The Bruins held a less-physically demanding practice than usual on Thursday, working out in shorts and shoulder pads in working on their final preparation for the trip up to the Farm on Saturday. A balance of practicing for a physical opponent with the rash of injuries in recent days, I suppose. There was a heightened focus on special teams and also on the red zone offense during the session, though not all the drills went as hoped:
The two-minute drill at the end of practice wasn't exactly smooth. On the first play, safety Stan McKay intercepted a Brehaut pass. They started over and Johnathan Franklin got stuffed for no gain follwed by consecutive dropped passes by Shaquelle Evans and Franklin. Brehaut then connected with Taylor Embree for 30 yards on fourth and 10, setting up a 35-yard field goal by Jeff Locke, which he made.
If nothing else, Richard Brehaut was able to complete a long pass, and Locke did hit the field goal. Speaking of Richard, Coach Neuheisel spoke of how much he had progressed over the past few weeks at running the offense, and how Brehaut has the ability to become a top Quarterback.
"He’s come a long way," Neuheisel said. "There are some things that we discover all the time that are in his head that aren’t exactly correct, so we got to get those weeded out. But as long as we have open lines of communication, which has been the case, we’re going to get those things discovered and I think he’s going to be terrific."
Richard talked to the media a bit as well, discussing the growth in his game as well as his areas of improvement.
"I’ve always believed I’m a great quarterback," he said. "From training camp until now, I think I’ve made tremendous growth in terms of recognizing defenses and how that parlays into coverages, being able to be that quarterback that’s able to see things before they happen. I have to do that on an every down basis. That’s something I can get extremely better at.
"I’ve always been blessed physically. I don’t think that’s ever been my problem. I think it’s always been the mental aspect. That’s what I’m putting all my effort in. everything I’m concentrating on is that aspect of my game."
On injury news, Sheldon Price, Dalton Hilliard and Alec Mascarenas are questionable for Saturday, currently considered game-time decisions. Andrew Abbott is expected to return to action, and Jamie Graham should be ready to make his UCLA debut after having returned to practice earlier in the week.
Tasser write a post earlier in the week looking at the shift to a power-running offensive philosophy that Coach Neuheisel has implemented over the past two seasons. The LA Times contrasted the new philosophy with that of one of his earlier teams at the University of Washington that was a pure-air it out team. Neu was quoted as saying that the struggles of that UW team demonstrated to him the need for a balanced offense. With that said, he feels less of a concern with leaning on the running game when it is the focus of the offense than when the team relies on throwing the ball.
"When you're leaning heavily on the run, it becomes obvious that you need to throw by the situation," Neuheisel said. "If you're able to continue to stay on the field with the run, you can control games."
There certainly is a valid point here; if the running game is working well enough, you don't need to throw the ball very much - just enough to keep the defense honest and/or try for a few longer gains per game. The question is whether UCLA's running game is that effective. Paul Johnson's offense at Georgia Tech (and at the Naval Academy prior to that) has been successful using that basic model, as have a few other teams in D-1, but as Jon Gold noted in his Daily News blog Q&A, UCLA's implementation of the pistol has not reached that level of effectiveness.
Forget that UCLA ranks 28th nationally in rushing yards. The Bruins rank 59th in total offense and 74th in scoring offense. Teams with dominant running games - Georgia Tech, Air Force, Nevada, etc. - average more than 260 rushing yards. UCLA averages 214 and has scratched and clawed for each of them.
One thing to keep in mind with the above figures is that the scoring offense rating is affected by the pace of the game, or the number of possessions that each team has. Part of this season's offensive strategy is based on the goal of reducing the total number of possessions in order to protect the defense, and as a result is going to depress the number of scores, no matter how well the team executes. Nevertheless, the other teams cited have not have problems racking up yards and points with their option and run-focused attacks. The Bruins have a quite good running game, with a couple of running backs that will make it to the next level. But, at this point it is not good enough to leave aside the passing attack as a rarely used diversion. Neu told the Times that he is concerned with becoming too one-dimensional, and has the team working on more play-action sets, but after the play distribution that accompanied Oregon State's near-comeback last weekend,
Peter Yoon wrote a piece on Jeff Baca's faster than expected return to action, and into the starting lineup. The impending matchup against Andrew Luck was a popular subject of discussion for the beat writers, with Peter Yoon, Adam Maya and Jon Gold all taking the topic on yesterday. Short version - Luck is a great quarterback with solid mobility who elevates the play of his teammates, and will be difficult for the UCLA defense to contain. Gold noted some improvement in the play of the Defensive Line in the Oregon State game, having accumulated 6 TFL's and helping to hold the Beavers to 88 yards rushing. He notes the emergence of Iuta Tepa in the defensive end rotation, but also the need for players to better follow their fundamentals and take advantage of opportunities.