After taking a week off for the longest road trip of my young life (from the Inland Empire to Minneapolis to Branson to Kansas City to St. Louis and back to the Inland Empire), the Key to the Game series returns for it's final installment before the start of the 2013 football season.
This week we'll take a look at the Bruins' final Pac-12 regular season game versus Stanford. Coming into the game, this looked like a very tough but winnable matchup. From an objective standpoint, the Cardinal were clearly the better team and UCLA would need to play a near perfect game to win.
The Bruins had a lot less on the line in this game as well. Their spot in the Pac-12 Championship had already been wrapped up with the wins over every other school in the South Division, topped off by the victory over Southern Cal. The Cardinal, however, needed a victory to have a chance at the Rose Bowl. If they beat UCLA, they got a rematch against the Bruins in their home stadium at Palo Alto. If they lost, they would need Oregon State to pull off a huge upset of the Oregon Ducks in order to play for the Pac-12 Championship. For the Bruins it was just a matter of whether their next game would be in Autzen Stadium or at Palo Alto.
This game seemed like an uphill battle for the Bruins from the get-go. Kevin Hogan and Stepfan Taylor picked apart UCLA in their opening possession on a 5-minute, 12-play, 75 yard drive for a touchdown. UCLA responded on their first possession with a 71-yard bomb from Brett Hundley to Shaquelle Evans putting the Bruins in the redzone. A jump ball to Joseph Fauria for a touchdown tied the game at 7.
The rest of the first quarter saw the Bruins defense adjust by forcing three consecutive three-and-outs. But the Cardinal defense was just as tough on Hundley, Johnathan Franklin and crew. Early in the second quarter, the Cardinal offense drove down to the redzone thanks to a couple of nice plays on the run by Hogan through the air and on the ground as well as a costly pass interference penalty on Anthony Barr (one that I disagreed with at the time, but agree with 8 months later). Anthony Wilkerson took a snap out of the WIldcat and scored up the middle on a 10-yard run to give the Cardinal a 14-7 lead.
The Bruins responded with another short possession and gave the Cardinal exceptional field position at the 44-yard line. A 7-yard completion by Hogan to Jamal-Rashad Patterson gave Stanford a first down at the UCLA 49-yard line.
Positioning and Execution:
(The play here starts at :23 seconds. Thanks to seanstorm23 for uploading this highlight from a Fox Sports recap show.)
Front Seven vs. O-Line/Tight Ends/Fullback:
I love this play because it is a stacked box. Stanford has 8 guys on the line of scrimmage, adding an extra offensive lineman at one of the "tight end" spots. Behind Kevin Hogan under center is a fullback and Stepfan Taylor.
It's a throwback play that Stanford has featured heavily since Harbaugh took over all those years ago and left his mark on the program. UCLA responds by going with a 4-down lineman front and Anthony Barr on the edge. Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks are the two other linebackers on the field.
This is a weird way to counter this look from my perspective, but it was working in the early going of the game. UCLA's run defense was actually successful in this game, despite the numbers at the end of the game. A lot of that can be attributed to this play.
Again, a slightly different way to counter this look than normal to me. Aaron Hester is at the bottom of the screen, fairly normal position off of the edge in a formation like this. The same can be said for Sheldon Price (who is probably going to make the team in Indianapolis). Tevin McDonald is the deep safety on the play, lined up about 12 yards deep. Where it gets weird is having Andrew Abbott walked up in the box.
Abbott was clearly one of UCLA's best defenders last season, but this is a situation where it makes more sense to bring in another linebacker in such an obvious run situation. I trusted Abbott tackling in space for the majority of his career as a Bruin, but I'd rather have Ryan Hofmeister or Damien Holmes in on this play.
Running Back vs. Overall Run Defense:
Not going to be a ton of words in this space until the next section. Basically what you have here is 8 Cardinal on the line of scrimmage and one fullback to block 5 Bruins on the line, two linebackers on the second level and a walked up safety.
Advantage before the snap: Cardinal.
Analysis of Action during the play:
I'm going to break down the play up front by going defender by defender.
Front Seven vs. O-Line:
Barr is at the bottom of the screen and at the snap, the TE actually shows pass for his first step. The TE then tries to seal off Barr from rushing down the line of scrimmage to make a play in the backfield, something Barr did many times last year. Barr gets wrapped up pretty easily and has no shot at making a play on this one.
Marsh is the DE just inside of Barr and is actually hard to see at the snap. Marsh does the best job of any D-lineman on this play of getting off the ball. He beats the extra offensive lineman with his first step pretty easily. The only thing Marsh does wrong is something he has done his whole career at UCLA, he gets too far upfield after beating his man instead of going flat down the line or settling. If Marsh goes flat down the line, he probably gets a TFL or at least gets a hand on Taylor.
Epenesa does on this play what he did most of the year as well. He occupies a blocker and does not get moved back. He stalemates the center at the point of attack, but doesn't shed the block until a half second too late. Because of this he can only get his left arm on Taylor instead of all of his weight, which would have likely been the difference between a short gain and Taylor getting to the second level cleanly.
Jones actually gets pushed around on this play by the Cardinal right tackle. It's a nice job of sealing by #73. This creates a large gap for Taylor to get through between Jones and Epenesa that has to be filled by one of the linebackers. This goes to show that no matter how good a player is, he still gets beat during the game.
I'm not 100% sure if this is Keenan or not, but that's who I remember getting reps in every goal-line package for UCLA and it looks like him, so I'm confident that is who it is.
Regardless, there isn't much that Graham could have done on this play. He stalemates the tight end blocking him, but then a pulling guard, the fullback, the other tight end outside of him and the tackle blocking Datone make him disappear. Unless Taylor had bounced this outside, there would have been no way for Graham to impact this play.
Zumwalt is the inside backer to the top of the screen. His read at the snap is correct, he knows it's a run instantly. The mistake, if you want to call it that, is where he plugs. On this play he has three real options. One option is what he does, plug the gap where the guard is pulling, engage the guard to create a block-up and hope that Kendricks comes in behind him to make the play. A second option is to go further outside of that pulling guard and try to be in position to make a play if Taylor bounces outside, this is the "cowboy" option that looks really bad on film if you don't make a play but you look like a genius with great instincts if you do. I did that one far too often in practices and games as a player. The third option would be to take that first step, settle and keep his feet moving until the play develops more. The third would be the best option on this play, but you can't fault Zumwalt's decision too much. He made a read and reacted to it correctly.
This is the part of the play that gets Taylor to the second level without much trouble. Kendricks, like Zumwalt, reads run right away and does what a linebacker is supposed to do when they see a pulling guard. Once he makes that read, he correctly crosses the face of the lineman in his path and gets to the gap where Taylor should be expected to end up with the ball. The only problem is that Taylor doesn't end up there.
You cannot really fault the two linebackers on this play. If you see a guard pulling, you trail him and get to the gap he's headed to. That is because 9 times out of 10, that is where the running back is headed as well. The only time the running back won't get there is if the cutback lane is open. And the cutback lane is where this next section will cover.
Andrew Abbott is the biggest factor here. He is responsible for the cutback lane. He does a good job of reading the play, he gets to the line of scrimmage quickly, he is in a decent position to make a play, and if you pause it at :25 seconds, it looks like Abbott is going to make the tackle on Taylor. If you pause it at :26 seconds, it looks even more like that. He just doesn't make it.
It's a weird play that I wish I could see from the end-zone angle because it doesn't make sense in my head that Abbott doesn't even get an attempted tackle on this play.
The two corners do a fine job on this play, Price comes up to support the run on the outside at the top and Hester makes a adequate read and is just unable to catch up to Taylor once he breaks away.
Tevin McDonald runs way too far upfield instead of being patient and reading where Taylor might end up. Being overaggressive was both a positive and negative for McDonald in his career at UCLA, but on this play it is the difference between a 10-yard game and a 49-yard touchdown.
Running Back vs. Overall Run Defense:
Stepfan Taylor was a very good college running back. He had the benefit of an elite offensive line and group of tight ends, yes. But he also was able to make reads like this, showing how smart of a runner he can be. This play is supposed to go off-tackle, where UCLA actually wins at the point of attack. On the backside, Cassius Marsh is trailing Taylor in the backfield. Taylor is able to make a strong, decisive cut upfield and goes through the cutback lane and breaks a tackle to turn a negative or minimal gain into a momentum changing touchdown.
The Bruins were able to keep the game close until the late third quarter, holding the Cardinal offense in check until a Brett Hundley interception gave the Cardinal great field position, which was made even better by another 40-yard run by Taylor (which might have been my key play if I had been able to get video of it). Taylor would score three plays later after being stuffed at the goal-line twice, giving the Cardinal a 28-10 edge. The ensuing kickoff was fumbled by Kenneth Walker and returned for a touchdown, putting the game totally out of reach for the Bruins. A late touchdown by Franklin would make it 35-17 and that was all the scoring.
UCLA had a chance to be in position to win the game, but they didn' avoid big mistakes. Turnovers, allowing big plays and costly penalties turned this into what seemed like a blowout, but was actually much closer than the score indicates. Two plays accounted for 89 of Taylor's 140 total yards. That 89 should have been about 8, and if that is the case, the game comes down to the end like it did the next week.
After dropping this game, UCLA finished the regular season at 9-3 (6-3 in the Pac-12) and had to play Stanford again the next week in Palo Alto. That game would end up being fought to the very end, eventually resulting in a UCLA 27-24 loss.