Again, we have to preface it, it was just Arizona.
But even taking that into account, it was still probably the best game put on the field by the Bruins yet in 2006.
There wasn't too much to criticize. But if we were nitpicking, it'd be:
The running game was ineffective.
The play-calling has improved since the Washington game, but it still isn't stretching the field by throwing vertically.
UCLA gave Arizona almost half the amount of yardage they gained offensively through penalties.
First, the running game. Every week UCLA has had either its running game or passing game taken away invariably by opposing defenses and this week Arizona took the running game. It definitely is starting to appear to be a trend; opposing defenses dedicate themselves to taking away one part of UCLA's offense each week, and it's been different each week, depending on the opponent. It definitely is a case of that – that the defense takes away one aspect – but it's also a case that UCLA's running game is okay but not great. The primary problem, truly, is its predictability. UCLA's offense, especially when it runs, is incredibly scoutable and predictable. Just about every time UCLA is in a double-tight, it runs. Just about every time it's in an I, it runs. UCLA very rarely runs out of anything else. If you're a defense, and you know just that little bit of information, you already have an advantage in stopping UCLA's running game.
It goes back to that same fundamental issue about Karl Dorrell's offense. Since Dorrell came to UCLA, his offensive philosophy has been to out-execute the defense; that is, you know what we're going to do, but we're going to do it so well you won't be able to stop us. That, historically in football, has proven it can work – if you have the superior horses and very experienced players to execute it. But it's also giving up that one advantage the offense has over the defense in football – the element of surprise. This is not saying it's wrong or really being critical of it, it's just an offensive philosophy that I don't particularly believe.
In fact, look at the four years Dorrell has been at UCLA. You could arguably assert that UCLA has only had one season where it clearly ran the ball successfully, in 2004, when it averaged 184 yards per game, and Maurice Drew ran for over 1000 yards and Manuel White ran for 764, with Chris Markey running for 363. It was a good year, but it was also a case that UCLA didn't throw the ball really well that year, relied on its running game and offensive coordinator/OL coach Tom Cable's blocking schemes took the Pac-10 by surprise that season.
So far, the philosophy really hasn't panned out at UCLA, in terms of the running game.
In the Arizona game, it definitely was a case where Arizona decided it wanted to try to take away UCLA's running game and make the Bruins beat them through the air. UCLA gained only 65 yards on the ground, in 22 rushing attempts.
So, now, let's skip down to criticism #2 – the play-calling. You have a defense in Arizona that's sneaking up its safeties to take away your running game, when you passed early they're not pressuring your quarterback, so wouldn't you try to throw the ball down the field? Again, yes, we realize the West Coast Offense is a short-yardage, dink-and-dunk kind of offense, but only if that's how the people calling the plays want to utilize it. Isn't it also an offense that should take what the defense gives you? In this case, it seemed evident early on that UCLA's quarterbacks would have time to throw the ball, so sticking strictly to the short-passing philosophy seemed like a tactical error.
Again, even if you have a good quarterback who can execute this offense, as Patrick Cowan was generally in this game, it still goes against the odds that you'll be able to dink and dunk your way 80 yards down the field every time you have the ball. If you're a playing-the-odds type of guy, you wouldn't take this bet. Trying to drive 80 yards in 4-to-7-yard increments demands far too much successful execution than just about any college players are capable of.
As we said in the one-quarter season review last week, UCLA is going to have to open up its offense and throw down the field if it hopes to put enough points on the board the rest of the season to be successful. It had a chance to do it in this game against Arizona, and it didn't choose to do it. Really the only time a UCLA quarterback threw vertically, past the first-down marker, was in the last two minutes of the first half when UCLA, surprisingly and out-of-character, was trying to put up some quick points before halftime. It almost seemed like there was some gremlin who hijacked the UCLA coaches' headset system in calling those plays, they were so different and out-of-character, in actual play-calling and timing.
Now, it could be a case where the down-the-field plays are being called, but no one is open and the quarterbacks are going through their reads and dumping off short. That definitely did happen a number of times in this game. But the vast majority of passing plays it's very easy to see are designed for short-yardage. While there are obviously some plays that are looking down the field, there doesn't seem to be enough.
And, nothing against walk-on receiver Andrew Baumgartner, but is he really the best we can get in the pattern deep? What's happened to Gavin Ketchum, who is probably 5 inches taller than Baumgartner and faster? He's caught one pass so far this season. He has looked consistently good in practice over the last several weeks. Is he still in the doghouse just because he probably sat out too long with a minor injury during fall camp? At this point, wouldn't you rather have the quickness of Terrence Austin down the field than Baumgartner? Do you really need to rotate so many receivers in, to the point that you're throwing to Baumgartner down the field over Marcus Everett or Brandon Breazell? Again, there might be something going on within the program where Baumgartner has earned the playing time over these guys, and we're in the dark, but these are pretty clear questions by the typical observer.
UCLA didn't put up enough points against Arizona. It drove the field nicely, executing well, but as any good gambler will tell you, the odds catch up with you and the drives stall, especially since, as the field shortens up the closer you get to the goal line, your play script gets shorter. UCLA needs to mix in some big-yardage plays that minimize how many plays they have to execute to drive the field and get seven points. If it doesn't, we'll see more of the same the rest of the season: UCLA picking up first downs in 4-to-7 yard increments, but with still a good number of drives stalling out.
Criticism #3: The penalties. Arizona scored its one touchdown on a drive in the second quarter when UCLA gave them a big chunk of the yards they picked up on the drive in penalties. Kenneth Lombard got called for a roughing-the-passer call, which was admittedly questionable, on a third-and-21 at the UCLA 47 that set up Arizona's score. There were also other times in the game when UCLA's defense committed a very untimely penalty that gave a little breath of life to a gasping Arizona offense. Without that little breath of life, UCLA's defense would have completely rendered Arizona's offense DOA and shut them out.
So, now that we have the criticisms out of the way...let's look at the positive.
How about that defense, huh?
Yes, we have to qualify it and acknowledge, it is only Arizona, but UCLA's defense is getting to the point where you think it will at least be able to keep the Bruins in the games against Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame, and USC. You can't say that they've played against an offense that you could call "good" yet this season, but they've dominated so many mediocre defenses you'd have to believe they'll be able to go toe-to-toe against a good offense. The Arizona-flavored post-game commentator on Fox described them roughly as: "They swarm, they fly to the ball, they're aggressive, they talk trash, they do everything a defense should do."
It is almost surreal to watch a "good" UCLA defense. After so many years of mediocre to abysmal defenses, watching this year's defense is by far more rewarding as a UCLA fan than watching UCLA's high-powered offense a year ago. Last year, even with UCLA's offense out-scoring everyone, you knew it was all hanging by a thread since UCLA's defense was so poor. You knew it could blow up on you at anytime, like it did in the game against Arizona a year ago. But when you have a good defense, no matter how poor your offense is, it's a completely different perspective. You have confidence that UCLA will be in just about any game, facing just about any opponent. You feel better about UCLA's chances week to week with this year's team, because of the defense, than you did with last year's team, with that horrendous defense. It's a far better fan experience, having a good defense that carries you, than a team with a bad defense that is reliant on out-scoring everyone every week. Last year, you never said to yourself, "All we need is for the defense to put it together this week, combined with the offense, and the team will be good." You knew the bad defense would be back week after week, and probably worse. But this year, at least, you can say every week: "All we need is for the offense to put it together, combined with the defense, and the team will be good." And this year's offense has by far a better chance of putting it together than last year's defense.
Running down the defensive personnel, it's difficult not to want to cite just about every defensive player for his achievements in this game. Trey Brown really jumped off the field as the most obvious choice, providing very good coverage and being stellar in run support, while also providing a couple of highlight hits. Safety Dennis Keyes might have had his best game this season, penetrating into the Arizona backfield. The defensive line was collectively very good. The defensive tackles, Brigham Harwell and Kevin Brown, have now improved their strength enough that they aren't getting blown off, while being able to utilize their quickness in exploiting bigger, slower offensive linemen. Defensive end Justin Hickman had a good game, owning his offensive tackle with his quickness. Bruce Davis is becoming a star, and a type of guy that can innovate a new type of position. Half the time in this game he was standing up, looking more like an outside linebacker, and also dropping back into coverage in zone blitzes to provide coverage underneath. UCLA's coaching staff has done wonders in being able to take advantage of Davis' tweener-ism, with Davis able to run and cover like a linebacker but also able to take on offensive tackles with his quickness.
The defensive brain trust deserves a great deal of credit, just not for making this a great fundamental and technically sound defense (when was the last time UCLA didn't miss tackles like this?), but also for its game plan. The defensive coaches completely out-schemed Arizona's offensive coaches. UCLA players blitzed a number of times without Arizona players even laying a hand on them before they were in the quarterback's face.
And then there's our boy, Alterraun Verner. It's a storybook for Verner. If someone ever wanted to look it up, we doubt there was ever a player at UCLA, in the Pac-10, or anywhere in the country, who has two interceptions for touchdowns before his 18th birthday. His talent, showing so prominently as a true freshman, makes you legitimately very excited about the future of UCLA's defensive secondary.
Offensively, you have to give acknowledgement to the performance of Patrick Cowan, relieving Ben Olson when he went down with his knee "sprain." Cowan definitely showed great poise and the talent that he's displayed in the last couple of seasons in practice. UCLA fans need to be a bit cautious in their excitement, however. Cowan looked as good as, well, Ben Olson, in the opener against Utah, and Olson hasn't looked as sharp since, which could also happen to Cowan. There is also the element of doing better coming off the bench rather than starting and having to live with the pressure of starting in the build-up to the game. If you remember, Ryan McCann always came in to games in relief of Cory Paus and looked like Cade McNown, but when he had to start a game he looked like Bret Johnson. Also, if you watch the game very closely, Cowan got lucky on some throws he forced into coverage, barely missing a couple of interceptions. So, maybe the excitement should be tempered. The most encouraging aspects of his performance were his poise, his mobility, his quick release, and his savvy, checking out of plays with confidence.
You have to say it. It was just Arizona. But on the other hand, UCLA dominated this Wildcat team by far more than USC did two weeks ago. And like it was stated above, after another stellar performance against an admittedly bad offensive team, UCLA's defense has proven enough that it will at least keep the Bruins in every game on its schedule.
So, it's not a pipedream, but realistic to say: ""All we need is for the offense to put it together, combined with the defense, and the team will be good."