It's, overall, impressive, that UCLA beat Arizona State, 24-12, on the road, to get to six wins and be bowl eligible.
Admittedly, we thought UCLA would lose, as we projected in the game preview.
We thought that, mainly, because we once again fell into that same Arizona State Trap – thinking that the Sun Devils were actually pretty good.
It's a testament to UCLA's football team that they didn't roll over after four straight losses, kept their composure on the season and went out and got a fairly big win for them, their first on the road this season, a victory that makes them bowl eligible and gives them a chance at a winning season.
But it really went a long way that Arizona State stunk.
ASU's offense, the one that put up 44 points and 562 yards against Washington State the week before, looked like a high school offense, gaining just 149 yards through the air. ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter is one of the biggest enigmas in the Pac-10 and perhaps all of college football because of his streakiness. He looked like a legit Pac-10 quarterback against Washington State, and a questionable CIF Division 1 quarterback against UCLA.
Again, you have to give some credit to UCLA, for making Carpenter look like a high school quarterback. He was pressured for most of the night, which hurried him into bad throws, thrown mostly into pretty thick coverage. The Bruin defensive game plan was a very good one, and it had Arizona's spread offense scouted well.
To make an excuse, ASU was without many of its playmakers at wide receiver, and Carpenter didn't have many targets beyond tight end Zach Miller, who he kept locking in on, making it easier on UCLA's secondary.
But we have to remember: Never over-estimate an ASU team coached by Dirk Koetter.
UCLA, by no means, dominated ASU. The UCLA offense didn't look much better than a CIF Division 1 team itself. Really, if you take away the two big touchdown passes from Patrick Cowan to Brandon Breazell, UCLA's offense didn't do much. Those two plays accounted for 91 yards while UCLA had just 274 total and 187 passing yards. It definitely was a case of UCLA's offense not being able to move the ball except for a handful of individual plays. UCLA had just eight plays that gained more than ten yards total. Two of those were the touchdowns and one was a fake punt. So, there were only six other plays that gained double-digit yardage and none more than 17 yards. There was only one running play the entire game that gained more than 10 yards (11, in fact).
So many people in recent weeks had cited UCLA's improved offensive play to what they thought was Karl Dorrell taking over more of the play-calling responsibilities. This game presents some doubts about that whole big assumption. If it's true – that Dorrell is calling more plays – and you were hoping that had turned around the offense, you need to re-think that idea. In this game, the UCLA offense looked far more similar to the offense we saw against Washington State than the one against Oregon State. In fact, UCLA gained more yards in the Washington State game than against Arizona State.
If you were a real pessimist, you could rationalize much of UCLA's scoring in this game as, really, not borne from a productive offense. The two big touchdown passes clearly weren't the norm for the game, but two aberrations. UCLA scored another touchdown when Carpenter threw an interception to UCLA cornerback Trey Brown and he returned it to the ASU one-yard line. The Bruins got a field goal on one drive that had stalled, but only got new life on a fake punt. That's all 24 points UCLA scored, and you could argue that none of them really came as a result of good, sustained drives and a consistently productive offense.
UCLA's rushing game had one of its worst games of the season, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. The UCLA offensive line had been showing some promising signs in the last two weeks being able to open holes for its running backs, but it definitely regressed against ASU. It did generally give Cowan enough time to throw the ball, however.
But Cowan didn't take advantage of it. It was definitely a contest between him and Carpenter on who could look the most inexperienced and out-of-sync on the night. Cowan didn't see open receivers, and missed many with errant passes, and he did so, as we said, mostly with a good amount of time in the pocket. He also fumbled once.
Brandon Breazell, who had for the most part disappeared for the season, possibly due to nagging injuries, made an appearance, catching those two big touchdown passes. Without those two plays, again, we'd be hearing quite a few more complaints about UCLA's anemic offense.
Even with those two plays, probably the bigger key offensive play was the faked punt to Danny Nelson that got UCLA a key first down after another ineffective drive in the third quarter, with UCLA clinging to a 14-12 lead. That play, for whatever reason, emboldened UCLA's offense, at least marginally. UCLA rolled off three more first downs and actually sustained a drive for really the only time in the game. They achieved four of the measley 13 first downs it had for the entire game on that drive. Up until that time, UCLA hadn't had more than one first down on any possession. In fact, it was the only drive the entire night that UCLA achieved more than one first down except for the two touchdown passes.
It was, truly, a very risky play, one that paid off for Dorrell. UCLA was at its own 27-yard line. It was a huge gamble for Dorrell; if it hadn't been successful and he had handed the ball over to Arizona State at UCLA's 30-yard line, could you imagine the uproar? You have to give Dorrell credit for having the guts to call the play, but you have to also chalk it up to another questionable decision.
Arizona State's offense, even with how inept it was, was slightly more effective moving the ball. It actually sustained a couple of drives, but couldn't finish in the redzone, having to settle for four field goals.
So, really the margin of victory really wasn't much, with both teams looking equally ineffectual offensively. If UCLA doesn't convert the fake punt and/or Breazell trips, and ASU converts one or two of those drives into touchdowns rather than field goals, there's a different final score. In other words, it's not as if UCLA dominated the game and clearly was the superior team.
If you looked at the game from a removed perspective, you might think that UCLA, since it beat ASU, should have done better than its current 6-5 record, maybe beating Washington and Washington State, and you might have a valid argument. But from a closer perspective, you can see that UCLA wasn't much better than ASU, if they were at all. UCLA, this season, has definitely not under-achieved; being justifiably in that whole group of Pac-10 mediocre teams like ASU, Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona and Washington. All of those teams are where they are, maybe apart in the win-loss column by a game or two, only because of a bounce of the ball here or there. None of them clearly were any better than the rest, just like UCLA wasn't clearly better than ASU.
UCLA, now, though, is tied for fourth in the Pac-10 with Oregon and Arizona (who beat Oregon Saturday). You never know how the wacky Pac-10 will ultimately end up, but the Bruins have a better chance at a bowl game with the win over ASU.
And of course, they have the ultimate opportunity to make their season, and have all of the bad vibes of a relatively mediocre season go away by beating USC.