The Colorado game might have sent a wake-up call to UCLA's players and coaches: Step up and adapt or die. The philosophies that got them through the first two games of the season were futile against Colorado. And Colorado is the most reasonable facsimile of a Pac-10 team in their non-conference schedule. This is a preview of things to come in the conference and the Bruins might have to make some considerable adjustments to its approach to winning a game if it hopes to do so.
The two philosophies that got holes shot through them in the Colorado game were 1) UCLA will pound you on the ground until it wears you down in the second half and 2) UCLA's defensive line will stop the opposing team's running game, take away that option, and leave the other team having to beat the Bruins through the air. It's not that these philosophies weren't reasonably valid to assume, given the talent-level in the UCLA running game and UCLA rush defense, but it's now pretty obvious that they need some tweaking. Some considerable tweaking.
The offensive line had a poor game. Colorado penetrated into UCLA's backfield to either disrupt a running play or make a tackle for a loss many times. It actually wasn't that much different in the first half than the first two games of the season, but vastly different in the second half when the Colorado rush defense did not wear down. Instead, it looked like the UCLA offensive line wore down. After last season and during fall camp the biggest issue on the team, besides the effectiveness of the quarterback position, was the effectiveness of the offensive line. In the first two games, their performance led you to believe that possibly that question was answered, that this year's offensive line was going to not go down the same road as the OLs from the last two years and perhaps be UCLA's best in many seasons. It still is far too premature to throw out that theory, but it does at least re-introduce the question as to just how good this offensive line is. Colorado State and Oklahoma State didn't really have overwhelming defensive lines, and UCLA still took a while to get its running game going. When it faced a good defensive line and rushing defense in Colorado, it gained 62 yards on the ground. And that threshold it hit of wearing down the opposing defense never came close to materializing. This is the biggest concern about the team right now, because consistent success in football always comes back to the offensive line. If they can't open holes for runners, if they can't give the quarterback time to throw, the offense gives the ball back to the other team, and no matter how good your defense is, it puts far too much pressure on them. This year's offensive line will need to perform quite a bit better than it did against Colorado if it hopes to survive road games at Oregon State, Cal and Washington, or even home games against Oregon, USC and Washington State. If they perform the way they did Saturday, these Pac-10 teams will own them.
Again, if anything, it might at least precipitate a shift in philosophy from the running-game-that-will-wear-them-down theory. It might be too much for the offensive line to shoulder. It could be that, instead of a completely dominating offensive line, UCLA has just a good one, one that needs a more diversified and imaginative offense for it to succeed. Instead of dedicating the first half to pounding the other team's defensive line – and in the process possibly wearing down your own offensive line – the OL might be able to flourish better if the opposing defense is kept more off-balance by diversified play-calling. And that doesn't only mean throwing the ball. That means running and throwing the ball almost equally, but in a more unpredictable fashion. A defense can get in a groove when you run the ball six times in a row just as much as when you pass the ball six times in a row.
And two other issues against the pound-you-early philosophy. 1) Luck has a great deal to do with whether you can put together a drive and move the ball down the field. Whether a certain play works in this certain situation; whether you get that call in a key instance, etc. The more series early on in the game that you dedicate to wearing down the defense are less that you have to get lucky in sustaining a drive. Also, 2) If you come out of the block throwing and running, even if you aren't necessarily successful, you will have the defense guessing the rest of the game. And so much of an offense's success is the element of surprise. Why tip your hand and give up that edge so readily? Maybe it works if you have a truly dominating offensive line that has proven it can wear down just about any defense in the nation.
Opening up the passing game especially makes some sense because you have a quarterback who, since having a miserable first half of the first game, is playing well. If you throw out the first half of the Colorado State game, just block it from your mind, Cory Paus's performance wouldn't even be an issue so far this season. He looked perhaps the best against Colorado, throwing very accurate, and throwing nice, catchable little darts. He even showed some avoidability, dodging some pass rushers in different instances. He made a couple of bad decisions, primarily the interception where he tried to force a ball into double coverage. But Paus looked pretty sharp, and his performance would give you even more cause to loosen up the offense more and go to the air.
And it's not like you don't have some considerable targets on this team. Craig Bragg is showing that he's the #1 receiver on the team and needs the ball thrown his way at least a dozen times a game. He has the potential to be the more-subtle Freddie Mitchell of the team. But along with him you have an all Pac-10 level tight end in Mike Seidman, and a very sure-handed and precise receiver in Ryan Smith. You even saw more of a glimmer of Junior Taylor's talent against Colorado. You could throw to Manuel White out of the backfield, which is still one of your best options.
This offense has the potential for a very good passing game, but the coaches have to make a leap of faith and call more passing plays. If you made the leap of faith of believing that the offensive line would be able to be the wear-you-down type, it's not much of a stretch to believe that your passing game could start to be more of your go-to yardage gainer. In fall camp, there were more signs that UCLA's passing game was potentially more effective than its running game. Plus, for the offensive line, it's quite a bit easier to pass block when the defense doesn't have a good idea that you're passing.
And when it comes to the tailback controversy, the Colorado game only fueled the argument that Manuel White is the guy and Akil Harris should be getting back-up tailback minutes. Yes, there are different situations where possibly Harris might be better for the play called, but it'd be good to see White get the bulk of the carries in a game, let him get juiced up and in a rhythm, and see what he could do. White seems more effective than Harris mostly because when he's first hit, it doesn't slow him down. The play also, then, isn't slowed down as much and it doesn't give the defense time to catch up. That first tackler seems to bounce off White quite frequently. So even though Harris might be quicker, many times it appears that it's White that ultimately is getting to the line of scrimmage quicker.
The irony here is that, throughout fall camp and the first three games of the season, what we've heard about this team is that it doesn't have the stars like last year's team. Well, maybe it's time to make some stars out of a few guys. I nominate Manuel White, Craig Bragg and Mike Seidman. It's time to go to the best players on the team more frequently and let them win the game for you.
The offensive philosophy will have to at least be tweaked if UCLA hopes to have a successful season. And the use of certain players and the creativity and unpredictability of the play calling might be the ticket. If UCLA gets out of the mode of thinking it's a wear-you-down-through-the-running-game type of team, and realizes it needs to throw more, and be more unpredictable in mixing the run and the pass, and the different types of run and pass, the Bruins definitely have the tools and talent to pull it off. Against Colorado State, the play-calling was very good – mixing run and pass, and doing so with a variety of running plays. Against Oklahoma State, almost as if the coaches started to believe that they had that wear-you-down offensive line, the play-calling got a little more conservative. And then this week against Colorado, the wear-you-down philosophy took over completely. In the last couple of years, UCLA always pounded the ball, due to the fact it wanted to exploit DeShaun Foster and never seemed to have the confidence that Paus could execute the passing game well enough. With Foster gone, and Paus appearing like he's ready to step up, it seems like it's time that the pound-you philosophy get mothballed. I think if UCLA is going to lose a game, most fans would rather see UCLA lose by attempting to air it out and have a more diversified offense than running the ball six times into the line in the first quarter. When it looked like pounding the ball was a pretty sure method of gaining an edge in the game, as anyone might taken have from UCLA's first two games, it might have been a sound philosophy. But that philosophy is definitely now questionable, at the very least.
The other issue, and one with less options for an answer is: What to do about the defense? The fact that UCLA's defense showed some vulnerability against Oklahoma State and then was dominated by Colorado has taken everyone, including the UCLA coaches, by surprise. This was supposed to be the strength of the team. Especially the vaunted, huge, experienced defensive line, that didn't exactly look so on Saturday.
Maybe it's not time to panic, but it's definitely time to do some pretty serious self-analysis, if you have anything to do with UCLA's defense. It's not just that your defense didn't come to play (which it didn't look like it did anyway). It's a matter that you might have your entire world turned upside down by the sneaking suspicion that the personnel you have with the defensive set you run might not be near as effective as you thought it'd be.
It looked like UCLA decided not to make any real adjustments in this game defensively. Colorado being able to run at will started in the second quarter and became the theme of the game by the second half, but UCLA basically stuck with its base defense. It was a little curious; it seemed like there was a pretty obvious blueprint established on how to stop Colorado's offense. Stop them on the ground. Bring up your safeties into the box. Run blitz. But UCLA stuck to its basic base defense. The amateurs and non-football coaching types watching the game did wonder why there weren't more guys dedicated to stopping the run. And also, why did it look like it was the first time UCLA's defense had seen Colorado throw that little swing pass into the flat, especially after they had done it five times in this game?
Actually, when your defense is on its heels and getting worked, making drastic adjustments in the game might have gotten the defense even more off-balance and less effective. But now, it's practice time, and it could be time for UCLA to come up with some different approaches to offenses wanting to run the ball down their throat who have the personnel to do it. After the Colorado game, you'd have to think that many Pac-10 teams are already drawing up their offensive game plan against UCLA.
While the UCLA defense looked porous, it's even more frightening to imagine what it would have looked like without Marcus Reese. He made 13 tackles and, if you use your imagination and take his presence out of the game, Colorado's Chris Brown is breaking more of those runs for touchdowns.
Here's the good news and bad news on defensive tackle Rod Leisle. Bad news: He might not be as good as everyone anticipated. He tends to try to bullrush and rely on his strength too much while he's getting techniqued to death. Good new: He's not dominating enough to be considering jumping to the NFL early, like most close to the situation were anticipating. Also, when judging Leisle's performance, take into consideration he is hampered by a lingering knee injury.
It might be time to shake up the defensive line a bit, possibly starting Ryan Boschetti and getting him more time, to infuse the line with more quickness and speed. Maybe even move Asi Faoa to tackle to increase the quickness.
Nat Fikse, also, is not having a good punting year to date. When he's kicking from UCLA's 20 and you need him to boom a punt, he shanks it. When he's on UCLA's 45 and you need him to pooch a punt, he booms one and sends it into the back of the endzone. You'd much rather have him boom punts from the 20 and shank them from the 45, which would essentially be a pooch. Hopefully he'll settle down, but right now he's truly affecting the game and UCLA's field position.
If you're talking about changes, it might be a good time now to go with Matt Ware at cornerback instead of Joe Hunter. Not only might that help on defending larger receivers, but it would probably definitely help in run defense on Hunter's side.
It's not time to panic. This UCLA team was a fairly unknown entity before this season. The team – players and the coaches – were going to have a bit of a get-to-know-themselves period of time, where they could recognize the team's true strengths and weaknesses and make changes accordingly. As we stated before the game, the Colorado game would be a real test for this team. A test of just where this team is, whether it could stay mentally focused, etc. A test, well, that the team flunked. But the real issue here isn't to place blame for not really recognizing the strengths and weakness of the team or not being mentally prepared going into this game. The issue will be whether the team can make the changes now that it needs to make in light of the Colorado game, both in Xs and Os game planning and mental game preparation.
While it might not be this dramatic, the Colorado game seemed like it has the potential to be a turning point in the program's philosophy. It might be time for UCLA to realize that it's not a run-it-down-your throat, dominating running team, something that maybe it might have realized in the last couple of years, even with DeShaun Foster running the ball. UCLA has seemed to be reluctant to rely on its passing game since Cade McNown left Westwood. Now, going into the fourth game of the fourth season post-McNown, where UCLA has mostly gone to a conservative run philosophy without him, it has gone cumulatively 19-18. Maybe it won't motivate drastic change, but it will be interesting to see if there will be some considerable tweaking as a result of the Colorado game. UCLA's next opponent, San Diego State, would be a team that UCLA could probably employ the wear-you-down philosophy against, be very successful in doing it and win the game handily. But will UCLA use the San Diego State game to possibly experiment with a tweaked and tinkered philosophy, on both offense and defense? It might behoove the team, since looming after San Diego State is the Pac-10, with the team first up on the conference schedule on the road that's probably playing the best ball in the conference, Oregon State. Will UCLA play it safe and do what it knows it can do against San Diego State to win? Or will it use the San Diego State game as a good testing ground for a change in offensive and defensive philosophy?