I am putting off a paper until the last minute.
A completely normal thing for me. My fallback explanation is the typical "I work better under pressure" excuse that everyone has heard and that most people roll their eyes at.
There is some truth to that, as well as some bullshit.
When I have been in a spot with an assignment that holds some weight, like this research paper, I put up my best work because it needs that extra effort that you only have so much of.
On the other hand, when I have put off a homework assignment that I know is only going to be graded at a glance because it has a minimal impact on my overall grade, I put up a less intense performance. I do my best because I want to do well; but I can't make my brain think of the assignment the same way as it does the big ones.
I feel like this is what UCLA went through against Stanford. There wasn't enough pressure to squeeze their best performance out.
Stanford was in a situation where their entire grade was on the line with this one game. This was a test for them; one they needed an A on to be in a position to pass. UCLA was in a situation where the game was a homework assignment. It was important; but their grade isn't affected much one way or the other.
Stanford won this game, UCLA played to win this game and lost. Those are facts. Stanford put up a better performance and they had to in order to accomplish their goals. UCLA put up an average performance with good effort and got beat by a better team. There is absolutely no shame in that.
The game ended with a Stanford victory to the tone of 35-17 and UCLA still headed to the Pac-12 Championship game. But instead of heading to Eugene to play Oregon, they are headed to Palo Alto to face the Cardinal for the second time in 6 days, with both teams still ranked where they were before the game at 8th and 16th in the BCS standings, respectively. That's a bizarre scenario.
My research paper is like Stanford's situation; I'll ball out because I need to.
So, let's get to the grades and see how UCLA did on their homework assignment.
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
On the surface, I was completely in favor of UCLA's gameplan on defense. Cram the box with 8 defenders and try to minimize the impact Stepfan Taylor has on the game. Force Stanford into 2nd and long and 3rd and long to take away the running game. Make Kevin Hogan and, more importantly, the Cardinal wideouts beat you through the air.
It worked well in the early going and the defensive scheme looked solid early, forcing 3-and-outs on 3 of the first 4 Stanford drives.
The game looked pretty good, even after the Bruins went down 14-7 midway through the 2nd quarter. My thought was that the game changed on the series after UCLA went down 14-7. If the Bruins answer back with points or just drive down the field to get the defense some rest after a 9 play, near 5 minute drive by Stanford.
Instead, UCLA went 3-and-out and the defense was right back on the field.
The key to this gameplan is eliminating big plays by creating long 2nd and 3rd down situation for the offense. If you do that, then you'll have the advantage through the whole game. A defense is susceptible to a big play constantly when stacking the box, and that only amplifies when the defense is tired and facing a running back as good as Stepfan Taylor and an offensive line as good as Stanford's. Two big plays by Stanford were the real difference in the defense having a great game or an average one.
The 49-yard TD run by Taylor to give Stanford a 21-7 lead was the first.
On that play, Cassius Marsh blows through the line and gets too far upfield instead of coming flat down the line. Tevin McDonald makes the wrong read and plugs the wrong gap, and Andrew Abbott misses a tackle on Taylor from the weak-side.
It's a well-blocked play by Stanford that gets 5 yards regardless of those 3 miscues.
But the miscues turn it into a touchdown.
Football is funny like that, Abbott has been one of UCLA's most consistent tacklers all season and McDonald has had a great nose for the ball throughout his career. Both of them mess up on the same play, it's a touchdown. The whole game isn't as simple as that but that play stood out to me after thinking about the game on Saturday. You can nitpick and "what if" plays like that one throughout the whole game and any game UCLA has ever played. The details are what the coaches notice and correct on film.
On the other big play by Stanford (Taylor's 40-yard run) the situation was a typical big play opportunity. The defense gets off the field after 4 plays by Stanford and the offense proceeds to turn the ball over within a minute of having the ball and the defense is right back on the field. On the play, Andrew Abbott is blitzing off the edge, giving UCLA 9 in the box with a single safety. Like Marsh, he gets a step too far upfield before crashing down the line and is unable to get to Taylor before he hits the hole. Seali'I Epenesa is well blocked and only able to get a hand on Taylor as he runs by, Once Taylor gets to the second level, McDonald is faced with a lineman bearing down on him with Taylor right behind. He does the only thing he could and tries to create a pile by going low on the blocker. While this is going on, Cassius Marsh had done a great job avoiding a cut block and getting in pursuit but, right as he gets to Taylor, McDonald's pileup takes Marsh's angle away and Taylor pushes past, juking out Price on his way to a 40 yard gain.
Perfect storm of random miscues and Stanford winning the battle upfront. It simply happens sometimes and that is part of what makes football so great.
I'm not upset at the defense because they can beat Stanford with the same scheme next week. Execute a little better and get the bounces that Stanford got (the four Stanford fumbles only created one turnover) and UCLA is in position to win the game.
The grade is higher than I thought it would be. B- (2.7)
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Two things before I analyze this category.
1. Stanford has an elite defense. Far and away the best defense UCLA has seen all season and for many seasons.
2. UCLA has a very good offense. Not nearly elite; but you cannot be a top 20 offense in a BCS conference unless that is the case.
That being said, UCLA played terrible on offense. Lowest scoring output of the season with only 17. Lowest yardage gained with only 334 yards. This game actually worsened Stanford's seasonal average in both categories, so it isn't like the Cardinal played out of their minds like they did against Oregon.
I will get into specifics in later categories but if I had to pinpoint the offensive problems from this game, I would note the struggles Brett Hundley had with his accuracy and getting rid of the ball, the drops and inability to get open from the skill position players and the penalties by the offensive line.
Brett Hundley played like a freshman. He had a bad game, going 20-38 for 261 yards with a TD and an INT. He was sacked 7 times and ended up with 0 yards rushing on 8 attempts. The total is skewed positively because Brett had a 38-yard run in the 4th quarter to balance his yardage out.
Johnathan Franklin would have had another 100-yard game if not for losing about 40 yards rushing due to two holding penalties by Jeff Baca and Jake Brendel. He ended up with 65 yards and his 10th TD of the year on 21 carries.
The receiving core was pretty mediocre throughout and is only spared from being bad because of the big play by Shaquelle Evans and steady performance of Joseph Fauria, who caught his 11th TD of the season.
The offensive line is difficult to judge. They faced their toughest opponent of the season and some of the blame for the sacks falls on their shoulders. I hate that sacks factor into rushing yards instead of passing yards, so I tend to peek at how the numbers would look without them. It would still have been an unimpressive game of 108 yards on 26 rushing attempts. Well below the season average and below what it needs to be to beat a team like Stanford.
Overall, there is no way to justify a grade higher than a D (1.0). It was a bad game, both in the gameplan and the performance. I give them a little credit because of how good Stanford's defense is; but it was an underwhelming effort.
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
This is where I have my weekly rant on penalties and this week is no exception.
12 for 135 is difficult to overcome against an average D1 football team, against a team as disciplined as Stanford it is insurmountable.
I lean towards Coach Mora's stance on penalties of aggression not being a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. I also agree with most people that a few calls during the game were ridiculous and needlessly thrown by the worst officials in college football (serious Larry Scott, look at the third page of NCAA statistics for penalty yardage per game and think about what you want your conference to be known for).
From this game, the most egregious penalties were the Fabian Moreau kick-catch interference call and the pass interference call on Anthony Barr. Moreau's had no impact on the game, as UCLA forced a 3-and-out following that; but that doesn't excuse the call. The Anthony Barr call on a magnificent pass breakup had a tangible effect on the game. That call takes Stanford from trying a 3rd and 11 to getting 1st down. If UCLA gets the ball back instead of Stanford continuing their drive and getting a 14-7 lead out of it, the rest of the game is played differently.
Regardless of any bad calls, UCLA shot themselves in the foot enough to lose any game. Jeff Baca is a penalty machine. I don't even want to guess what the odds are of one player being penalized 6 times in two weeks; I think it is safe to say that they are low. No cheap ones either, he earns those flags.
Offensively, I will throw out some praise to Shaquelle Evans on his 71-yard catch. He executed the scramble-drill to perfection along with Jerry Johnson on the play. When the quarterback escapes the pocket and the WRs note that, you can do three things. One is crossing the field because if you are on the opposite side of the field the QB you cover yourself by staying put. Another is coming back towards the QB because you give him an immediate option to avoid getting sacked. A third is to go deep because the defense is accounting for the QB running and loses focus on staying deeper than the WR. Evans did the third and was rewarded with UCLA's longest pass play of the season. If Evans can continue improving, he might get himself drafted after next season. This was not the norm on the evening though because UCLA WRs had trouble getting open all game.
Defensively, I go back to a lot of what I said in the first section. The scheme was solid and well executed for most of the game. Two runs by Taylor accounted for 89 yards of rushing and make the performance of the entire game misleading. You cannot exclude those two plays; but they are both on execution rather than scheme or knowing what they should have been doing.
On special teams, the kickoff return team is a major issue. The blocking is terrible, as there as regularly 3 to 4 players getting past the blockers and being in position to make plays on the returner before they cross the 15 yard line. The decision to return kickoffs out of the endzone is puzzling, especially since the ball is moved to the 25 on touchbacks this season. The return game is sorely missing Damien Thigpen, the shuffling of Devin Fuller, Kenneth Walker, Steven Manfro and others is not a recipe for success. I will touch on the fumble in the execution section. A slight positive is the nice job by Evans on the punt return team, had two solid returns on the day.
The overall performance in this category is spotty. There were positives and negatives on the defense, a lot of negatives for the offense and double-digit penalties for the 4th week in a row. The grade is a C (2.0). Have to be better to beat a Top-10 team.
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
In the postgame press conference, Coach Mora made his thoughts on this pretty clear. When he was asked about not the Bruins not playing as hard as they could have, Mora responded with this: "We are competitors and those guys in there don't spend all that time preparing for a game, with the sacrifices they make, to not try their best every opportunity they get. They tried their best to win. It didn't matter. We wanted to win this game today. We came up short. To insinuate that our players didn't give their best effort - I've never, nor did I ever do that."
Coach Mora has never struck me as anything but an honest man. UCLA lost to a better team. Stanford is not flashy; but they were the better team on Saturday night.
Did every significant bounce go Stanford's way? Yes.
Did Stanford play more physically and make far fewer mistakes? Yes.
But they didn't play any "harder" than UCLA did. They just had a lot more to play for and it showed. Grade here isn't the best that is has been; but I cannot criticize the effort given by UCLA. B+ (3.3)
5) Do our players execute?
Offensively, this is a mess. The drops, the pass blocking, the pocket prescense and accuracy of Brett Hundley. It was bad.
Jordan James is the most blatant victim while dropping two easy passes, one for a sure thing first down on a 3rd and short.
Shaq Evans dropped a pass on a slant that would have been close to a 1st down on a 3rd and short.
Jerry Johnson had a ball that was a poor throw by Hundley, but could have been caught.
Brett Hundley missed on more throws than he has since Cal. He also threw an interception that was at a truly inopportune moment in the game, driving to get the lead in the game. To compound his below average night with accuracy, he held on to the ball for far too long, far too often.
Of the 7 sacks, 5 came after 5+ seconds in the pocket. In shotgun, against a defense that gets to the quarterback the ball has to come out within 4 seconds unless it is a deep ball. Period. It is like that most of the time in normal offense vs. defense situations. At 7-on-7 tournaments, there is a buzzer that goes off after 5 seconds and it counts as a sack. It isn't like this rule of thumb has escaped Hundley through his career. Within that time frame, he has to be able to either run or get rid of the ball. You're allowed to throw it away and unless you are Mike Vick or RGIII, reversing field while under pressure is going to end poorly more often than not.
The offensive line certainly was not at their best in pass protection, but it was expected against Stanford. If Brett figures out to be decisive in games like this, he'll be near-unstoppable. Next week is a great time to start.
The most important execution for both sides is on 3rd down. It has been one of the biggest reasons for UCLA's success this season. Both sides of the ball have been good, the defense especially, for the majority of the season. 3rd down was a problem for UCLA on offense in this game. Namely, getting stuck in third and long situations via penalties or sacks.
They faced 3rd downs of 22, 14, 18, 25, 10 and 11. They converted on 1 out of the 6.
On normal 3rd downs, UCLA was 6 out of 13, which is solid against any defense.
The defense was good again, holding Stanford to 5-14 on 3rd down and holding pat for the season at #16 in the country in 3rd down defense.
Outside of the big plays, UCLA did not miss a ton of tackles on defense. The assists were higher than most games because of the gameplan. When you stack 8 guys in the box, chances are that more than one guy is going to be in on the tackle.
The pass defense was okay, only letting Hogan get 160 yard through the air. Granted, Stanford isn't an air-it-out team. But the defense held them more than 40 yards under their season average, and more than that while Hogan has been running the offense.
On the punt team, Jeff Locke did not have his best day. He had a 27-yard punt that got caught at the 12, a 29-yard punt to the 21-yard line and had just his 6th touchback of the year, a rare day for him. He did record his usual touchbacks on the kickoff team, so I think it was just one of those days.
As for the Kenneth Walker fumble, Coach Mora again said it the way I would:
"It's tough when you have a turnover on special teams. There is a high correlation to winning or losing, when you have a turnover for a touchdown. We have to do a better job on our returns and of securing the football."
If you've followed football or watched football or played football, you know that is a fact. When you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game. UCLA could have won the turnover battle easily, if the bounces go their way on any of Stanford's 4 fumbles or the INT taken away from Zumalt, we are looking at a much different outcome. Again, you can nitpick games like that every week, so you have to look at the game for what it is.
The execution was poor on offense for the skill position guys and the offensive line got beat physically by a physically better unit. On defense, they were victims of the big play and being on the field far too often. The special teams had a tough week. The grade is below average here, but barely passes: C- (1.7).
6) Do we have leaders on the field?
The offense's struggles lead me to be unable to praise either Johnathan Franklin or Brett Hundley like I usually do in this section.
I can note that Brett Hundley is only 236 yards from recording the most passing yards in a single season in UCLA history in his redshirt freshman season. Pretty damn impressive.
I can also note that Franklin moved into 5th in Pac-12 history in rushing yardage and has two games to close in on leaders ahead of him.
Anthony Barr, Datone Jones and Eric Kendricks all had above average game. The defense was put in a difficult spot. They were on the field far too often, the Cardinal had a 10 minute edge in time of possession and had it longer than that prior to UCLA's fruitless 3 minute, 15 second drive at end the game.
The defensive stars doing what they could makes up a bit for the performance of the offense. The grade is a middling C+ (2.3).
Final Grade Card for Stanford Cardinal
Based on the discussion here is how it shapes up:
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? [B-: 2.7]
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? [D: 1.0]
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? [B+: 3.3]
5) Do our players execute? [C-: 1.7]
6) Do we have leaders on the field? [C+: 2.3]
Stanford GPA: 2.2
For perspective, the overall GPA at the end of the regular season was 1.61 last year.
I feel about right with that grade. It was certainly our best loss of the season and would have been better than some of our ugly wins if the offense hadn't played so poorly.
For the sake of comparison to the rest of the year, the wins this year have been graded out like this: Arizona (3.8), Southern Cal (3.6), Rice (3.27), Nebraska (3.48), Colorado (3.33), Arizona State (2.7), Utah (2.72) and Washington State (2.3) and the two losses: Cal (1.1) and Oregon State (1.62).
I can repeat some parts of my closing paragraphs from last week's "Eye Test".
Next week, UCLA faces #8 Stanford fresh off of clinching the Pac-12 North Championship. The Cardinal have the best defense in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. Their linebackers are massive, strong, fast and physical players. Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas are impressive looking players. Stepfan Taylor is a crazy talented back and Zach Ertz is one of the best TEs in the country. Kevin Hogan is yet to have a game where he has gotten hit and needed to respond to pressure, if UCLA wants to win, they'll need to get to Hogan and eliminate the big plays from Taylor.
I still like this matchup for UCLA. Bounces tend to even themselves out in football. If UCLA forces a couple fumbles and jumps a route or two on defense while protecting the ball on offense (and special teams, more importantly), they'll win the turnover battle and be in position to win the game. It should be fun to watch on Friday night. By then, I'll be waiting to hear back about the A I'll be receiving on my research paper. Hopefully, I'll be grading out another one while UCLA preps for the Rose Bowl.
Until next week, go Bruins!