So here we are again.
Third different time in 2012 that UCLA's football team has been ranked in the AP Poll after a victory. This time after a win on the road against Arizona State.
That doesn't really give enough kudos to the game on Saturday afternoon; but I'm attempting to start our objective as possible with a look at what this win got us on Sunday morning. Biggest step for that was waiting until this morning to reflect on what happened in Tempe.
When I woke up after a very late night out (Halloween weekend for a college student, what do you expect?), I tried to reflect on what this game means for UCLA.
UCLA had been 0-6 following bye weeks in recent years and atrocious on the road in conference against worthwhile opponents. The Cal game was still on my mind as was the game against AU last season. Arizona State was motivated coming off of a blowout loss at the hands of Oregon (who hung 70 on Colorado).
The Bruins could have easily lost this game.
Giving up a go-ahead score with 1:33 left on the road against a Top-20 defense is not an ideal situation for a victory.
Nor is giving away a possession by messing up a coin toss, or fumbling a punt in the red-zone, or giving up 500 yards of offense.
But the Bruins didn't lose, despite all that. The offense drove down the field, led by Johnathan Franklin, Joseph Fauria, Brett Hundley and the offensive line opening up holes. The coaching staff used the timeouts wisely (actually having all 3 going into the last drive would never have happened in the last decade plus) and set up the true freshman kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn for the biggest kick of his life, and he absolutely drilled it down the middle of the uprights. UCLA wins 45-43 and improves to 6-2 (2-2 in conference).
What I believe this win means for the season is much different than what it means for the "Eye Test". I have to be objective and only focus on this game, not the grand scheme of things. That's what I did, so let's get to the grades.
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
Stats tell about 90% of the story here. I can understand excusing the first TD because the defense had stopped ASU in a authoritative fashion, which was followed by the Steven Manfro fumble (more on that later). Your focus is on the sideline adjustments and getting rest after getting a stop, I've been through it many times personally, it's understandable that UCLA's D would give up a score from a drive starting on the 13-yard line.
Arizona State ran 94 plays for 535 yards. That's a lot of offense and a lot of yardage.
The rushing game looks worse than it actually is. 220 yards rushing is a lot to give up; but not on 59(!) attempts. A defense will take 3.7 yards per rush any game and they'll have a chance to win the game if they do well on 3rd down.
That is an insane commitment to the run, I'll also take this as a final opportunity to shout out the Arizona State running backs. All three are guys that could play at the next level (they won't; but they could). Three running backs combining for 347 yards of total offense is not something you'll see often.
The passing game bothered me a lot more than the rushing. The screen pass is one of the most effective plays an offense can run at any level. It forces a defense with an aggressive pass rush to hold back a little. It can lead to a ton of yardage against a defense playing soft coverage with just a couple down-field blocks. I love the screen pass and will use the hell out of it if I get an opportunity to call plays for a team.
However, it is a change of pace play. It should never work against a defense more than a few times a game. Arizona State had a weak group of receivers. No disrespect to them, but it is close to the least talented group in the conference. There was not a need to account for a deep threat, I believe there were two passes all day by Taylor Kelley that went over twenty yards in the air.
Arizona's passing offense on Saturday was screen passes. That's it. Everything else was a non-issue. Yet, somehow in the fourth quarter, UCLA's defensive front seven was still getting beat on screens. The same screen passes, not anything they haven't seen before. If you are getting a free run at the quarterback and he is backpedaling backwards instantly and you see three other guys on your team running with you, chances are that it's a screen. Everyone gets fooled on occasion, that's just football. It happens and is unavoidable. But the screen should not work 20 times in a game. Thankfully, Eric Kendricks had a monster game with 17 tackles and UCLA defense in general had a great day tackling. If last year's defensive fundamentals were shown during this game, ASU might have scored 70 points with the effectiveness of the screens.
Sorry for the mini-rant, but I'm more passionate about defensive football than anything else in a game. So my frustrations are going to show more here than when the offense struggles. If the UCLA hadn't won this game, this grade would be an F or a low D. Luckily, they did win. D+ (1.3)
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Putting up 486 yards against a talented defense is always going to get praise.
Johnathan Franklin had a big day. 26 carries for 164 yards and had multiple rushing TDs for the first time since the Rice game. He paced the offense throughout and showed why he should be a workhorse for this offense and never get less than 20 touches in any game UCLA expects to win.
Brett Hundley also carved up a ASU pass defense that was ranked #1 in the nation before Saturday. Hundley line of 19-29 and 274 yards doesn't look all that impressive at first glance. But the kid threw 4 TD passes and engineered a game-winning drive while down 43-42 with 1:33 left in the 4th quarter.
Obviously, the offense has had bigger statistical games. This game was more impressive than any other to me because of the quality of the defense that got torn up by UCLA. ASU is as fast as any defense in the conference outside of Oregon and as physical as any defense in the Pac-12 outside of Stanford. It's a good group and putting up 45 points and 500 yards against a good defense is going to get a good grade any time it happens. A (4.0)
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
Have to start this off with what happened before the game at the coin-toss. I preface this by saying that I've been at midfield for around 30-40 kickoffs in my experience as a football player. It isn't a difficult event to understand.
You go out on the field after warm-ups, someone tells the head coach, "10 minutes to game-time". The captains go to the captains' meeting at this time. You walk out to midfield with the other captains, arms locked, holding hands, whatever. You do the sportsmanship deal and shake the other team's captains' hands. One captain on each team speaks, the other captains just try to look intimidating. The head official introduces his staff, explains focus points for the game. The away team picks a side of the coin. One team wins the toss, you defer your choice to the second half or you receive, then the other team picks a side of the field. That's it. Not tough. It's the same from Pop Warner to the NFL.
How in the hell does that get messed up? What could Andrew Abbott, Damien Holmes, David Allen and Johnathan Franklin be doing 10 minutes before kickoff that could make them miss a coin toss? How does the coaching staff not make sure they are out there? How does Jeff Locke not know how to participate in a coin toss? Why didn't the UCLA captains sprint out to the meeting when they saw Jeff Locke walking to midfield instead of walking up behind him after the toss?
One of the most embarrassing things I have ever heard of happening in a football game and also something I have never heard of happening before Saturday. UCLA literally gave Arizona State an extra possession willingly. No takeaway, no giveaway. I was nearly without words trying to explain that chain of events on the phone to my dad while he and my mother were on a road trip to Missouri.
Penalties only became an issue in the second half, UCLA actually didn't commit a penalty in the first quarter and I believe only had two in the second.
The penalties that were really bothersome were a couple of personal fouls by Shaq Evans and Cassius Marsh. Both guys have played really well this season, probably each the 3rd best players on the offense and defense so far. But Evans, clearly has control problems. The fight in Tuscon, punching another player this season, and on Saturday he chucked a ball at an ASU defender's head while the defender was laying on the ground. Classless and something that bothered me because it is so easy to avoid.
The Cassius Marsh penalty was just a player hitting a quarterback on his way out of bounds a half a second too late. While it was far less egregious then the infamous hit on Patrick Cowan, it was dumb and overaggressive, but ASU didn't score on the drive, so it wasn't that costly.
At the end of the day, 7 penalties for 77 yards is about average for the season. That's too many and too many free yards.
Offensively, this wasn't question wasn't a big issue. The holding by Brendel, the chop-block by XSF and the facemask by Baca are not ideal. But they didn't impede the offense much on their way to the 2nd highest point total of the season (49 at Rice being higher)
Defensively, I covered the screen passes, so I'm not getting into that here. It still hurts the grade here though.
And I don't even know where to begin with the punt return issues this week.
There was a lot of talk about Devin Fuller fielding punts before kickoff, which I still disagree with (an issue neither here not there). However, after the defense forced a 3-and-out to start the game, it was Steven Manfro back out to run back the punt.
Just like last week, the punt took him backwards. Just like last week, the punt was likely headed to the endzone for a touchback. Just like last week, Manfro did not field it cleanly. Just like last week, UCLA's opponent gets a free possession inside the red-zone. Just like last week, UCLA spotted their opponent a touchdown and a lead in the game.
It's not like replacing Manfro after that improved things much, as Devin Fuller muffed his only chance at returning a punt, luckily recovering it and Damien Thigpen allowed a punt to bounce on about the 25-yard line that candy hopped inside the five yard line.
This was brutal in this game. And would be an F if UCLA had lost this game. It ends up a D (1.0), only because the offense played well.
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
Yes. And UCLA needed every last second to win this game. It was not the prettiest win, but it was hard-fought and exciting as hell throughout by both teams.
Ka'imi Fairbairn kicking a game winning 33 yard field goal will be one of the highlights of the season, even if this season ends up in a Pac-12 Championship. That was a legitimate joy to see.
The defense played hard, not particularly well; but hard.
No complaints here. Not much to critique. It's an A (4.0)
5) Do our players execute?
Overall, both sides of the ball did a good job here.
You might raise an eyebrow at me saying that about the defense; but, watch the tape. They tackled well all game long. The only pass-interference call was a ticky-tack call (and the latest I've ever seen a flag thrown by a referee without an issue pulling it from his pocket) on Stan McKay after breaking up a pass on 4th down. The biggest negative is that the complaints about the screen pass fall into this category a little bit.
As for the offense, it was a solid day. No fumbles, the interception came on a flea-flicker that had no business being thrown by Hundley and was played terribly by Jerry Johnson (who for some reason is still Hundley's favorite downfield target despite getting zero catches on like 5 targets).
Also, the OL usually gets a shout-out here from me and they deserve another one as a unit for this performance, along with all the RBs and TEs in pass protection. ASU was bring at least 5 every play, more most of the time. The pressure was overwhelming, and, overall, the pass protection was solid. Hundley got sacked 5 times; but considering that UCLA ran about 40 pass plays and ASU brought more rushers than UCLA had blockers at least 20 times as well. It was a good showing by a maturing unit. As far as the running game goes, anytime Franklin rushes for 100+, the run blocking was going well.
Side note: anyone still using the "young" excuse about the offensive line is full of (rhymes with spit). They are now 8 games into a season. At this point, you're experience level is a year ahead if you've been on the field. XSF is a redshirt junior, experience-wise. Jeff Baca and Alberto Cid are seniors-plus some. Simon Goines, Torian White and Jake Brendel are all sophomores. They've been together all season. They're experienced now. Stop using that as an excuse or as extra praise for their impressive performance.
The blocking on the edge by the receivers deserves recognition as well. People bring it up every week in the game threads. These WRs get after defensive backs down-field. I credit that to Coach Yarber and also to the mentality shift from the last offensive scheme. I have plenty of criticisms about the N-Zone offense. But I can confidently state that it deserves praise for involving so many players in the game.
If you show receivers that they can get the ball, they'll work harder when they don't get the ball. It makes sense, even if you don't think that sentence does.
On special teams, this is still an issue. Punt team allowed a 20 yard return. Punt return team essentially gave ASU a TD and almost turned it over again. The kickoff and kickoff return teams were a non-factor due to touchbacks, though I liked seeing Rickey Marvray back there.
One average, one very good, one below average. In my eyes, all that equals a C+ (2.3)
6) Do we have leaders on the field?
On offense, it has to be Johnathan Franklin. As well as Hundley played, Franklin was the heartbeat of the offense throughout. Franklin ended up breaking 1000 yards on the season through 8 games. That's insane. He's 20 yards away from the all-time UCLA rushing record and judging by the way Arizona played against Southern Cal, that should happen on the first scoring drive of the game.
I'm not comfortable saying any defender led the unit when they allowed 43 points and over 500 yards of offense to Arizona State. Eric Kendricks had a great game, with 17 tackles. Datone Jones, Owa Odighizuwa and Cassius Marsh had about 10 great plays each; but also about 5 bad plays each. Jordan Zumalt picked up the slack for Anthony Barr being schemed out of the game by ASU's offense. 4 sacks (Stan McKay, Marsh, Barr and Zumalt) and 8 TFLs are nice, as was the pressure that forced the interception by Dalton Hilliard. But the bad numbers outweigh the good.
On special teams, the kick by Fairbairn was the biggest kick by a UCLA kicker in quite some time (genuinely don't remember the last game-winner).
The offense and special teams outweigh my frustration with the defense still not finding a leader. Giving this category a A- (3.7)
Final Grade Card for Arizona State Sun Devils
Based on the discussion here is how it shapes up:
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? [D+: 1.3]
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? [A: 4.0]
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? [D: 1.0]
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? [A: 4.0]
5) Do our players execute? [C+: 2.3]
6) Do we have leaders on the field? [A-: 3.7]
Arizona State GPA: 2.7
For perspective, the overall GPA at the end of the regular season was 1.61 last year. This is a weird GPA to give out for me. I have to hold the defense accountable for how bad they played, I have to hold the coaching staff accountable for the coin-toss situation. Regardless of what you might think, that had a huge impact on the game. It was the equivalent of a turnover to start the half. At the same time, I have to recognize how well the offense played and how clutch the offense and kicking game was to win a tough game on the road.
Despite having a lower GPA, it was at least as impressive as the Rice game (3.27), the Nebraska game (3.48) or the Colorado game (3.33). And not even comparable to the Cal blowout (1.1) or the loss of an eminently winnable game to Oregon State (1.62.) Despite being slightly lower than the snoozer against Utah (2.72), this game means more for the grand scheme of the season than any one of those games.
Through the first eight games, UCLA is 6-2, ranked #25 and bowl-eligible before November.
Next week, UCLA gets the Arizona Wildcats at the Rose Bowl, fresh off of their handling of Southern Cal in Tuscon. The Wildcats come into the matchup ranked #24 (another game against a ranked opponent) and stand at 5-3 and 2-3 in the Pac-12.
Rich Rodriguez has made that team look impressive on offense very quickly, ranking 4th in the NCAA in total offense. Austin Hill was overshadowed by Marqise Lee's record-breaking performance last week. But he is yet another impressive WR for UCLA's secondary to deal with. UCLA should be able to score and move the ball without much trouble against AU's 110th ranked defense. We could be looking at another shootout.
UCLA controls their own destiny, win the games on the schedule, win the Pac-12 South. After the embarrassment in Tuscon last year, UCLA has plenty to prove this week against the Wildcats. As always, I look forward to seeing how this team responds.