UCLA hasn't started 4-0 at home since 2006.
I saw that random statistic when reading through a recap of UCLA's 45-23 win over Colorado. It stuck out to me for some reason. Never been a big proponent of the space-filling notes at the bottom of articles being overly meaningful, but I thought those painted a picture of how far the UCLA program had fallen in the past decade.
Just as a rule of thumb, the key to being a consistently successful program is winning all of your games at home or only losing to teams genuinely better than your team is. If you don't slip up at home, you should be bowl eligible every season with a good chance of winning 9 or 10 games every year.
Since UCLA's last Rose Bowl appearance, this has been a serious issue and a big part of why UCLA's been so mediocre in the Guerrero/CRN/Dorrell era. Here's a look at UCLA's recent track record.
2012: 5-2, losses to Oregon State and #11 Stanford
2011: 5-1, loss to #23 Texas
2010: 3-3, losses to #25 Stanford, #15 Arizona and Southern Cal
2009: 4-2, losses to #13 Oregon and California
2008: 3-4, losses to Arizona, #25 Fresno State, Oregon State and #5 Southern Cal
2007: 4-2, losses to Notre Dame and #9 Arizona State
2006: 6-1, loss to Washington State (team went 1-5 on the road and went off the rails quickly after that 4-0 home start, losing 4 in a row after that)
2005: 6-0, the only 10 win season since 1998 even with a terrible defense.
2004: 3-3, losses to Oklahoma State, Washington State and #1 Southern Cal
2003: 5-1, loss to Oregon (went 1-5 on the road)
2002: 2-4, losses to Colorado, #7 Oregon, #7 Southern Cal and #7 Washington State
2001: 4-1, loss to #7 Oregon (How awful must an AD be to only have 5 home games in a 12 game season? Unless there was an extenuating circumstance that is unacceptable.)
2000: 5-2, losses to #19 Oregon State and Southern Cal
1999: 4-2, losses to California and Arizona
1998: 5-0, Rose Bowl berth and would have been a National Title berth if not for Hurricane Georges and Edgerrin James
If you win games at home when you are supposed to, even if you don't play great, you will almost always have successful seasons.
That's what UCLA faces moving forward. Home games against Washington and Arizona State have to be wins. The expectation is for the Bruins to win out, but I think those two homes games are more relevant for the future direction of the program under Jim Mora than the games in Tucson and at the Coliseum.
Babble about the future aside, this is the Eye Test for Colorado, so let's get to the grades.
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
I'm going to be mostly brief in the first two sections. I'm not sure how much you can evaluate the defense's level of play from this game because of what they were asked to do.
Were there a ton of missed tackles? No. Were there many blown assignments or big plays by Colorado? No.
In the first 20 minutes of the game, Colorado had the ball for 15 minutes and 36 seconds, moved for 189 yards on 36 plays (5.25 YPP) and scored 10 points.
In the next 40 minutes of play, Colorado ran just 40 plays for 192 yards (4.8 YPP) and scored 13 points.
I would argue that both of those numbers are too high, but they were right in line with UCLA's season averages in total defense and scoring defense and Colorado's numbers in total offense and scoring offense.
One thing that I've seen people point to were the lack of big plays by UCLA's defense. Few TFLs and just one sack. But, if you watched the game, Sefo Liufau was getting hit hard the entire game by a lot of different defenders. If not for his athleticism and toughness, UCLA easily has 3 or 4 sacks and a lot more big moments. Credit to him. Looked much better than I thought he would. Colorado might have a gem in Liufau.
I'd say the defense played average on the whole. A little below in the first 20 minutes, partially due to scheme, partially due to the defense's level of energy and execution. A little above in the last 40 minutes. Works out to about a C+ (2.3)
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
After extraordinarily bad showings against Stanford and Oregon, the offense actually looked in sync for extended periods of time in this game. Put 45 points on the board, though a disappointing 412 yards against the worst defense in the Pac-12 outside of California (who also played relatively well against UCLA).
The low yardage total can almost entirely be explained by the lackluster effort in the run game. Just 139 yards on the ground, most of that by Brett Hundley (72 yards on 11 carries with 2 TDs). This part of UCLA's offense should be helped moving forward by Damien Thigpen looking like his old self, Malcolm Jones continuing to get touches and Jordon James working back to full health.
However, in this game, it was a struggle.
The passing game was sharp. Brett Hundley was back to form. 19-24 for 273 yards and 2 TDs, with two drops and a 3rd passing touchdown that gets counted as a lateral and therefore a rushing TD for Devin Fuller. Fuller and Evans looked outstanding. Reassuring to see Evans' chemistry with Hundley back to expected levels.
Overall, I'd say the offense looked okay. Very good through the air and not so good on the ground. Balances out to a C+ (2.3)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
UCLA's football team is back to being the best in the NCAA at giving the opponent yardage via the penalty. After giving Washington a little bit of room last week, UCLA came back strong with 11 penalties for 122 yards. That effort raises UCLA's season totals to 75 penalties (9.38 per game) for 645 yards (80.63 per game).
I'm not a huge believer in the "you can't be successful when you're penalized that much" angle because #2/3 Oregon is 116th in the country, #5 Baylor is 114th, 7-2 Texas Tech is 117th and #18 Michigan State and #15 Oklahoma State are both in the high 90s.
I don't do Eye Tests for every team in the country, so I cannot speak to the nature of those team's penalty issues, but UCLA's are riddled with unforced errors as well as the more acceptable aggressive penalties. Last week against Oregon, only one UCLA penalty had any impact on the outcome of the game. This week the penalties had a huge impact on the score of the game, not necessarily the result.
As I do every week, let's go through them one by one.
1. Personal foul for a facemask on a punt return by Brandon Sermons. This came after the 2nd UCLA 3-and-out and gave Colorado outstanding field position, moving from the 29-yard line to the 44-yard line. The returner was totally bottled up, so this one was just foolish though still "a penalty of aggression". Colorado would kick a FG on this drive to take a 3-0 lead. I personally don't think they drive down without the penalty.
2. On the scoring drive following the facemask, a pass interference on Anthony Jefferson. This was a toss-up, but if it were Devin Fuller getting interfered with, any UCLA fan would have called for the flag. I think it was warranted. Turned a 3rd and 8 at the 40 (because Richardson wasn't going to catch the ball) into a 1st and 10 near the redzone.
Note: The next three penalties all take place on a Colorado scoring drive to make it 21-13, instead of UCLA getting the ball back with a little rhythm on offense at 21-10.
3. Offsides by UCLA's defense (I believe it was Cassius Marsh) turns a 2nd and 7 into a 2nd and 2.
4. Defensive holding by Fabian Moreau gives Colorado 10 yards and a 1st down.
5. Despite those penalties, UCLA's defense forces a punt on a 4th and 3, until Myles Jack dives after the punt and roughs the punter. 15 yards and an automatic first down. Even after giving up 30 yards of penalties on one drive, UCLA forces a long 47-yard FG attempt that CU makes.
Note: The next two penalties take place on UCLA's final drive of the first half.
6. An illegal man downfield penalty on a screen/swing pass that is attributed to Alex Redmond, but was clearly Jacob Brendel. This turns a decent gain on first down into a 1st and 15 attempt.
7. A hold by Alex Redmond turns another decent 2nd down situation near the redzone into a 1st and 21 from the 35. End result of this drive was a missed 45-yard FG attempt by Ka'imi Fairbairn (the kicker who is near automatic from inside of 40) when it could have been a much more makable attempt or even a TD.
7 penalties in the first half that arguably had a 6-14 point swing on the score. If UCLA is up 28-10 or 24-7 at the half instead of 21-13, everybody feels a lot different about the tenor of the game.
The second half penalties are a little more controversial.
8. Roughing the passer on Ellis McCarthy. Deserved penalty. One that wouldn't have been an issue 5 years ago, but clearly is a penalty now. A 3rd and 6 was converted with Richardson picking up 14 yards, but this moved Colorado up to the 14-yard line instead of the 29-yard line.
9. Facemask on Myles Jack to give Colorado a 1st and Goal two yards closer than they would have had. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
10/11. Two consecutive roughing the passer penalties on Anthony Barr. One deserved (in the same way McCarthy's was) and one BS. Regardless, gifted Colorado 30 yards and an easy FG attempt on a drive that seemed like it was going to stall out.
11 for 122. Not pretty. Giving a team 7 first downs via penalty is absurdly high.
As far as general schematic issues. The defense came out flat with a simple scheme. Gave up a lot of yardage underneath to prevent the Colorado WRs from beating them deep. I am not a fan of the scheme at all, it's essentially a full game Prevent defense, but UCLA did execute it well. Biggest pass plays were a fluky 38-yard screen and a 28-yard play on the first drive on a brilliant catch against great coverage.
Offensively, the run game was basically non-existent. You can look at the box score and see an acceptable 4.2 yards per carry on the day, but that is inflated a ton by Brett Hundley's athleticism on scrambles. The running backs combined (on rushing plays) for 62 yards on 18 carries. Just 3.4 YPC, which is atrocious and also just inflated by one big run by Damien Thigpen in the 4th quarter. Blame can be placed on the run blocking as well as the running backs. Not a good job by either party.
The passing game looked much better than the last two weeks, both blocking and route running.
Special teams were mostly phenomenal once again. If you only watched cut ups of the kickoff coverage, punt coverage and kick return teams this season, you would assume UCLA was one of the best teams in the country. I hype these guys up every week and they deserve it.
Overall, much better than last week here. But still not up to the high standards set early in the season against better teams than CU. B- (2.7)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
Watching this game, the first word that comes to mind is flat. That's a vague word in regards to sports, so I'm not crazy about using it, but there isn't a better one to describe their play in my opinion.
The defense was a polar opposite of the level of energy against Oregon and Stanford. Close to no bounce in their step, almost no emotion after tackles or good plays, no wild man antics by Jordan Zumwalt. The defense just seemed to be on the field. They weren't playing poorly or well, just kind of grinding out time until the end of the game.
The offense started awful, even drawing out some boos from the homecoming crowd at the Rose Bowl. Played better after that point, but not especially motivated.
It's easy to say that they played down to the level of Colorado on both sides of the ball, and I'm not sure that isn't true. My issue with that is that the special teams doesn't suffer from that same drop in energy in any game or situation. I'd say overall the offense and defense were a little below average, but not a failing grade. So a C- (1.7) seems appropriate.
5.) Do our players execute?
UCLA had an average day on third down conversions overall. The offense was 6 for 11, fairly close to the season average of 52%.
The defense struggled early, letting Colorado covert 5 of their first 8 (first 20 minutes again). Later in the game, the defense looked more like themselves on 3rd downs, holding the Buffaloes to just 3 out of the 9 in the next 40 minutes.
Turnovers weren't much of a factor on offense or defense. The defense was not ever particularly close to intercepting a pass or forcing a fumble. None of Hundley's passes were in danger of being picked off on offense and ball security was a non-issue.
The defense did not miss a ton of tackles. Christian Powell bulled his way for extra yardage after contact, but most of his carries were just 4 yards and a cloud of dust. The secondary closed out on the underneath throws well.
In coverage, Fabian Moreau got beat a few times but Colorado's WRs are as talented as any group in the conference, so they were going to get yardage regardless. The UCLA secondary actually did a better job against this unit than Oregon's much hyped passing defense did (247 yards, 6.9 YPA vs. 280 yards, 8.2 YPA).
Offensively, the passing game was outstanding aside from two drops from Devin Lucien and Thomas Duarte. The 76-yard TD was the longest pass UCLA play since the coverage breakdown that got Nelson Rosario by himself on a 76-yard pass from Kevin Prince in 2011. This play was better because of the fact that Fuller a man covering him, Hundley threw it well and Fuller made the catch and broke away. Deep middle of the field being utilized is so promising.
The rushing game was not. Little space to run, few broken tackles. Paul Perkins and Jordon James looked terrible running the ball. Malcolm Jones looked decent. Damien Thigpen looked the best of the group, but only had 4 touches. Arizona, Arizona State and Southern Cal are all solid run defenses. The running game will be key to UCLA's success the rest of the way.
Overall, better than the last couple weeks, but still just a little above average. B- (2.7) seems fair.
6.) Do we have leaders on the field?
If Brett Hundley had put up these numbers in either the Oregon or Stanford game, UCLA wins. Simple as that. He balled out in this game the way he should in every game. He has every tool that a QB could ask for. Devin Fuller looked like a wideout that could become a go-to guy. Saw flashes of Brandin Cooks in the way Fuller played on Saturday.
On defense, it was very noteworthy how much the unit seemed to miss Eric Kendricks. Isaako Savaiinaea played solid, but he is about 60% of the player Kendricks is at this point. Anthony Barr, Myles Jack and Jordan Zumwalt all played well, but that's the level expected of them. Ellis McCarthy looked like a force. 5 star talent flashed quite a bit.
On special teams, Cameron Judge reminds me of a more talented Sean Westgate. Always around the ball. Jayon Brown consistently makes plays out there as well.
Another player that hasn't gotten nearly enough praise is Sean Covington. UCLA is 23rd in the NCAA in net punting at 39.25 net yards per punt. For reference, Jeff Locke's senior year (the one that got him drafted in the 5th round as purely a punter) was 39.94 net yards per punt. There has been almost no drop off after losing the best punter in the NCAA. No one could have expected better out of Covington.
There were leaders on the field, but there is some fault in that leadership due to the lackluster play. Grade comes out to a B+ (3.3).
Final Grade Card for the Colorado Buffaloes
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? C+ (2.3)
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? C+ (2.3)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? B- (2.7)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? C- (1.7)
5.) Do our players execute? B- (2.7)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field? B+ (3.3)
Colorado GPA: C/C+ (2.5)
For reference, last week's loss against Oregon came out to a 2.0 GPA and the victories over Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico State, UC Berkeley, Utah and a loss to Stanford were a 3.7, a 3.6, a 2.8, another 2.8, 2.9 and 2.0 respectively.