Will UCLA beat USC and Washington State? Possibly. Possibly not. But it's proven in the last three games that the team, despite the loss of its starting quarterback and a pretty sure-fire NFL player on defense, has enough talent on its roster and enough fire in its belly to beat the Trojans and the Cougars.
So, in analyzing the Arizona game, the best way is to do it is in regards to the two upcoming games, particularly USC.
Offensively, UCLA played did what it had to do against Arizona to win, but there are elements to consider that were evident in the Arizona game when matching up against USC.
UCLA's offensive line looked good, particularly in pass protection. UCLA's two young quarterbacks had plenty of time to throw – and make their decision. That will probably be the biggest challenge against USC, whose defense pressures quarterbacks very well. The OL also performed well in run blocking, opening up good holes, but it was against an Arizona team that last in the conference in rush defense.
Tyler Ebell, in the first 5 minutes of the game, looked like he would run for 300 yards on the day. Some of the vision and cutbacks he displayed on those first few runs were pretty impressive. But not to nitpick, and this is really nitpicking, but did it seem like Ebell either ran for 25+ yards or was stopped for close to no gain? To succeed in the running game against USC, you want to see the 6 yard to 15 yard run, moving the ball down the field. Short runs create too many 3rd-and-longs and obvious passing situations, and puts too much pressure on your young quarterbacks. The key to the USC game, for UCLA's offense, is going to be achieving 2nd-and-4s. Perhaps Ebell's best run of the night was in the second half when, on second and eight, he ran through the middle and carried a pile of tacklers for a first down.
When it comes to the quarterbacks, this game gave us an opportunity to study Drew Olson and Matt Moore a bit more. But, not enough, really. Now, here is some more nitpicking and a completely subjective call – but wouldn't it have behooved the young UCLA quarterbacks if UCLA's offense hadn't gone to an exclusive running game fairly early in the third quarter? Yes, if you continued to throw you would have been accused of trying to run up the score. And we know that coaching etiquette dictates that you don't do that. But the two biggest games of the season are coming up, and possibly two of the biggest games in Head Coach Bob Toledo's tenure. There is a sentiment that they might have used that valuable game time to get their freshmen quarterbacks more experience throwing the ball. At this point, their growth curve is like that of a 2-year-old. Every pass they make increases their development by quantum leaps. Wouldn't it had been worth getting the rap of running up the score since the benefit of getting Olson and Moore a couple of more series throwing the ball is so critical?
When comparing the two quarterbacks, it's nearly impossible to really determine who the better quarterback is, and completely impossible to even guess who will be the best quarterback down the line. If you track their plays and throws in the Arizona game, it was pretty close. Olson made a few more bad throws, but he threw the ball more. We're also not quarterback coaches, so it's impossible for us to recognize what one quarterback might be doing better than the other when it comes to reads, checks, decisions, or enabling the coaches to call a play because one can make a certain throw that the other quarterback can't.
For freshmen, though, they both have that certain, rare poise that enables them to perform under pressure with very little experience. It's pretty obvious that they both have the potential to be very good quarterbacks. And it appears that the long-held opinion of the situation might be true" that, right now, Drew Olson, probably is more experienced and knowledgeable about the position and able to do more, but that Matt Moore might have more natural talent and potential, with a strong, accurate arm (That 40-yard completion to Tab Perry was a phenomenal throw) and good athleticism. Funny how all of those recruiting services that many say don't know what they're talking about were pretty accurate in this case, eh?
It is great, though, while remembering that they're only true freshmen, to see how accurately they both throw the ball and how easily they are able to get the ball into the hands of a receiver. And add this to the equation: Every quarterback that has come to UCLA in recent years has looked particularly poor in their true freshman year in practice. Then they've generally made a big leap in their sophomore years. If these two make a big advance by their sophomore season, it's very exciting to think about how well balls will be zipping around Spaulding Field next fall. Heck, this spring.
It helps, too, when the young quarterbacks have receivers as capable as UCLA's. Craig Bragg is, hands down, one of the best wide receivers on the west coast – as a sophomore. It's very, very exciting and almost surreal to think that he's going to be playing at UCLA for two more years. By the time he's done, he has a chance to go down in UCLA history as UCLA's best receiver and make All-American lists. The catch and run for a touchdown in the second half was a thing of beauty – and comparable to the one-handed receiver screen for a touchdown earlier in the year.
Mike Seidman has shown that NFL scouts that he has the talent to be an elite tight end, but when he kept working to get that first down on his one third-down catch, he showed NFL scouts that he has the heart, too.
It was also good to see Junior Taylor get the ball thrown at him in the Arizona game, getting the play maker ready to be given the opportunity to do that – make plays – against USC.
It was good to see Manuel White get back in action, and be effective once he warmed up. It was good the way he was used in the Arizona game – getting his feet wet, getting in the groove in short-yardage situations, but not doing too much and tipping the hand to USC or Washington State on how UCLA plans to utilize him in the two upcoming games.
The offensive game calling was good, generally. With the safe call being to run the ball against Arizona, UCLA came out with Olson passing. The coaches seem a bit more reserved in calling pass plays for Matt Moore, most likely because they don't have quite the confidence in his grasp of the offense as they do in Olson's. But it's pretty obvious that the offense can not afford to be conservative and run-dominated against USC. USC has a solid pass rush, but their pass coverage isn't particularly great; it's the aspect of the USC offense that needs to be exploited, and you'll need the freshmen quarterbacks throwing the ball down the field to do it.
Defensively, the Arizona game re-affirmed that UCLA's defense is very good, and again made you recognize how two good cornerbacks can drastically alter the effectiveness of your defense. With Ricky Manning and Matt Ware covering wide receivers, it enables UCLA to blitz, and blitz and blitz. If three years ago you could have been given a glimpse of how aggressive and pressure-based the UCLA defense is now, would any UCLA fan had even recognized the team? While you have to give a great deal of credit to Phil Snow, so much of it is based on being able to depend on two very good cornerbacks.
Even with the Arizona, broken-play touchdown pass, you still concede it because you'd much rather have the blitzing, pressure gambling defense than the bend-and-don't-break defense of old.
Really the only defensive issue is: If you're going to pressure the quarterback so much, it'd be great if you could contain him better. UCLA pass rushers missed many times in the Arizona game. It's mind-blowing to think if they hadn't. Arizona wouldn't have gotten that 91-yard pass play, and there were plays totaling about 40 more yards that were accomplished once a UCLA pass rusher missed a tackle on an Arizona quarterback. Take away 130 yards, Arizona passes for a total of about 100 yards. Add the yardage lost in those potential sacks, and Arizona probably gains 80 total yards for the game.
But I guess you have to concede a few missed tackles on scrambling-for-their-lives quarterbacks, and you tend to accept it given how many times their quarterbacks were sacked (6), pressured, hurried and hit. In the second half, UCLA's defense really took control of and won the game because of how much it pressured Arizona's quarterbacks. In the second quarter, UCLA's offense sputtered a bit and Arizona had had a few series where they moved the ball fairly well, so, even with UCLA leading 20-7 at halftime, the momentum of the game was still undetermined. But in the second half, using that pressure defensive attack, UCLA held Arizona to only one first down, and it didn't come until the beginning of the fourth quarter. Arizona had three offensive series in the third quarter and every one went three and out. And it was due almost exclusively to UCLA's ability to pressure the Arizona quarterback, sack him, hurry his throws and get a hit on him.
Against USC, UCLA's pass rush is perhaps not just the most important element in determining the defense's success against the Trojans, but in the team's success in the game. UCLA has changed the facet of every game this season with its pressure-style defense. It really was what established the momentum and shift in its last three victories. USC's offensive line isn't great at pass protection, but the question will be whether UCLA can put enough pressure on USC's Carson Palmer against USC's short-drop, quick-throw offense. Containment of Palmer will be a factor, but getting to him and pressuring him, altering his throws and getting a hit on him will be the biggest determining factor on defense.
What was also impressive about UCLA's defense is, in the very few times that it actually played a bend-don't-break, containment style of defense, it has the players to do it effectively. There weren't many times UCLA wasn't blitzing and stunting in this game, but when it wasn't, the pass coverage was still excellent. It has a lot to do with the UCLA's linebackers and safeties being so athletic and quick, and sure-tacklers, that receivers more often than not make that 5 yard catch but are stopped in their tracks, and short of the first-down marker.
A great glimpse of the possible future: C.J. Niusulu looked very quick running down the Arizona quarterback for a sack.
Perhaps the best thing about this team that Coach Toledo keeps repeating and isn't perhaps just coach-ese is that they play hard all of the time. The Arizona game was a chance for a letdown, but this team didn't. Toledo cites the senior leadership, which undoubtedly is contributing to the character of the team. But it also could be that the team is comprised of so many young players that just want to make the best of whatever opportunity they have that a letdown doesn't happen.
So, how do the last three wins reflect on UCLA's next two big games? Admittedly, the last three games have been against the three bottom-dwellers of the Pac-10. UCLA has gone 3-0 against three teams they should have gone 3-0 against, Stanford, Washington and Arizona. While you can say that UCLA was extremely unlucky that it lost Cory Paus to injury, and unlucky to lose the Oregon game, you have to admit that there was some good luck embedded in the schedule. If you had a team that was going to have to get two freshmen quarterbacks up to speed, it was quite a blessing that you got to play the three worst teams in the Pac-10 on the next three consecutive weekends.
But the style and dominance that this team has shown against those teams makes you believe that UCLA is one of the best teams in the conference. And while we're touching on the subject of luck, you also have to consider what could have been this season. The "what-ifs?" UCLA, seriously, is one field goal and one broken ankle (even just one separated shoulder) away from being 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-10. Winning the last three games in this dominating of a fashion has proven more than anything that UCLA is at least as talented as any team in the conference, and quite possibly, with its senior quarterback, the most talented and best team in the league. If UCLA had just eked by its last three opponents you might have some doubt; but that wasn't the case. These last three games have proven what we said before the season started, after watching the team in their first few two-a-days at Cal Lutheran in August – that they're very good. They've proven that, even if you put them on the field with a true freshman quarterback, they're still talented enough to be a top 25 team (at least), and among the top three teams in the conference. And they have the heart of a champion to go along with the talent.
So, those what-ifs creep in. Where would UCLA be ranked if Nate Fikse had attempted to kick that last field goal against Oregon? Or, not even coming down to that field goal – just if a few other little breaks had gone a different way against the Ducks? Not even wishing for Paus to not have been injured – but what if Olson hadn't been injured at Cal, or even if Matt Moore had made that road trip?
With a very distinct taste of bittersweetness on every UCLA fan's lips, it does make you fantasize about what could have been if not for a few little turns of bad luck.
But, you can't dwell on the what-could-have-been scenarios for too long, since, as a fan, this UCLA team has put you right back in the driver's seat of your fandom. After the debacle that was the Cal game, there were UCLA fans that thought UCLA wouldn't win another game and go into a complete tank. And, while many of us weren't that pessimistic, you have to concede those were pretty dark days. UCLA had suffered two consecutive losses that seemingly knocked it out of the Rose Bowl race. Its fifth-year starting quarterback was gone for the season, its second string true freshman quarterback was on the bench injured, and UCLA was turning to a true freshman quarterback who weighed 180 pounds that was, the week before, running the scout team, to save them. As a UCLA fan, you really never left the seat, and you were still cheering for the team, but the last three wins have now moved you up to the edge of that seat. They've proven that they are this good of a team and they do have a legitimate chance to beat USC and Washington State. Their level of play has elevated the significance of the next two upcoming games and given the UCLA fan legitimate hope that the Bruins can win them.