After back to back Thursday games (thanks Pac-12, now let's never do that again), the Bruins got back to their usual Monday routine today. On a normal Monday, the players had film session and meetings in the morning, and Bruin players Soso Jamabo, Eli Ankou, Thomas Duarte, and Darren Andrews met with the media afterward. Notably, all 4 of those Bruins played very well last Thursday in what was easily U.C.L.A.'s best overall performance of the season.
U.C.L.A.'s win over Cal got the Bruins back into the top 25 and now it remains for U.C.L.A. to start winning big football games. Thanks to ahem...Southen Cal's win over Utah, the Bruins control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South, making every game critical. Win out and they'll earn a ticket to the Pac-12 Title game in December.
Soso Jamabo said that despite having his best game of the season that he has a lot to improve on in terms of consistency He is feeling stronger as a runner and credited Coach Kennedy Polamalu for emphasizing power running and collision balance as part of that. He also called Paul Perkins "the best leader you can ask for". Jamabo said the biggest adjustment to college has being going hard every day. Solo was asked about a second quarter swing pass that he nearly broke and the look on his face tells you how close he was on that one.
Paul Perkins started the Cal game as his usual incredible self on the Bruins' opening drive, and that undoubtedly opened up the passing game for Josh Rosen and his receivers as early as the second drive when the Bruins went almost exclusively to the pass. That balance is huge in keeping any defense honest, so when Perkins had to leave the game in the second quarter with what turned out to be a bone bruise in his knee, Jamabo's play kept the run game going without missing much of a beat and that in turn kept the offense very productive on the night. The Bruins did bog down a bit in the red zone, settling for 3 field goals on red zone trips on Thursday night, and that efficiency will need to improve against better teams. Hopefully both Perkins and Nate Starks will be healthy and ready this weekend, but if not, it's good to know that the Bruins can count on Jamabo's production out of the backfield.
Eli Ankou knows something about filling in for an injured starter as he has been lining up in place of Eddie Vanderdoes since week one, and Ankoou had arguably his best game last Thursday night as well. I haven't seen a lot of videos of Eli Ankou with the media but he is incredibly articulate and thoughtful and clearly very personable, and the media seemed to take advantage of that with some good essay questions today - almost as if they've been reading IE Angel's' Eye Tests. In fact, like word for word from IE Angel's Eye Tests.
If I could ask Coach Mora any question right now, it would not be an X's and O's question. It wouldn't be about Noel Mazzone's future. Or Josh Rosen's development in the future. Or why a coach that spent his entire career coordinating against offenses like Stanford's somehow was woefully unprepared for Stanford's offense.
It would be: What is the identity of UCLA football?
The mission statement, what this program stands for on the football field as a football team. Is there one?
Because nobody that I have talked to knows. Nobody who has watched this team knows. And I want to know if that's a question this coaching staff is prepared to answer.
Ankou mentioned that, more than the Utah win, the Stanford loss reinvigorated the Bruins team in terms of defining itself and that the energy of the whole team and concentration on its execution have improved since. The media then asked Ankou specifically how he would define the team. Ankou offered some thoughts that the defense was very hard hitting, very physical, and doesn't let exterior circumstances like injuries affect who they are as a team. His answers weren't anything terribly specific, nod did they need to be, but they were very quick and suggested to me that the players had at least given this particular issue some bit of thought. The question of why it seems to take big losses to Stanford was another good question and while, like with any good essay question, there isn't one right answer, the appearance that the players seem to be considering these issues and are trying to answer them is encouraging. Of course, you can ask why the coaching staff hasn't instilled this identity already is a slightly different issue, but I'll give Ankou huge credit for addressing the topic today.
Thomas Duarte had another outstanding game last Thursday catching 10 balls for 141 yards and a TD - which would make a good nickname, by the way. Duarte has been Rosen's second favorite target this year behind only Jordan Payton, though both have a gaudy 14.8 yard/catch average. Duarte thinks that his consistency for Rosen provides confidence for Rosen in the passing game, particularly when the defense is leaving room over the middle where Duarte likes to operate. Duarte cited the experience from last season as helping the Bruins snap out of their two game losing streak and feels like the team knows what it needs to do, saying that execution, more than focus, was the problem in the two games before Cal. Ideally, they can use that experience next year to avoid the annual two game slump in the first place.
Darren Andrews was much more of an unknown commodity in the passing game coming into the season but is becoming a more popular target as the season progresses. Andrews says he is enjoying his expanded role, particularly given his injuries which have delayed his progress with the team. More reps at practice has helped him develop a better chemistry with Rosen and Josh has shown the confidence to go to Andrews, even in tight spots downfield.
Each of the Bruins was asked if they were excited about the Utah loss which put them right back in the race for the Pac-12 South, but they all appropriately noted that Colorado has to be their focus right now. The downtrodden Buffs took U.C.L.A. to a very unnerving overtime in Boulder last year, and then they finally got their first ever Pac-12 road conference win last Saturday at the expense of Oregon State in Corvallis. So the CU program is showing signs of progress and they'll come to Pasadena with the knowledge that they can win on the road in the conference and they'll be eager to continue their winning ways. The Bruins, even with all their injuries, still have all sorts of talent advantage over the Buffs and so U.C.L.A. will need to bring that same urgency and focus and preparation that they showed against Cal and put up a dominating win over a resurgent CU team.
Assuming that all things on the schedule return to normal, the coaching staff should meet with the media tomorrow so we should get an update on the latest round of injuries, this time including Perkins, Isaako Savaiinaea, and Devin Fuller. Savaiinaea was another player who had a very good game against Cal after he and his fellow linebackers struggled the prior two weeks in the run game, so hopefully he'll be back on the field in the coming weeks. Fuller is third on the team in catches this year and is an solid contributor, but the Bruins WR crew should be deep enough to manage until he gets fully healthy.
One player who should be feeling great is kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. Fairbairn was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week today. I should say so. A 60 yard FG should do it, but he was also 4-4 on FGs, perfect on PATs again, and had 7 touchbacks on 8 kickoffs. I thought his distance was bit shorter than typical but it turned out to be just above his season average. Jack Wang at InsideUCLA wrote about the announcement.
The senior broke Chris Sailer's 18-year-old mark of 56 yards last Thursday, giving the Bruins a 16-point lead going into halftime of their 40-24 win over then-No. 20 Cal. It was the best moment yet in what has been a surprising final season for Fairbairn, who has turned himself into a Lou Groza Award candidate.
The Hawaii native is 13 of 14 on field goal attempts this season, and ranks [fourth] in the country with a [percentage] at 92.9 percent. He is also only 17 points away from tying John Lee's all-time UCLA scoring record of 390.
It was the second time Ka'imi won the award. Credit also goes to holder Jerry Neuheisel and long snapper Christopher Longo and the line for making the kicks possible, and a special nod to Najee Toran for his false start that gave Ka'imi the shot at the Bruins record.
Fairbairn also continues to excel on kickoffs with a touchback rate of 74% which is currently 5th in the country. big congrats and props to the kid who has struggled early in his career in Westwood but has steadily improved year to year and is easily one of the nation's best kickers this season.
I do hope Ka'imi's next 17 points to tie the all-time scoring record all come on PATs, though.