When I was in elementary school, the highlight of the day was recess.
That's not to say I didn't love the educational part of school because I did. I was great at that part. Multiplication tables and building a model of a California Mission. Piece of cake. The hard part was recess and that's why I loved it.
Our recess had set time for the entire school to be in the playground area at once. There is a hierarchy to the system that was clear. Younger kids on the area with woodchips. Next group up could move from the woodchips to the basketball courts. The two oldest groups, 4th and 5th graders had free reign. Anywhere you wanted to go.
The prime real estate was the grass field. Just a few years after I left the school, that field became ragged as hell, but my two years it was the equivalent of a model Mission for football.
For some reason, instead of picking fair teams blended throughout the two grades, we always went 4th versus 5th graders. Every day for 45 minutes, full tackle even though we weren't supposed to do it. My classmates ended up being a talented group in the long run, so it wasn't surprising that we upset the 5th graders on a semi-regular basis. The starting QB at Army right now, Angel Santiago, and 4-5 other guys including me that played college football at varying levels.
My fifth grade year, the cycle stayed the same. The 4th grade guys would show up every day to get beat on. There wasn't any glory in doing it. just the routine of dominating inferior competition. Some times the teachers had to break it up because kids would get hurt, other days we would just coast to 10 easy touchdowns and move on.
There is a pretty clear connection to make to that situation and UCLA's 59-13 win over New Mexico State. Superior talent and size nearly always wins, it is just a matter of how the teams get there.
There is a lot of analysis in this post, so I won't get too wordy in the introduction. Let's get to the grades.
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
I'll start with this, when the starters left the game the defense had allowed 166 yards on 49 plays through almost 3 quarters without allowing a point.
After that point the defense consisting entirely of 2nd and 3rd string defenders were on the field for 18 plays and in those plays allowed 167 yards and 13 points.
Let's say the starting defense had finished this game and ended up allowing 200 yards total and giving up a touchdown to the Aggies. That would have put UCLA as essentially a top 20 defense in total yardage and scoring defense through the non-conference slate without playing an FCS team. Instead, the backups got worked by a bad D1 team and gave up two easy touchdowns and UCLA is 31st in scoring defense and 40th in total defense.
That's a dominant start to a year. I rewatched this game and can't find a problem with the defense that will be playing when Pac-12 games start next Thursday.
The first drive had some hiccups but the end result was a drive that never crossed the 50 and took almost 6 minutes. New Mexico State got inside the 40-yard line of UCLA once in 10 drives with the starters on the field. And that one drive ended with a blocked FG attempt by Cassius Marsh at the half after UCLA played soft coverage underneath to try and run time off the clock.
Was this a perfect performance? No. But I can't say they weren't prepared for the team they played because the starting unit made NMSU look like one of the worst teams in the FBS.
This ends up being an A- (3.7) with the demerit being for the lackluster performance by the 2nd and 3rd string defenders.
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Again, going to start off with raw data. Set the all-time UCLA record for yards in a single game with 692. 298 yards rushing on 6.6 yards per carry. No punts for the second time this season. Jordan James rushed for over 100 yards for the third straight game. Brett Hundley threw for three touchdowns. 15 different receivers caught passes. The backup quarterbacks went 12-14 in garbage time. Garbage time started in the third quarter.
Those are spectacular notes. But the more spectacular thing is how many more points and yards were left on the field due to the lackluster play of the unit in the redzone.
Overall, the Bruins ran a vanilla offense in this game because there was no need to do anything but that against New Mexico State. Still, Hundley never looked locked in at any point. He still played very well, much better the second time seeing everything. But he's a NFL talent playing against a team that going to lose 10 games in a non-BCS conference. Standards are higher now.
UCLA got into the redzone on all 13 drives in the game and only scored 8 times. You can take out one for the end of the game kneel down at the goal line. That number is still unacceptable. Absolutely have to be better at finishing drive than that.
My biggest issue with this gameplan are gripes over how the touches are distributed. This game was decided before a snap was taken, the coaches knew that.
Why would you not use that game to see what every back has to offer?
Jordan James got 19 carries, the combination of Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones and Steven Manfro got 13. That's ridiculous to me. Especially given the post game explanation by Coach Mora. He essentially said that he didn't see a way to carve out carries for all of those guys plus the return of Damien Thigpen.
Well, this would have been a good chance to do so.
Steven Manfro was electric in this game whenever he touched the ball. But his two catches in this game were his first of the season. How is that possible after he was UCLA's most consistent threat out of the backfield last year (outside of the injured Thigpen) and 2nd leading returning receiver.
Malcolm Jones has looked unstoppable every time he's been in a game. How can a player like that not utilized in an offense? Perkins is the least flashy of the group, but rarely gets less than 4 yards on a carry, even in traffic. If UCLA needs 2 yards on a 4th-and-1, I'd want Perkins to get the carry.
I'm thrilled with how good Jordan James has looked this year. He looks like a different player most of the time. Quicker, more decisive, stronger. Just a superior player. But these other guys are too good to not be used as weapons.
These are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things, especially after a 3-0 start with an offense that ranks 4th in the NCAA in total offense and 3rd in scoring offense. It feels crazy to critique a team that broke school records and might end up being the most prolific offense in UCLA history.
But there were a lot of points and yards left on the field in this game. And a historically good offense has to be held to historical standards. This would have been an A+ against Nebraska or Nevada. Against the worst defense in the NCAA, it's a B (3.0).
Compete against your best self, not your opponent.
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
We all know what I'm going to focus on in this section. The penalty bug returned as soon as the Bruins played with Pac-12 referees again. 15 for 138 yards. That's basically how many yards the starting defense allowed, but in penalties.
I'd like to go through each one in detail, but I don't want this section to become overwhelmingly long. So brief notes:
1. Holding penalty on a punt return, essentially negated a nice 11-yard return by Randall Goforth.
2. Offsides on Deon Hollins on a first down. Was a three-and-out anyway.
3. False start to start a drive. 19-yard pass on the next play. Pre-snap fouls are always inexcusable to me. Too easy to avoid.
4. Hold downfield on a Jordan James run. Ended in a touchdown pass to Steven Manfro one played later.
5. Defensive holding penalty. It was ticky-tack. Not a fan of this call personally. Drive ended with the Ishmael Adams interception.
6. Offsides on a kickoff. How this happens, I do not know.
7. 15-yard facemask that turned a positive play on first down into a 1st-and-25.
8. Same drive as the facemask, delay of game. Turned a 3rd-and-17 into a 3rd-and-22. Hundley gained 13 on a scramble the next play. These penalties probably cost UCLA a touchdown, still got a FG out of it.
That 8 penalties in the first half, four of which are easily avoidable, non-aggressive penalties.
9. Holding on a first down on UCLA's first drive of the second half. Got Alex Redmond here. Ended up with Hundley's second interception on this drive.
10. Stupid roughing the passer penalty on Anthony Barr. The refs had just tagged NMSU for a targeting penalty and Barr almost got himself suspended for the first half of the Utah game. He was just a half step late getting there, but needs to be lower on the hit. That'll be a fine on him in the NFL next year, have to get used to the rules.
11. This was Jim Mora's first penalty of the year. He seemed to have had enough of the Pac-12 refs and sloppy play.
12. Another offsides penalty on New Mexico State's first scoring drive.
13. Another holding penalty, I believe they called this on Xavier Su'a-Filo even though I saw his backup at guard in the game.
14. One more roughing the passer penalty on Kenny Orjioke. Got there too late.
15. One final holding penalty on the evening. A cherry on top of a sloppy night.
Of the 15 penalties, 6 were pre-snap penalties. But any way you slice it, this was an unacceptable evening. Against a better team, these costs UCLA in a big way.
The big play offensively here is on Hundley's second interception, but I'll get into that in the Execution section. Overall, the offensive line played fine. Easy assignments make lineman look good. There was a lot of room for all of the running backs to make plays.
The only place I can critique the defense is the 2nd and 3rd string guys looking undisciplined and overaggressive. The first string had that problem, but enough guys played assignment ball that there was no letdown.
The penalties kill this section for me. No way I can give a team that committed 15 penalties anything higher than a C (2.0).
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
The Bruins coasted. Plain and simple.
Played hard throughout, but at no point had the intensity of the previous two games. I 100% understand that NMSU was a win as soon as the contract to play the game was signed. I get that as a former player, a fan and just a logical person. You can't give the same effort against the Aggies of New Mexico State as you could against the Aggies of Texas A&M. The adrenaline isn't there. Can't manufacture that feeling.
Still, the standard has to be higher. While I don't think the effort was in question, the level of energy wasn't exceptional. Even Anthony Barr said as much about the defense, and the starters didn't even allow 200 yards.
All in all, this is a grade that reflects a great student taking an easy test with his final grade already solidified. He'll show up and take the test, but you aren't getting that drive you'd get on a mid-term or meaningful exam. it's a C+ (2.3)
5.) Do our players execute?
Three turnovers in the redzone. That by itself is enough to drop this section almost a full letter grade. I'd like to take a closer look at each one here.
The first was on the second offensive play of the game. It was a zone read between Hundley and James that never meshed. Hundley might have waited a half beat too long to completely give the ball, James might have never secured it fully. It's on both players and this play would have been a first down at the least, touchdown possibly. Lots of space for James to make something happen. It wasted a spectacular kickoff return by Manfro and a beautiful tribute to Nick Pasquale the play before.
The other two turnovers were interceptions by Hundley. I have to go out of my way to compliment Davis Cazares on an outstanding defensive game for the Aggies. 12 tackles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions against the #3 offense in the country. Win or loss, he played great. The first interception was Hundley trying to force a ball in to Thomas Duarte on a skinny post to the endzone. This is a touchdown if not for Cazares making a play on a receiver he wasn't covering. He shouldn't have been there based on pre-snap looks. But he made a smart, instinctual defensive play and it worked out.
The other interception was a bad ball by Hundley seen here.
The route I think he was targeting was another post to the endzone by Evans. That route complimenting that was a deep cross just short of the endzone by Jalen Ortiz. Hundley didn't get enough on the pass and it got picked by Cazares again. He may have also been targeting Ortiz though. Why two guys are running routes that close together in the redzone is beyond me. Should not happen unless it's a natural pick, and this was not.
On the offensive line, tough to critique any of their execution. The holding penalties are not ideal, but the refs could call holding on every snap if they wanted to. Can't hold that against them as neither penalty looked exceptionally egregious.
The running backs were once again all solid.
Another execution issue that is still there is connecting on the deep ball by Hundley. His internal clock has improved, his ability to intelligently get through progressions has improved, he is bigger and stronger now. The only place I can say he doesn't look as good or better than last season through three games is the deep ball. He's overthrown at least 5 balls that I can remember so far. If he starts hitting those, this offense is scary to anyone because the deep threats are there and the protection is there also.
On the defensive end, the 1st unit played well. Pass defense was good for the third straight game. Not that the Aggies were tough to tackle, but there were not many missed tackles. The 2nd and 3rd string guys struggled at the end, especially Priest Willis on a long TD pass where he got turned around and slipped. The two turnovers were nice. Big strip sack by Anthony Barr and a long interception return by Ishmael Adams.
The special teams was outstanding aside from the weird offsides on a kickoff. A solid FG make by Fairbairn was a confidence builder. I still trust him totally from inside of 40 yards. He's 16 of 18 in his career from inside of 40. But he is 4-11 from outside of that range. Seems like an easy decision on whether or not to go for it at a certain range.
The return game is a weapon at this point. UCLA is tied with Stanford at 13th in the country in punt return. Averaging 16 yards a return after 10. Shaquelle Evans, Randall Goforth, Darren Andrews and Steven Manfro have all flashed in the return game and the blockers are the key to their success.
The kickoff return team that I praised quite a bit last year is even better this year, at 3rd in the country at only 16.08 yards per return despite having 13 kickoffs returned (the top two schools have just 9 combined). The talent level on that unit is scary. Guys like Jayon Brown, Priest Willis, Stan McKay, Taylor Lagace, Cameron Judge and Ryan Hofmeister are too much for opposing units to deal with.
UCLA is also one of just 6 teams in the NCAA to not have a punt returned, which is obviously in part because of not punting in two out of three games. That is not even mentioning that Cassius Marsh blocked the UCLA's 10th kick attempt in the last two years. That's a Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech type of number. Crazy how much special teams can help a team win instead of being a reason that a team doesn't lose. All in the mindset.
Superlatives on special teams aside, there were three turnovers in this game, while only two were created by the defense. And the 2nd and 3rd string defense has to be held accountable somewhere. This grade seem nitpicky, but ends up at a B (3.0)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field?
I have to note the outstanding effort from Cassius Marsh on the defensive line (6 solo tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a sack and a blocked field goal). He had his best game of the year, even after a nice game against Nebraska. If he keeps playing at this level and the freshmen ends on the other side keep improving, Datone Jones won't be missed as much as expected.
Randall Goforth was also a force throughout the game. Forced a fumble and brought a physical presence to the secondary.
On offense, the running backs were all spectacular. Can't single one out of a group that averaged almost 7 yards per carry on 45 attempts.
Even though his stat line leaves a bit to be desired, Brett Hundley played a solid game. The interceptions are inexcusable, but throw for throw he had a good day. Good days against terrible defenses aren't what should be expected out of a player whose name is getting thrown around with the words Heisman and top-5 draft pick. Standards have to be higher now.
Solely because Hundley didn't live up to his own high standards this grade drops to a B (3.0)
Final Grade Card for the New Mexico State Aggies
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? A- (3.7)
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? B (3.0)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? C (2.0)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? C+ (2.3)
5.) Do our players execute? B (3.0)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field? B (3.0)
New Mexico State GPA: B- (2.8)
For reference, last week's game against Nevada came out to a 3.6 GPA and the victory over Nebraska was a 3.7.
It seems crazy to think that this blowout game could have been our worst of the season, but that is what the "Eye Test" is supposed to do. Evaluate the games based on a specific set of criteria, drawing from what the stat sheet says and what the eyes see. Anyone who has watched all three UCLA games would arrive at the same conclusion.
In a way, I think this is a good thing for UCLA going into conference. The scout team got to play in the Rose Bowl, so they'll be fired up all week in practice. No more rewarding feeling for guys like Zach Hernandez, Charles Dawson, Justin Combs, Mike Fafaul, Connor McDermott and Ryan Davis than getting game reps after their hard work. The coaching staff has a lot of film to criticize. If the players' minds are in the right place, they'll have any overconfidence sobered up in the film room after seeing all the points they left on the board.
The Bruins get a bye before a short week gets them to the Pac-12 opener against Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes will be a good test for the Bruins and I look forward to it.
Until then, Go Bruins!