLA's coaches can be dynamic in their offensive game plans and play-calling and UCLA's offensive players can execute. It will clearly have to convert more of its offensive opportunities to points than it has in the first three games. Only Stanford has a worst stat in converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns in the Pac-10. UCLA hasn't been an offense where it can't sustain drives, with very few three-and-outs. It has done pretty well at driving the field, but it just hasn't been able to translate those yards into points. Has its inability to do this been just a matter of bad luck, with the offense randomly sputtering within the opponent's 20-yard line? Was it a matter of the play-calling turning to concrete in the red zone? It's probably a combination, and UCLA will have to improve on all fronts – in its red-zone efficiency, play-calling and luck – if it hopes to succeed in the next four games on its schedule.

Because the defense can't keep carrying the team. And this is by no means any kind of slight to UCLA's defense, which has played very well and far beyond expectation so far this season. But in college football, it's only a matter of time before a good defense, even a great defense, breaks down. And if you put a lot of pressure on it, that is, keep giving the ball back to the opponent's offense or not converting yards into points offensively, a defense will eventually succumb. We saw it in Dorrell's first season in 2003, when he had a very good defense with a very bad offense and, by the end of the season, that very good defense couldn't continue to carry the team.

Let's also take a little bit of the stance of Devil's Advocate also with the defense. UCLA's defense has yet to face an offense that ranks among the top 40 in the nation. Washington's offense is the best offense UCLA has faced so far, and that's not saying much, with the Huskies' O being ranked 7th in the Pac-10. Coming up in the next four weeks UCLA will face the #1-ranked offense in the Pac-10 in Oregon (4th in the nation), the #3-ranked offense in the Pac-10 in Washington State (18th in the nation), and Notre Dame, which is 45th in the nation. UCLA's defense will experience its first real taste against what you would call "good" offenses.

While it's reasonable to assume that UCLA will give up more yardage (221) and points (13.8) as it faces better offenses the rest of the season, the defense has been dominating at times, to the point where it's reasonable to believe it could still fare well. Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker not only has instilled fundamentals in terms of pursuit, tackling and swarming, but he has done well in being able to cover up some of the defense's weaknesses. After last season, when UCLA was abysmal against the run, it's almost surreal that UCLA is #1 in the Pac-10 against the run and ninth in the nation. But that is the stat that might not hold up as UCLA goes up against some much better running teams, such as Oregon (#1 in the Pac-10, #8 in the country, at 227 yards per game), and Washington State (#2 in the Pac-10, 26th in the nation, at 178 yards per game). UCLA's interior DL is improved from a season ago, but there are still a few too many moments when it's getting pushed back, but the offense didn't take advantage of it. UCLA's defensive ends, too, particularly Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, have used their considerable quickness to help disrupt opponents' running plays, and UCLA's no-name linebackers are far more disciplined in being in position, plugging holes and making tackles. It also helps that ball hound safety Chris Horton is healthy and starting.

The secondary has had a few lapses, particularly a couple by Rodney Van in the Rice and Washington games. But so far this season, the DBs have been good against both the run and the pass, with the defense allowing only 155 yards per game through the air, second in the Pac-10 and 18th in the nation. It's an accomplishment, considering that a true freshman, Alterraun Verner, has played so much at cornerback with Michael Norris being out since the beginning of the season. Along with Horton, free safety Dennis Keyes has generally played well, missing a few tackles on pursuit in the open field, but also making his share of tackles.

Coming up in the next four games, the passing defense will be tested like it hasn't so far this season. Oregon is averaging 269 yards per game, 18th in the nation, Notre Dame is 11th in the nation, averaging 281 yards, and Washington State is 25th, averaging 248.

The defense has been carrying the team, but it's completely within reason and acceptability to expect them to allow more yards and points over the next third of the season. But expect UCLA's defense to continue to be the strength of the team over the next four games.

We said before the season that UCLA would have to go 4-1 or 5-0 in its first five games if it wanted to have a successful season and that's still completely within reason with Arizona on the agenda for this Saturday. Arizona will be the worst team UCLA will face over the remainder of the season, and is a team on the same level as Rice or Stanford. Given the rest of the season, and how difficult the following four games after this weekend will be (at Oregon, at Notre Dame, Washington State, at Cal), this is easily a must-win game for the Bruins. Without a win against Arizona, UCLA would be 3-2 heading into a run in the schedule that features six good to very strong teams among seven. Without a win, UCLA will have an uphill battle to reach a winning record.

So, all in all, coming out of the first quarter of the season, even though we know quite a bit more about this team, particularly that UCLA's defense is better than expected, there is still so much to be determined, with UCLA still having not faced what anyone could reasonably call a "good" team. And the rest of the schedule is a line-up of good teams, especially with Washington State probably being better than expected. The first quarter has pretty much indicated that UCLA's offense has struggled against not-very-good defenses and that UCLA's defense has dominated not-very-good offenses.

The games, on both sides of the ball, will get tougher, and it's really a matter of the UCLA offense now stepping up and helping to carry the team through the remainder of the season. And it's not beyond reason to foresee it happening. When Dorrell says that the UCLA offense has shown signs of being good in different areas at different times and it could be just a matter of the unit putting it all together, having watched this up-and-down offense, it's a reasonable assertion.

But make no mistake: With UCLA now done with the soft part of its schedule, it will need an improved and more effective offense to finish out the season successfully.

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