Bruins Improve Against Washington

With UCLA beating Washington, 24-23, the Bruins made it much closer Saturday than it should be. There is some clear improvement, albeit it with an asterisk since it was against Washington. And this young Bruin still has yet to put together a good, complete game...

UCLA beat Washington handily, 30-10, Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

Well, that was what it should have been had UCLA not attempted to give the game to Washington. There were 13 points handed to Washington on a silver turnover, and at least 6 points UCLA took off its own scoreboard because of turnovers.

UCLA committed five turnovers and still won the game. The odds of that happening this year are probably in the single digits. Except, of course, when you're playing against a pretty poor team like Washington.

It's great UCLA got its first win after suffering through a five-game losing streak. Winning, of course, cures everything. UCLA is now 4-5 and looking like it could draw to .500 after next week's trip to take on the woeful Washington State Cougars in the Palouse.

Five wins, simply, are more than what UCLA had last year. So, if you're talking an improved win/loss record that Rick Neuheisel can sell to recruits, there you have it.

Yeah, for most UCLA fans that's not really that satisfying. But you're going to have to live with it for now. This is the incremental step the program needs to take, and probably the only one it's capable of taking at this point.

UCLA still has yet to play a good game this season. Heck, probably in the last two seasons, for that matter. Five turnovers usually will make you lose. And in this case it projected an impression of the game completely different than what it should have been.

That impression being that Washington's a decent team and that the game was close. They're not and it shouldn't have been.

UCLA's defense wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't bad either. It really only allowed Washington 10 points.

After 9 games, though, it is clear why the defense isn't fantastic. The passing defense is relatively solid, before this game being 35th in the country, allowing 201 yards per game, which is acceptable. Where it's been poor this season is in its run defense, being 78th in the country, allowing 156 yards per game. It's allowed an average of 198 yards per game in the last four games. If you took just that four-game average that would make UCLA's rushing defense 107th in the country.

In analyzing what's wrong, it's pretty simple. The linebackers primarily aren't getting the job done, in gap integrity and decision-making. The first run from scrimmage by Washington's Chris Polk epitomized the foibles of UCLA's rushing defense. The front four pretty much held up their blockers and didn't give up ground, like they're supposed to do. Polk hit a gap, and UCLA's strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers, instead of holding his gap, tried to side-step his blocker to the inside to make the bigger play, and basically filled the gap that middle linebacker Reggie Carter already was occupying, creating a big hole where he should have been. Carter, limited by the knee injury, has very little mobility and couldn't compensate, and Polk blasted through the hole and into the secondary.

If you analyze many of the big running plays by UCLA's opponents, it's usually the same story.

Right now, even though UCLA fans have convinced themselves that their team has good linebackers, it simply doesn't. Carter has very little mobility, Ayers is undisciplined and prone to mistakes, and Kyle Bosworth, God bless him, is doing just about as much as he can do given the talent he has.

Now, of course, it's not all on the linebackers. UCLA's front four hasn't been great at containing the edge throughout the season. There were at least a couple of times in this game where Polk gained the edge because a UCLA defensive end was pushed back. UCLA's secondary, also, hasn't exactly been stout against the run either, with Sheldon Price getting pushed around, and not one safety seemingly is able to make a decent open-field tackle.

But quite often it has been on the linebackers. Ironically, Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough, who has gotten so much criticism this season for a disappointing defensive performance, is the linebacker coach also. Just speculating, but is it a matter of Bullough spending less time with the linebackers because he's now the DC? Bullough's linebackers, up until this season, were far better at gap integrity and discipline.

If you want to see what a good, Pac-10 linebacker looks like, re-watch the game and check out Washington's Donald Butler (Yeah, he was responsible for that helmet-to-helmet hit on Kevin Prince). He's filling gaps, throwing off blockers and making big hits and sure tackles.

So, how do you compensate for a less-than-stellar linebacking group and a defense that it is very susceptible to the run?

There's only one answer when you ask any question about defense – and that's apply pressure.

Run blitz. Disrupt the point of attack with more bodies to get the rushing offense out of its timing and rhythm.

It's the same with passing defense. Pressure disrupts the quarterback, which at least hurries him into incompletions.

So far this season, UCLA's defense hasn't blitzed that much. Now, when you ask a UCLA coach he'll tell you that there are times when you should apply pressure and blitz, and other times where you should be more preventative. We, of course, know that's true, but it does seem that UCLA hasn't been blitzing near as much as it did in the last few seasons – and it hasn't blitzed all season near as much as it did in this game.

And if there were ever a game that should be considered a case study in the effectiveness of blitzing, this would be it.

I didn't take the time to go through the entire game and figure the percentage of defensive plays that featured a blitz that were effective but, man, it has to be a very high percentage. I think I only remember one or two plays where UCLA blitzed that weren't effective. Blitzes definitely were the answer against Washington's Jake Locker, many times not getting the sack but hurrying him enough that he threw an incompletion. It seemed, too, that it took Bullough a while to get up the nerve to blitz; perhaps it was when he realized that Locker wasn't 100% because of the thigh injury and it was safe to risk it. In the second half, UCLA was a blitzing maniac, and it's not coincidental that UCLA held Washington to 7 points and 146 yards in the second half, and limited Locker to 10-of-17 passing for 93 yards, an interception and two sacks.

When UCLA blitzed, good things happened. Many times, even if Locker completed the pass, he had to get rid of the ball short because of the pressure and it resulted in a short, pretty much meaningless gain. Those kind of results make it even less risky to blitz.

It's one of those things – blitzing – that builds on itself. It creates good results in many different ways. Now, coming off this game where just about every good, learned UCLA fan has to be aglow about UCLA's blitzing, we're not stupid and think that blitzing can't leave you vulnerable, especially against a better offense than Washington's that could exploit it. But at this point in the season, with how vulnerable this defense already is, it seems that UCLA should blitz and put pressure on the line of scrimmage until it does, in fact, get consistently burned. Show that it warrants not blitzing excessively, because this game – and other games – provide enough evidence to support that the reward far outweighs the risk.

One of the best examples of the advantage of blitzing in this game was a Washington possession that started at the end of the first quarter, when Washington had a 3rd and 7 at its own 19-yard line. Locker drops to pass, UCLA blitzes and forces him into an incompletion. But there was a false start on the offense, which gives Washington another shot, at 3rd and 12. This time UCLA doesn't blitz, in fact, only brings three rushers, and Locker, like it's a 7-on-7 in practice with no rush, calmly throws for a first down against UCLA's nickel D. Polk then breaks off a big run, UCLA doesn't pressure the line of scrimmage, and Washington drives down to the three-yard line. It's third and goal, Polk takes the direct snap, UCLA run blitzes, and linebackers Bosworth and Ayers shoot gaps and stop Polk for no gain. You have to give Bullough credit for a great and gutsy call in that situation; he obviously had scouted the direct-snap to Polk and recognized that the run blitz was the best way to counter. Give him credit for a well-scouted and well-called defensive game overall. Even when UCLA wasn't sending pressure, the front four were stunting and confusing Washington's offensive line. One of UCLA's sacks, which was on a critical third down in the fourth quarter, came on a four-man rush and stunt.

One of the best examples of the use of blitzes and pressure was on Washington's last drive of the first half. With a couple of minutes left, Locker was in a two-minute offense trying to put up some points before halftime. Usually, this season, this would be an instance where UCLA would opt for its nickel and not send pressure, but UCLA blitzed 3 of 5 plays, forced Locker into hurries, and thwarted the drive.

Let's also give some credit to some Bruin defensive players who had good performances. While cornerback Alterraun Verner was beat for a touchdown pass, he also saved the team's arse a few times with great one-on-one tackles. He forced Washington into to two field goals rather than touchdowns with great, third-down tackles.

Give credit to the young and under-fire Price, who had very good coverage on that deep pass on Washington's last and potentially-game-winning drive that created Rahim Moore's 8th interception of the season and iced the game. Price actually led the Bruins with 8 tackles for the day. He benefitted from some corner blitzes, and did well to contain and stuff a couple of runs (blitzes again!). Of course, give Moore credit for, again, being a ball hawk. Moore, in fact, came close to a near-game-clinching pick at the beginning of the fourth quarter, too, when a Locker pass went right threw his hands (on a UCLA blitz, of course).

Brian Price had four tackles and a sack, but was far more effective than those stats reflect, consistently blowing by the Washington OL to disrupt the Husky backfield. Defensive end Datone Jones, who also was credited with a sack, looks like he's starting to get an advantage on his blocker and being able to contain his edge better.

Offensively, the game was just simply fun to watch for starved UCLA fans who haven't seen this much offensive firepower in years. UCLA's total of 455 yards are the most gained by a UCLA offense since September 1st, 2007, when UCLA gained 624 against Stanford in the 2007 season opener. The 371 passing yards are the most gained by a UCLA team in four years, since November 12, 2005, when UCLA put up 510 yards against Arizona State.

UCLA is clearly making advances in its passing game but we'd be remiss not to temper all of the enthusiasm by putting it a bit in perspective, too: Washington clearly is one of the worst passing defenses you could come across. They start three freshmen in their secondary and they have little to no pass rush.

But on the other hand, UCLA gained more yards against Washington's defense than Oregon, Arizona State, Stanford, USC and LSU. And this was with Washington's defense coming off a bye week and being healthier than it had been.

No matter how bad Washington is, this is a prime example of what a quarterback can do if given time to throw. For the last two seasons, UCLA's quarterbacking has been pretty poor, but you can't emphasize enough how much having time to throw affects quarterback effectiveness. Kevin Craft, when he was under pressure most of last season, made many mistakes. Here, in this game, when he had all day with very little pressure, he made great decisions, rolling out and improvising in finding secondary receivers.

So, while it puts in perspective what a poor job UCLA's offensive line has done over the last couple of years in providing UCLA's quarterback protection, give them credit for doing it well in this game.

The quarterbacking was a pleasure to watch. After so many games in the last several years when it was heart-breaking, it was almost surreal to watch UCLA quarterbacks be so effective. Kevin Prince, except for one pass where he put too much air under the ball and locked onto a receiver, had very few flaws. Before he was knocked out of the game, he went 13 for 17 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He not only made the solid throws, but completed some passes that could be considered great ones. The throw to Terrence Austin for 19 yards to the Washington one-yard line was a beautiful one. He calmly completed many third-downs throws for first downs and threw a fourth-down pass for a touchdown. He went through his progressions and checked out of plays at the line of scrimmage. The game – well, the first half – definitely showed that Prince is continuing to make strides and improve. Hey, hey even remembered to put in his mouth guard at the last second right before the snap on the play where he got knocked out.

Then, the other Kevin, Craft comes into the game in relief, and goes 10 for 14 for 159 yards and one touchdown. You'd have to think that his performance felt incredibly good to him, relieving so much of the burden of last season, and giving him some vindication that he can get it done if given the tools and the protection. It's a particular testament to the young man since he didn't even get the second-string quarterback snaps in practice this week, but basically stood on the sideline with his helmet off.

Milton Knox also was given a chance to become an offensive weapon and took advantage. The Wildcat formation might not be as effective in future games now that opposing defenses will be able to scout it, but Knox did well running out of it, looking explosive through the hole. In fact, with Jonathan Franklin having his worst game of the season, we thought Knox might get more carries at tailback. Perhaps it was the fact that Derrick Coleman has more experience and there was such an issue with fumbles (Franklin coughing it up twice) that the coaches wanted the ball secure. Plus, Coleman looked better than he had all year, gaining a considerable amount of yards after contact, sometimes dragging big piles for five additional yards. Chane Moline's play also has to be mentioned, running for an easy touchdown, plowing through for a much-needed first down on UCLA's last drive, but also his one catch and second effort to gain a first down was one of the best offensive plays of the game.

The receiving group had a good day. Rosario led receivers with 7 catches for 111 yards. On one critical third down, he knew where the first-down marker was, set up there and went up high to make a clutch catch. Austin had his best game of the season, making that great over-the-shoulder catch on Prince's fantastic throw to the one-yard line, but he also showed incredible concentration in catching the touchdown pass that, well, really wasn't. Tight end Logan Paulsen did his usual contribution, getting loose and rumbling for a gain of 56 yards, and Ryan Moya made a great, leaping catch for a first down, the kind UCLA wasn't making just a few weeks ago. See, when it's working, everyone's loose and making plays.

The game plan and playcalling were good, taking advantage of Washington's clear vulnerability against the pass. UCLA threw on 7 of the 9 plays on its first possession so it was clear what the Bruins were intending to do.

And there's no question that the coaching staff has more confidence in the quarterbacks and have opened up the playbook a bit .

But some contributors on the BRO message board are trying to cite that the play-calling changed, and it was the difference in the offense. It's really a bass-akwards assessment: The difference was Washington's poor defense and susceptibility against the pass, so that naturally precipitated Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow to feature the throwing game more against the Huskies.

It'd be great if UCLA could play against Washington's defense every week. Well, actually, the semi-illusion will probably continue for the next week since Washington State's defense is worse than Washington's, and worse than 117 other teams in the nation. The true test of how far this offense has come will be against Arizona State and its 15th ranked defense nationally, and then USC.

But until then, bask in those 455 total yards.

And just like after the Oregon State fourth quarter last week, the thought of this offense now makes watching UCLA play football fun again.

Of course, it's impossible for UCLA to have both a good offense and defense simultaneously. And that would almost seem greedy, wouldn't it?

It'd also be nice if UCLA could shore up some of its special teams play, particularly its kick-off coverage, which is setting up opposing offenses in good field position far too often.

And it'd also be nice if UCLA could stop hurting itself with penalties. There were far too many – and inexcusable personal fouls – that contributed to Washington staying in this game.

And then, as we said, it'd be nice if UCLA could hold onto the ball. If you remember, UCLA fumbled the balls four times against Oregon State but was just incredibly lucky enough to not lose one.

In other words, this young team is still looking for its first really well-played, good game. Hopefully after another week of practice (on Spaulding Field and in Pullman) UCLA will be able to put one together against Arizona State or even, perhaps, against a completely fallible USC squad.

Imagine what Neuheisel could sell with a 7-5 record.

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