It displayed a strong defense and a developing offense.
The Bruins have taken a bit of a meandering route to get there, but the team that beat the Sun Devils at the Rose Bowl is what you would have expected.
Easily the most encouraging aspect of the win was the performance of the UCLA defense. Yes, ASU's offense isn't anything special, but it's probably the best it's been all season with sophomore quarterback Samson Szakacsy. UCLA limited the Sun Devils to just 13 points, and just one touchdown in the second half when the Bruins' objective was to ride it out and protect its 20-7 halftime lead and get that critical sixth win of the season.
Now that you know the UCLA defense's modus operandi under defense coordinator Chuck Bullough, and are comfortable with it, it's easier to appreciate it. The defense went through the same process it has all year, yielding yards early until, seemingly, the UCLA coaches can adjust and then stop down what the opposing offense was doing effectively. ASU's tailback Dimitri Nance ran around and through UCLA's defense in the first quarter, gaining 76 yards on 11 carries. For the last three quarters he gained just 34 yards on 10 more carries. Now, for the inexperienced Bruin fan, after that first quarter, he was doing the math in his mind, thinking, "Wow, Nance is going to run for 304 yards by the time this game is over with." But the UCLA fan who has been through the war with this UCLA defense this season knew better, he knew that UCLA would make adjustments and eventually shut down Nance, which it did.
The scheme and game plan that Bullough put out on the field Saturday, after you can get over the period of adjustment, was a good one. Bullough recognized that ASU couldn't throw deep, and that Szakacsy, in ASU's offense, would have to look short. His secondary was prepared, ready to jump routes, and his pass rush was very effective for most of the day, pressuring Szakacsy into mistakes. He threw the one pick-six to Alterraun Verner (Who now is tied for the UCLA record of interception returns for touchdowns; "Pick-Six" is his nickname, by the way) on ASU's first possession, and fumbled three times when under pressure.
After the one first-quarter drive where Nance ran through UCLA's defense to set up Szakacsy's touchdown pass to Kyle Williams, ASU had 8 more possessions and only scored 1 time out of those 8 opportunities. Four of them ended on a fumble, two where ASU had to punt, one with a missed ASU FG, and one on an ASU touchdown.
It was pretty clear heading into this game that ASU was prone to turning over the ball, and Bullough's game plan tried to force Szakacsy and the ASU offense into playing to character, which it did. Of course, UCLA's two touchdowns were defensive, Verner's pick-six and Akeem Ayers' fumble recovery and lunge for the endzone.
Again, in September, this is exactly what you would have expected of UCLA's defense in November.
Bullough continues to tinker and experiment, too, with the defense. The best "experiment" is utilizing Ayers more, particularly with his hand down as a defensive end. He played defensive end in high school, and looks particularly comfortable doing it in college, far too explosive for offensive tackles to contain. Bullough is using him in passing downs when UCLA goes to a three-man front, and it's working beautifully; with the pressure Ayers is able to provide without necessarily having to blitz, UCLA is able to drop more defenders into coverage. In fact, UCLA's pass rush was, perhaps, the best its been all season Saturday, with UCLA getting very good pressure from its conventional four-man rush also.
On a couple of snaps, defensive tackle Jerzy Sierwierski stood up and even played the middle linebacker role, to try to further confuse ASU's blocking scheme. Bullough, then, at times, sent pressure from different spots, like from the safety position, with Rahim Moore adding a sack to his resume.
Ayers had, perhaps, his best game as a Bruin. He led the team with 7 tackles, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery for a touchdown, and a sack. His touchdown was a thing of beauty, scooping of Szakacsy's fumble after the quarterback was hit by Brian Price at the ASU four-yard line and diving in for a touchdown with the ball in his outstretched hand.
There were even less spectacular plays for Ayers that, to the more discerning eye, were just as impressive. On a number of plays Ayers, playing strongside linebacker, was able to contain his edge, and send Nance back into the middle of the defense for little or not gain.
While Ayers has been doing a solid job at linebacker this year and has continued to improve, and learn to stay in his assignments and gaps, how well he's done at defensive end makes you wonder if he'd be better at that spot. It seems Ayers, one of the best athletes on the team, might be better if he's allowed to be single-minded, get into the backfield and go after the quarterback, rather than wasting his pass-rushing talent dropping him into coverage as a linebacker. Perhaps if UCLA's linebacker talent was a bit better the Bruin coaches would have the luxury to do it.
Brian Price, also, had a particularly good game, with 6 tackles, a total of four for loss, 2 sacks and that one forced fumble. What was really impressive in this game was how, when UCLA's ends forced Szakacsy to step up in the pocket, Price was able to contain him. He had his usual explosions into the backfield, too, commonly overcoming a double-team.
You have to give Bullough a great deal of credit. It was a very good game plan for ASU, one that not only worked perfectly at forcing Szakacsy into mistakes but was able to utilize the talent he has to work with the most effectively. UCLA, clearly, has limited talent on defense, but like with using Ayers at defensive end, Bullough is trying to squeeze all of the talent out of the guys who have it. There were a number of times in this game that it was clear the scheme was working, with defenders in a perfect position to make a tackle for a loss, get a sack on a blitz when they were untouched, but the player simply couldn't make the play. When UCLA's defense broke down in this game (the few times it did), it definitely wasn't the case of the scheme, but the talent.
On the other side of the ball, again, it was just about what you would have thought UCLA's offense would do against the best defense in the conference.
ASU's front seven are tough and for most of the afternoon contained UCLA's rushing game. Norm Chow went to the short passing game, to moderate effectiveness, with quarterback Kevin Prince having a solid but not spectacular game. There were a number of errant throws, balls behind or to the side of receivers. But to the more discerning eye, this was another step forward for Prince. He continued to show poise and pocket presence, and clearly was going through his progressions, even if it was unsuccessful.
Perhaps the best offensive development is that, now after a few games of Prince running the ball effectively, Prince's effectiveness with his legs is now a weapon. The 68-yard scramble for a touchdown against Washington State, most everyone logically thought, was an aberration, since it was against woeful Wazzu. But Prince again took to his feet against ASU and gained some critical yards. Chow is sending him on naked boot legs and when he's forced to tuck and run Prince is consistently gaining good yardage. Probably the offensive play of the game was on a 3rd-and-14 at the ASU 21 at the end of the half, when Prince got out of the collapsing pocket, bounced outside, easily juked one tackler and then between him and the first-down marker were two Sun Devils and he plowed through both of them for the first down. The drive ended with the time-clock/dead-ball/referee fiasco, so UCLA couldn't get a touchdown out of it; but Prince's run for a first down did make the Kai Forbath field goal a far more sure thing, and those three points were critical in the game in keeping ASU two scores away from catching UCLA.
Chane Moline, fittingly, had one of best games of his career on senior day. In the second half, when UCLA needed to possess the ball on offense and keep the ASU offense off the field, Moline stepped up. In the second half, Moline ran for 65 hard-fought yards, seemingly getting stronger in the fourth quarter as the ASU defense was wearing down.
Many UCLA fans are criticizing the conservative play-calling, and they're short-sighted. Yes, UCLA has been pretty conservative in its play-calling this season, and some criticism might be valid when it's at the beginning of a game. But, in this case, UCLA had a 20-7 lead it wanted to protect in the second half, and the conservative game plan is valid here. The objective was to protect the lead and get that sixth victory, and that meant 1) minimize the chance of mistakes, particularly turnovers and 2) eat up the clock so ASU's offense couldn't get the ball.
While it made for a sleepy second half, it worked. ASU had just five possessions in the second quarter. After having the ball for 15:31 of the first half, it possessed it for just 12:24 of the second half. UCLA's offense had a number of drives in the second half that didn't result in points, but they were still effective in moving the ball 30 or 40 yards, eating up 5 to 6 minutes of the clock and then shifting the field position so ASU had to drive 80 or 90 yards to get a score.
And, most critically, UCLA didn't turn over the ball. What could have quickly made this game a tight one would have been a third-quarter Prince interception, or a UCLA tailback fumble.
There's another reason for Moline – ball security. He's easily the most reliable running back for holding onto the ball and, with bowl eligibility and one step closer to respectability weighing in the balance, there was no way UCLA's coaches were going to risk it.
So, in this case, with UCLA protecting a lead, the conservative game plan was entirely appropriate.
Many pundits, including the ones at Bruin Report Online, were pointing to this game as a test of the UCLA offense – to determine just how far it had actually come.
Well, it probably was an accurate representation. UCLA's offense, currently, will struggle against a good defense like ASU's, and look very good against bad defenses like Washington State's and Washington's.
But if you look closer, there were signs of advancement. As we said, Prince showed subtle improvements. The offensive line provided very good pass protection, against a defensive front seven that is one of the best at pressuring quarterbacks in the conference.
Perhaps the one disappointment was that UCLA's receivers couldn't get more separation against ASU's suspect secondary. UCLA didn't go deep much, but when it did, Bruin receivers struggled, first, to get any separation and secondly to get inside their defender. Prince, at times, had time to throw, but no one to throw it to. He did miss a couple of wide-open receivers, but for the most part there weren't many receivers open.
It's pretty clear, too, for any recruits watching the UCLA offense, in this game in particular, that there is playing time to be had. UCLA needs play-making receivers; perhaps they're already on the roster, but there is definitely a void in terms of a deep-ball threat and overall play-making. And it's pretty clear that, for the next couple of years, the starting tailback position is up for grabs. The decisions by Malcolm Jones and Jordon James to come to UCLA now look like genius moves.
Overall, the ASU game was a very successful one, even if it didn't titillate the Bruin faithful with big, splashy offensive plays. UCLA got it done with a very good game plan, utilizing the talent it has to currently work with.
And the way you continue to upgrade that talent is to, again, give Neuheisel something to sell to recruits. Coming off last season's 4-8 record, 6 wins is definitely giving Neuheisel something more to sell.
Perhaps the UCLA coaches can come up with another game plan next week to give it 7 wins to sell.