The difference in this game – which really gave UCLA the win – was turnovers. Washington's quarterback, Cody Pickett, threw four interceptions. Two of them were directly responsible for 14 points, while another – the Ricky Manning interception – prevented at least 3 points if not another seven. Also, throw in some horrible punts by the Washington punter which are just about the equivalent of a turnover, that gave UCLA great field position throughout the game. And there's the edge in the game.
UCLA certainly didn't outplay Washington. They were outgained in yardage 498 to 316. First downs: An astounding 31-13 in favor of the Huskies.
After watching Washington play a couple of other times this year, it's now very easy to see why they're 4-5. Just by looking at statistics, you'd think that they were a high-powered throwing offense. Even looking at this game. Pickett threw for 429 yards. But in reality, their passing game really isn't that good. Well, not very efficient anyway. Pickett, after watching him for three games this season, is just an okay quarterback. He has good mobility, which keeps many plays alive for their offense. But he's not a very accurate passer. He threw some bad easy balls. Plays where he wasn't pressured and had a man wide open. Washington receivers were responsible for a few drops, but many of those drops were because Pickett made a bad throw. Behind the receiver, too high. Too hard. He's just not a very good passer. He threw for 498 yards because he threw the ball 60 frigging times. Drew Olson threw the ball 27 times for 198 yards; if he had thrown 60 times, he would have completed less than 50% of his passes and probably would have thrown for a gazillion yards also. Pickett, throwing that many times, should have thrown for 650 yards.
I think it's safe to say that Washington is probably the other team in the Pac-10 that has some curious play-calling. If you might have noticed, every time they ran the ball on a drive, they scored. They're not busting off big runs, but they got their consistent 4-yard gain. When they mixed that with the pass, they moved the ball well. But then Washington would get greedy and abandon its run and just throw and throw. And it wasn't really because the run was getting completely stuffed. And its passing game, with Pickett, is just not good enough.
And probably the only reason UCLA was vulnerable to the pass in the second half when Washington made its run was because it was down to its fourth and fifth-string cornerback. Yes, Joe Hunter didn't have a good game (But just to say it: There isn't a player on the team that you want to perform well more than Joe Hunter). And in the second half, Washington went right at him. And then they went after Marcus Cassel. And then Keith Short.
But with or without the injury to Matt Ware that made UCLA pretty vulnerable, how did UCLA – who looked in control by halftime – give the momentum back to Washington in the second half? It really wasn't the fact that Ware was out of the game. That was only the actual tool Washington used to climb back in. But the situation was created by something else.
For a majority of the game, up until about halfway through the second half, UCLA's play calling was pretty good. Even limited by a freshman quarterback, the play calling mixed run and pass fairly well. The coaches attempted to throw on second-and-long a number of times, which is so key to not putting your quarterback – especially your freshman quarterback – in such a hole as a 3rd-and-long. The offense sputtered a few times in the first half mainly because Olson missed a few throws. But the play-calling, for a majority of the game, was good enough to win – putting the team, and Olson, in a position to succeed.
But then, UCLA finds itself up 13 points – at 27-14, midway through the 3rd quarter. And the playcalling went (hate to use the word) conservative. UCLA, seeing itself up by 13 points, wanted to run the clock out on the ground. It ran on first and second down almost exclusively. Washington knows what you're doing and stacks the box. Tyler Ebell, who was finding holes in the first half, is suddenly shut down because Washington has brought up its defensive backs to plug running holes. UCLA gives the ball back after some quick, go-nowhere series, the Huskies start to exploit the absense of Matt Ware, and voila – they climb back in the game.
After many, many hours of analyzing UCLA's playcalling over the last several years, I think I now have it honed down to the essence of the problem. First, the playcalling doesn't come from a good sense of risk and reward. With fake field goals at 4th and 15, trick plays, etc., there are times to do it when the reward is worth the risk, and there are other times when it isn't. It's like playing blackjack. If you're a good player, you know the odds in every action with every hand you have in relation to dealer's hand, and you take the risk when the odds of the reward are good. It doesn't seem like there are any good blackjack players calling the plays at UCLA. That goes along with the theory I said a few weeks ago – that the playcalling is conservative when it should be risky, and risky when it should be conservative.
But the Washington game crystalized the other aspect of the playcalling that hurts the team. There are situations where you WANT to be able to be successful at something offensively. And UCLA wants it so badly, it seems, that it forces it. Rather than stepping back, analyzing what's come before in the game you're playing, and taking what the opponent can give you, it wants so badly for something that it blindly does it. UCLA WANTED so badly for it to be able to eat up the clock on the ground in the second half that it kept insisting on trying it. Even on the third series in the second half where it was clear that it just wasn't going to happen, it stubbornly kept attempting it because, it seems, it wanted it to happen so badly. It seems that it was pretty easy to understand, in analyzing the first half, that UCLA moved the ball well when it mixed the run and the pass, and did it unpredictably, and did it with imaginative, specific plays. The only reason UCLA didn't move the ball more was because Olson missed some throws. It wasn't obvious at all, in my mind, that UCLA was dominant against Washington on the ground. Ebell did have about 80 yards in the first half, but that was on about 25 carries, too.
It was just too early to run out the clock on the ground.
You have to give credit to Olson, again. Coming off an injury, playing in a hostile environment, he started off the game pretty jittery, missing his first several passes, stumbling on a drop back within the five yard line, and fumbling on the next possession. He could have melted down right there. But he bounced back, made some nice throws, didn't make any more mistakes, and looked very loose. He looked so loose that, with about 2 minutes to go and only up by 3 points, he was laughing in the huddle. It would have been nice, though, to see Matt Moore, at least on one series, to see how accurately he could have thrown some of those passes that Olson missed.
It is striking, though, to see how athletic UCLA is. Asi Faoa running down a tailback around the corner. Jarrad Page's interception. Ricky Manning's pursuing Pickett on a scramble. Marcus Reese, Brandon Chillar, Spencer Havner and Ben Emanuel running around, pursuing the ball, stopping receivers after only a five-yard reception. Ryan Boschetti sidestepping blockers. Mike Seidman running in the open field. Junior Taylor's long stride and speed.
Dave Ball is one of the most fun to watch on the team. He's getting better every week. His combination of size, strength, toughness and craftiness is getting him to the quarterback without any blazing speed.
And it's more fun watching Tyler Ebell running the ball than just about any running back in recent memory, including DeShaun Foster. He just set the all-time UCLA freshman yardage record in this game. He's still getting comfortable and hasn't yet dipped into his full repertoire of moves and cuts. He's also still getting up to full game speed and physical game condition.
Give the UCLA offensive line credit. They gave their quarterback a good amount of time to throw, and opened up holes in the running game against the best run defense in the Pac-10.
Overall, give the team a great deal of credit for going into Husky Stadium and getting this critical win on the road when it needed it.
Looking down the line – for the season and the future of the program – the next three games are hugely critical. The team will need to win two of the three remaining games to be able to call the season a clear success. If it only wins against Arizona, but loses to USC and Washington State, the familiar end-of-the-season bad taste will be on just about everyone's lips. If it loses against Arizona, really it would have to beat both USC and Washington State to salvage respect. There's a huge difference between eight regular season wins – and a win over either USC or Washington State – and seven regular season wins, and losses to both of those teams.
Looking further down the line, how UCLA ends this season will probably be the biggest determining factor on Toledo's program. USC is doing well on the field, and well in recruiting. To offset it on the recruiting front, UCLA will have to either beat them, or finish with 8 wins and a decent showing in a decent bowl game. UCLA needs a clear-cut successful season (eight regular-season wins) to be able to have something to sell on the recruiting front. Getting a clear-cut successful season on the record books after the last three years is critical to putting a positive stamp on Toledo's program, which he needs in recruiting right now if he hopes to survive for the longer term. It would be great to go into the last leg of the recruiting season with UCLA able to sell a positive last note to its season, and then being able to turn the trend of recent years and finishing the recruiting season well itself...