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Hair of the Bear: Talent On Display

Because the only way to get rid of your Saturday football hangover, is more football.

NCAA Football: Arizona at UCLA
Darren Andrews runs for a touchdown in the second half against Arizona.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

About half-way through the fourth quarter in the game against Arizona last night, UCLA was driving, holding comfortably onto a 31-17 lead. The Bruins started the drive at the Arizona 45 yard line, after Randall Goforth returned a kickoff 50 yards. This set of downs had started with two consecutive runs, both by Bolu Olorunfunmi, and the offense faced a 3-6. To the wary Bruin fun, it felt like the moment where UCLA, instead of putting away the game for good, would take its foot off the pedal and allow an opponent with inferior talent to get back into the game.

No one with ties to Westwood wanted to see #Pac12AfterDark start trending.

Rosen took the snap out of a shotgun formation. He looked right first, as the Wildcat defense sent six players to attack him and the pocket started to close. Rosen took his eyes to the left, avoided getting hit, and then hopped in the air and—without either of his feet on the ground—fired a bullet across his body to Kenny Walker, who had just freed from his defender on a post-corner route, to score a touchdown and extend the lead to 38-17.

Rosen displayed the cannon of an arm that has earned him his future-top-pick reputation, Walker used his track speed and a double-move to drop a Wildcat defender, and on that play, and in that half, and in this game, the UCLA Bruins looked like the team of talented football players that they are to bury the Arizona Wildcats 45-24.

Talent Unleashed

Polamalu opened the game for the Bruins primarily in shot-gun formation, and going with the pass far more than the run. The Wildcat defense responded by dialing up a ton of pressure on Rosen. Though he was never sacked, Rosen’s throws were rushed and he was beat up in the backfield. He only completed 9 of 24 passes—yes, there were drops—for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Much of the production came on a single 62-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Walker which ended the first quarter of play.

In the second half, Polamalu went back to pro-style sets and running the football. He mixed in screen passes, jet sweeps, and play action, and the offense functioned the way early-season optimists had envisioned it could since the philosophy shift was announced in January.

Most important, Polamalu called an offense that found unpredictable and creative ways to put the ball in the hands of the superior athletes at his disposal, rather than trying to spread the ball around evenly to three backs and many wide receivers, and those playmakers made plays.

The big playmakers on offense last night were veteran receivers Kenny Walker and Darren Andrews, along with Nate Starks who turned out to be The Guy in the backfield, getting the bulk of the carries for UCLA.

The coaching staff and Rosen have had a "you just throw to who’s open" explanation for why receivers get targets, but in this game, after drops by more drop-prone guys, it was clear that Andrews and Walker have earned the trust from Rosen and the staff to get more game reps and targets during the game.

It sounds nice to some people to have fourteen receivers who are capable of catching the ball, but even with a dozen capable receivers, aren’t there going to be a few special talents that will be able to do more with the ball than the rest? Isn’t there going to be a best guy and a second best guy, and a guy who maybe isn’t the best but has a certain skill that other guys don’t have?

Andrews and Walker have been both reliable with their hands, solid at getting separation, and difficult for defenses to tackle if they get the ball in space.

Count me as someone who was surprised to see that the "you’ll see more of one" back was Nate Starks. But Starks is the oldest and most experienced of the group. And again, if one guy is better than the other two (however you may define "better," perhaps it’s defined by match ups game to game), doesn’t it make more sense to give him the ball rather than split carries? Starks also got into a rhythm and was better as the game went on, something that can’t happen when reps are evenly divided between three backs.

Speaking of athletes making plays, let’s all celebrate Theo Howard’s single reception for a touchdown. He caught the ball, which in this corps should be enough to earn him playing time, then broke four Wildcat ankles to get to the edge and burst in for his first college touchdown. If Rosen can get Theo Howard added to already explosive weapons Kenny Walker and Darren Andrews as the top receivers, this could be a powerful passing attack indeed.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that UCLA’s best offensive performance of the season came in a game where the carries and receiver targets were a little less spread out, and a little more concentrated on getting the ball to the best players.

Let’s hope they keep this up.

The Defense Is Not Just Good, It’s Reliable

It’s beginning to get hard to come up with things to say about the defense, because not only is it good, it’s reliably good. After we lost sleep over the injury statuses of Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley, Tom Bradley’s healthy defense now ranks in the top 25 nationally in yards allowed per play.

After allowing one explosive play for a touchdown in the first quarter, the defense held Rich Rod’s normally explosive and high scoring offense—even when Arizona has been bad under Rodriguez at Arizona, the offense has always scored points—to only seven in the first half.

When the defense gives up a big play, something the defense is designed not to do and rarely does, you almost trust that it was an aberration and won’t happen again.

Only later in the game with a third-string, very good running quarterback could Arizona move the ball. Much of the production came against Bruin substitutes, and with a quarterback who I’m guessing the defense and staff didn’t watch much tape of in preparing for this game.

I didn’t find much to take away from this game on the defensive side of the ball other than not only is the defense good, but it’s trustworthy. When you don’t always know what you’re going to get from the offense, it’s good to know what you’re going to get from the defense.

How About Them Returns

Knowing Arizona had a rugby style punter, Mora and special teams coach Scott White put two returners back on punts, Adarius Pickett and Mossi Johnson. Not only did the returners mostly keep the punts from getting yards on the roll—something rugby style punts can often do—but Pickett sprang for a big 33 yard return, and averaged about 15 yards per return on 3 tries.

Ishmael Adams and Goforth, who came in to return after Adams went out with a shoulder injury, both had kickoff returns of 50 or more yards.

This was a priority for the Bruins in practice this week, and the improved return game gave the offense, clicking in the second half, much shorter fields to work with.

UCLA vs. Expectations

For the first time this season, the Bruins beat the Las Vegas spread, set at UCLA -12, and even outperformed the prediction models of S&P+ and F/+. ESPN FPI favors the Bruins in all but one of their remaining games (at Colorado), though both the Colorado and Washington State games, at close to 50% odds, are essentially pick ‘ems.

Could this be a turning point for Jim Mora’s squad?

UCLA could probably absorb another loss and still win the Pac-12 South. Tom Bradley’s defense looks to be the best in the division, and barring injuries, should remain so. The playmakers on offense are emerging and hopefully Polamalu and the offensive staff can continue to build on the second half of the Arizona game to deploy UCLA’s superior talent—the most talented team certainly in the division, and possibly the conference.

The Bruins travel to Tempe next week to take on a reeling Sun Devil squad, who just got trounced by USC and may have lost starting quarterback Manny Wilkins for an extended period of time. Mora’s record is even with Todd Graham over four years, with each team winning the games when they are on the road.