Kansas State Game Review

UCLA lost to Kansas State Saturday, to start off the 2010 season with a thud, 31-22. The defense was about like you'd expect, and the Pistol actually wasn't to blame, providing the Bruin offense some opportunities that it just couldn't take advantage of...

Many UCLA fans are saying (at least on the BRO message board) that UCLA's loss to Kansas State, 31-22, was more of the same kind of football that they've seen in the last few years.

But in reality it actually wasn't.

Yes, there were some similarities, obviously.

But there were some marked differences. And it's impossible to determine right now, with so many elements to the game flying around in your head, if the differences will actually make for a better Bruin team this season.

If you're a Blue you're probably concluding that the differences in this team that you saw in the KSU game from the last several years will prove to make it more successful.

If you're a Crank, well, put down the razor blades.

It's not going to make many people happy to start off this analysis with probably the best element of the game for the Bruins, since, probably, most of you want to hear bitching and moaning. I'll get to some of that, too.

But for the last several years two of the biggest issues with UCLA's program have been its offensive line and its running game.

If you would have told me that UCLA would give Kevin Prince good protection for a vast majority of the game and that UCLA would rush for 193 yards, I would have said they'd win by at least a couple of touchdowns.

UCLA instituted the Pistol for one primary reason: to help the running game and, with more deception, to improve pass protection. It pretty clearly met its objective in this game.

If you would have told me that UCLA was going to provide Prince good pass protection and he'd only go 9 for 26 for 120 yards and 2 interceptions I, sincerely, would have been dumbfounded.

The easy thing to do is to blame Prince. And there's no disputing that at least some of the blame lies with him. Many of his throws weren't accurate -- catchable, but not as accurate as they could have been.

The mystery, though, of this game is this: When Prince sat in the pocket with obviously a good amount of time to throw, why couldn't he find an open receiver? Is it his fault, for not being able to find the receivers who are open? Is it the receivers' fault, for not being able to get open? Is it both?

That's pretty much where the game was lost.

You could blame the defense. They did have a poor showing. They allowed Kansas State to run for a whopping 312 yards. They were fraught with mis-assignments and mis-tackles. They looked fatigued in the second half. The defensive game plan was passive at inopportune times. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough looked to have called a particularly head-scratching game, not sending pressure when it seemed pretty obvious to do so, and gambling on sending pressure when it seemed like more bodies dedicated to run containment might have been the choice.

But, in fairness, that's probably the defense you should have expected. Being on the road in the season opener, with many new starters – many of them in the front seven -- against a team with a good running game. We thought before the game that it would be something like this.

We hate to be a little optimistic when gloom-and-doom is probably so much more expected, but, as we said in the season preview, the defense is going to probably improve throughout the season. They have many new starters, many new and young players in the rotation, but they have some talent. It's just a matter of getting it some experience.

While everyone is praising Akeem Ayers, and it's deserved since he did make some particularly nice plays, he got beat on some key plays, too. In the second half, it was clear he was assigned on many plays to shadow Daniel Thomas, which didn't really work out well since Thomas ran for about 180 yards in the second half (to total 234 for the game). The knock on Ayers last season was that he could make mental mistakes at times and get out of position, and he did that against KSU, too.

I know this might throw everyone into a tizzy, but if you break down the plays when Ayers was very effective and those when he wasn't, they pretty much are dictated by when he lines up at defensive end and at linebacker. He is the best pass rusher on the team, and a menace with his hand down on the edge. He definitely makes plays from the linebacker spot, but he is also more susceptible to making mistakes at that position – costly mistakes.

Perhaps it'd be more effective for Ayers to play defensive end most of the time, where he could concentrate solely on disrupting defenses from that spot.

The defensive line had a poor game. Defensive end Damien Holmes got pushed off the line of scrimmage last season and it occurred too often against the Wildcats. Defensive tackle Justin Edison, also, was blocked out of the play too many times.

You can't really say that the secondary did well against the pass, since they faced a quarterback who doesn't throw very well – and only threw the ball 17 times in the game. But you could say that they did particularly poorly in run support. As was the issue last season, Sheldon Price was blocked back 10 yards a number of times (very noticeable in William Powell's 28-yard touchdown run on KSU's first drive of the second half); and safety Rahim Moore was out of position and missing tackles.

For his first time as the starter at middle linebacker, Patrick Larimore was overall impressive. He made some mistakes, like everyone on the D, but he made some exceptional plays, showing that he has the strength and quickness to plug a hole and not get blown up. To our eyes, it appeared that Tony Dye played well, and made some sure tackles. Even though Aaron Hester commited the PI, he had a number good plays, including two successive plays where he made nice, open-field tackles.

But again, what we saw defensively in this game is pretty much what we expected.

The real difference was the UCLA offense's poor performance through the air. UCLA couldn't sustain drives since its passing game was so poor that KSU possessed the ball for almost 36 minutes to UCLA's 24 minutes. That's a heck of a lot of additional time for UCLA's defense to be on the field trying to run down Thomas and Co.

The possession disparity would have been different if UCLA could have sustained a few more drives and, specifically, been more effective in its passing game. Eight passes were dropped. Prince threw inaccurately a number of times.

But it really comes down to the question, again: Why, if Prince has time to throw, can't he find an open receiver?

If every time Prince had time he had completed a pass, most Bruin fans would be thinking quite a bit differently about his performance, the offense and, well, the game – since UCLA probably would have won.

It's impossible for us to even attempt to come to any conclusions about why Prince couldn't find any receivers without being able to analyze some game tapes of UCLA's route running. But, if you're looking for a clear take-away from the game of what needs to immediately be fixed – that would be it.

We can do some speculating, though. If after analyzing the tape, UCLA coaches mostly conclude that it's mostly Prince's fault, then he's going to have to work on improving at finding open receivers. While many fans are skeptical that Prince is the right man for the job, we'll stick with him for the time being, compensating for the fact he hadn't practiced for three weeks, remembering how he looked at the start of fall practice and rationalizing that it's a new system that he has to get accustomed to in games. And while everyone tends to always want the guy who is on the bench, Prince gives UCLA a better chance to win than Richard Brehaut.

But if the conclusion is that receivers aren't getting open or creating separation, there are some other options. Taylor Embree is who he is – a decent possession receiver that won a starting position two years ago at UCLA when there really wasn't anyone else to fill that role. There is now; there are guys like Josh Smith and Randall Carroll – guys that have NFL-type speed and athleticism. They might not be near as disciplined or polished but they will give you the athleticism that Embree simply doesn't have. And if Embree isn't catching passes he should, which he's in the game to do, it's tough to understand why guys like Smith and Carroll wouldn't get more opportunities.

Along those same lines, the choice of Embree to return punts is a highly conservative one. Yes, he has the surest hands, but he provides very little threat for a return. Smith returned kick-offs and punts at Colorado, has experience doing it, and, while he might be more of a risk of flubbing one, it seems worth the gamble, with his experience, given what he offers in terms of a return threat.

It was very much a disappointing loss. If you look at the talent on both rosters, you'd have to say that UCLA probably has superior talent (albeit it on the inexperienced side). The loss makes it that much tougher for UCLA to pull off a winning record in a season with a very tough schedule.

But it's probably not accurate to claim that it's the same ol' UCLA scenario, and the same ol' UCLA offense. If you're a Crank, you would then counter by saying UCLA found a new way to lose.

The Pistol will probably get some criticism, but I think it's misplaced. It essentially did what it's schemed to do. There were a number of times, too, when it appeared the no-huddle was a clear factor in a play's success. The Pistol looks like it does, in fact, give UCLA's offense a better chance to be effective.

The coaches just need to fine some guys to execute it.

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