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Spaulding Roundup: UCLA Needs To Open Up & Execute On Offense Early On Against Arizona

Let's try our best to take our mind off this past weekend's game and look ahead to Saturday's match up against Arizona. Arizona is coming into this game on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum after stunning Stanford in an offensive shoot out last weekend in Tuscon. They are flying high and at least on offense clicking on all cylinders with brand new quarterback in sophomore Nick Foles. jthirtyfour already broke down the Arizona offense to get us started for this game week.

Right now UCLA is probably somewhere around a 9 to 9 1/2 point underdog against the Wildcats. Given what we have seen from the teams in recent weeks (note I am not a betting person) seems like smart money would be on the Wildcats to blow the Bruins out of the desert. I just don't think we have a defensive scheme that is dynamic enough or a personnel that is coached up to be disciplined enough to shut down Arizona. If we are going to even have a chance to win this game on Saturday, I think Neuheisel and Chow will have to trust their offense and open it up early instead of waiting to fall behind again due to usual defensive ineptness in the first few series. They will need to break away from the mindset of "managing" their way to a victory and instead think about being aggressive and attack early and often on offense.

Let's start with quick recap of the series history between these two teams:

SERIES WITH ARIZONA -- UCLA owns a 19-12-2 advatage in the series with Arizona, which dates back to 1927. The Wildcats own a 9-8 record in games played in Arizona and have won the last two played in Tucson. Arizona has also captured the last two meetings in the series, winning 31-10 last season in the Rose Bowl and 34-27 in the 2007 campaign. UCLA's last win in the series came in the 2006 season by a 27-7 score. The Bruins' last win at Arizona came in 2003, a 24-21 verdict. Coach Neuheisel is 4-1 overall, 0-1 while head coach at UCLA, versus the Wildcats.

A year ago, the Bruins played the Wildcats in their Pac-10 opener (game 3 - Sept. 20, 2008) in the Rose Bowl. Arizona jumped out to a 17-7 lead before a Kai Forbath field goal sent the teams to the dressing rooms with UA up 17-10. After a scoreless third quarter, the visitors tacked on 14 more points on a scoring pass and a touchdown run to come away with a 31-10 win. UCLA managed 196 yards of total offense in the contest. Arizona passed for 222 yards and ran for 111 more.

The second half collapse against Arizona at the Rose Bowl last year kind of reminds me of the collapses we have had in last two games during when we played opponents tough most of the game only to completly implode within small stretches when the team fell apart on all facets of the game.

Let me see if I can find any signs of hope going through the Arizona team stats for 2009 season. Not surprisingly the Wildcats have the number 1 passing offense and the 1 overall offense (560.33 yards per game) in the conference. The only vulnerability I see (on surface at least) is their scoring defense is ranked 8th (giving up 26 pts per game) in the Pac-10. They have gotten lit up in their last three games giving up 32 pts to Oregon State, 36 points (in a heartbreaking loss in Seattle) to Washington, and then giving up 38 points to Stanford this past weekend.

I am really not sure whether our defense has the ability to stop Arizona (more on our D after the fold). The question I have is whether our offense can set the tone early on against Wildcats making it a game. Yes, all this season we have talked about our defense setting the tone early. Well I think it's clear that they are probably not capable of it (I really hope I am wrong). The way the Chuck Bullough defense seems to be set up, it seems incapable of coming out and shutting down its opponent early on giving our team any sense of momentum (the only exception seems to be Oregon, even then you can't count too much into that performance given all the injuries Ducks were nursing in that game). More after the jump.

Going back to our defense ATV has more reflections on what has gone wrong this year:

"The past couple of weeks there has been a recurring theme -- we are just not playing sound, fundamental football," Verner said. "I mean tackling and playing within the structure of the defense."

Verner admitted his own culpability. He was beaten deep on a 43-yard touchdown pass by Cal. "I was expecting something different and took myself out of the play," he said.

Verner added, "A lot of our scheme is making sure everyone does what they are supposed to do, because if even one piece is off then the whole play explodes." That, Verner said, comes down to practice.

"It's a cliche, but practice makes perfect," he said. "Some guys in practice are like, 'Oh man, I just want to get this done.' No. You use practice as a learning tool and get ready for the game. There are no excuses."

Verner said the seniors on the defense would deliver that message before today's practice, with linebacker Reggie Carter taking the lead.

"Reggie keeps telling us, 'You never know when you won't be able to play this game anymore, so don't go through the motions,' " Verner said. "We have to drill that into their heads and drill that into their hearts."

That's nice and all but remember the team apparently called a "player only" meeting after the Oregon game too. So I don't care much about rhetoric like this in the paper. I think the main problem with this team defense is not necessarily bad tackling (although no doubt it needs to get better and crisper) or needing to show more aggression (I think we have seen plenty of it). I think the main problem with this defense is a lack of discipline and staying with its assignments.

Time and time again we are seeing in tapes our front 7 finding overshooting their targets and finding themselves helplessly out of the position. It has been happening with regularity since the Tennessee game. I believe that is on the coaches. That is not only on Chuck Bullough and the defensive coaches, I sure hope CRN also takes responsibility for it, if this situation doesn't improve in the next 6 games. To his credit it looks like CRN has identified the key defensive issues himself:

On what ails the defense:
"It's not one thing. It's a combination of a lot of things. The big play was the haunting thing in this game. One of the big plays came when we missed an assignment and we didn't follow our guy in motion so we were a man short. One of them we kind of guessed on a route rather than played a route. One of them was a bad angle and a guy out of control in a run scheme where Best goes 93 yards. Those are the little things I'm talking about. Practice will be a giant array of those little things."

On what's gone wrong the past three games defensively:
"We talked about the Stanford game having more missed assignments than in any of the previous three games. We work hard to shore that up and I thought we played pretty darn good defense against Oregon. The Oregon was a four minute spell with a kick return and an interception return that gave them 14 points."

Again taking bad angles and missing assignments shouldn't be happening 6 games into the season. I am not sure if the problem at this point is so systematic that it can be fixed before next Saturday. At the very least, I hope to see some modicum of changes of improvement against Arizona in Tucson. As for the Zona offense, here are some of the tactics the Wildcats have been successfully using on offense this season:

1. Running the no-huddle offense. Arizona switched to a hurry-up attack on the final drive of the first half, and responded by going 89 yards in 2 minutes 39 seconds. Wildcats' players called the drive, which was capped by Foles' 11-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Turner, the turning point in the game. The score cut Stanford's halftime lead to 28-20, with Arizona due to receive the second-half kickoff.
Arizona ran the no-huddle attack the rest of the way with great success. The Wildcats' game-deciding drive covered 92 yards in 2:30.
"I love playing up-tempo," Foles said. "I love it, the guys love it. " [...]

2. Resting their tailbacks. Injuries to Nicolas Grigsby and Keola Antolin threatened to derail the Wildcats' season.
Foles' ability to make plays has allowed the UA to be productive on offense without overtaxing its banged-up backs.
Arizona ran the ball just 14 times against Stanford, but still managed to get long touchdown runs from both
Grigsby and Greg Nwoko. The Wildcats are still using their running backs, but they're using them smarter.

3. Spreading the ball. Coaches trust Foles to change plays at the line of scrimmage and go through his progressions once the ball is snapped. The results: A spread-the-wealth attitude on offense that the Wildcats never really enjoyed with Willie Tuitama under center. Foles has had a new favorite target in each of his three starts: Nwoko (Oregon State), David Roberts (Washington) and Juron Criner (Stanford).
"He throws a good deep ball," Dykes said. "He gives those guys chances to make plays."

At this point, I don't expect our defense to shut down or dominate the Arizona defense. Not sure we have a dynamic scheme or a personnel disciplined enough to keep them bottled up for 60 mintues. However, it would be considered an accomplishment if they can keep those guys under 30 points in the desert.

As for UCLA on the offense, there is no secret at this points. We have to take advantage of opportunities in the red zone and get it done. That means catch the balls drilled between numbers, not missing open receivers and running with some passion to pick up the tough yardage. From the OC Register:

The previous week against Oregon, UCLA found itself inside the red zone twice. Quarterback Kevin Prince was stopped at the 1 on fourth down in the first quarter, and backup quarterback Richard Brehaut threw an incompletion on fourth down from the Oregon 10 in the fourth quarter.

"It just hasn't clicked yet," Prince said of the Bruins' red-zone inefficiency. "Those things will come. We're just going to keep on working, and those plays will come in the red zone."

The Bruins spend enough time working on their red-zone offense at practice but haven't figured out a way to produce the same success in the games.

"We're just going to do our normal deal and we're just going to have to execute better, especially in the red zone," Prince said. "There is always talk about doing things and once you get in the game, some things work and some things don't."

I think it will have to come down to our offense and I really hope going into this game Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow contemplate opening things up early. Perhaps I am wrong but I don't think this is going to be one of those games in which we are going to be able to "manage" our way into a victory. In other words FGs for TDs are not going to get it done. It's pretty clear at this point that we don't have a defense that will win ball games for us (unless they are taking on another QB like Crompton, which is not going to happen rest of this season).

So, it will be up to our offense - Prince and co - to build on the improvements from last weekend and open it up early. More on our offense's inability to close the deal from the Daily News:

Perhaps there is nobody to blame, because every group has played a part in the inefficiency. The offensive line has failed to get enough push at times and made costly penalties at others. The running back corps has not made that extra burst into the end zone. The wide receivers have dropped passes in the end zone. The quarterbacks have overthrown open wide receivers.

"You do two things: No. 1 you look and see what you're capable of doing," UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said at Monday's weekly news conference. "But you have to see it demonstrated. We have memories of great red-zone offenses. But then you have to ask your individuals who play those positions, can they execute them?"

Hopefully the answer is more positive next weekend. It will certainly enable to feel lot more positive about the program after three brutal Saturdays.