Key to the Game: A Look Back at the Key Play from UCLA vs. Washington State

James Snook-US PRESSWIRE

The seventh installment in a series looking at the key play from each UCLA Pac-12 game from the 2012 season. This week looks at the Bruins' 44-36 victory over the Washington State Cougars.

UCLA followed their 66-10 win over Arizona with a first half against Washington State ending with a 37-7 UCLA lead.

After that enjoyable first half, this was the longest game of the year. Having to sit through and watch the second half was total agony. The was no explanation for what happened on either side of the ball in the late third and entire fourth quarter.

The Washington State Cougars came into the game a complete mess of a team. Their best player had just been kicked off the team earlier in the week, their coach Mike Leach was publicly calling out his upperclassmen for being embarrassing to the program and they were also just 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the Pac-12.

Despite being a tough place to play and being very cold and being played unusually late, UCLA was big favorites in this game, having a 7-2 (4-2) record and riding a 4-game winning streak.

Setup:

UCLA scored to go up 44-14 at the 4 minute mark on a short touchdown run by Jordon James. From there, the game completely unraveled. Washington State, who had done next to nothing on offense the whole game, scored quickly after back-to-back 30-yard gains. The Cougars ended the drive with a 4-yard TD pass to make it 44-21. At that point, the game is still comfortable. There is less than a quarter for a team with a mostly ineffective offense to score 3 times.

All the UCLA offense needed to do was get a couple of first downs and the game is actually over. Run three or four minutes off the clock. After a sack, a stuffed run and a draw, UCLA lost a yard and used 2 minutes of clock. After one of Jeff Locke's worst punts of the year, the Bruins defense needed a stop. Up to the task, the Bruins defense forced a three-and-out in :52 seconds and UCLA got the ball back with 12:51 to go in the game and a 44-21 lead.

On the first play of the drive, Jordon James gained 11 on a stretch to give UCLA a first down. The offense managed to completely cancel this out by losing 13 yards on the next two plays, a stuffed run and another sack where Brett Hundley held the ball for 7 seconds without a throw. A 20-yard gain by Joseph Fauria on 3rd-down gave Jeff Locke a chance to redeem himself with a 57-yard punt that was downed at the 4-yard line.

On the Cougars' next drive they tried so hard to give UCLA the game, but the penalty bug emerged once more. A substitution infraction (#10 on the game) on a 4th and 5 gave Wazzu a first down and a 15-yard personal foul (#11 on the game) on Stan McKay gave them another after a 31-yard pass. To be fair, McKay's penalty was total BS, he got pushed into a defender after the whistle and the SPTRs only saw the incidental contact by Stan. The Cougars would score a few plays later to make the game 44-28 with 6:25 left.

It is damn near impossible to blow a 16-point lead in 6 minutes. The only way it can happen is with a turnover or unexpected play. Both happened on the ensuing kickoff. Kenny Walker catches the kick, runs 17 yards and gets his head sandwiched between two defenders. He fumbles and Washington State recovers on the UCLA 27-yard line.

A 1-yard completion on first down set up a 2nd and 9 from the UCLA 26 with 6:01 remaining. A quick score here and a 2-point conversion makes a game that was 44-14 with 1:30 left in the 3rd quarter a one possession game with more than 5 minutes left.

Positioning and Execution:


(The play here is at 11:06. Thanks to Aaron Aloysius for uploading this.)

Washington State lines up in a 4 wide receiver set out of Shotgun on this play. The single running back is offset to Halliday's left side.

OL vs. Pass Rushers:

The alignment of both the offensive and defensive line here are pretty normal. Washington State has slightly larger splits than a normal offensive line, but that has always been a trademark of Leach's offense. It is part of the reason why the lineman at Texas Tech used to be so massive, so that those splits could be closed by length easily.

UCLA counters this with, from left to right, Jordan Zumwalt at OLB outside-eye of the right tackle, Datone Jones head-up with the right guard, Cassius Marsh in the A-gap between the left guard and center, and Anthony Barr standing up outside of the left tackle.

As a pre-snap read, it looks like there is no blitz threat for UCLA. They are just going to try to get pressure with 4 rushers against 5 lineman, something they'd been successful at all game.

Receivers/QB vs. Coverage:

As I said before, Washington State lines up with 4 wideouts on this play. A single receiver is at the bottom of the screen, matched up with Aaron Hester. Hester is in man-coverage on an island on this play. This is very interesting and says a great deal about the level of trust Coach Mora, Coach Martin and Coach Spanos had in Hester as a cover corner. If he gets beat on this play over the top, there is no immediate safety help because of where Abbott is.

Andrew Abbott is the safety to the bottom of the screen. Pre-snap, he moves from 8-10 yards directly behind Barr to inside of the hashmarks, shading to the trips side. As I said, this isolates Hester on the flanker to the bottom of the screen.

Eric Kendricks is the only real linebacker here, as this is a Dime formation by UCLA, even if the Nickel Linebacker is on the field. Kendricks is lined up even without the running back, showing that he is probably responsible for the back out of the backfield or a potential QB draw.

On the other side of the formation, WSU lines up in trips. UCLA complements this with Sheldon Price matched up on the widest man, giving a 6-8 yard cushion. That's normal depth against trips because the DBs inside of him should be able to take care of any quick screen threat.

The middle wideout is covered by Anthony Jefferson, the only defensive back from this play still on the Bruins in 2013. He has a 4-yard cushion or so, with inside leverage.

The slot receiver is matched up with Stan McKay, who is in the middle of the field, just about 3 yards behind and 3 yards outside of Zumwalt.

The safety to the Trips side is Tevin McDonald, who lines up on the right hashmarks in between the slot receiver and the middle receiver. His depth on this play is a few yards deeper than Abbott on the left side because he was not as effective as years past as a deep cover man in 2012. Best way to compensate for any struggles is to give yourself a couple of yards to make reads. As a baseball analogy, but one that applies to coverage as well, it is easier to come forward on a ball than to go back for it.

I don't claim to be fully aware of the way D1 quarterbacks read defenses, but if I were Connor Halliday, I would assume that UCLA is running a Cover 2 with Man underneath. It could also be Cover 3 with how deep Price is playing

Analysis of Action during the play:

OL vs. Pass Rushers:

Jordan Zumwalt:

Contrary to the last time I broke down a defensive play where Zumwalt was rushing, he does not just try to speed rush past the tackle on this play. After the snap, he gets a good jump and tries to inside rush the right tackle. The tackle adjusts to the inside too much and Jordan knocks the tackle down, plugging up a passing lane for Halliday, as well as taking another offensive lineman out of the play. I'll touch on that when I get to Marsh. Also, by taking an inside route, Zumwalt allows for Halliday to scramble to his right out of the pocket. That isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but I think that the stunt on this play was based on JZ staying outside.

Datone Jones:

Datone was a rock solid player for the majority of the year, and takes a supporting role on this rush. He gets a great jump off the ball and shoots into the A-gap with ease. This causes the uncovered center to decide almost instantly to help with Jones instead of Marsh, leaving Marsh, Zumwalt and Barr all in 1-on-1 match-ups with less talented lineman. Because the center had to decide so quickly, he is unable to help or recognize what happens next.

Cassius Marsh:

Marsh has the most interesting rush on this play. He is stunting to the opposite side. If this weren't such a quick rollout by Halliday, I think Marsh would be going through that B gap that the guard blocking Datone had to abandon. Because Zumwalt pancakes the right tackle, there would have been nowhere for the QB to go if he stayed in the pocket. Marsh shows some pretty strong athleticism by going around Zumwalt and forcing pressure on the QB to rush into making a decision. If you pause the video right before the stunt starts, you can see that Marsh actually covers as much ground as Barr on this play. Pretty impressive.

Anthony Barr:

Watching Barr on this play is an example of the impact he had on QBs at this point in the season. He absolutely blows by the LT at the snap, who gets away with a slight hold. Halliday seems to be aware of this instantly and takes advantage of the rollout he is given to the right side.

Receivers vs. Coverage:

I'm going to try something new here and go through the routes by likelihood of a completion given the coverage and the action on the play.

1. Inside slot receiver vs. McKay:

The route here is just a quick out. McKay had inside position and the throw is there. If you pause the video at 11:10, you can see how the opportunity for a first down is there. It isn't going to be a big play, but it's a pass that is much safer than the decision eventually made. The QB has a lane to throw to, no pass rushers in his face yet, and a better than average shot at a completion. By waiting, Halliday takes this guy out of the play because McKay closes enough ground that a rocket pass is going to get picked or tipped and a touch pass becomes more difficult, though still doable.

2. Middle slot receiver vs. Jefferson/Price:

The route here ends up being a 10 yard out over the top of the inside slot's route. Anthony Jefferson has good position to start with here, but then for some reason turns to the inside while the receiver breaks outside. The opportunity here for Halliday can be seen at around 11:11. He clearly doesn't see it though, and it would have been a tough throw. Needing to be a touch pass with enough gas to not give Price time to break up on the ball.

3. Right flanker vs. Hester:

The route here is a 5-yard inside route. To be honest, there is no chance that Halliday would be able to throw to this receiver. The only opening is right after he starts scrambling right where Hester gives up ground. Halliday would have had to throw across his body late over the middle, hope that Kendricks keeps following the RB out of the backfield and eat a huge hit by Zumwalt.

4. Running Back vs. Kendricks:

The route here is just a flare to the left side of the field past Barr. Again, there is no opportunity for this to happen with the throw being realistic. The only way he can throw it is lollipopping a pass over Barr's unblocked 6'5" frame and giant arms and hoping that Kendricks doesn't close on the play and destroy the RB or make a play on the ball.

5. Left flanker vs. McDonald/Abbott:

The route here is a deep post that ends up going to the middle of the field. Surprisingly, this is the place where the ball ends up being thrown. From the replay, it looks like Halliday's first read is the out patterns to the right of the play. He doesn't pull the trigger on either one for some reason. As he is scrambling to his right, his eyes seems to lock on the flanker. The wideout makes a good move and has okay position on McDonald. Tevin turns his hips quickly enough back to the inside that there is not a huge threat of him being beat. The idea of throwing to that route by itself is a risky, but not terrible decision.

What makes it a terrible decision is not realizing that the other safety was in the middle of the field at the snap, in a coverage that was clearly either a 2-deep look or 3-deep look. The QB knew that there was no receiver running a deep route to the left side of the play. He also knew that the safety was inside of the left hashmarks at the snap. Where did he think Andrew Abbott was going to be?

Abbott undercuts the route, makes a great catch and intercepts the ball in the endzone. Huge play by the senior safety and it essentially clinches a win.

Aftermath:

UCLA ran another 2:30 off the clock after the interception and closed out the game. Washington State would never really threaten again, despite a last minute touchdown and 2-point conversion to make it a 8 point victory at 44-36.

At the time, this game struck me as one where UCLA played as if they wanted the game to end instead of playing to end the game.

There were a crazy number of weird things that happened in this game. 2 blocked punts and 2 blocked field goals. 2 fumbles lost by each team and an interception by both quarterbacks. Johnathan Franklin only averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Brett Hundley completed 18 out of 21 passes, but the offense went 3-11 on 3rd down and only gained 334 yards. Washington State had 9 first downs given by penalties. It was just an odd evening.

Regardless of any oddities, that was not the way UCLA wanted to end a game going into the biggest game of the season against Southern Cal. With UCLA moving to 8 wins, the game against the Trojans would decide the Pac-12 South Champion.

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