The weekly "eye test" - assessing the performance of UCLA football team considering factors such as level of execution, play calling, intensity and leadership on the field.
Not a statement that should come as a surprise to anyone here. What might surprise some is that I respect the hell out of what they do on the field because I grew up playing their style of football.
Physical, borderline arrogance, fast, no off-switch when the game is out of hand.
That's how I was raised to go about things on the football field and it works. It works at every level, if the talent is there. There is a reason why Southern Cal hasn't changed the way they play in 30 years, why the Pittsburgh Steelers have been so successful over the years, why Long Beach Poly is always in the playoffs.
It is attitude. It is the action behind the attitude. It is knowing that you should win every play and every game.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, it was UCLA with that mindset instead of Southern Cal.
And, like it always has, it worked.
The Victory Bell returns to its rightful home and color.
That was enough for my weekend to be a great one. This is an arrival of sorts in the Southern California marketplace. There are a great number of people who watched this game and saw UCLA for the first time all season. They overlooked the record and expected Southern Cal to show up and handle their unfinished business against UCLA like they have the last decade.
I am glad that the Bruins left all those people confused. UCLA flat-out had the better team against Southern Cal, who I am going to happily call Southern Cal for this entire column.
The game plan was simple and effective. Control the pace of the game on offense, get the ball into your best players' hands and let them make plays, keep Barkley, Woods and Lee off of the field, eliminate the big play through the air on defense, force Southern Cal to run the ball, tackle well.
You can win almost any football game with that game plan.
UCLA controlled the game throughout and won 38-28 and now finds themselves at 9-2 (6-2), ranked anywhere from #15-#17 in the polls, and as the Pac-12 South Champions, in control of their own destiny as far as the post-season goes.
This game is almost impossible to stay objective about while analyzing it for the "Eye Test"; but I did all that I could to keep it that way.
So let's get to the grades.
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
Again, back to Coach Mora's stance on evaluating a defense. Can't just look at yards because they don't tell the entire story of a football game.
The defense played about as well as anybody could have expected against Matt Barkley and the ridiculous talent that Southern Cal possesses at their skill positions.
The defense allowing only three touchdowns while intercepting two passes, blocking a punt, blocking a field goal, stopping a fourth down conversions and breaking up 11 passes is a damn impressive performance. 500 yards given up aside, the defense balled out.
Some more personalized focus.
Marqise Lee was mostly contained. He had 5 catches for 97 yards in the last 8 minutes of the game, after being bottled up by Aaron Hester. Hester has rightfully received a great deal of criticism this season for his tendency to commit foolish penalties, get beat in press coverage and miss open-field tackles. Overall, he's played far better this season than any other and does have flashes where he looks like a next level player (he isn't one, but it looks that way sometimes).
Though the defense only recorded one sack (a legendary one by Anthony Barr to end Matt Barkley's collegiate career) and 3 TFLS, there were 9 rushing plays that went for 0-3 yards.
Multiple big plays by Datone Jones, who showed the NFL scouts in attendance why he is well suited for a 3-4 DE spot at the next level.
Another big one by Aaron Wallace, who subbed in for two plays in the fourth quarter. First play was a big tackle for no gain after a Sheldon Price pass interference. Nice way to make your mark in the rivalry.
Eric Kendricks was once again all over the field, making 8 tackles, blocking a punt, intercepting a pass and forcing a big fumble by Lee in the first quarter.
End result, a win, a lot of yardage given up, a ton of big plays on defense and a good grade. B (3.0)
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
A little down on the season averages; but they were facing a well-ranked defense on a wet field in a high-pressure atmosphere. It was a good performance overall.
Johnathan Franklin left his mark on this rivalry with a huge game. 29 carries for 171 yards with 2 touchdowns along with 2 catches for 14 yards (one big 3rd and 14 conversion where he broke through 4 defenders to get the first down). Franklin took over the game when UCLA needed it most, notably clinching the game on a 29 yard TD run with 4 minutes left.
Brett Hundley started what should become the first of 3 victories for him against Southern Cal (I am resigning myself to the fact that seeing a RS-senior Brett Hundley is unlikely at this juncture). Had unbelievable poise throughout, stepping up in the pocket with a pass rusher barring down multiple times. Ended up at a solid, but unspectacular 22-30 for 234 yards and a TD, with 2 rushing TDs. He held on to the ball too long a few times that led to sacks; but that will happen with as good of a pass rush as Southern Cal brings to the table.
For the most part, UCLA kept it simple on offense. No flashy trick-plays, not a ton of swing passes once Southern Cal showed they had those scouted. Just good blocking up front and controlling the line of scrimmage.
Furthering that point, Hundley got the ball in the hands of his best players.
Joseph Fauria got involved early and often, scoring his 10th TD of the season and now has an outside chance of getting the First Team All-Pac-12 spot at TE.
Shaq Evans had the game of his life, with 8 catches for 114 yards. Jerry Johnson set the tone on the opening drive with a couple of tough catches for first downs and ended up with 4 total catches.
It was a very effective game plan by Noel Mazzone and it was executed well enough by the Bruins to result in a victory.
When you look at the number from this game, 406 yards, 38 points, 5 sacks allowed, only 3.4 yards per carry, giving up a defensive touchdown. It's a mix of good and bad. The good definitely outweighed the bad, even if the bad stuff nearly killed most of us. Grade drops a bit because of the underperformance compared to the season norms. B+ (3.3)
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
UCLA did not disappoint in the penalty department. 12 penalties for 115 yards. That is brutal by any metric.
Were the Pac-12 referees bad? Not for the most part, maybe 3 questionable calls and one phantom penalty that I noticed on the Trojans. For the most part, this was a well-officiated game.
Sheldon Price had 3 pass interference penalties. Two on Marqise Lee and another on a fade route to Robert Woods in the endzone. I came in expecting exactly this number of PI calls against Lee and Woods, so this wasn't an issue for me grade-wise. UCLA actually forced turnovers on two of the drives with pass interference penalties and the third would have resulted in a TD regardless of Price grabbing Woods' jersey as he jumped.
UCLA was actually having a normal day until the last minute of the game, where the outcome was already decided. Three penalties in the last :34 of the ballgame with the backup QB trying to get a garbage time TD.
There were only three penalties that genuinely frustrated me during the game. Two of them were on Jeff Baca, the tripping penalty and a false start on the goal-line. UCLA scored on both drives, so they weren't overly damaging in the grand scheme of things; but the thing that gets me is the seniority of Baca. He is easily the most penalized player on the offensive side of the ball. I'd need to look into the games one at a time; but I know I have mentioned him more than once in the Eye Tests and I'd guesstimate that he is around 15 penalties on the year. He will be missed because he has done a solid job this season and is an anchor of sorts to the offensive line. I will not miss the frequency with which he draws yellow flags.
The special teams were stellar yet again. The praise would be even higher if not for some over thinking by Marcus Rios on the goal-line. Could have downed a punt at the 1 yard-line and got a little too caught up with staying out of the endzone. Overall though, great job by the special teams. Two more blocked kicks, one punt by Eric Kendricks and another field goal by Sheldon Price at the end of the game. That brings it up to 6 blocks by UCLA in the last two games. That is over-worldly and will likely never happen again in a two game stretch.
On offense and defense there were no substitution penalties, a pleasant change from the last few games. Team looked composed throughout and I have to give Coach Mora and his staff praise for controlling the emotion in this game. UCLA had more energy than Southern Cal out of the gate and kept that energy channeled. Any game where you get up 24-0 and still control the rest of the game against an equally talented opponent is a good game.
Grade suffers because UCLA cemented their place as the most penalized team in the NCAA; but the overall play of the offense, defense and special teams balances it into a solid game. B (3.0)
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
Can't question this one. Southern Cal either came out of the gate flat or unprepared. UCLA put it on them, going up 24-0 and basically playing keep away after that while scoring a few more times as well.
The end of the second quarter looked worse than it was. Southern Cal's first scoring drive was started by a well-run scramble drill by Barkley and Robert Woods. Barkley evaded pressure in the pocket and flushed to his right, Woods was well covered and broke downfield. Barkley threw a great ball and Woods got 31 yards out of it.
Effort wasn't an issue at any point, and no one could argue that the Bruins didn't play all out in this game. Could they have turned it into a blowout after going up 24-0? Sure; but teams with the talent that Southern Cal has don't get blown out. Grade reflects the effort level. A (4.0)
5) Do our players execute?
The defense forced three turnovers and nearly had a fourth, if not for a few bounces that went right into Southern Cal's hands.
Aaron Hester's interception was literally the best way that the game could have started. It was a bad pass by Barkley into very good coverage on an out-pattern by Lee.
Two drives later, with a 10 point lead, the defense forced another turnover. Marqise Lee tried to reverse field on a run; but was met by a wall of UCLA defenders and Eric Kendricks forced the ball out of his hands and into the lap of Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
At the mention of Odighizuwa (getting way better at typing that name without checking the spelling), I have to note the job of the defense as a whole in breaking up passes. 11 pass breakups in one game is a ridiculous number.
Owa deflected two at the line of scrimmage.
Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumalt and Damien Holmes combined for 4.
Those are all about execution. You first have to be in good enough coverage and position to make a play on the ball, then you have to read the play as it is going on to avoid getting called for holding or pass interference, then you have to follow through and execute the knockdown or breakup. To have that happen 11 times in one game is exceptional.
The run defense could have been better; but UCLA's game plan was obviously to slow down the passing game and let Southern Cal beat them with the run. They couldn't, despite Curtis McNeal getting a hard-fought 161 yards on the ground.
The biggest praise I can give the UCLA offense is that they controlled the pace of the game until the last 8 minutes where the Trojans made their last effort to get back in the game. The slower tempo and focus on the running game kept the Trojans offense off of the field. An 18 play, 84 yards drive gave UCLA a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and took 7 minutes and 42 seconds. The drive to give UCLA a 24-0 lead was 14 plays and took 4 minutes and 32 seconds off the clock. And the clinching drive of 9 plays and 83 yards milked 3 minutes and 14 seconds off the clock in the 4th quarter.
Executing the game plan on both sides of the ball at that high of a level while in the rain against a tough opponent when it mattered most deserve nothing but adulation, to be honest.
The grade reflects this and is the highest grade you can get for execution at an A (4.0).
6) Do we have leaders on the field?
Johnathan Franklin will go down as one of, if not the, best running backs ever at UCLA. He rushed for about 300 yards in his career against Southern Cal and has surpassed 4000 career rushing yards. He is now at 1,441 yards this season and should break Karim Abdul-Jabbar's record of 1,571. And he is now at 4,599 career all-purpose yards and should easily break that record held by Maurice Jones-Drew with 4,688. He has an outside shot at leading the nation in rushing, as he is just 140 yards behind Ka'Deem Carey with three games to go.
He is now a UCLA legend and has three more games to further his legacy as a Bruin.
Brett Hundley is building his own legend at UCLA, beating Southern Cal as a freshman and he is well on his way to breaking records of his own. Hundley is now second on UCLA's single-season total offense with 3,255 yards and with pass Cade McNown's 3,652 by the end of the year. Hundley has exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic prognosticators and his name will now start popping up on the minds of NFL scouts, which is insane by itself because he is a redshirt freshman.
On the defensive side of the ball, mention has to be made of Eric Kendricks. He got beat on the first touchdown of the game, as I addressed earlier. Other than that, he was all over the field as he has been all season. He now has 112 total tackles, which leads the Pac-12. He had a huge game against Southern Cal, as I said earlier. It is worth stating more than once. 8 tackles, a TFL, a forced fumble, an interception and a blocked punt. If not for an other-worldly effort by Shayne Skov at Stanford, he would have likely been Defensive Player of the Week and is still on his way to an All-Pac-12 spot as a sophomore.
Anthony Barr did not have his biggest game; but he did solidify his case for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with his sack of Matt Barkley. I watched that GIF of Barr knocking Barkley out of the game a solid 150 times and it still doesn't get old. His 12 sacks are just a half sack behind the national lead of 12.5 and he has a great chance at leading the nation in that category in his first year on defense.
I also have to shout-out Aaron Hester. As hard as he has been criticized this season, he deserves the same level of praise for the job he did against the best WR in the country in Marqise Lee. It was phenomenal. 2 pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a TFL. Hester balled out.
Overall, this category is an A+ (4.0) and would be higher if there was a higher grade to give.
Final Grade Card for Southern California Trojans
Based on the discussion here is how it shapes up:
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? [B: 3.0]
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? [B+: 3.3]
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? [B: 3.0]
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? [A: 4.0]
5) Do our players execute? [A: 4.0]
6) Do we have leaders on the field? [A+: 4.0]
Southern Cal GPA: 3.6
For perspective, the overall GPA at the end of the regular season was 1.61 last year.
Looking back briefly on 50-0 last season, the GPA in that game was unsurprisingly a 0.2. It was not fun to write, watch, hear about, think about or acknowledge in any way.
Without that game, this game would not have felt nearly as good as it does. Though this game has a lower score than the Arizona blowout (which was almost the perfect game), it is a much bigger win than the Arizona game.
For the sake of comparison to the rest of the year, the wins this year have been graded out like this: Arizona (3.8), Rice (3.27), Nebraska (3.48), Colorado (3.33), Arizona State (2.7), Utah (2.72) and Washington State (2.3) and the two losses: Cal (1.1) and Oregon State (1.62).
Coach Mora and the Bruins may have met expectations for the year with this win; but UCLA is now the team in Los Angeles with unfinished business.
Next week, UCLA faces #8 Stanford fresh off of the Pac-12 game of the year against Oregon. The Cardinal have the best defense in the Pac-12. Their linebackers are massive, strong, fast and physical players. Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and Jarek Lancaster are impressive looking players. Stepfan Taylor is a crazy talented back and Zach Ertz is one of the best TEs in the country.
Despite that, I like this matchup for UCLA. They have not faced a run-pass offense as balanced as UCLA's. Oregon is more run reliant than the Bruins and Stanford eliminated the zone-read (outside of the big run by Marcus Mariota) and contained Kenjon Barner. UCLA can lean on the passing game and I trust Johnathan Franklin and our offensive line against any defense in the country not residing in Tuscaloosa.
There are a lot of ideas running around about what happens after this game. Let me tell you exactly how Coach Mora will play it.
The Bruins will go all-out to win against Stanford. You never play without 100% effort going into winning. You win the game and let the chips fall where they may.
Stanford or Oregon in the Pac-12 Title Game. Doesn't matter. UCLA has the juice to give any team in the country a game.
Until next week, go Bruins!
- IE Angel