As gbruin mentioned there is a lot of mixed feelings about our performance against Utah last Saturday. And there is a lot of mixed feelings on Mora after the euphoria of the first three games. Are we better than last year? Are we on the right track? More importantly, are we getting better and improving?
While everyone has their own feelings on the matters, I decided I would try to look at the numbers and see what they say. There are too many numbers to examine them all but I decided to try to examine the three things that UCLA was worst at last year: sacks, punt returns, and penalties. In all three of these categories UCLA was not just the worst in the PAC 12 but in the entire country, ranking in the 100s in all three categories. I will try to give context to each of the numbers but obviously there is still a subjective element.
UCLA's pass rush was not so much a rush as a crawl. UCLA ranked 112 (out of 120) in the nation in sacks with just 14 for the season or one per game. Mora has not only fixed this but he has turned in into arguably the best part of our defense. We are currently number 5 in the nation in sacks.
So why the turnaround? There are no significant new personnel.
IMO, it is a difference in approach and dealing with the larger problem that led to this turnaround.
When you look at the UCLA defense the weakest unit is the defensive backs. Rick Neuheisel dealt with this problem by rarely blitzing, dropping more into coverage, and having our cornerbacks give big cushions so they weren't beat deep. In other words, Neuheisel dealt with the problem by trying to minimize risk.
Mora did the opposite. By blitzing and putting an emphasis on the rush, Mora's scheme has led to our cornerbacks being left in isolation more. And as the Oregon State game in particular showed, that leads to us being beat deep for the big play occasionally. Moreover, in other games it seems our corners are often picked upon but again that is the risk Mora took.
While many UCLA fans are cursing every time one of those corners gets beat, the increased rush has also led to more turnovers (UCLA is fourth in the nation in interceptions) and a better overall defense.
By the numbers, it seems Mora's aggressive and gambling scheme has been an overwhelming success over Neuhesiesel's passive approach.
2. Punt Return Yardage
Last year UCLA's punt returns were returns in name only. They were more punt catches. UCLA never looked to return the ball. Punt Returns as a weapon were non-existent and Coach Neuheisel took the position that we were not going to make a mistake sending his surest handed possession receiver back to field punts.
Mora has again taking the opposite approach but the results have been fuller of nuisances than the statistics show. UCLA is now number 58 in punt return yards in the nation and already has well over twice as many return yards this season as last. But do the numbers tell the story?
Utah was only in the game because of a colossal error on punt returns. Without Manfro's fumble the game would have been over long before the final gun. Also, in the Cal game, UCLA's chances at a comeback were effectively ended when Manfro muffed a punt after a player was blocked into him. The negative effects of our punt return efforts this year, at this point, seem to say that either: Neuhiesel was right or that this is a problem that has not been fixed. Maybe both.
IMO, this is a problem Mora still needs to address despite the statistical improvement.
On the subject of penalties, UCLA's football players seem more like they are members of Delta Tau Chi at Faber College rather than students at a prestigious academic institution. It is not just penalties but stupid penalties. It is so bad that the Utah game with seven penalties is considered an improvement since none of them significantly hurt.
In 2011, UCLA ranked 109 in penalties per game. In 2012 that ranking has fallen to 115. In other words, we are still stupid. In 2011, arguably the stupidest penalty came against Texas when we had too many players on the field after a timeout. In 2012, we "improved" to just an illegal procedure out of a time out in the Utah game.
Really this is inexcusable. Some penalties are okay, but too many of ours are mental errors. Mora needs to address this issue.
So what does all this mean? In his efforts to improve the three major statistical problem areas of 2011 Mora is 1.5 for three. He has made a major improvement in one area, arguably improved another (although I am not so sure), and none in the third. The turnaround in sacks is impressive from our worst major category to one of the best teams in the nation. Mora deserves a lot of credit for this effort. But he will have to work on the other areas, especially penalties, if he is going to be coach for a longtime at UCLA.