-- It was a good win for the team, one that the players really needed emotionally heading into Pac-10 play.
-- The defense performed very well, holding one of the best offenses in the nation to 271 total yards.
-- The play-calling on both sides of the ball was very good; the offense was unpredictable, mixing the run and the pass, and the defense blitzed aggressively.
-- UCLA again showed it's a big-play team, on both sides of the ball. On defense it created turnovers, on offense made the big plays, as well as on special teams.
-- UCLA made a concerted effort to get the ball into the hands of two of its emerging stars, Mike Seidman and Manuel White.
-- The offensive line was, again, just okay, providing only average pass protection for its quarterbacks and never really blowing the small San Diego State defensive line off the line in the running game.
-- UCLA's offense struggles to sustain drives and finish them off with points.
So, all of those conclusions are pretty obvious, but now let's get into a little more detail.
The defense came back from a pretty dismal performance against Colorado and overall had a very good game against San Diego State. The most significant difference is the change that Matt Ware moving to corner makes on defense, not only being literally bigger man per man, but making the defense appear more formidable, physical and less vulnerable. It's amazing how just one change in personnel can change a defense – substituting substituting Ware for Joe Hunter at one corner spot not only gets you a bigger corner but a much bigger secondary. The defensve backs look so huge flying around after the ball. It was truly remarkable how they pretty much shut down San Diego State's passing game. The game plan obviously was to use the zone, don't get beat deep, make San Diego State try to throw underneath, get enough guys between DBs and linebackers floating around underneath to disrupt routes and then have gang tackles if the ball was caught. It really did seem like UCLA had so many more guys on the field than San Diego State. And those big UCLA DBs just take up so much room, especially when they're outstretched. You have to give them big kudos for limiting the #1 wide receiver in the country, J.R. Tolver, to three catches for thirty yards.
The other contributing factor that made San Diego State's passing offense sputter was the aggressive blitzing. UCLA started out the game fairly conservatively, but once it seemed like it recognized what San Diego State was going to do, it started to blitz, and blitz quite often. UCLA had five sacks on the day, mostly the result of blitzes. Adam Hall, San Diego State's quarterback, looked hurried in throwing the ball, even when he was taking three-step drops. Linebacker Spencer Havner seemed like he was part of the San Diego State backfield for a long stretch of the game, disrupting Hall, hurrying him and getting hits on him. The corner and safety blitzes were very effective also.
As a fan, this is what you want to see. You want to see the aggressiveness. Even when your team gets burned on a blitz, you still excuse it. San Diego State's one touchdown was set up by a big play when Adam Hall connected with Kassim Osgood on a pass that took the ball down to about UCLA's 15. On the play, Havner shot a gap and missed a side-stepping Hall, who then connected with Osgood. But that's okay; UCLA had shut down the Aztec defense before that mostly because of the pressure it was putting on the quarterback and, as a fan, you'll concede the defense getting occasionally burned as a result of aggressive blitzing.
Aggressiveness – on the field and in the game plan – is what will redeem this team, and redeem the coaching staff for whatever knock it might ever have against them.
The run defense, while it only allowed 63 net yards on the ground against San Diego State, still shows some vulnerability. The defensive line, working against an offensive line that isn't really known for creating big holes for its running backs, didn't dominate. Physically they were, at times, beaten on running plays. It appears that the combination of Sean Phillips and Mat Ball on the left side of the line is quite a bit more effective at run defense than that of Steve Morgan and Rusty Williams. The linebackers, in UCLA's first couple of games, were shedding blocks better and filling gaps against the run, but in the last couple of games, they seem to be more contained by their blocker. It wasn't the draw plays gaining 8 or 9 yards that were on passing downs that were the concern, it was the straigh-ahead running plays going right up the gut of the defensive line. The run defense, overall, is definitely still a worry, especially when it faces some better, more formidable Pac-10 offensive lines than that of San Diego State.
But there are some other, positive points to be made about the offensive linemen. The Ball brothers, Dave and Mat, while they're not extremely quick as defensive ends, are playing well. Dave Ball recorded a nice sack, and it was on just a four-man rush, not created by a blitz. Asi Faoa had a few good moments, not only showing very good quickness in a tackle for a loss, but an explosive pass rush where he made the Aztec quarterback fumble. While Faoa might sometimes be pretty raw and it makes him able to be worked by an offensive lineman who has good technique, his quickness is something that UCLA might have to get on the field more often. You have to also concede that Rod Leisle didn't play the second half, wanting to rest his sore foot.
It's interesting to consider possibly UCLA's approach to personnel on its defensive line. It has always seemed that UCLA has used bigger, more physical defensive linemen in recent years, as opposed to smaller, quicker guys. It might not be a result of even a recruiting approach, but just how it happened (hey, you get some guys and you don't, right? UCLA has certainly pursued quick defensive line recruits in the last several years). But the trend in college football seems to be smaller, quicker defensive ends, ones that can get off their block with quickness rather than strength. While I'm not trying to second-guess any use of personnel on the defensive line, it would be interesting to see how the defensive line might perform with the Balls moved to tackle, where they would be quick for tackles, and using Faoa more at end. While this is just a wild, stupid idea – if UCLA had more depth at linebacker, it might be interesting to see the speed and quickness of Brandon Chillar playing defensive end.
Give some kudos to Rusty Williams, for recording his first tackle of the season, and making a nice knock-down of a pass.
On offense, it was a mixed bag of positive and negative, so let's start with the lingering concerns.
UCLA's offense has trouble sustaining drives and getting points from them. In the San Diego State game, UCLA only got one touchdown from a sustained drive, and it was a drive in the fourth quarter when the game was over with non-first stringers in the game on both teams. UCLA's other touchdowns came on: 1) a Manuel White 3-yard TD run as a result of the Marcus Reese interception 2) San Diego State punt being blocked by Matt Clark and recovered by Jibril Raymo in the end zone 3) A 37-yard pass from Cory Paus to Craig Bragg after UCLA took possession of the ball on about the 50-yard line as a result of a fumble recovery and 4) a 64-yard pass to Mike Seidman. UCLA's two big plays – the Bragg and Seidman TD catches – didn't come at the end of solid drives, but were just big-play strikes. Bragg's touchdown catch was after UCLA took possession on their own 50 and were struggling to move the ball. It was the sixth play in the drive, and the only productive play had been a Seidman catch and excellent run where he was throwing away would-be tacklers. But other than that, you couldn't really call it a drive. When Paus hit Bragg in the endzone, it was third and 28. Seidman's TD catch was the second play in the series. While in the scorebook these go down as "drives," they really aren't. So, other than that one drive in the fourth quarter, UCLA had five other series starting from its own end of the field, and didn't sustain a drive and didn't get points out of any of them. It also took possession of the ball on two occasions at the San Diego State 32-yard line and kicked one field goal on one possession and punted on the other after a three-and-out. Now, you have to give the UCLA offense some credit for being able to convert turnovers into points and get points off of big plays. Those are always good weapons to have. But again, this wasn't a great defense UCLA was facing against San Diego State. If the offense is going to be effective the rest of the season, especially against good defenses, you'd like to see it able gain yards consistently rather than getting its offensive points from big plays, which aren't always going to be there (witness the Colorado game).
Perhaps the UCLA offense is starting to discover the players it can go to that will really help it sustain drives. Seidman finally had the game everyone has been expecting. White got the ball in his hands, carrying the ball 14 times and gaining 76 yards. He just brings so much more to the tailback position. When he's stopped, many times he's stopped while he's falling forward for three yards, instead of a stop for no gain. And even though you might not think he has breakaway speed, he isn't slow, and he'll have a run sometime this year when he breaks one. With White running the ball more often early in the game, UCLA at least had a few mini-drives where they achieved a few first downs before they had to punt. And White has such a nose for the goal line; when he is within 5 yards of the goal line, tacklers should just get out of his way. Plus, how many big plays is Manuel White going to have called back because of a penalty this season? He would have probably 60 more yards and one touchdown on the season if UCLA hadn't been called for a penalty when he was making an excellent run. Craig Bragg had four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, but you'd still like to see them throw the ball more his way. He's one of the three best playermakers – including White and Seidman – on this team. Junior Taylor could potentially be added to that list of playmakers, with such a great feel for running the ball and a knack for big plays himself.
The jury is still out on the running backs besides Manuel White. The three redshirt freshmen got some carries in this game, with Tyler Ebell having the best showing. Ebell is still hard to peg. On one hand, he's very small, and he's just not very fast. But dang, the kid has great moves and cuts. It might be a case where you just aren't going to know how effective Ebell will be until he consistently gets some playing time. Wendell Mathis is still pretty inexperienced and needs to get more reps and learn how to hit some holes. But he has the best tackle-breaking ability next to White and is explosive when he sees a hole. Jason Harrison appears to be a serviceable backup tailback, but might be limited by a lack of size. But keep in mind, too, that these guys are just redshirt freshmen and they'll get quite a bit better. Fullback Pat Norton had a couple of great blocks, helping to spring White and Ebell on some of their best runs.
So much of the success of this year's UCLA team is going to hinge on the performance of the offensive line, as we've maintained from the beginning of fall practice. And right now, that's a bit of a question. UCLA was missing its senior right tackle, Mike Saffer. He apparently fractured a rib early in the Colorado game, and practiced with it most of the week. He then, in class, coughed, and broke the rib, and told the coaches about it Friday. UCLA is saying 2 to 6 weeks, but most expect him his recovery to be closer to the two weeks than the six. With the loss of Saffer, it suddenly went from a fairly experienced line to a young one, with two sophomores and two freshmen starting.
But if you watch the game closely, Saffer's sub, redshirt freshman Ed Blanton, played a pretty good game. It didn't seem like too many of the breakdowns on the offensive line were his fault there could be mistakes or breakdowns in his assignments that you can't necessarily see on tape. You hate to name players, but senior tackle Bryce Bohlander appeared to struggle in this game, both in pass protection and run blocking. San Diego State's athletic sophomore defensive end Akbar Gbaja Biamila, got the most of Bohlander many times during the game. On the first sack in UCLA's first series, Bohlander couldn't contain Gbaja Biamila, and he couldn't on many other plays later in the game. On one running play, Gbaja Biamila held off Bohlander with one arm easily as he made the tackle on the running back. In the first half, UCLA looked a bit confused by San Diego State's stunts. One one sack, an Aztec lineman got to Paus untouched, running right by a seemingly confused Steve Vieira. In the second half, UCLA definitely adjusted and picked up the stunts and blitzes a bit better. Perhaps more of concern is not UCLA's pass protection, but the fact that this huge, ballyhooed offensive line isn't physically dominating a defensive line like San Diego State's. It didn't even wear them down, like the theory goes, and begin blowing open huge holes in the second half. And it would be nice if the OL could just plainly blow open some nice holes in the first half. The fact that the offensive line is not dominating some of the non-conference defensivel lines is perhaps the element of the team that bodes the worst when it's on the brink of the Pac-10. If UCLA can't own the line of scrimmage on offense, it has little chance of sustaining drives, and less of a chance of putting the ball in the hands of its big-play guys.
For a long time, it's always been fairly unknown just how good this offensive line is. And we still don't really have enough to assess it. The Pac-10 will tell us. But we always, in the past, didn't feel we could assess the offensive line, even all through last season, because other teams stacked the box, UCLA couldn't throw effectively and, when it tried, it did so in 3rd-and-longs, with long drops and a conventional pocket. Now, though, in the San Diego State game, the offense mixed its plays well, so it wasn't predictable. It moved the pocket around, with Paus rolling out quite often. And Paus had quick throws on short drops.
In other words, if the game plan and play-calling in the San Diego State game is an indication of things to come, the coaching staff has given the offense – and particularly, the offensive line – the opportunity to prove itself. It used some creativity and unpredictability to take pressure off the offensive line. We'll see if the offensive line can step up, perform and prove itself.
Cory Paus played okay. He went through a dry spell throwing the ball midway through the first half, but also made some very good throws, especially on UCLA's two big plays to Bragg and Seidman. Paus had a number of plays where he had enough time to throw, but couldn't find a receiver, apparently, and got sacked or had to scramble. It's impossible to determine whether that's a case of no one being open or if Paus just isn't finding his receivers. On one play, Paus obviously read a blitz, checked off at the line, but still didn't get rid of the ball in time and was sacked. Most of the time, though, any possible Paus mistakes weren't drive killers; in fact, he came through to help sustain drives when UCLA needed him.
Drew Olson, in just a short stint, seems fairly lost when it comes to recognizing defenses and blitzes. But he has exceptional pocket presence, which, along with his size and strength, to be able to step up in the pocket and throw the ball well.
UCLA got a good, productive performance from its special teams for really the first time this season. The blocked punt was huge, and really set a tone for the game. It really landed a punch against San Diego State early, one that they never seemed to recover from the rest of the game. But there were contributions on specials teams during the entire game. Ebell had a great punt return (and we'll forget the one punt he fumbled. Darn, I thought he'd go the entire season without dropping one). Chris Griffith hit his field goals. Nate Fikse had his best game of the season so far, hitting a few punts within the 20-yard line. Kick-off and punt coverage were solid.
It very well could be we're starting to get a picture of this UCLA team. The defense is good, but is probably the most vulnerable against the run. It could very well fare better against the pass-happy Pac-10 than it would, say, against Big Ten- or Big 12-type running teams. It's defensive secondary, while it might show some vulnerability in pass coverage in the Pac-10 as it gets comfortable and more experienced (It's starting one redshirt sophomore, a true sophomore and a true freshman), looks big, physical and athletic. But the defensive gameplan might be to try to mask some of the defensive deficiencies with aggressiveness, especially by blitzing. On offense, it has great big-play capability, with some star-types that are capable of making big plays. I think UCLA has learned that it has to go deep quite often every game, and that it's one of the things the offense does very well. Manuel White is showing he's the go-to guy in the backfield. If he ever has the chance of getting 25 carries and a few receptions in a game, he could put up DeShaun Foster-like numbers. I think UCLA is just at the beginning of finding ways to utilize White. The offense, though, might have to manufacture points with big plays and turnovers if it doesn't get better production from its offensive line. If it comes to that, the personality of the offense will be inconsistency, having to rely on big plays for points rather than sustained drives. But with White possibly becoming more of the every-down type of back, he could ease some of the pressure on the offensive line.
UCLA hasn't had good luck playing a team that just came off a drubbing by USC. Oregon State might have been a little overrated, having not played a very tough non-conference schedule before facing USC. But UCLA will have its hands full in Corvallis, facing once again another team that will be angry and wanting to redeem itself. The question will be if UCLA, coming off a rejuvenating win against San Diego State, will have a newfound mentality against the Beavers, and will the team continue some of the aggressiveness, creativity and ability to change and adapt that it showed against San Diego State...