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Hair of the Bear: Defense the Way It’s Supposed to Be

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

UCLA v BYU
The defense held BYU to 23 yards rushing on the night, the most dominant defensive performance in the Tom Bradley era.
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

What a difference having your entire first string on the defensive line makes. Tom Bradley’s defense dominated the game. With Eddie Vanderdoes, Takkarist McKinley, and Deon Hollins all available and playing in the same game at the same time for the first time, the UCLA defense consistently generated pressure, even blitzed more than we’ve seen, and held an opponent to less than 1 yard per carry.

Yes, BYU’s offense is not good. Taysom Hill and the Cougars are averaging an even 17 points a game after three contests against Pac-12 South opponents, and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer was running the football program at a small Episcopal high school in Texas last year, and maybe — just maybe! — doesn’t have the chops to be calling plays in FBS Division I football. But BYU was able to rush the ball decently on the road at Utah, and good enough to ugly it up and beat a down Arizona team.

After only sacking the quarterback once in two games, Takk, Eddie, Deon, and co. dropped Hill for four sacks. Bradley loaded the box and dared a shaky passing quarterback to pass, and he couldn’t. Most importantly, the Cougars were totally unable move the ball on the ground. A defensive unit whose national reputation was not being able to stop the run had the Cougars rush total in negative yards for much of the night, and ended up not allowing even a yard per carry.

Many a bad team has rushed for far more against the Bruins in the Tom Bradley era.

There were even blitz calls, something we haven’t seen much of since Lou Spanos was at the reins of the defense. Perhaps Bradley is finally learning that the secondary—the strongest unit on either side of the ball—is good enough to handle receivers even when pressure is dialed up. Perhaps he needed the presence of the D-line studs to feel confident sending in pressure.

This is what Tom Bradley’s defense is supposed to look like.

Those Were Clown Touchdowns, Bro

Folks around the country who didn’t stay up late to watch the game, or perhaps were more compelled by the shootout in Berkeley, aren’t going to get an accurate report of what this game felt like just by looking at the score sheet.

Though UCLA was much better with penalties tonight—only five penalties for 49 yards—three came on BYU’s first scoring drive, two of those were terrible calls.

Early in the drive, when BYU was in their own territory, Eddie Vanderdoes was called for hands the to the face, a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down. Later in the drive, when the only glimpse of offensive momentum for the Cougars was looking like it would stall in the red zone, Fabian Moreau was called for a terrible defensive holding call, giving the Cougars an automatic first down, with only goal to go. Two plays later, Hill threw a pass to a BYU receiver that wouldn’t have been reached by Andre the Giant if he had the leaping ability of Zach LaVine, and Meadors was flagged playing perfectly clean defense. With another set of downs at the 4-yard line, they scored. Who wouldn’t?

Their second touchdown came late in more-or-less garbage time, if there’s such a thing in a two-score game, when Bradley and the defense let up and BYU drove for 91 yards and a score, garnering about a third of their offensive yardage and half of their scoring.

I haven’t figured out if it’s a good thing that BYU’s only touchdowns were unearned trash, or if it’s a bad thing that they were able to score them anyway, despite being dominated by the UCLA defense.

That Was Some 1980s Southwest Conference-Style Conservative Playcalling

In the first half, Kennedy Polamalu called eight pass plays on first downs, and eight running plays on first downs. In the second half, he opened sets of downs with a run 12 times, to four times passing, despite generating pretty much nothing on the ground. The Bruins ended up rushing a measly 1.5 yards per attempt—that’s pretty bad.

UCLA’s offense converted on only 6 of 17 third down attempts, largely because they were in too many third-and-long situations. On one drive in the third quarter, one that the Bruin offense actually scored on, three sets of downs were the classically nightmarish run-run-pass that asked Rosen to convert on third-and-seven, third-and-seven, then third-and-nine.

The third-and-nine play was the 33-yard touchdown pass to Darren Andrews.

There was maybe one screen attempt, which got broken up, but Polamalu became otherwise predictable, and never used screens or swing passes to get the ball to some playmakers in space, instead attempting to run in between the tackles over and over again behind an interior line that hasn’t been able to create holes for the running backs all season.

And What Is the State of the Re-Brand?

Jim Mora’s UCLA football program is rebranding, you may have heard. During the first years of his tenure, Mora’s Bruins were an uptempo spread team that played aggressive opportunistic defense. The UCLA Mora designed (if maybe not deliberately) was a team that could win in shootouts, maybe 45-28 was what you were going for. And in its first year, it was a missed field goal away from maybe being in the Rose Bowl. But with the hiring of Tom Bradley, who’s instilled a stop-the-run-then-don’t-give-up-big-plays style of 4-3 defense, and Kennedy Polamalu being tasked to install a don’t-call-it-pro-style offense, Mora wants to create a team that would dominate defensively, then control the ball and slowly churn out yards to beat respectable opponents 24-3, or something (a score I would have rather seen last night).

UCLA, after posting a 2-1 non-conference record, will test its makeover against the team that inspired it when the Stanford Cardinal come to Pasadena this coming Saturday, and the Bruins open conference play.

While we’ve now seen that the defense can be very good when everyone’s healthy, it remains Josh Rosen and the offense that are the big questions heading into conference play.

Rosen has actually taken a step back this season, rather than improving from his freshman to his sophomore year and masterfully grasping an offense that was implemented to take advantage of his skills. He is at times not seeing open receivers, and at other times just being inaccurate. His touchdown to interception ratio stands at 4:4. His adjusted QBR after three games (66.9) and his passer rating (126.8), are worse than his season averages as a freshman (68.4, 134.3, respectively). If there’s good news, it’s that his numbers have slowly gotten better through each game, but this isn’t the star QB we’ve been wanting to see, three games into the season.

Bruin fans were worried what might happen should anyone on the thin offensive line get hurt, but in fact, aside from outstanding tackles Kolton Miller and Conor McDermott, the line is not great with even the first string. The power running game is pretty non-existent and Polamalu hasn’t helped ease the weakness with calling plays like screens or swing passes to mix things up and help them out.

Also, dropped passes.

Taking a peek at this Stanford team coming to town, another notable difference is UCLA’s lack of an obvious playmaker, like Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, of course, is a generational talent, and in any given year a player of that caliber would have few peers on rosters in college football, but the Cardinal have always relied on a singular playmaker for offensive production, like Ty Montgomery before McCaffrey.

The Bruins have no guy to go to and come up with a million different ways to get him the ball. In Mora’s mind, I think Josh Rosen was supposed to be that star, envisioning the next Andrew Luck, but Rosen, though it’s well documented that he’s not getting a whole lot of help from his supporting cast, isn’t living up to the hype.

Jim Mora is Oh-and-All-Games against Stanford as UCLA’s head coach. He had such a crush on the Cardinal that he re-branded his whole program after them. How is the re-brand going?

We’ll find out this week.

GO BRUINS.