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Despite a lot of chatter about culture change and off-season hype, UCLA football remains stuck in neutral at the midpoint of Jim Mora's first season.
7 games into Jim Mora's first season as the head ball coach of UCLA Bruins head into the bye week with a record of 5-2. Record wise that sounds pretty good but for those of who have been around a while also remember the feeling when Karl Dorrell started his first season at UCLA with a record of 6-2. While the Bruins won the game on Saturday it didn't do much to alleviate the concerns around a stumbling and bumbling program that still seems to be stuck in neutral.
Let's get something out of the way first. While Utah has a good coach this was a really bad team. It came in with a true freshman making his first start, leading one of the worse offenses in the country. Except for beating a mediocre BYU team at home Utah had not beaten a decent team all season. The Utes do have a good DL and speedy set of LBs, but this should have been a team a well-coached Bruin team should have been able to comfortably handle at the Rose Bowl.
Instead we saw another uneven and unpolished performance that kept all of us on the edge Saturday afternoon and left us with nothing tangible to show that the team is improving week to week. In fact the Bruins have not had a complete performance since it beat a pretty mediocre Nebraska team at the Rose Bowl. The offense looks to get getting more predictable by the week, the special teams a mess, and we have a defense which seem to be susceptible to a meltdown at any moment (despite having great athletes all over the lineup) because coaches do not have the right combination playing at the secondary.
Sure there were some bright spots yesterday. Let me bullet them first:
- The offense line with its young core had a solid game against one of the better DLs in the country. It was a solid bounce back performance after the debacle at Cal.
- Brett Hundley also had a nice game after his tough outing against Cal and since the first game of this season looked to be somewhat at full strength when he used his wheels to scamper for first down.
- It took coaches while - but moving Jordan Zumwalt inside seemed to pay off as we have one our collective best effort from the LB unit in a while.
- Really liked what I saw from Jordan Payton. He only had two catches for 19 yards but I liked what I saw from him and excited about what he can do in the coming weeks and rest of his career in Westwood.
The positive things aside I don't have any sense right now that this team is improving by the week. Right now our offense doesn't look like anything the promise it showed in first three weeks of the season. It looks more predictable than ever. In fact the phrase that comes into mind when watching this offense is this from Coach:
"Don't Mistake Activity for Achievement"
The Bruin offense looks pretty at times. We get lot of players involved in both of our passing and running attack. Yet despite all of that there hasn't been consistent rhythm or chemistry in this unit since the Nebraska game. We are still seeing an offense that is often gets bogged down with personnel substitution and confusion that tripped this unit up time and time again in previous years.
It was laughable to see the team take a penalty after a TO and blow a manageable 4th and 5 situation during a key sequence in the second quarter.
It also looks like at times Mazzone is hesitant to stick with what is working. The Bruin OL actually was having a decent afternoon on Saturday and opening up holes for Jet Ski, who was ripping of chunks of yardage. Yet at times right when Jet Ski was getting hot and getting in rhythm, Mazzone was taking him out and taking the air out of Bruins' momentum on offense.
There is also this. I like using the speed and shiftiness of our scatbacks through quick outs and hitch passes to our RBs in the flat (although it seems like everyone in the conference can now sniff out that ridiculous lateral pass that takes forever to develop like a lame Norm Chow/Mike Johnson called WR reverse run). It makes sense to have those quick strikes to our RBs on first downs, not on third down and long when everyone knows we are in passing situation. Mazzone may have a nice scheme to work with but in terms of what we saw in UCLA's playcalling it looked standard Donahue/Dorrell/Neuheisel's run-run-pass boring, vanilla that have turned Rose Bowl into a sleepy place for more than two decades.
Meanwhile, the special teams sans Jeff Locke is a joke. It's the same old cr&p we have seen from last few years as a result of some coach having to do double duties as a special teams coach and coaching another unit. What we saw from Steven Manfro was inexcusable and kind of dumbfounding because it's not the first time he has made this kind mistake. Hopefully that experiment is over for rest of the season.
Lastly, on the defensive side, it's nice that coaches have figured out that it makes sense to have Zumwalt operate from the inside. Hopefully they finally get clued into the idea that it also makes sense to have their best CB - Andrew Abbott - actually play the CB position. This would allow then to move Tevin McDonald to his natural FS position as he seems to be struggling and out of place at SS. Moving McDonald to FS, would then allow coaches using guys like Dalton Hilliard or Stan McKay shine at their FS position (and get more speed and explosiveness into the unit). I rather see Marcus Rios or Randall Goforth at the other CB position and then use guys like Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester as our 5th CB in the nickel.
As far as the program is concerned, no matter how much Mora talks up Utah, there is not a lot to be excited about this team. It's still looks predictable, vanilla, mistake prone and not showing a lot of signs of improvement week to week. No matter how much people want to talk up a 5-2 record, we all know deep inside the uncertainty hovering over this program, with key games coming in next few weeks.
Does anyone feel confident that this team can beat ASU in Tempe or have the defense to stop Rich Rod's explosive Arizona offense? Can we even beat Mike Leach's Washington State in Pullman?
Unless this team finishes with at least 8 regular seasons win (including one on November 17th), this team will remain stuck in neutral. Not exactly a good situation, after spending millions on a career .500 NFL head coach with zero college coaching experience. We hope that team will respond to the pressure and finish strong. But we all banking simply on HOPE is not a sound strategy.