We predicted the score would be 31-24. Most bookies had the line anywhere from 8 to 10 points over the last couple of days.
And it didn't just play to expectation by score, but in just about every aspect.
UCLA goes to Autzen Stadium, one of the toughest places to play in the country, with an inexperienced quarterback making his first start, with an arguably unproven defense, to face Oregon, the 18th-ranked team in the country, which they are for a reason, who would be hyped-up coming off a disappointing big loss.
And it played to expectation in the match-ups on the field, too. Oregon's offense, coming in as the #4-ranked in the country, which it had earned against some decent defenses, was too powerful for UCLA's unproven defense.
Oregon's offense was unstoppable in the first quarter, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions to basically put the game in the freezer. Without UCLA's offense really able to mount much of a consistent threat, the Ducks knew they could coast through the second half running the ball and eating up clock.
The real game was played in that first quarter. That's where you saw the Oregon offense playing at its optimum, with full guns blazing, with focus and aggressiveness. Oregon gained about 180 yards in the first quarter. If this was a sign at how the entire game was going to be, you didn't think UCLA's defense would ever stop the Ducks, with Oregon able to run and pass at will. Every running play gained 7-12 yards, with Oregon's Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson running through big holes, and Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon, with time to throw, fing his receivers open and delivering the ball accurately. Oregon didn't have many plays that weren't positives ones in the entire first half, able to do just anything it wanted offensively.
That left UCLA's defense on its heels, and a little sore from the bump it took when it came back to Earth. The UCLA defense had played well in its first five games, good enough to get it ranked the #2 D in the country. But, as we had been saying, to some derision, UCLA hadn't faced a good offense yet. We had said in the One-Third Season Review that UCLA's defense had done enough to make us believe that it was good enough to keep UCLA in just about every game for the rest of the season, however. But the Oregon game -- actually, the first quarter and a half -- has now firmly put that theory into the uncertain column. While Oregon is probably one of the best offenses in the country, UCLA will face a few more that could be just as good, like California's, which is ranked #9 in the nation, or Washington State's (22nd), or USC's (25th). Next week, in South Bend, UCLA will take on Notre Dame, which has an offense you might also call "good," ranked 34th. Even ASU's offense is ranked 50th. The offenses UCLA had faced in its first five games were ranked, 111th, 92nd, 80th, 59th and 115th.
While this might be putting a bit too much emphasis on stats and rankings, it illustrates, though, what UCLA's defense is now up against for the remainder of its season.
UCLA's defense against Oregon gave up 256 yards on the ground, while UCLA's offense only gained a total of 216. It wasn't quite as bad a rushing defense as UCLA had last season, but it certainly was a new phenomenon this season. The quickness of UCLA's defensive line couldn't overcome the power of Oregon's huge offensive line. In this case, quickness was no match for size. There were many times when UCLA's undersized DL got man-handled, individually getting pushed back a few yards from the line of scrimmage. UCLA's linebackers, also, weren't nearly as effective as they had been, out of position at times and missing tackles. Christian Taylor wasn't his usual self, probably hindered some by the ankle injury. Strongside linebacker Aaron Whittington looked very light trying to man up against some of Oregon's big receivers and Stewart when he running in the open field.
UCLA's defensive backs didn't have a good day. The safeties, Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton, the defense's two leading tacklers and who the D has relied on this season, didn't have good performances. Keyes was beat in coverage a few times.
Uncannily, the guy on defense who did seemingly have a good day was true freshman cornerback Alterraun Verner. He had a couple of strong pass break-ups, and a great tackle on a throw-back screen. Verner is not the fastest cornerback you'll ever see, and he's still pretty slight, being just 17 years old (he's probably still growing). But Verner has the instincts, quickness and smarts to be a very good one. It truly is uncanny that perhaps UCLA's best long-term prospect on defense is Verner.
It's difficult to conclude if UCLA's defense in the first half was just out of sorts, or disoriented being on the road in a hostile environment, and if it really settled down later and actually played better. Or was it just a matter of Oregon's offense going into more of a conservative, lock-the-game-in-the-freezer mode? Hard to tell. But it's not hard to conclude that this is not a truly elite defense, but a solid one, that is well-coached, under-sized, under-talented and over-achieving. And that recipe might cook up some more defensive performances like one we saw in the Oregon game for the rest of the season.
So, while it's probably pretty easy to conclude that we'll have a solid, over-achieving defense the rest of the season, we probably also have enough evidence after this game to make some conclusions about the offense.
Is the offense under-achieving? The players themselves probably aren't. This is an averagely talented offense and they're playing to that level.
But this year's offense is probably a result of some issues in coaching, not just this season, but long-term, in offensive philosophy and recruiting.
Again, as we've maintained since Karl Dorrell's first season, the West Coast Offense in the college game is a tough one to make succeed. And this game, again, supported that theory. As we've said, it could be successful if you had superior players with experience, but most of the time, in college ball, you don't. Last season, UCLA did – with some considerable experience and talent at its skill positions. But this season, this is the WCO on the college level without that caliber of talent.
Again, this is not to slight any player, since it definitely appears that guys like Chris Markey, Patrick Cowan, Brandon Breazell, etal, are playing hard and not under-achieving. But when is the last time you looked out at a UCLA offense on the field and you didn't see a clear NFL level player at the quarterback, running back, receiver or tight end positions? You'd have to go back quite a ways. We're not saying that there isn't anyone on the offense who won't play in the NFL, but there isn't a guy who you could say would absolutely get taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Offensive guard Shannon Tevaga would probably be the most viable candidate.
It's not the players' fault, but you have to place some of the blame on recruiting. Four years into the Dorrell regime, you just don't have enough horses on the field. The WCO was good last season (even though it didn't run the ball really well), because you had two clear NFLers, Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Drew, and another who played like one for his senior season in Drew Olson. But when you don't have that talent to plug into this offense, it just isn't very good.
Now, is there an offense out there that would be "good" with averagely talented players? Well, of course, talent dictates quite a bit, but there are schemes that don't demand such a high level of talent and experience to be successful as much as the WCO.
But either way, if you blame the talent level or the scheme, the responsibility falls at the feet of the coaching staff.
While Dorrell has done a "solid" job of recruiting while he's been at UCLA overall, we've said before that perhaps his worst recruiting results have come at wide receiver. It's been pretty disappointing that Dorrell, an ex-NFL receivers coach, who then gets probably an NFL-level quarterback to come to his program in Ben Olson, hasn't done well in attracting top-flight receiver talent to UCLA. If you're talking about talent on the offense, it's probably the one biggest, glaring aspect. While we're all asserting that UCLA should throw the ball down the field more, it seems like the coaches have cognitively made the decision not to, probably because they don't have the deep-ball talent. Last year, they threw the ball down the field – to Marcedes Lewis. So, again, either way, if you blame the play-calling or the talent, it still is at the feet of the coaches.
Now, this is in no way any kind of huge indictment of Dorrell and his program. And please, don't go on the message board and claim that "Tracy is a crank." There are plenty of aspects of the program where I believe Dorrell has done very well, better than what most coaches could have done. But it's no secret (since I wrote it in the season preview) that I thought the talent level in the program is merely "solid," and that I think the WCO is a difficult proposition on the college level. This is just a reiteration of that, with the two assertions combined, since they pretty clearly combined in the Oregon game.
For those of you who want to complain about more specific aspects of the Oregon game, well, it seems kind of prosaic, especially with so many doing such inspired jobs of it on the BRO message boards.
The officiating? Yeah. It was bad. Really for both teams. But it didn't really affect the outcome of the game. When there were the calls that went against UCLA, UCLA was trailing by a considerable amount without much time left in the game.
In fact, you never really had the feeling that UCLA had a chance in this game anyway. Even when it was down by just two touchdowns, it seemed far more insurmountable than that.
Pat Cowan? I don't really see how anyone could complain about his performance. Going on the road to play against Oregon in his first college start, I thought Cowan had a decent performance. He didn't look rattled at all, and he was under a great deal of pressure from Oregon's pass rush. He executed fairly well, made quite a few more good decisions than bad ones. There isn't much more you could expect of him, given his situation, what he has to work with, the scheme and the plays being called.
Perhaps the one aspect of the offense that did under perform was the pass protection. Darius Sanders, the Oregon defensive end, basically skipped past UCLA tackle Brian Abraham a few times. Oregon got good pressure on Cowan sometimes with a three-man rush. While you can question UCLA's level of talent, it certainly shouldn't be as poor as that in pass protection.
But offensively, it's really difficult to blame any of the players.
And admittedly, perhaps we're just being too pessimistic about the offensive scheme. There are far greater football minds than those found on BRO who swear by the WCO. But with some good coaching on the defensive side, and what is seemingly a turnaround on that side of the ball overall, it does seem, however, that Dorrell's coaching future at UCLA will depend a great deal on how consistently – year to year – he can produce a successful offense. Producing a good offense once every four years isn't going to cut it. And he doesn't have the built-in excuse of blaming recruiting. From here on out, he's doing it with the scheme he's chosen and the guys he's recruited.
For the Oregon game, it was almost surprising how closely it followed what you would have predicted. We've been saying that, previously, we didn't think we had enough information yet to draw conclusions on this team, but it seems we've passed that threshold with this game.
So, with that in mind, here comes the difficult part of the season. We now have enough information to know that UCLA will go into most games with an over-achieving, well-coached defense, and an averagely-talented offense that is running out of time "to put it together," like Dorrell has said.
Could it still come together for the O? Certainly. Heck, the quarterback that will likely guide it the rest of the season just had his first start, so there's a great deal of room for improvement.
But given what we know now, it's safe to say that the kind of performance you saw against Oregon defensively will probably be about the same caliber you'll see against Cal and USC, with possibly a chance to look a bit better against Notre Dame, Washington State and Arizona State. So, knowing that, it's up to the offense to improve and make the difference the remainder of the season.
And you have to say, the responsibility for that is at the feet of the coaches.