In reality, on Saturday, the better team got upset. BYU was the better team Saturday, as UCLA pulled the upset, 27-17.
So, really, UCLA fans should be happy, coming away with the upset.
The fact that, on this given day, the better team got upset is not a difficult case to make. For the stat guys, BYU gained 435 total yards to BYU's 236 yards. For the non-stat guys, it wasn't hard to see that BYU, if you look purely at UCLA's offense versus BYU's defense, and BYU's offense versus UCLA's defense, had an edge.
Probably not a big edge, but an edge. Then, throw in the homefield advantage, and it's not a difficult assertion that BYU could slightly be the better team. Heck, just cut BYU's penalties in half and they probably win the game.
As we said in the preview, BYU is pretty good and this game would be close. If you're UCLA, beating BYU 27-17 is nothing to be ashamed about. The Cougars are a top-25 caliber team.
And the fact that we're asserting that BYU was better than UCLA Saturday doesn't mean that UCLA isn't good, or the season will go down in flames.
The game definitely garnered some worries. After Stanford, you really couldn't get a bead on this team since, after all, it was Just Stanford.
But UCLA's defense will, like last year, keep the Bruins in just about any game, and UCLA's offense, while looking pretty stagnant in this game, could be good enough for UCLA to put enough points on the board to have a successful season. There are some positive offensive signs, and UCLA will have to, hopefully, recognize them.
Really, the only true letdown anyone should be experiencing right now would be if you were fantasizing about national championships or 12-0 records. While it could still happen – UCLA could turn around its offense and go on a run, it's certainly possible -- after seeing UCLA not completely dominate Stanford and then squeak one out against BYU, it's probably time, for those fantasizing, to adjust expectations. Again, that's not to say, as a true UCLA fan, you're not keeping alive the 12-0 fantasy in the back of your Bruin brain, but the frontal lobe is probably now a bit more objective.
Now, if you had expectations that UCLA would be a top 25 caliber team, then you shouldn't be experiencing any letdowns. So far, that's what UCLA looks to be. Probably the thing that most of you tripped up on the this article so far is where, above, it reads: "There are some positive offensive signs." Probably some of the Cranks out there simply asked, "Where?"
Easily the most positive offensive sign is Kahlil Bell. He's truly the offensive player who is showing signs of being a difference maker in UCLA's first two games. UCLA is a different offense when he's in for the series. Against BYU, it was almost completely consistent – every time he was in the game, UCLA moved the ball decently. When he wasn't, they sputtered. You don't have to have a trained football eye to see that Bell is running harder and making more yards than Chris Markey. It's not difficult to see that he, so far, has been the key to UCLA's offense moving the chains.
The bewildering thing is: Why hasn't the UCLA offensive staff gone with Bell more decisively than Markey? They both got 16 carries in this game apiece (Bell gained 84 yards for a 4.9 average; Markey 52 for 3.1). They'd probably answer the question that, well, Markey is a returning 1,000-yard rusher who is proven in their minds as a productive back and it's just a matter of giving him the opportunities. But after these two games, even just after a game and a quarter, it didn't seem hard to understand that Bell is the guy, at least for now, and UCLA's offense needs him on the field. As Markey kept running very softly, most of the time dancing to find a seam and going down quickly after being hit, and UCLA kept putting him in series after series, you had to wonder if Bell was hurt and unable to play. Especially after it wasn't coincidental that UCLA wasn't getting first downs generally with Markey in the backfield.
Kahlil Bell is easily the brightest offensive surprise of UCLA's young season. He definitely is a different back than he was, not only showing more quickness but even more toughness and ability to stay on his feet. He also looks to be playing with a fire that Markey doesn't have right now.
UCLA's offense is one that lacks great playmakers. It's very curious that it seems so obvious they've found one and they haven't decided to ride that horse. Especially with the passing game faltering, Bell should have been given the ball 25 times in this game.
The biggest tragedy of the young season so far offensively is that the other guy who has shown some play-making ability, Brandon Breazell, got a couple of teeth knocked out and a concussion in this game. And it was by his own teammate. On Ben Olson's interception, Breazell was trying to make a tackle when UCLA tight end Logan Paulsen leveled him, in a play that you just can't replay on your Tivo, especially knowing it was an own-hit. Breazell looks to be the only guy on the offense that has quickness and ability to make defenders miss.
If Breazell is healthy, and you'd think he will be for the majority of this season if it's a typical concussion and he gets some dental work, there is now some hope in terms of playmaking with Bell and Breazell. One of the biggest questions of the pre-season is where UCLA could find some playmakers. Breazell disappeared last year, and Bell wasn't close to what he's displayed so far in this season's first two games. So, UCLA might have discovered some decent playmakers.
It's just a question of getting the ball in their hands. That's the responsibility of the coaching staff and, as we said, it looks like they're hesitating to anoint Bell as the "marquee" back (sorry for the pun). When Breazell is healthy, with the limited receiver rotation this season, he should get a good amount of touches per game.
We'd still like to see if Terrence Austin could also be one of those playmakers. On punt returns, while he hasn't busted one yet, he looks threatening, with very good quickness and instincts. Again, we're second-guessing the offensive coaching staff, but wouldn't you like to have another guy who can create space and make guys miss after the catch? Right now, Joe Cowan, Marcus Everett, Gavin Ketchum and Dominique Johnson are big guys without great quickness. They're good compliments to the quicker wide receivers. But it looked pretty clearly like these guys couldn't get open against BYU's secondary, a group that isn't greatly athletic. Doesn't the receiving group have enough size and now it needs some quickness?
The difference that makes offenses great are playmakers. Cade McNown. Freddie Mitchell. Marcedes Lewis. Maurice Jones-Drew. They were good for some key plays every game that kept a drive going that led to a score, or put the ball in the endzone themselves. Without them, with just "solid" guys, it's hard to sustain drives down the field. UCLA doesn't have any guys of this caliber on the team, but the closest thing they have right now appear to be Bell, Breazell and possibly Austin.
The other entity responsible for putting the ball in the hands of playmakers besides the coaches is the quarterback. Ben Olson obviously struggled in this game. But people saying that it was night and day from the Stanford game is misleading. If you're just a stat watcher it's true. But there were definitely indications of the Olson-of-the-BYU-game in the Stanford game. The hesitation, the inaccurate throws, the locking on receivers. Again, it wasn't exploited in the Stanford game as much because, again, it was Just Stanford. But BYU, with that pretty good defense, did exploit it.
It's hard to really put a finger on what's wrong with Olson. On one hand, you could say this is just his seventh career start. It took Drew Olson three years before he became an effective quarterback, in a complicated system. On the other hand, BYU's Max Hall is a rookie, stepping into a similarly complicated system, and in just his second career start he's obviously thriving.
Olson's had enough time for fans to legitimately wonder if he's going to get it. It's not premature to question whether Olson has a great natural feel for the game. He doesn't seem to have it – exactly what Hall displayed Saturday. Hall's a playmaker; on that big third and four in the fourth quarter, when he was almost sacked, Hall had the moxy to complete the first-down toss while he was being grabbed and pulled down. He consistely stayed in the pocket until the very last second before getting popped. He obviously has a good feel for the game. It's uncertain if Olson does. For BYU fans, it has to be sweet irony – that the so-called prototypical NFL quarterback, the #1 recruit in the country, they criticized for dumping them isn't as effective as the blue-collar, no-name guy they currently have.
In this game, it looked like the UCLA coaches lost complete confidence in Olson. When he threw a number of errant passes and then the interception, UCLA's offense went conservative (and, to reiterate, started running the ball with Markey and not Bell). Of course, UCLA really doesn't have another option right now at quarterback. Former walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson is only prepared to play if something should happen to Olson, and Patrick Cowan is still nursing the hamstring injury. But it's interesting to speculate if Cowan had been healthy for this game whether he would have been given a shot. Are the UCLA coaches, in playing it safe with Olson and going conservative, trying to just bide their time until they do have the Cowan option? Cowan isn't a savior, by any means. He has his limitations, definitely. And Olson, down the line, could still prove to be the better quarterback if the light turns on. But if you only go by their past histories and not hope, Cowan has shown Max-Hall-esque moxy, and UCLA's offense, while under Olson, seems passionless. It might need a Cowan scramble or two, or Cowan hyping his teammates up in the huddle, to get some energy in this offense.
Yes, we're promoting a quarterback controversy. And a running back controversy. And a wide receiver controversy. The offense needs some kind of controversy to get it moving. The biggest fear is that Dorrell will go down the same Dorrellian path we've seen before in his four years – just keep doing what you're doing and hoping it will improve -- instead of taking a gamble, trying to shake up things and making tough decisions.
And if we're talking about playmakers, you have to bring up Bruce Davis. After a quiet performance against Stanford, Davis really showed up against BYU. In fact, without Bruce Davis, UCLA loses this game. There aren't many times you can say that about a defensive end – that his play impacted the game that much. But this is an easy call.
Davis had the play of the game. With BYU down just 20-17 in the fourth quarter, they were driving the field once against toward the go-ahead score with about 10 minutes left at UCLA's 13 yard line. Davis then knocked the ball loose from Hall's arm and UCLA recovered. UCLA's offense mounted one more drive and UCLA's defense put up enough resistance the rest of the way to preserve the win. But there wasn't anyone in the Arroyo Seco last night who thought that if Davis hadn't caused that fumble that BYU wouldn't have gone ahead and continued to sustain momentum to win the game.
Davis didn't just do it with that one play. He had two sacks, six tackles and two pass break-ups. He truly lived up to his hype Saturday.
The defense, overall, had an up and down day, kind of similar to their performance against Stanford but, again, that was Just Stanford. Against a good team like BYU, up-and-down performances can put the game in jeopardy. The defense started the second half flat, with BYU's offense picking it apart through the air and getting good enough running room on the ground. UCLA couldn't mount a pass rush and get pressure on Hall in the third quarter unless it sent everybody.
Trey Brown, who could have been considered the team's MVP up until the third quarter of the BYU game, really struggled with BYU's receiver Austin Collie. Collie caught two touchdown passes and had another big third-down catch, all against Brown. Brown, in the first half, had one of the most spectacular plays in recent UCLA memory when he took an interception back for a touchdown. It wasn't a typical throw into the flat that a defensive back steps in front of and takes down the sideline. This was a crossing pattern over the middle that Brown jumped. He then caught the ball in stride and took it to the opposite sideline, avoiding tacklers, for the score.
The defensive line struggled some, with the loss of two starters, defensive tackle Brigham Harwell and defensive end Nikola Dragovic, to injury. They especially missed Harwell, and missed the push he usually provides up front. His subs, primarily Chase Moline and Jess Ward, were a drop-off, sometimes getting pushed off the line. It was one of the reasons UCLA couldn't get much pressure on Hall if it just sent four.
To its credit, the defense stepped up when it was needed. After Davis' play of the game, BYU still had two possessions, with offensive momentum, but UCLA's defense definitely rose to the occasion. They got more pressure on Hall and provided tighter coverage.
And you have to consider that UCLA's defense is spending a great deal of time on the field since its offense isn't, which puts a great deal of pressure on the defense to shut down offenses every time.
As we asserted to start this article, it definitely was a deceptive game, and one that could be colored by your perspective. When UCLA went up 20-0 in the first half, it sounds dominant, but if you had any kind of objectivity you weren't fooled. It was a half that was skewered by very poor field position and penalties for BYU. You could say that UCLA got 10 of its 20 points from its defense, with Brown's interception and score, and another field goal coming after the defense forced a fumble in BYU's territory. UCLA's offense gained just 155 yards in the first half (and that was its productive half). So, it wasn't that UCLA's offense was rolling and responsible for those 20 points. UCLA's offense, actually, wasn't that much different than it was in the second half. Really, the big difference was that it used Kahlil Bell far more in the first half than it did in the second. On UCLA's one touchdown drive in the first half, UCLA drove 47 yards for the score, and Bell was responsible for all 47 yards. He had two great successive runs, one for 26 and another for 17 yards. In terms of Olson and the passing game, Breazell had a couple of nice gainers and Olson connected with Marcus Everett on another under-thrown fade for 37 yards to set up the other field goal. But other than that, the passing game wasn't good and mostly out-of-sync, with receivers not open and Olson locking onto his primary and throwing erratically – much like the second half.
So, it wasn't hard to figure out why the second half went so differently. UCLA's offense was a bit worse since, in the second half, Breazell was hurt and off the field for most of it and Bell got just 6 carries. And UCLA's defense let down in the third quarter and not only didn't create points but allowed BYU 17. So, it wasn't a matter of UCLA's offense putting up 20 points in the first half and then sputtering in the second half. If not for Bell and Breazell, UCLA's offense sputtered in both halves.
Where does this leave UCLA fans and their expectations? As we've said in every one of Dorrell's four years: The season's going to be a roller coaster ride. Looking down UCLA's schedule now, with the perspective of the first two games of the season already in the books, you'd have to say there are far more Games That Could Go Either Way now than before the season started. Washington now looks like it will give UCLA a game. You had penciled in Oregon as a tough game but it suddenly got tougher. At Washington State similarly got tougher. It's very reasonable to expect UCLA to still put together a very successful season, and that BYU proves to be one of the tougher teams UCLA faces this year. And the offense could still gel; it does have a good offensive line at its core, and there is no way we're writing off Ben Olson yet. The light could definitely still turn on. And as we said, it is definitely a very good sign that it looks like the offense has found some playmakers in Bell and Breazell.
But make no mistake, if there were some fans out there fantasizing about blow-outs and a cake-walk to 12-0, you might need to adjust expectations and put on your seat belt.