After the seasoning opening overtime loss to Texas A&M on the road, head coach Jim Mora spoke about the need to eliminate "if only" moments—if only this receiver had caught the ball, if only that receiver had caught the ball, if only Josh Rosen didn’t throw the ball up in the air, if only Takkarist McKinley didn’t get hurt.
Eight games into the season, Bruin fans are still pondering the "if onlys" and "what ifs."
Though the loss in College Station stung, it was easy enough to be encouraged. A team that had revamped its style of play on both sides of the ball played one of the better teams in the SEC West to a regulation draw on the road—and had the ability to have won, if not for those "if only" plays.
But four losses later, totaling to five before the end of October, and with each loss coming down to the final drive in which UCLA had the ball within a score, a possibly encouraging sign at Kyle Field has become a deeply discouraging pattern. The "what ifs" have chronically plagued the 2016 campaign.
What if Josh Rosen didn’t get hurt? Could his presence in the entire game at ASU, and against Washington State and Utah, have the Bruins at a much more respectable 6-2, 4-1 record, tied atop the South heading into a potential division deciding matchup in Boulder?
What if a would-be touchdown pass isn’t deflected into the hands of a defender at A&M? What if Ishmael Adams catches a pass on third down against Stanford to keep the drive alive? What if Theo Howard got to play in place of receivers who consistently drop the ball?
In a season where each loss was a winnable game, Bruin fans are left to wonder. But at 3-5, 1-4, with a team of players talented enough for the press to pick them to win the division and maybe the conference, the ever-growing laundry list of "what ifs" have wasted this season of UCLA football.
Not What You Were Expecting?
The Bruins and the Utes both headed into the game with poor offensive productivity and respectable defenses. Las Vegas set the over/under at 43. Both teams’ highest point total of year, 45 for UCLA, and 36 for Utah, came against Pac-12 South bottom dweller Arizona. Utah couldn’t even get to 20 against Oregon State, while the Bruins were trying to figure out how to play football when you can’t run.
What happened instead? A lesser version of the Oklahoma-Texas Tech game in Lubbock.
Give a little credit to the coaching staff for trying something new. The Bruins practiced an uptempo spread offense all week, hoping to be able to run the ball out of it. After calling a run on the first two plays from scrimmage—good for -2 yards—the Bruins threw the ball 70 times, while six more drop backs ended up as Fafaul scrambles (Fafaul had the longest rush of the game for the Bruins, a 15-yarder), to only 8 more runs on the game.
Well, it produced. The Bruins 510 yards of offense exceeded their previous best output this year, and their 5.86 yards per play was the best of the season other than UNLV and Arizona, against a Utah team with a reputable defense.
The normally reliable Bruin defense, however, had it’s worst game of the season. The defense allowed 539 yards of offense, almost 100 yards more than it’s previous worst game at A&M, and an astounding 7.38 yards per play, a whole 2 yards worse than it’s previous worst game for that metric.
At first I thought this may have been a product of the uptempo style of offense having an adverse affect on the defense—Utah had the ball for 36:11 in a game that lasted about 4 hours. But the total amount of plays—73 for Utah—was normal for a contest in the Pac-12.
A defense designed to stop the big play allowed a 42-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage—couldn’t have been too tired yet—and allowed Joe Williams to run for 332 yards on 11.4 yards per carry, with big play and big play.
Tom Bradley said after the game that Utah used more "12" personnel than they anticipated, and the Bruin defense often wasn’t lined up properly to defend it. Perhaps it was superior chess by the offensive minds of the Utah coaching staff, either way, it was the first time all year, with a fully healthy defense, that the UCLA defensive line was more or less dominated—but for the exceptional play of Takkarist McKinley.
Special Teams, Penalties, and Turnovers
All else being equal, football games are usually decided by special teams and turnovers, and to a lesser extent, I think, penalties. Chalk it up as progress that UCLA won the penalty battle—only called for three penalties for 35 yards, while the Utes were called for nine for 105 yards—but special teams and turnovers were the difference in this one.
The obvious: the UCLA kickoff unit allowed a touchdown on the opening play in a game that was won by a single touchdown. But there was also an important sequence after UCLA scored its final touchdown to bring the game to within seven with 4:38 to go in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, J.J. Moulson kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Utes the ball at the 35-yard line. Utah gets one first down before having to punt, and are able to pin the ball back at the 14-yard line for UCLA’s ill-fated final drive.
There was good for the UCLA special teams: Adarius Pickett’s 35-yard punt return sparked a late touchdown, and the two punters averaged over 40 yards a punt. The musical kickers thing was definitely odd.
Despite giving up the ball five times, the Bruins only allowed 10 points off of turnovers in the game. Whereas UCLA got 7 points from Utah’s two turnovers, a touchdown after Takk’s sack-and-strip in Ute territory. But you’re not going to win many games with a -3 turnover margin. Fafaul, again, got into trouble when he threw deep, and doesn’t seem to know how to slide—do they teach that in Westwood?
That Fourth Down Play
The pro-style UCLA offense did make one ugly appearance in the game, in what was a truly baffling decision by the coaching staff. On a fourth-and-one play near midfield in the second quarter, the Bruins had the right idea to go for it and called for a hurry up quarterback sneak—which looked like it would have worked—but Whittingham called a timeout.
After a few minutes to consider how they might get that one yard and extend the drive, Mora sent out his team in a double-tight formation and tried to run between the tackles. The result? A loss of one yard, and a shorter field for the Utes to score a touchdown—though, to be fair, Joe Williams would’ve scored that touchdown from inside their own five.
You've completely changed the offense in one week because you understand the switch to a pro-style, between the tackles running attack was a failure, and on a critical play, try what you seem to know isn't going to work? Okay.
A Bye for the Bruins
What will the Bruins get out of the bye week? The best thing would be a healed up and ready to play Josh Rosen, but as we’re still in the dark about what his injury is, who knows how that situation will play out. Mike Fafaul said to reporters after the game that he knew he’d be starting against Utah at the beginning of the practice week, despite Mora’s attempt to keep the media and opponents guessing.
Will they stick to the up-tempo, air-it-out spread? Will the defense revert to its previous form and be the reliable unit that has kept every game close despite poor offensive play?
Well, I know one thing that we’ll get out of a bye, and a Thursday night game in Boulder: UCLA fans will have better weekends.