SDSU Review: As Expected

In UCLA's victory over San Diego State, 33-14, Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the game went just about as expected. But, with flashes on offense and the defense looking solid, it's now a matter of this team going a bit beyond expectation...

UCLA's victory over San Diego State, 33-14, was just about what we expected (obviously, since we predicted 34-10).

It showed that UCLA clearly had more talent than San Diego State, and that was enough.

It showed what we've been writing about since the beginning of fall camp, that redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince has the tools to be a very good quarterback, but that he would go through some growing pains.

It showed an improvement on the offensive line from last season, with still some areas of worry in terms of blocking.

It showed that UCLA has a solid, veteran defense.

So, why the heck even play the games?

Actually, for a quarter, it didn't go as we expected defensively, with UCLA's defense starting out poorly. But, once the defense got a good look at Al Borges' scheme and adjusted, it settled in and played well.

As we expected, though, the game did generate some areas or concern. Now, if UCLA had performed offensively in the second half like it did in the first we might be saying right now that the Bruins went beyond expectation in this game. But after a very impressive first half of offense, the offense came down to Earth in the second half and pretty much struggled.

The offense gained 239 yards in the first half, and only 120 in the second. It produced 99 yards on the ground on just 16 rushes in the first half, but just 45 yards on 22 rushing plays in the second half.

UCLA fans like to perpetuate that old wives tale that the Bruins can never have a good offense and a good defense in the same season. Heck, in this game, UCLA couldn't get both in a half.

UCLA did put both together for the second quarter, but that was about it.

Now, we realize that the offense went pretty vanilla in the second half. They ran the ball exclusively between the tackles, against 8 Aztecs in the box. Prince threw from a conventional pocket on every one of his second-half pass plays but two. It was pretty clear that UCLA hoped to take its 23-14 halftime lead and dominate the game and possession by running the ball in the second half. But all the fantasies about UCLA's running game being able to take over in the last two quarters didn't come to fruition.

It was pretty transparent to everyone watching that UCLA intended to run out the game on the ground, including SDSU, which defended against it. UCLA stubbornly kept trying to run, not attempting much to balance the attack (in the first half, it was 16-16 running plays to passes; in the second half it was 22-15).

There might be an element here that Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow didn't want to give away too much of UCLA's offense. Well, of course, everyone knows Chow's offense, but specifically how he intends to utilized the players he has in this one.

But when UCLA's passing game is setting up its running game, the offense seemed to click. It's how the Bruins started out the game; in its first drive, which took up eight plays, UCLA intended to pass on every play.

There was also more creativity to the running plays in the first half, more off-tackle calls.

But really, it was a matter in the second half of UCLA trying to run, SDSU knowing it was going to do it and putting 8 men in the box, and UCLA still running tackle-to-tackle.

San Diego State does have that funky 3-3-5 defense, where you don't know exactly how they're going to pressure you on every play. But they are a defense coming off a very poor season of defending against the run, with a DL that is out-weighed by UCLA's OL on an average of 60 pounds per man. So, you can probably safely say that, while UCLA's running game will probably be improved this season, it might be a stretch to imagine it as a dominating force, one that can take over and put away a game.

In the second half, there was also a concern with pass protection. San Diego State pressured Prince far better in the second half (I guess you have to give Long and his coaches credit for making their second-half adjustments). SDSU had three sacks on the night, and two in the second half, and were constantly in Prince's face in the second half. In looking closely at why, many times the breakdowns in pass protection weren't the OL's fault, but someone else's. UCLA was clearly in a max protection for most of the night – that is, leaving at least one, if not two, extra blockers behind, while utilizing only two wide receivers. While it did fairly well in containing SDSU's rush in the first half, it struggled in the second half. It's worrisome that UCLA has seven blockers to protect the quarterback against commonly five SDSU pass rushers and UCLA can't sustain a pocket. There were some breakdowns by the OL; mostly on the interior OL, not just getting beat on occasion but seemingly missing their blocking assignments. But there were plenty of times it appeared that the OL fulfilled their blocking responsibilities, and it was a tight end, tailback or fullback who failed to block SDSU's additional pass rusher. Now, again, it's tough to know where the added rusher is coming from in SDSU's defense, but many times it didn't seem like that was the problem. The tight end, fullback or tailback was in good position to make the block but was merely beaten – repeatedly. Senior tight end Logan Paulsen was beaten a couple of times, and he seemed to acknowledge it by slapping himself in the helmet in frustration after the play. One of his missed blocks was the direct cause of a Prince sack. Fullback Chane Moline also simply got beat.

That's a bit of a worry. With a young, inexperienced OL it would be completely expected and understandable to worry about their pass protection, and we are worried. But you would think we'd be able to feel secure about veterans like Pauslen and Moline being able to stay on a block against SDSU.

Prince had the kind of night we expected. He looked sharp in the first half, throwing accurately. Chow wasn't giving him too much to handle, just easy throws out wide where he didn't necessarily have to go through progressions. Prince also rolled out quite a few times in the first half, getting him away from pressure well. Perhaps the most impressive element to Prince's game was his poise. He doesn't panic. Even when the pocket's breaking down around him, he's still stoically going through his progressions.

If he had duplicated his first half in the second half we'd be writing a truly surprised review right now about Prince's performance. But as we said, he came down to Earth in the second half. Rick Neuheisel said in the post-game press conference that Prince might have lost some of his focus in the second half when he threw two interceptions. On those plays, he was clearly locked on his receivers and it was an easy read for SDSU's defenders. He also made a couple of other rookie mistakes – fumbling the ball and then not falling on it safely; taking the sack in the first half when he had plenty of time to throw and just needed to get rid of the ball (the 7-yard loss on the play, on third down, made it a 49-yard field goal attempt for Kai Forbath rather than a 42-yarder, which is significant. Luckily, Forbath nailed it.)

So, Prince's overall performance was just about right in our wheelhouse of expectation. But it is a little disconcerting that we're left with the unproductive second half on our minds until he lines up against Tennessee next Saturday.

UCLA's running backs looked solid and promising. They gained 144 yards on 38 carries, for a 3.8 per play average, which isn't good, but better than the 2.7 per carry from last season. So, that's just about what you would expect. Again, though, it's a worry that this was going up against an SDSU defense that, last season, was the second worse in all of Division 1 against the run. Hopefully SDSU will end up being quite a bit better this season and we'll be able to look back and conclude that this game wasn't the measuring stick against a bad rush defense like we thought it was.

Starter Johnathan Franklin looked exactly like he looked in practice – solid. He's quick and has a good initial move and is harder to bring down than he looks. Derrick Coleman looked exactly as we said he had all fall – leaner and quicker. He had the two best runs of the night – a very impressive 31-yard touchdown run and another off-tackle where he showed good elusiveness and that improved burst. Milton Knox, as he's also looked, appears to be the most natural tailback among the three. It's not that he's necessarily the best, but he's always appeared to be the most comfortable and instinctual at the tailback position. Freshman Damien Thigpen got a few carries on the last series of the game. Coleman had 4 carries for 69 yards, Knox 8 for 45 and Franklin 12 for 43. It could be a very effective approach by starting Franklin, getting the DL worn down a bit, and then sending in a fresh 230-pound Coleman.

The receivers had, again, the night you would have expected out of them. Taylor Embree caught six passes for 97 yards. He did it in a style that was, well, expected. He ran good routes, got open, caught the ball dependably, and didn't get much YAC. He defines the possession receiver. He caught a 34-yard completion where he had the goal line in front of him but was tackled from behind. He did, though, get behind his defender on one go route but Prince's ball was slightly overthrown. Terrence Austin had 6 catches for 37 yards, mostly on quick hitters to the outside intended to get him in one-on-one situations. Personally, we think Austin is another guy, like Embree, who is a solid possession receiver and doesn't have the play-breaking ability for those one-on-one types of plays. He is solid and dependable, and had a very nice touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone. Nelson Rosario caught two balls for 40 yards, one on a perfect throw on a post by freshman Richard Brehaut. Rosario, though, still looks a bit soft. On one play, a receiver screen to Austin, the call came when SDSU was on a blitz. Austin had a great deal of real estate in front of him, but just needed one block from Rosario to spring it, but Rosario looked like he made a half-effort on the block and the play was blown up.

That play might have been different had Gavin Ketchum, the senior receiver who is sitting with a hamstring injury, been the guy designated to provide the block.

Tight end Ryan Moya caught a couple of passes in the flat, but was never found over the middle. Paulsen made a nice play, diving forward after the catch for a first down.

Freshman receiver Randall Carroll and freshman tight end Morrell Presley both got in on a handful of plays. Carroll had the ball thrown to him on one post route, but it was over-thrown.

Defensively, the Bruins had a solid performance. If you take away the first quarter, where they allowed SDSU to gain 161 yards and score two touchdowns, you'd say they had an excellent game. In the last three quarters, the Aztecs gained just 116 yards. SDSU's quarterback Ryan Lindley was 7 for 12 for 142 yards in the first quarter; he went 11 for 33 for 96 yards and had three interceptions the rest of the way.

Why the difference after the first quarter? You have to think that there was some element of UCLA's Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough first getting a glimpse at SDSU's offense.

There was also probably an element of some of UCLA's younger defensive players settling down.

Really, the one play -- the 78-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Brown – really skewed UCLA's defensive stats and performance. Take away that play and you have a completely different perspective.

But that play was significant, actually. UCLA was in a nickel, with walk-on cornerback Andrew Abbott functioning as the nickel. The defense looked confused getting in the defensive call before the play. Neuheisel later said that it wasn't entirely Abbott's fault, that there was supposed to be another defender behind Abbott. So, there is an element here that UCLA's defense wasn't exactly "clean" on this play and for the night, particularly in the first quarter.

Some of it could be due to having a new DC. The players admitted afterward that there was some delay in getting the defensive play calls made in a timely fashion. There were a few times they were definitely scrambling around before the play to get set correctly.

For the night, it wasn't an aggressively called game defensively. UCLA rarely blitzed, and played either a pretty soft man or a zone in coverage. "Soft" as in giving SDSU's plenty of cushion. With UCLA sending four men most of the time to pressure Lindley, and with the cushion, it was really UCLA challenging SDSU to execute, which they really didn't do very well. There were plenty of times when Lindley had a man open but couldn't make the throw. UCLA didn't get a sack. In the first quarter, they didn't even get much pressure on Lindley and he came out hot. The pressure improved as the game wore on, with UCLA hurrying Lindley on his throws, but it was done almost exclusively with a four-man rush. We saw possibly one zone blitz the entire night. The few times UCLA did send an extra man they had Lindley under considerable pressure.

We don't know if this was the defensive game plan for SDSU – don't take too many risks, and make SDSU have to execute to beat you. We're hoping that Bullough's defense shows a more aggressive nature as the season progresses.

It was a considerable blow to the defense that starting redshirt freshman cornerback Aaron Hester suffered a cracked fibula. He was saying after the game that he'd be out for three weeks, which is probably an optimistic opinion.

Without Hester the complexion of UCLA's secondary changes. Courtney Viney took over for Hester and basically played pretty well. But you go from having a 6-1 corner in Hester to a 5-9 one in Viney. It also elevates the walk-on Abbott to the first corner off the bench in addition to being the nickel back, and Abbott is only maybe 5-10 himself. It makes UCLA very vunerable to matching up against a team that has a few big receivers. Because of the lack of experienced depth at corner, true freshman Sheldon Price got some time in the second half. Marlon Pollard, the guy who would be the next candidate to play, wasn't even suited up, and that will probably change next week.

UCLA's front seven had a good night. The linebackers looked like the veterans they are; Reggie Carter was in good position all night and made some hits, and Kyle Bosworth was flying around making plays and disrupting SDSU's offense. On two successive plays in the second half, Bosworth had a big hit on a running play for no gain, and then made a nice play and tackle on a screen for little gain.

There was a bit of a scare when Brian Price went down in the first quarter, but a sigh of relief when he returned on the next defensive series. Jerzy Siewierski had a very good game as a starter at the other DT spot, stepping by his blocker a number of times to get into the backfield. He practically was unblocked as he blew by his man to block the punt that Alteraun Verner picked up and ran for the clinching touchdown in the second half.

Defensive end Datone Jones more than held his own and looked to be tough to contain. Second-string defensive end Damien Holmes looked a little overwhelmed at times physically.

As we predicted, UCLA's special teams were responsible for a couple of scores. Not only was there Verner's touchdown on the blocked field goal, but a big kick-off return by Austin to set up UCLA's first touchdown. While Austin made a good play and followed his blocking, just about every reader of this site had to be thinking, when Austin got into open field and was run down, if it had been Thipen returning the kick it would have been a touchdown.

Overall, it was a bit of a sloppy game. Neuheisel is always emphasizing a "clean" game, meaning a mistake-free performance. But there were a number of blunders, and you'd expect that from an offense that's breaking in so many new OLs. But really, it wasn't the young OL that made a huge amount of miscues, but quite a few veterans, and even the coaches (slow defensive play-calling, having to burn two timeouts in the first half to get an offensive play in).

Overall, it was, well, what you would have expected. As a Bruin fan, you at least have to be happy that UCLA didn't under-achieve, the defense shook off the first quarter and played to expectation, and Kevin Prince and the offensive line were what you expected after seeing them all fall camp.

But, with the offense showing flashes, then going vanilla and flat, and the defense playing solidly without an aggressive game plan, there is plenty of room for bigger expectations.

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