But perhaps the most encouraging element to take from the game was the heart the team showed. Actually, it doesn't seem like it's actually heart, but more of a workman-like approach to the game. Down 14-0, the team was all-business, didn't panic or get down and just went about their job. It seems like this is the character of this year's team – they're not neccessarily emotional either way, but business-like and steady in their mental approach. While they might not benefit from the real high, hot emotion when they have momentum, it seems like they're not going to get in an emotional rut either when the get down by two touchdowns and things aren't bouncing their way.
So much of this character has to stem from Cory Paus. Paus has seen it all at UCLA during his five years. How many times has Paus been trailing early in a game during his career? How many times has the other team scored before Paus has even touched the ball? This is old hat for Paus. Down by 14 points? Hell, what's that? That's an average day for recent UCLA teams. And even beyond Paus, the older players on the team seem to have the same mindset, too. It's amazing how, when teams are going through adversity, such as in recent years, you would never think how it would be building character for a future team. But it does seem like it has in this case.
It always helps when you're trying to be business-like and you go out and have a career day, too, like Paus did. He didn't make too many mistakes. There were a few balls he overthrew by a couple of inches. But if he had completed those you would have started to worry that Paus had reached some degree of perfection and Nirvana and his body would dissolve and rise in a mist to a higher plane of existence. But, in this game, Paus was darn close to Nirvana. So, let's see: Take away that first half against Colorado State and Paus is having a very good, if not excellent, season. So much seems to stem from the fact that he's so much more comfortable in the pocket. This could be more of a result of the offensive line giving him more time to throw. But it also looks to be that Paus is far more comfortable stepping up in the pocket while it's closing in around him and throwing the ball downfield. He's also much better at avoiding the rush. UCLA didn't give up one sack against Oregon State, and of course, most of the credit goes to the offensive line. But Paus' new, decent escapability definitely contributed.
Paus definitely earned the MVP of the game, but a close second goes to the offensive line. This was perhaps the best performance by a UCLA offensive line in recent memory. Even when DeShaun Foster was running for 200 yards in a game it didn't seem like he had the real estate that UCLA running backs had on Saturday against Oregon State. And why this was such a great performance is that you can say pretty assuredly that it came against a pretty good defense. Unless Oregon State is far-overrated and shows us the rest of the season that they stink, this was a qualify performance by the UCLA offensive line against a good, quick defense, something they have seemingly struggled against. Like it was said above, but it has to be said, again: the offensive line did not allow a sack. Paus had very good time to throw the ball all day, thus a career passing day. And again, this was against what could be one of the best front sevens UCLA will face all year.
Perhaps the best job the offensive line did, though, was run block. Again, football is such a team sport where so many different factors contribute to the success – or failure – of an offense, or even one play. It very well could be that the run blocking looked quite a bit better when you have a running back like Tyler Ebell who has great instincts at finding holes and running through them. But still, it was pretty evident that the UCLA offensive line did an outstanding job of run blocking Saturday. There were some nice holes, UCLA's offensive linemen were eating up their guys, and then also getting downfield and making great blocks. Perhaps it was the adrenaline at seeing their leader, Mike Saffer, overcome a broken rib and suit up and play that took them to a higher level of performance against Oregon State. You also have to give credit to the game plan, when it comes to the run-blocking schemes. UCLA established its blocking schemes early, and then countered against them later in the game. It used a lot of misdirection and cutback runs to exploit OSU's defensive speed and tendency to over pursue.
And it just so happened that if you're going to employ a game plan that demands some good cut-back running, UCLA happened to have the right running back in the game. Tyler Ebell had a great game, running for 203 yards, and really in just three quarters. By carrying the ball 29 times he proved that he can be an every-down type of back, but definitely a different-style of one. Ebell is not going to break a lot of tackles. But while other backs might be breaking a certain tackle, Ebell would be eluding it. He's so small and squirmy, and has those nice instinctual moves, there were so many OSU would-be tacklers who took big whiffs on Ebell Saturday. Yes, you're going to get your occasional play where a defender gets his hand on Ebell and throws him down like a rag doll – and the crowd will "ooh." But on the next play, that same defender is going to miss Ebell by a few feet. It could be that, with UCLA's big offensive line, the best combo (that many observers have hinted at for years) is made with a small, quick running back. Ebell definitely gets lost among those trees in there, and while the defense is trying to locate him, he's slipping through a tiny little hole and getting eight yards through the middle. As we know, Ebell isn't really fast, as it was shown on his 73-yard run where he got run down from behind. But he's very quick, and there isn't anything that can me made up for the natural talent of vision and cutting ability that Ebell has. If Manuel White can return form his hamstring injury, I think it now has a great one-two punch at the tailback position that it wanted, with the 6-3, 240-pound White sharing time with the quick, squirty Ebell.
When giving kudos to blocking on the offense, some have to go out to the fullbacks also. Keith Carter, the second-string tight end, lined up at H-back quite a bit – and actually at fullback, and did a great job blocking. He destroyed a few Beavers on a couple of plays. J.D. Groves also had some very nice blocks to spring some runs. Also, the running backs in general did a good job blocking in pass protection, picking up blitzes very well.
After a couple of games, if you would have said that wide receiver Cragg Bragg against OSU would have only 2 catches for 22 yards, you probably would have thought that the offense was shut down completely. So, it's really encouraging and even rewarding to see Mike Seidman and Tab Perry, two players who most have believed were potential stars, step up and have star-like games. Seidman is just plainly an NFL-level tight end. On the tight end screen where he scored a touchdown, running the ball he looked like an NFL veteran playing against college players. His best catch was the over-the-middle grab when he was double-teamed and received a great pop and hung on to the ball. He's becoming so much of a force that, even now if he doesn't have games like he did against San Diego State and Oregon State, he's going to take up so much time and energy from opposing defenses that's he's such a valuable asset. Perry had a career-best day on Saturday. Not only did he catch every ball thrown to him, he caught very hard-to-catch balls. He had perhaps his best catch when he fell on the onside kick at the end of the game to preserve the win. And he, like Seidman, looked like an NFL-level player in size and quickness when he got loose in the OSU defensive backfield.
The offensive play-calling was good, but after analyzing it in detail, it wasn't necessarily different than in games where the play-calling was considered not-so-good. The new plays that the coaches pulled out of their sleeves were excellent, especially the tight end screen. And there were some great calls in certain situations, like the flair pass to Jason Harrison on a third-and-long that got a first down. But so much of the play-calling looked good because, well, the plays were successful. Yes, UCLA is throwing the ball more on first down. But if those first-down throws fell incomplete, like they have in previous games, that second-down run isn't looking as good as it did in this game. On UCLA's first drive of the game, it gets stopped and Chris Griffith's field goal is blocked. Before that, though, the offense had just drove the field with some good playing calling that included a creative mix of passes and runs. Then, when UCLA gets it down to the OSU nine-yard line, it gets conservative and runs a fullback dive and hands off to Akil Harris on first and second down. Perhaps it's a case where, when the offense is sputtering, the offensive play-calling naturally looks worse. When the offense is humming, you tend to overlook the play-calling, because that second-down running play went for 7 yards. If either of those plays had been successful it would have completely been overlooked. But the long-running issue is about aggressiveness. If UCLA, say, threw the ball in the endzone of one or both of those plays but we're unsuccessful you'd feel quite a bit better about the play-calling because of its aggressiveness. But overall, if you consider some of the creativity in the play calling on Saturday, and the new plays that were successful, and UCLA's aggresiveness in throwing the ball, and trying to get the ball into the hands of its big-play men, you have to be satisfied with the play-calling for the game.
The decision-making at times, was a bit spotty. With 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, with UCLA up 29-14, UCLA is stopped about a half yard from a first down at the OSU 48. Your defense was playing well, and OSU's offense was struggling, so it seemed like a pretty logical decision to punt the ball, give OSU a long field, possibly even pin them inside the 20, and make them have to drive the field and eat up clock to score. You wouldn't want to give them the opportunity to only have to drive half the field to score. That's the equivalent of a turnover. But UCLA went for it on fourth down – and went to the same quarterback sneak it had been successful with earlier in the game on fourth down. Having already done the play once, now, if UCLA had come out in the same formation it had with the earlier sneak, and then maybe pitched the ball or done something different out of that formation, I might have even forgiven the decision to go for it on fourth. Head Coach Bob Toledo could be seen telling the referee after the play came up short that the ref made a horrible spot. But benefitting from the better TV angle, it was obvious Paus didn't get the first on the sneak.
And not to nitpick, but there was one more questionable decision. With 1:48 left in the game, UCLA is up by 8 points. Oregon State had just used their last time out, and Ebell had just run for a first down. You now have four plays to run out the clock, but UCLA risks handing the ball to its running back, not too long after one of its running backs had just fumbled the ball and put Oregon State right back in the game when they scooped it up and ran for a touchdown.
But this is nitpicking. Overall, the game plan was very good against Oregon State. And of course, it always looks good when it works.
It's curious, though, because going into the game you would have thought that we might be saying on Monday that the offense had a performance that left some questions, but it was really the defense that did.
The defense, overall, had a good performance. But there were some strangely conflicting signs when it comes to the defense in this game. On one hand, there was much to be encouraged about, but there were so many little factors and plays from this game that creep into your insecurity about the defense. Of course, the biggest example: There's the big run by OSU's Steven Jackson from the first play from scrimmage, untouched, for a touchdown. Then, strangely, UCLA basically shuts down OSU's running game for the remainder of the day.
The run defense had a very good day against OSU, holding the Beavers to 112 yards on the ground. Take away those 80 yards from the first run, OSU then ran for 42 yards. And this was with Rod Leisle, UCLA's most heralded defensive lineman, on the sideline with a broken foot for a big chunk of the game. You have to also take in account that OSU's offensive line is considerably depleted by injury. So, how do you make sense of the run defense performance against OSU? It's difficult to do. You have to give credit for their performance, since it was a very good, effective one. defensive line had one of its most effective games of the season. They gave up that first big play, but then obviously adjusted. It looked like Ryan Boschetti playing in place of Rod Leisle brings more quickness to the line. Dave Ball, before he was ejected for throwing a punch in the fourth quarter, was playing very well. Rusty Williams had his best game, gettting one tackle for a loss when he shot through the OSU offensive line. Asi Faoa, take away one bonehead play on an offside on punt, had some good moments. Marcus Reese was key in run defense, plugging holes all over the field. But the defensive line wasn't necessarily really physically dominating. It was schemed well against OSU, with tacklers in the gaps, in position to stop Jackson. Maybe it was just the aftermath of that first break-away run, but it seemed like at anytime, even though UCLA was stopping the OSU runners, that if one Beaver tailback got past that initial run stuff he was going to break another.
Against the pass, there were probably even more conflicting signs. The scariest moment: If OSU's quarterback Derek Anderson makes a good pass in the first quarter and hits his receiver Jason Boyd, who was two strides behind Matt Ware, the score is 21-0. There were a few moments like that – where UCLA's defensive backs were seemingly beat and Anderson either couldn't hit them, or they couldn't hang onto the ball once a UCLA defender got his hand in there. But, on the other hand, there were many, many completions where the OSU receiver was seemingly covered well and Anderson didn't even throw the ball well, more like a prayer, and somehow, luckily, the OSU receiver came up with it. Especially on 3rd-and-longs. Again, conflicting indicators.
Overall, though, UCLA's pass defense was pretty good, allowing a fairly strong passing offense to get only 260 yards through the air, and completing only 16 of 40 passes with two interceptions. UCLA's zone has been pretty effective generally. It's a bit soft in the middle, about 15 yards down the field, but fairly solid deep, and very, very good short. UCLA's linebackers really are a big factor in UCLA's passing defense, with the quickness and size of Spencer Havner to go along with the pursuing ability of Reese and Brandon Chillar. There aren't too many receivers who are catching those short, underneath balls and then getting considerable YACs. The zone-with-man-principles (should we just call it a match-up zone like in basketball?) passing defense that the staff has used primarily since the Oklahoma State game is probably best suited for UCLA's defensive personnel. It takes advantage of the skill of UCLA's linebackers for pass coverage and the size of UCLA's defensive backs.
The pressure that UCLA put on Anderson was a bit here and there also. At the beginning of the game, UCLA seemed to pressure him more, and send more people from the zone blitz. As the game progressed, UCLA didn't blitz as much, and Anderson had more time, which could have been a result of UCLA's coaches recognizing that Anderson was struggling and they'd rather have more defenders in coverage. UCLA did get some fairly good pressure from its front four, though, at times.
Even though there were some questions brought up by the performance of the offense and defense, there really weren't many. The real questions to take from the OSU game stem from UCLA's knack for letting OSU back in this game. In the fourth quarter, it was almost as if this were a parks and rec kids game where the parents were intervening and not letting one team run away from the other. In the fourth quarter, there was a series of four incidents that were almost surreal that allowed OSU to remain in the game. UCLA is up by 15 points with 12:34 left in the game and they shut down OSU's offense and make them punt. Asi Faoa is called for offside on the punt. Offside on a punt? In that situation? So OSU gets the ball back, and their drive is sputtering a bit – but is then given life by Dave Ball's personal foul. Then Havner misses one easy interception, gets another, but them fumbles it right into the hands of an OSU receiver. At this point, you have to seriously wonder if there were forces out there trying to even out the sides in this game. Then the capper: Akil Harris' fumble, which is scooped up and run in for a touchdown by OSU. This all happened within just a few minutes. Three out of four of these incidents (excluding Havner's interception) were errors that should be prevented – especially when you're trying to shut the door on an opponent. In brings up the question of whether UCLA's team is mentally disciplined enough to be smart toward the end of the game to do what it takes to eliminate mistakes and put away an opponent.
Another little observation: If you think UCLA fans are spoiled bandwagon jumpers, how about those OSU fans? They were booing their team for a substantial stretch of the game, particularly their sophomore quarterback, Derek Anderson. Heck, it takes UCLA fans five years and a DUI before we unfairly don't have patience for our quarterback. With OSU fans, they can have a sophomore quarterback that is close to leading the country in passing for four games who then have two mediocre games and they're booing him.
In the end, the effectiveness of UCLA's offensive line was perhaps the best aspect of the game to watch. Because of the offensive line's performance, this game started to give you some real faith in the offense to be able to move the ball and put up points. Thinking about facing some of the Pac-10 defenses out there, you now feel that the UCLA offense has a real chance to be that high-powered, well-balanced offense that can sustain drives and eat up yardage – and convert it to points. While it might end up being that Oregon State lands toward the bottom end of the Pac-10 this season, it's difficult to deny that their defense is pretty good, and UCLA's offense being so effective, rolling up 625 total yards and 42 points, is probably the most encouraging development so far this football season...