It was a good win, one that the overall young UCLA team needed to get on the road to get its feet wet. Going into a place like Stillwater, Oklahoma, with 45,000 fans who stood for a big portion of the game and didn't stop cheering until the end, it's a big thing to get a win.
But last week, after the Colorado State game, there were mainly two questions that came from the game. 1) Quarterback effectiveness, and 2) special teams. And if someone told you that the next week, against Oklahoma State, issue #1 wouldn't be that big a deal since Cory Paus was going to throw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, and that UCLA's special teams would play a solid game, you'd probably be elated.
But while a few questions from last week had some answers provided this week, another big question arose.
UCLA's defense allowed Oklahoma State to gain 444 total yards, and 350 of those through the air. Oklahoma State gained 362 yards against Louisiana Tech, and 406 yards against Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa is a Division 1-AA school.
This is a bit worrisome.
UCLA's defense was the part of the team that most UCLA fans thought they could put some reliance in. Having a great season last year when they were the #1 defense in the Pac-10, and looking great all of fall practice, it was the one thing that UCLA fans could always cling to.
Now, you shouldn't go being too reactionary and sounding huge alarms that the UCLA defense is in ruins. But, as just about anyone would concede, the Oklahoma State game at least raises some concerns about UCLA's defense.
So here are some of the "concerns" about the defense that you could take from the Oklahoma State game.
The passing defense was out-played and out-strategized by Oklahoma State's passing offense. And that was with just an average quarterback. Oklahoma State's spread offense gave UCLA's defensive passing schemes problems. They got under pass coverage for some solid gains. They got behind and inside defensive backs for bigger gains.
When talking about the out-played aspect of the pass defense, the obvious place to look first would be to Ricky Manning. Manning generally got beat by Oklahoma State's star receiver Rashaun Woods. But, in really analyzing it, it wasn't near as bad as it looked at first glance. First, concede that Rashaun Woods is a heck of a receiver and difficult to defend against. But then you could point to Manning's four, count ‘em, four pass interferences. You could point to Manning getting beat on the fade to Woods for a touchdown, and also to Woods juking Manning for extra yards on one catch. But, looking at the plays, Manning was probably only guilty of pass interference on two of the calls (One was hugely critical. He committed in with UCLA in double coverage on Woods, and the penalty negated an interception by Matt Ware that would have given UCLA the ball on their own 45 with 1:20 left in the first half, and the chance at a real offensive knock-out punch). But the other two were questionable, with one of them being downright wrong, the penalty called with little contact (mostly from Woods) on an uncatchable ball. It almost seemed like, after a few flags were tossed on Manning, the referees were in a groove.
But yes, you have to concede that, even though it wasn't as bad as it might have looked initially, or as bad as the media might make it out to be, Manning did get beat in his matchup against Woods. And that is a concern. Manning has always been excellent at containing the run, while the question always lingered how he was at pass coverage. This fall he looked like he had made strides. But the performance against Woods brings up the question again, and will undoubtedly get all of the team's on UCLA's schedule with a big-time receiver thinking about the possibilities.
It also brings up the question of the pass coverage philosophy. UCLA employs different approaches to pass coverage in different situations. But the philosophy that appeared was being used in this game was to not turn your head to look for the ball but to stay turned toward the receiver. The theory is that, in college football where there is no face-guarding penalty and a pass interference call being only 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, it pays to stay turned toward the receiver. You, then, can always keep the receiver in your sights and physically contained. Most big plays happen against cornerbacks because they turn to look for the ball and lose track of their receiver. So, you have a better chance of preventing that. You have less of a chance of a big play, a better chance at causing a breakup, while risking only a 15-yard gain. But the key is also to stay with the receiver without causing too much contact when the ball is in the air. When you are turned toward the receiver you play the receiver and not the ball, which tends to make you initiate contact too early trying to anticipate when the ball is arriving. If you can get your cornerbacks to be patient, not initiate contact until the ball arrives, it's probably a sound philosophy. But that is a challenging "if."
Ricky Manning is a physical player and it perhap is his biggest challenge, as this game probably demonstrates, to not be as physical when the ball is in the air. He's a great bumper at the line, but when he's running up the field covering a wide receiver he needs to keep his hands to himself. Your hands, not your body, cause most of the pass interference calls, and if Manning and the other cornerbacks could keep their hands off the receiver while the ball's in the air, the philosophy is probably a sound one.
While the defense didn't look great, giving up that many yards to probably what will be a team with a losing record for the season, you have to concede that Marcus Reese and Brandon Chillar, its two star linebackers, and Matt Ware, its starting free safety, didn't play for a big portion of the game. Reese didn't play after the first couple of series and Chillar and Ware missed most of the second half. Those three players affect every aspect of your defense. So much of the underneath stuff that Oklahoma State was successful with went against UCLA's second string linebackers, and a redshirt freshman in Spencer Havner.
Also, and not to make excuses, but this is a legitimate point: Oklahoma State was plainly lucky in many instances in its passing game. There were a number of plays where its quarterback was hit, or his pass was deflected, and the pass magically bounced into the hands of a Cowboy receiver. And a couple of those plays were critical drive sustainers.
And then there's the out-strategizing. UCLA had a sound plan: To blitz a lot and try to get to the OSU quarterback Jason Fields. Fields, though, while he was bumped around quite a bit, was only sacked once. He tended to get the ball away before the blitzes could get to him. And when he threw the ball up to get rid of it before being sacked, he tended to find receivers. Some were on lucky plays described above. Some others also seemed pretty lucky, with Fields throwing up rainbow throws into coverage and it miraculously finding receivers. There had to be any number of throws that Fields made when being blitzed that, when thrown, you were thinking were good candidates for a pick, but then somehow found their way into the hands of OSU receivers.
And then, even more surprising, when Fields had time and could get off a nice throw with a good stride is when he threw his three interceptions. Strange. So, I guess it all evens out.
But it really was a strange game to try to draw conclusions about UCLA's passing defense. OSU is not a conventional passing offense, but then again, there are a few similar that UCLA is going to see on their schedule this year. So, some solutions would be in order. It appeared that UCLA did better against the spread and multiple-receiver sets when it could put more defenders in pass coverage and allow the quarterback to throw. When you have four or five receivers in the pattern, and then six or seven defenders in the pattern, that's a lot of bodies without a lot of room to get open. That seemed to work so much better for UCLA, and led to at least a couple of those interceptions.
But again, you can't make enough of the absense of Reese, Chillar and Ware, and particularly Reese. Even though we haven't heard the official word, speculation would be that the plan going into the game was for him to sit most of it. And not to take away from Dennis Link, Reese's backup, but there is a considerable dropoff in performance at the middle linebacker position from Reese to Link. On so many plays where you could have seen Reese shoot a gap or stop a runner in his tracks, Link was being contained by a blocker or just not physical enough to stop a runner without allowing more yards. Spencer Havner had a good game. His speed is really a difference maker. And when he becomes more a sure tackler, he should be a star. He should have had two interceptions for touchdowns in this game, but couldn't hang on to the one in the fourth quarter.
The tackling, overall, was average. There were quite a few mis-tackles, particular once a running back got through the defensive line. It's probably, again, attributable to Reese and Chillar's absense. In fact, UCLA's liberal substitution policy created a defense that almost never had its starters in the game together after the first couple of series. The theory is that, in a humid environnment like Stillwater, Oklahoma, it keeps your players fresh, and it gives the reserves valuable game time. But when the game's on the line, you'd like to see the more reliable names in the game.
One thing, though: It looks like freshman safety Jarrad Page might be the best freshman on the team. He steps in fearlessly, makes plays and is aggressive. It would have been nice to see Justin London play some, especially with Reese out of the game and Link struggling.
The defensive line, usually the real strength of the team, also had an average game. Going up against a suspect offensive line, you'd have to call it a draw, which it shouldn't be. What OSU did, though, is exploit a perceived weakness in the UCLA defensive line, mainly its left side. A big percentage of the running plays that were successful Saturday went right over Rusty Williams and Steve Morgan. On many plays Morgan was doubled, which was difficult for him to overcome, but then Williams was beat and there was a pretty good-sized hole. Rod Leisle, on the other side, had a fairly good game, but he was out of position a couple of times on running plays, which led to healthy gains. Dave Ball, the starter at the other defensive end spot, had a good game, and Mat Ball played well when he was subbing for Williams. Sean Phillips got a nice sack, and Asi Faoa, when he played, rushed the passer well. Ryan Boschetti is establishing himself as one of the most talented defensive lineman on the team. He made perhaps the biggest plays of the game by a defensive lineman, particularly on one play where he penetrated and stopped a runner for a loss on a 3rd-and-1, one of UCLA's rare drive stops.
Oklahoma State only gained 94 yards on the ground, but it seemed considerably more than that. UCLA contained the OSU ground game for most of the game, but when it really needed to shut down OSU in the late third and fourth quarter, OSU found life on the ground, which, on OSU's last two scoring drives, really made the difference.
There is a concern coming out of this game that the UCLA defense wasn't effective in stopping drives. There was only one three-and-out. While you have to give credit to the UCLA defense for all of the turnovers it caused, you also have to give a little blame to OSU's offense for committing them, and without those turnovers, this is possibly a different game. UCLA only really soundly stopped OSU on three drives all day, without the benefit of a turnover, a OSU penalty or a OSU dropped ball. UCLA went on a 31-0 run in middle of the game without really stopping OSU without a turnover. Again, you have to give credit to UCLA for the turnovers, but it's a bit of concern when UCLA couldn't stop OSU's offense seeemingly without one.
Offensively, UCLA gained 466 yards, and did well in making the big plays it needed to win. UCLA didn't really sustain drives, but scored on quick strikes, or a couple of big plays to move the offense down the field. In the first half, when UCLA held a 24-10 lead at halftime, OSU had twice the time of possession.
It's not as if UCLA didn't attempt to march down the field, but heck, when the quick strikes and big plays are there for the taking, you should take them. There were probably to many long balls thrown, but UCLA, obviously, perceived that it had a big advantage with its wide receivers over OSU's defensive backs going deep. And if there had been a couple of better thrown balls, UCLA might have had just about every deep ball completed.
It did seem, though, that UCLA's offense was a matter of no-gain, short-gain and then big play. Incompete pass, short-gain and then big play. You'd like to see more first downs and the offense able to sustain drives more. There will be defenses that will be able to take away UCLA's big play more readily than OSU's and for the offense to be effective it needs to also move the ball methodically.
The aspects of the offense that hurt drives were the consistency of the short passing game and the running game. For UCLA to move the ball down the field, it will plainly have to be more efficient in its short passing game. Passes aren't quite accurate enough and balls are being dropped. The running game, quite simply, didn't get on track until 3 minutes were left in the third quarter. 100 of the 178 yards it gained on the ground were after that.
It could be that with the type of strengths and weaknesses that Cory Paus brings to the table, and the nature of UCLA's running game, UCLA might be more of a quick-strike, big-play type of scoring offense. Big-play and then wait until the fourth quarter to being running effectively. But relying on big plays isn't, well, reliable.
The offensive line, in its first two games, generally starts off slow in opening holes, but then wears down the opposing defensive line. But it would be good to see the running game effectively right from the get-go. The run play calling was a bit unimaginative, almost as if UCLA just wanted to pound at OSU's interior line, which might not have been a great idea since that is the strength of their defense. It paid off down the line, but waiting for the running game to rack up yards in the fourth quarter is too long to wait.
Akil Harris had an okay game. He didn't seem to run as aggressively as he did against Colorado State. When he had a hole, he exploited it pretty well.
Manuel White, though, was a great offensive weapon. When you can get the ball in his hands, you have a good chance of gaining good yards. Maybe White pounding at the opposing team's defensive line early in the game might be more effective than Harris. You'd have to want to see him catch the ball in the flat more often, too. Every time the pass was completed it was good for a big gain. UCLA has to get that play down more efficiently than any other because it's probably the best risk-reward percentage of any play in the arsenal. Go to that play until a defense shuts it down.
Wendell Mathis and Jason Harrison got a couple of carries. Mathis looks like he's about to break a big run, even when he only gains two yards. Harrison, on a delay, slipped, and had a huge hole.
Perhaps the best offensive player on the team is Craig Bragg. He has to get the ball in his hands more often also. He catches everything catchable, and he showed in this game how effective he is in gaining YACs (Yards After the Catch). He had a few great jukes on a simple out where he gained 15 more yards avoiding four OSU defenders. On an end around, he made a great juke in the backfield to spring him. And he made some nifty moves and showed great acceleration on the receiver screen in the first half. He slipped behind his defender so well on the TD catch. Bragg simply has to be utilized more.
Mike Seidman had a very good game, in many aspects. He caught a nice touchdown pass. But he was also open on a few badly thrown balls. He also made some excellent blocks, one to help White gain a first down running down the sideline, and another on Cory Paus's scramble for a touchdown.
Tab Perry had a Tab Perry type of day. He dropped a couple of critical passes, but then flashed some great athleticism on a couple of other catches. It might serve UCLA well not to necessarily go to Perry on third downs, when you need more reliable hands.
The offensive line had a very good game protecting the quarterback, giving Paus plenty of time to find a receiver. It, surprisingly, did only okay in run blocking. It did wear down the OSU line to where running holes became pretty big by the fourth quarter. OSU was also run blitzing quite a bit.
Paus had a solid game. He threw the ball fairly well down field, and looked good throwing the medium-range balls. There were some easy, shorter throws he missed. He made some good reads and calls also, recognizing blitzes and checking off at the line. He also displayed some newfound quickness on his scramble for a touchdown. Paus looked to throw down the field almost too often, and it's hard to determine whether that's more a result of the play called or of Paus's reads and decision-making.
Drew Olson got in for one series on the second quarter, as promised, but it was on a series where he started out pinned inside his own 10-yard line. We know this kid is poised, but could we maybe give him a chance starting a drive with fairly decent field position?
It will be interesting to see if UCLA can develop the type of offensive capability it obviously wants to have – not only the big-strike capability but the long-drive capability. They'll have to get quite a bit more efficient at the short pass, and it's a question whether Paus throws the ball accurately enough on short routes to do that. It's also a question of whether UCLA will throw its shorter passes to its more sure-handed receivers.
The play-calling was good, but a little different than against CSU. The CSU game had more balance in its passing plays, and more variety in its running plays. Against OSU, UCLA looked to throw the ball down the field quite a bit, and that might have been as a result of the UCLA coaching staff recognizing it had an advantage in its receivers. It also chose to run the ball quite often from tackle-to-tackle, without many off-tackle running plays called, which was curious since OSU wasn't supposed to be near as good on its outside as it was inside. But there was a good balance of run to pass.
UCLA's next opponent, Colorado, looked particulary bad against USC in Boulder on Saturday. But even if some of the questions now presented about this UCLA team aren't confronted against Colorado, they will be sometime during the season, and UCLA will have to be prepared for it. Every week it seems like UCLA has a new list of concerns. Last week, it was the special teams play and the effectivness of UCLA's quarterback. This week it was the defense, and the lingering concern of whether UCLA can sustain drives. But overall, we're seeing that the team has a great deal of talent, and while it makes mistakes and can be inexperienced and sloppy at times (the holding calls at the end of the game were frustrating, certainly for Manuel White, who had a great TD run called back because of one), it has a very good chance of having a good season. And if the team can step up and answer some of the questions, it has a chance of possibly having a much better season than many might have anticipated...