Of course, the biggest not-so-good issue facing this team is the quarterback position. But we'll get to that later.
Just to start the season's game reviews off right, let's begin with some of the positive issues you can take from this game.
The first truly positive impression of the game was that it confirmed the 2002 edition of the UCLA football team is pretty talented, much moreso than Colorado State. As predicted in the preview, the talent eventually shone through and was the main catalyst in the win.
And even though it was a miserable first half offensively, and most Bruin fans were throwing up their hands in frustration, the signs of just how talented and good this team is, even offensively, were there.
Besides the quarterback position, the primary concern on the team going into the season is the productivity of the offensive line. So, it was particulary good to see the offensive line come out from the first snap and play really well, opening up good-sized holes for its running backs and generally giving the quarterback time to throw, against a defense that had recorded 8 sacks in its first two games. Working in a new, young center, the transition was pretty seamless. Colorado State tried to do a few things to confuse Mike McCloskey, throwing some stunts and blitzes at him, but he did well, and was helped by his guards in double-teaming his man in passing situations.
Perhaps the second-best sign offensively that you could take from a generally mediocre offensive performance was that Akil Harris was breaking tackles. His rap is that he goes down pretty quickly after getting hit, but he broke tackles well Saturday and made some good yardage after the first hit.
The first half also showed that the defense is for real. With UCLA's offense sputtering and its special teams practically playing for Colorado State, the game easily could have gotten out of hand. The Bruins could have found themselves down by at least a couple of touchdowns. But the defense contained CSU's threats, their running quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt and talented running back Cecil Sapp. They only gave up points when they were back on their heels as a result of UCLA's horrendous special teams play combined with its horrendous play from the quarterback position. Akil Harris' bobble of the opening kick-off, a three-and-out offensive series and then a poor punt by Nate Fikse gave Colorado State the ball at the UCLA 45 on its first possession. UCLA's defense held and only allowed a field goal. Colorado State had their halfback pass touchdown set up by a 50-yard punt return. Then Colorado State's other field goal came after a bad decision on a punt by returner Tyler Ebell, which left UCLA possession of the ball on its own 1 yard line, and then a frightening decision by Paus leading to an interception and Colorado State's possession of the ball on UCLA's 23.
In other words, anytime Colorado State actually got the ball by conventional means – a standard punt leading to average field position, UCLA's defense stopped them. And of the three opportunities Colorado State was given like a gift described above, UCLA gave up only one touchdown and two field goals.
So, while many Bruin fans were having conniption fits about the team in the first half, there were actually signs that the team was as good as everyone has been hinting at for the last three weeks of fall practice.
The question would be if they'd be smart enough to enable their superior talent to win the game. For a long time there – deep into the second half – it was definitely a question.
There were some considerable things holding back this team's talent. Again, we'll get to the quarterback situation later. But right there with the quarterback's effectiveness, if not even more damaging, was the scary special teams. It was mind-blowing to see how many ways UCLA's special teams could hurt the team. Let's review. A bobbled kick-off that led to a fumble. Another fumbled kick-off return. A misjudged punt that left the ball on UCLA's own 1-yard line. Two poor punts. A blocked field goal. A shanked field goal. Allowing a 50-yard punt return. A roughing-the-punter penalty.
It's pretty obvious UCLA needs to practice some special teams next week – a lot. It might also consider using more veterans on kick-off and punt returns. You don't need to use Marcus Reese, or anyone else valuable who might be vulnerable to a concussion or a recurring injury, but the kick-off coverage in the second-half had four true freshman, two redshirt freshman, 2 walkons, one sophomore and one third-string junior cornerback. You're asking for trouble here. And it's still mysterious why Matt Clark, who is the only player on the team in the last three years who has shown any kind of penchant for returning kickoffs, isn't doing so. And is it maybe time that Nate Fikse is given a chance at field goal kicking? Yeah, he might not be as accurate as Chris Griffith, but you'd rather at least get the ball past the line of scrimmage and give it a chance of making it through the uprights. And Griffith isn't exactly looking automatic when he does get the ball past scrimmage. The Colorado State player must have been pretty surprised when he went up to block Griffith's punt and it hit him in the stomach.
The defense, though, was as good as advertised. Marcus Reese led the charge. He was all over the field, shooting gaps, stringing out runs and stuffing runners up the middle. Even though Ricky Manning played well and had the defensive play of the game when he pasted Cecil Sapp on that tailback screen, which led to a fumble and recovery by Rusty Williams, Reese was the defensive player of the game. Manning, though, would get the vote as turning in the second-best performance on defense for that one play alone, which was truly the game-winning play of the day.
The defensive line played well, generally not giving Sapp – or Van Pelt – much room to run. And Sapp could be the best running back this defense sees all year. Steve Morgan had a good game, recording one sack. Ryan Boschetti, in his backup DT role, also looked good plugging holes and pursuing ball carriers. Rusty Williams had a key knock-down of a pass that led to an interception. There is still a question if UCLA can get a decent pass rush from its front four without help from a linebacker or safety on a blitz, though.
The linebackers had a good game. Spencer Havner, for a redshirt freshman in his first game, played pretty well. His height, as well as that of Brandon Chillar, looks like it's going to make it difficult to throw behind them. And his pursuit to the ball is excellent. There were a couple of instances where he gets to the runner so quickly they almost look stunned that he's there so fast. He has to improve on his strength, sometimes having problems shedding blockers, as well as his ability to finish a tackle. On one critical play in the second half Havner had a good look at Van Pelt as he was scrambling on a long third down, and he let him get by him for the first. Chillar looked very quick to the ball in pursuit, and had a nice tackle on Van Pelt when he coughed up the ball on the 2-point conversion.
The defensive backs had a very good game collectively. They pretty much blanketed receivers in coverage, and if a Ram receiver actually caught a ball, it was in traffic and they were hit pretty well after doing so. You have to take it a bit with a grain of salt since Van Pelt isn't a very good passing quarterback and CSU's receivers are average at best. Matt Clark had a couple of good plays, one in chopping down Sapp for a loss. There were some good open-field tackles by the DBs that kept CSU from a first down, particulary one by Matt Ware where he might have prevented a touchdown, and a critical one by Ben Emanuel (He also looked great returning that fumbled 2-pt conversion). Freshman safety Jarrad Page had a good pass breakup. It's good to see the DBs dominate like they did, and live up to the fall practice hype.
In the second half, the defense did allow a few sustained drives by CSU. UCLA was substituting in so many different players, and in CSU's best drive of the game, in the second half, it seemed like it was against a UCLA defense that had many second-stringers on the field. The defense showed a little vulnerability on third and short. There were a few series where they would hold CSU's offense to short gains on the first two downs, but allow them the first on a third-and-short. That's the kind of thing that wears down your defense, both physically and mentally.
And there were a number of times when, with the feel of the game and the momentum, you might have thought that the defense would break down a bit. But it would come back and step up. The game showed that the defense is not only talented, but has heart.
On offense, it was a game that showed just how bad UCLA's offense can be if it doesn't get execution from its quarterback, and also showed really just how talented the offense is as a whole.
Craig Bragg must secrete stickum on his hands because he caught everything close to him, either behind him or to the side of him, having to spin many times and set himself up for a hit in doing so. It'd be nice if Tab Perry could steal some of that stickum. Perry had a hard time holding onto the ball, on passes and kickoff returns. He straightened out a bit in the second half with a couple of nice catches. Mike Seidman hinted at just how dominating he can be with three catches on the day. But against CSU's passing defense, that was giving UCLA's receivers a 10-yard cushion and playing a very soft zone, if UCLA's quarterbacks could have delivered the ball well, the wide receivers could have hurt CSU all day. And this was without even utilizing Ryan Smith or Marcedes Lewis, or Keith Carter, when he returns from his injury. UCLA will have to take far more advantage of its receiving corps if it hopes to be effective offensively.
And you have to love Junior Taylor's reverse for a touchdown. It was very poignant since he just gave the site an interview saying how incredible it would be if he scored a touchdown in his first college game, in front of his family. But it was not only impressive for the poignancy, but for the talent he showed on the run. He looks like the type of talented athlete you see at Florida State. Maybe Taylor should get a more extended try out returning kicks, to further utilize his play-making ability.
The running backs were impressive generally. As stated above, Akil Harris looked better than expected, especially breaking tackles. Manuel White took a while to get going, but once he did, he's a beast. With how many running backs UCLA can shuttle in, keeping them fresh, Manuel White should be UCLA's Fourth-Quarter Man. Facing a fresh Manuel White in the fourth quarter, if you're an opposing defensive line, would be frightening. Imagine if you're a tired opposing defensive back and you see White coming at you in the fourth quarter. It was interesting the reps that UCLA's other tailbacks got. It seemed inadvertent that Wendell Mathis got more carries than Jason Harrison; probably just a result of an already set substitution pattern. Mathis showed some potential, especially with his quickness if he can turn up field. Tyler Ebell, as we knew, will be a situational runner. True freshman fullback J.D. Groves was used in blocking situations, and did fairly well.
The play-calling was good, a good mixture of run and pass, with a nice assortment of short passes, swing passes to the running backs. It looked like the UCLA play-calling of old, before they got so enamored of giving the ball to DeShaun Foster.
Which leads us to the quarterback issue...
Cory Paus's first-half performance was pretty poor. He threw not only inaccurate passes, but they were wobbly, nearly-uncatchable balls. He owes Jon Dubravac dinner, at least, for the high throw to him that got him undercut. But it wasn't just the throws. Perhaps even more of concern is the decision-making. Paus, as a fifth-year senior, should not make such a poor decision as he did in the first half when, throwing from the endzone, instead of throwing the ball out of bounds, he threw desperately into double coverage for an interception. He did, also, have a few balls dropped, which might have made a considerable difference in his first-half performance.
But Paus will simply have to play better than he did in the first half or it would be hard to see him play much the rest of the way.
True freshman Drew Olson might be able to execute the position. While Olson only threw a few balls, and one was a bad decision itself, he did complete a couple of passes. For a true freshman, he looks like he's comfortable on the field and threw the ball with some zip. Take into consideration, though, that the offense will still be at a deficit with a true freshman at quarterback, in so many facets of running the offense.
As a Bruin fan, you have to pull for Cory Paus. Why? For one reason, the team needs a fifth-year senior quarterback to perform up to his capability for it to do as well as it can this season. Secondly, you have to pull for him given everything he's been through and the fact that he's a good kid.
Let's chalk up some of Paus's poor performance to nerves, his first game back from a controversial finish to last season. A game where he was probably putting too much pressure on himself to perform. The kid, even if he won't admit it, has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
One other thing to add about Paus: While Olson was on the field, Paus was his biggest cheerleader, and off the field Paus helped Olson with the offense. And Olson was Paus's biggest supporter. Both quarterbacks showed a great deal of class.
When the coaches used Olson was interesting, but also possibly understandable given the circumstances, something they couldn't avoid. It seemed more appropriate that Olson might get a series in the second quarter when Paus was struggling, and it did look like he was prepared to come in with 2 minutes left in the first half but then James Jessen was called on the roughing the punter, which gave the ball back to CSU. Olson came in during the third quarter, right after the previous series when Paus had looked like he had settled down some and drove the team down the field for the first time. You could call it a questionable decision, but also a gutty one, going with a true freshman, giving him a chance and getting him some valuable experience when you're down 13-7 with 2:50 left to go in the third quarter.
The offensive line was giving the quarterbacks good time to get off the pass. With the quick hitters, the 3-step drops, and the offensive line continuing to protect the quarterback well, it will give Paus the opportunity to right his ship next week against Oklahoma State. If not, Olson, in just his short stint behind center Saturday, at least gave you an impression that he's good enough to be an option if Paus is faltering.
While the game presented some questions, and prolonging some of the lingering ones like about quarterback, the offensive line having a good game was perhaps the beginning of the answer to one of the biggest questions about the team. It was clear, though, that, even though the team is young, UCLA's talent level was far above Colorado State. It was a sign that, if a few questions can even just partially be answered for the season, UCLA's talent could be good enough alone to make for a good season...