The "Eye Test": Trojans Lock The Gates, UCLA Take The Key To The City

Stephen Dunn

Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 35-14 victory over the Southern California Trojans to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

21 point victory in the Coliseum. If you haven't seen the videos of the aftermath of this victory, I highly recommend opening a new tab and spending a half hour or so taking those in. I'm going to go against the grain from my normal strategy here and talk about the future/big picture instead of what just happened, the actual "Eye Test" will cover the game.

At the end of the regular season, UCLA has beaten every team they were supposed to beat, lost to the two teams they were supposed to lose to and gone 3-1 in games that were toss ups before the season (Nebraska, Washington, Arizona State and Southern Cal). We can quibble about the particulars, but those were the games that I saw as going either way before the year.

There is still a sense of "what could have been" that will rest over this season moving forward. Stanford and Oregon were both beatable teams, as was Arizona State.

You will see a similarity in my responses to the Roundtable this week, but I'll say it here. There is no reason for UCLA to not be a major national contender in 2014. Every player that has started or played on the offensive line will be back (XSF could leave, but a season playing out of position leaves him with limited film for scouts). Nearly the entire core of skill position players will return. Jordon James, Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, Devin Lucien and Thomas Duarte. The entire secondary will be back and a year older, along with the addition of a healthy Marcus Rios. The front seven might actually be better than this year despite losing 3 NFL players. Find me a team anywhere matching the raw talent of Eddie Vanderdoes, Ellis McCarthy, Kenneth Clark, Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, and a healthy Owamagbe Odighizuwa.

That doesn't account for two major factors. A top 10 recruiting class, which the coaching staff could not have more momentum for out of the gate on in-home visits. And the biggest recruit in the country in Brett Hundley. His decision would move UCLA from a serious preseason threat to a preseason favorite and potential top 5 team to start. With or without Hundley, there is no excuse for anything less than a Pac-12 Title in Year 3 for Mora.

In 12 months we should be getting ready for the first ever NCAA Football Playoff in D1. Think on that while we go through this offseason.

Now lets get to the grades.

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?

This was probably the most complete four consecutive quarters that UCLA has played under Lou Spanos and Jim Mora on the defensive side of the ball.

Southern Cal's offense was by no means a juggernaught, or even a group near the top of the conference. But anytime you hold a D1 offense under 300 yards for the better part of 60 minutes, the performance you are putting together is a dominant one. The Trojans ended up with 314 yards after two 3rd and long passes of 14 and 16 yards (with 20 yards lost because of sacks in between) with a 35-14 lead.

The secondary did a beyond solid job of neutralizing the Trojans' plethora of offensive weapons. Marqise Lee (one of my favorite football players at any level, only problem is he wears the wrong colors), Xavier Grimble and Nelson Agholor are all 100% locks to play at the next level, and UCLA's pass defense held them to a combined 132 yards on 12 receptions. No big yardage passing plays allowed whatsoever, just a couple of 20 yard plays. Southern Cal was held nearly 50 yards under their seasonal average in passing yards per game. Ishmael Adams, Brandon Sermons, Anthony Jefferson, Tahaan Goodman and Randall Goforth all deserve big props, as do the linebackers dropping into coverage.

The pass rush also performed at a high level, producing 6 sacks and somewhere around 5-8 other pressures/knockdowns on Cody Kessler. They were helped by a couple of injuries to Southern Cal's interior line, but Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh both got their two sacks off of the healthy tackles.

Hell of a game. Tough to go anywhere but an A (4.0)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?

In terms of pure volume, this wasn't an elite day. UCLA was held under their season averages in passing, rushing, scoring and total offense. But this might have been the cleanest that the offense has run all season over a four quarter stretch, relative to talent.

Southern Cal's defense was one of the best units in the conference, arguably the country. Close to the top 10 in most categories, UCLA put up nearly 400 yards and 35 points. The offense could have put a couple more scores on the board if Coach Mora handled games like the guy who ran away from $C did. I prefer the classy approach to be honest. 35-14 and a victory formation in the redzone feels better than 42-14 and a brawl as the clock runs out.

UCLA lost their starting right tackle Caleb Benenoch on the 4th offensive snap of the game, leading to Ben Wysocki entering the game (more on him later). Instead of wilting under pressure or going into a conservative shell, UCLA adjusted the game plan to utilize the strengths of the team (why this couldn't have happened against Stanford, Oregon or Arizona State is beyond me) and Brett Hundley played the best game of any QB in college football this week and the 10th best game of any QB this entire season, according to ESPN's QBR (check this out).

I'll touch on some more stuff later on, but the offense was a huge asset this week instead of a problem. Feel solid about giving an A- (3.7) because a redzone drive that yielded no points and the two lackluster drives to start the 4th quarter with a chance to end the game early.

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?

This section is the only area where there is a clear negative in the way UCLA played. All rivalry games have a heightened intensity, that's just the nature of competitive activity. But there is a clear line between using that intensity to one's benefit and allowing it to be used as a weakness. For the first half of the first quarter, it was a weakness for UCLA.

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While that may be the most impressive right hook I've seen since Mike Tyson in the Hangover, it was the most immature play that any player on UCLA has made this season. Caleb Benenoch responded to a push after the play with a punch and got ejected.

Ishmael Adams did so again on a punt a few plays later, also drawing a personal foul in an exchange where both he and Kevon Seymour should gave been ejected. Luckily, Glasses Ref and crew were feeling generous and dished out offsetting penalties.

In the remainder of the game, UCLA committed few other penalties.

3. A false start by Ben Wysocki. UCLA scored two plays later to go up 7-0. Had no impact on the game and it happened a half beat before the snap. A penalty that likely would not have happened with more reps for Wysocki.

4. A pass interference by Brandon Sermons, which was a smart penalty by him to correct an error. Extended a Trojan drive instead of allowing a touchdown. The Trojans scored on the drive, but it took 6 additional plays with much less of a momentum swing than a 50-yard TD would have allowed.

5. A hold on a fair catch by Aramide Olaniyan. Ensuing drive was a 3-and-out. No impact.

That's it. Just 4 for 45 yards, which let UCLA climb to 118th in penalty yardage and 120th in penalties per game (yeah, still another atrocious season with penalties for the Bruins).

Schematically, UCLA was prepared on offense, special teams and defense. The game plan was clear and rock solid on both sides of the ball.

Pass blocking was the best it's been all season, Hundley was pressured under 10 times and only sacked twice, once on the second play where Xavier Su'a-Filo got beat inside by Devon Kennard and not again until a 3rd and 12 in the 4th quarter the play after a terrible snap almost gave Southern Cal great field position.

Was a big fan of the all-around scheme in the passing game, utilized UCLA's strengths at the skill positions. Lots of targets for the running backs, Jordon James, Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro all had nice games (even if the stat line doesn't reflect that for all 3). Perkins was especially electric, putting up 79 yards on just 3 receptions. The use of the QB draw was also a big factor in the game and was timed well most of the time.

The defensive scheme was also rock solid. There was only one play where Southern Cal beat UCLA over the top and Brandon Sermons' PI took that threat away. The passing touchdown was only a score because Jordan Zumwalt slipped dropping back to his zone, otherwise that play was well covered. The scheme to stop Southern Cal's run game was solid as well, the few big rushes were sprung by missed tackles around the line of scrimmage by Eric Kendricks and one bad read by Kendricks on the touchdown run. The scheme was solid, execution issues take place in every game.

Special teams, outstanding again. Whatever adjustments Coach Ulbrich made to the blocking on kickoff returns (which were good the whole year, regardless of returner) took the unit to another level. Ishmael Adams has taken advantage of opportunities and looked explosive as hell. Punt coverage was a little sloppy, but you get a pass if 26 return yards allowed are 43% of what you give up all season.

Overall, the positives definitely cancels out the negatives from Benenoch and Adams at the start of the game. A- (3.7)

4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?

No one could question the effort or intensity by the Bruins in this one. There may have been too much of both at the start of the game, but UCLA settled in and controlled the pace of the game throughout.

Very similar to last season's victory at the start, the question in this game was when were the Bruins going to put the Trojans away for good. Unlike last season, the Bruins never allowed Southern Cal really capitalize on momentum.

Only because of the over-exuberance at the beginning of the game is this an A- (3.7) instead of an A.

5.) Do our players execute?

A plus two turnover margin. 8 of 15 on third down conversions (6 for 9 in the second half). Just two sacks allowed against a great pass rush. Solid special teams play across the board. Only one drop that I can recall.

It was a good day for the execution end of things.

One player who was lacking here was Shaq Evans. For all the talk he dished out, the team backed it up 100%, Evans did not. He had an easy drop in the first half, just moved his eyes upfield before securing the catch. He fumbled a fair catch on a punt, which was the sole reason he was in the game. They trusted him to secure the ball more than Adams on a play where there was no plan to attempt a return and he muffed it. Luckily, he fell on the ball to avoid giving Southern Cal the ball inside the red-zone. The game would have been 14-10 or 14-14, instead UCLA drove down to make it 21-7. That was a huge swing in the game. Oblong balls bounce weird sometimes. UCLA has been extraordinarily lucky this season with bounces. UCLA has fumbled 22 times and only lost 6, while their opponents have fumbled 25 times and lost 12. That number tends to balance out over times, so don't be shocked if UCLA turns the ball over more next season or even in the bowl game. Can't predict random acts.

One of UCLA's turnovers was exactly this, when Javorius Allen just dropped the ball after picking up a first down. Myles Jack won at the bottom of a pile to recover it, but it should have been a first down for the Trojans deep in UCLA territory.

On the other hand, the Bruins won the battle on both sides up front. The offensive line and the front-seven on defense both played arguably their best game of the year. Certainly the most complete game start-to-finish. Ben Wysocki played at a higher level than any right tackle has all season for the Bruins. Out of nowhere. Sure the scheme played to his strengths and most of the successful runs went to the left side of the line or up the middle on draws, but he executed great in pass protection, using his quicker feet to his advantage. Without a doubt Caleb Benenoch is a more physically gifted player with a much higher ceiling, but Ben Wysocki might have been a better fit for the Bruins this season. Hindsight is 20/20 though.

Both Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond did a solid job on pulling blocks in the run game. Redmond has been a steady performer all year, who might have a bit of a case for the best overall season from a UCLA lineman. I'd still give it to XSF 95% of the time, but you could make an argument for Redmond. The big problems from the offensive line were poor execution by XSF on one pass block where he picked a side and Kennard beat him inside and a pair of bad snaps by Jacob Brendel. Aside from that, it's just nitpicking little things that happen in every game.

Defensively, the only real issue were a couple of missed tackles/reads in the run game by Eric Kendricks and a random slip in pass coverage on a zone drop by Jordan Zumwalt on Southern Cal's passing touchdown in the 3rd quarter.

Other than that, the defense executed well in rush defense, gap responsibility, zone coverage, man coverage and pass rush. It was a great game for the team across the board.

The blocking on the kickoff returns is crazy. Next level stuff, Coach Ulbrich is going to get/deserve a huge raise again this year. The special teams this year after 12 games, are 23rd in net punting, 19th in kickoff return defense, 18th in punt return defense (top 5 before this game), 5th in kickoff returns, and has 0 blocked kicks/punts allowed versus 6 blocked kicks/punts. Those numbers are outstanding. I’d take this special teams unit over any in the country and wouldn't trade Coach Ulbrich for any LB/ST coach.

Easy for me to give an A (4.0) here.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

Brett Hundley is unquestionably a huge part of this. I'll go outside of my normal rule of looking at just one game and reflect on Brett as a leader in general. In my mind, he's earned the right to chase his dream at the next level. If he feels he is ready and can prove that he is deserving of being the 2nd QB selected this year (Teddy Bridgewater is a lock #1 guy), then he should declare. He has never trailed in a game against Southern Cal, and if you think about the hot mess UCLA has been in the last decade, that's an accomplishment in itself.
Is there room for him to grow? Unquestionably.
Would his return to the Bruins make UCLA a top-10 team to start next season and give UCLA a great shot to be in the first ever NCAA D1 playoffs? Yes.
Go or stay, is he one of the best Bruin quarterbacks in history? Without a doubt.

Other bright spots on offense were Ben Wysocki. Enough cannot be said about how impressive he was in this contest. He may give up 40 pounds and 2 inches to Caleb Benenoch, but he played better in this contest than any right tackle has for UCLA all season. The pass rush of Southern Cal was mostly a non-factor because of how huge the front five stepped up. Every guy deserves props, but the backup coming in with little preparation gets the glory in this one. Also, big shout out to Paul Perkins, Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien and Jordon James. Reminder how bright the future is for UCLA on offense, with or without Hundley behind center.

On defense, Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh stepped up huge in their last contest against the Trojans. Four combined sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 5 tackles for loss. You'll take that off the edges any day of the week. I look forward to seeing those two play on Sundays.

Special teams, Ishmael Adams somehow increased his 38 yards average per return in this game with 130 yards on 3 returns. That's crazy, he'd be tops in the nation in kickoff returns if he had enough returns to qualify. He also played a great game defensively. He was in man coverage on Marqise Lee or Nelson Agholor most of the night and those guys were neutralized. One moment of poor judgement does not outweigh the impact Adams had in this game.

Has to be an A+ (4.0) here. Leaders on both sides from start to finish.

Final Grade Card for the Southern California Trojans

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? A (4.0)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? A- (3.7)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? A- (3.7)

4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? A- (3.7)

5.) Do our players execute? A (4.0)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? A+ (4.0)

Southern Cal GPA: A (3.9)

For reference, last week's loss to Arizona State came out to a 1.9 GPA and the victories over Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Washington New Mexico State, UC Berkeley, Utah and Colorado and losses to Stanford and Oregon were a 3.7, a 3.6, a 3.1, a 3.1, a 2.8, another 2.8, 2.9, 2.5, 2.0 and 2.0 respectively.

The expectation was for UCLA to close out the season strong with wins over Southern Cal and in the bowl game (though I am not sold on non-BCS bowl games meaning very much in evaluating a season). UCLA can get to 10 wins for the first time since 2005, and they should considering they'll be probably be playing against some midlevel ACC team in the Sun Bowl. But this season should be a building block and there minimum expectation moving forward. UCLA should beat the teams they are supposed to beat every year. Slip-ups will happen to every program, but they have to be few and far between.

If you asked me for a definite answer of whether or not Jim Mora is the guy at UCLA, I'd lean towards yes. For whatever reason, he makes me believe that he is more than just talk. This is UCLA's first back-to-back 9 win seasons since 1997 and 1998. After those years, UCLA dropped into the worst stretch in the history of the program. So the long term results need to continue to improve next season. Like I said earlier, there are no excuses for UCLA to not be a major player nationally next season.

I'm not sure whether or not there will be an Eye Test for the bowl game, but if there isn't, I look forward to writing these again in 2014.

Until then or in a month, Go Bruins!

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