If you were an alien who just beamed down to Earth and didn't know either team or their records going into this game and watched just the first quarter you would have said that they were pretty evenly matched. You might even have said that the team in blue might have a bit of an edge.
In UCLA's other games, it was more of a case of recognizing very early on that UCLA shouldn't be on the field with its opponent and UCLA was staying in it with smoke and mirrors. But in this one, after watching the beginning of the game, you actually started to think, "Hey, maybe they just needed that bye week, that they got this much better and this game will turn around the season."
For much of the game, UCLA's defense looked quite a bit better than USC's in limiting OSU's dynamo of a little running back, Jacquizz Rodgers. UCLA's D got stop after stop.
UCLA's offense, on its second possession, looked like a different unit than the one we had seen in the previous 8 games. It gained 34 yards on the ground in four carries, with Kahlil Bell getting running room and slashing through the OSU defense. The play-calling was creative, and was keeping OSU's defense off-balance, and getting Kevn Craft out of the pocket. Craft, too, was efficient, completing his first three passes. They marched the field and, because of one errant throw on third down, settled for a field goal, to even the score, 3-3. But heck, this was a sign of good things to come for the game. Every Bruin fan in the nation sat up, put down their beer, and paid attention.
But reality set in pretty quickly. The fantasy started to erode in little pieces throughout the first half. UCLA's offense began to seize up. UCLA's D let up some big plays.
If you're the alien, you're thinking, "Huh, well, maybe that team in blue isn't that good, but the white team really isn't clearly that much better."
But then, the erosion gave way to a bit of a mudslide early in the third quarter. That blue team started making some really bonehead plays, like not fair-catching a punt at the 20-yard line and making your offense start within the five-yard line. Then, your tight end blindly missed a block and your running back was almost stopped for a safety and dumped at the one-yard line. Then your quarterback, who the alien is starting to realize isn't very good, almost throws an interception, throwing a pass at three guys in white with only one blue guy in the vicinity. The blue team punts the ball back, and when the white team has the ball the defense supplies absolutely no pressure on the quarterback and he completes another big play near the goal line.
Touchdown, it's 10-3, and then another quick touchdown by the white team, 17-3.
If you're a smart alien, you're thinking, "Ah, I get it. That blue team doesn't have very good players but its coaching is basically keeping them in the game."
DeWayne Walker, UCLA's Defensive Coordinator, opted to stack the box and try to take away OSU's running game, which more or less worked. With OSU having a short passing game, Walker flooded defenders short, deciding not to pressure the OSU quarterback, Sean Canfield, and make him beat the defense with his arm. If not for a few lucky big plays, it also more or less worked. UCLA kept OSU to 3 points in the first half. Heck, it was still 17-6 by the end of the third quarter.
If you're talking about the erosion, the first bit of soil to slide was the offensive line. The pass protection broke down fairly early, and Craft, under pressure, made a number of mistakes. Guard Nick Ekbatani got beat consistently, and the coaches went with Sonny Tevaga at right guard in place of him.
Craft's limitations are all pretty clear at this point. He can't find the right receiver in certain situations – like on third and 8, opting for the under receiver who is 6 yards from the first-down marker. He stares down his receivers, which allows defenders to key on him. Besides throwing interceptions, he has an unnerving habit of throwing near-interceptions, almost imperturbably throwing balls into coverage.
It seems like piling on to really get into Craft's limitations. We know that every UCLA fan -- and probably that alien – is thinking, "Can we at least try someone else?" Up until this point I wasn't one of those Bruin fans wanting to dump Craft. I know from being at practice, and knowing what's going on with the program, that there really isn't another viable option. UCLA, also, has generally been in games all the way to the end, so it made sense to go with your best option in a game situation where you could conceivably still win it. But in this one, with UCLA down 24-6 with about 9 minutes left in the game, it might be time to just give Chris Forcer a chance.
UCLA's offense, after that tease of a drive, went into the tank. The Bruins were just 2 for 15 on third downs – and didn't convert one in its first nine third-down attempts.
It's a bit of a mystery what happened to UCLA's running game. It came out looking easily the best it had all season and then somehow it disappeared. Those 34 yards gained on the ground in that second drive you thought were sign of things to come, but UCLA ended up gaining just 48 yards rushing for the game. It wasn't as if Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow kept trying to run and it got stuffed (Well, it was a little bit of that, but not really that pronounced). Going back and watching the tape of the game, it wasn't as if Chow didn't run when he should have either. The run game just vanished, as if an alien spaceship whisked it away.
Let's give some props out to Taylor Embree for one of the best catches in recent memory, beating three defenders to the ball, and bringing it down over the head of one with one hand. He had five catches for 64 yards. Dominique Johnson also had probably the best catch of his career when he turned and caught a ball while twisting around near the sideline, and with his 4 catches for 49 yards it's maybe an indication that Johnson might be starting to live up to his potential.
The defense deserves some praise. There was some pretty sure-tackling, generally, compared to UCLA's first 8 games. Alterraun Verner made some big plays, like when he knifed in on a screen for a tackle for loss. Chase Moline, back after a long absence, played fairly well at defensive end, making a big stop for loss on an end around. Reggie Carter was more physical and made better tackles, looking healthier than he did before the bye.
Give the defense as a unit credit for limiting Rodgers. Even though he gained 144 yards, he really never got it rolling.
That alien beamed back to his planet, saying to himself: "Wow, I got fooled on that one. I thought I liked the team in blue at the beginning, but they turned out to not be very good. Maybe I'll check back in with this planet – and that team in blue – next year at the same time and see how they're doing. They seem to have good schemes, they just need some horses. There must be some reason I like that team in blue – maybe it's just those really pretty uniforms."