Late in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against BYU in Provo, Utah, the UCLA offense punted the ball from midfield holding on to a two-score lead. With the defense having played arguably their best game since Tom Bradley got the controls, giving the ball back to a BYU offense that had only scored with the help of officials was an easy decision. The Cougars would have to begin the drive from their own 9-yard line.
But drive they did. The Bruin defense, which had been pressuring Taysom Hill all evening, let up, and the secondary didn’t actively contest underneath passes to not give up a big play or quick score. The Cougar offense drove 91-yards and scored a touchdown with under a minute to play.
The touchdown would be meaningless—their onside kick attempt failed badly—but would act as a dress rehearsal for another late offensive drive and a touchdown that would be anything but meaningless; a touchdown that may have a lasting impact on the UCLA football program the year, or years, to come.
Both Jim Mora and Tom Bradley said after the game that the defense didn’t change schematically or philosophically in the last drive. Sure, maybe the coverages didn’t change and the pressures were the called same. But to those who watched the BYU this year (and Washington State last year), it was a familiar course.
Starting from their own 30-yard line, Stanford QB Ryan Burns, in his first career road start, with 2:05 to go in the game, engineered a final drive that would shatter the Bruins and their fanbase. After serving Stanford some Stanford with a side of Stanford and Stanford to drink for 59 minutes and 36 seconds, the Bruins reverted to old form and lost the lead with 24 seconds to go on a touchdown pass from Burns to JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
Stanford extended their win streak over the Bruins to 9 in a row, while Jim Mora’s record against the Cardinal extended to Oh-and-Still-Counting.
Shaw Shaw’d, but Mora Mora’d
If you were a Stanford fan—or had just seen a lot of Stanford football—David Shaw did all the ultra-conservative drivel he is pessimistically known for, and that has often led to Stanford losses to lesser teams (see, Northwestern 2015, USC 2014...).
He opted to punt near midfield twice on 4th-and-shorts, including in the fourth quarter at about 4th-and-a-few-inches near their own 40-yard-line. Shaw used the "Wild-Caff" formation multiple times despite the fact that the Bruin defense had stifled #5 most of the night, a formation that offers no threat of a pass. He mismanaged the timeout situation at the end of the game and probably lost 15-20 seconds for his team to make the final drive.
It was enough to lose the game and frustrate Stanford fans if only the Bruins could have taken advantage of it.
But Mora out-Mora’d Shaw’s Shaw-ing, if you will. The penalty situation as a whole is far improved this season—the Bruins were only flagged five times for 45 yards last night—but when the flags are pulled out, they happen at crucial moments and effect the game.
How about a free fifteen yards for your two-minute offense? How about we put our defense on our heels and let you drive down the field with new ease and let you score a touchdown with mere seconds left?
(Maybe the Bruins could’ve used those 15-20 seconds that Shaw let tick off.)
The Bruins Bottled-Up McCaffrey
Though they would get banged up throughout the game, the UCLA defensive front was able to match up against the bruising physicality of Stanford’s offensive line, and achieved what I image was their primary goal: to keep Christian McCaffrey from taking over the game and getting big plays.
The kickoff team refused to kick #5 the ball, trading off at times a penalty to give Stanford the ball at the 35 in lieu of a potentially game changing McCaffrey touchdown return. On offense, McCaffrey’s biggest play was a 13-yard run, and he was limited to only 151 yards on the night, after a streak of 200+ yard efforts.
In fact, the Bruins didn’t allow the Cardinal much in explosive plays at all, only allowing two plays on the game that went more than 20-yards, with the longest play of the night a 30 yard run by McCaffrey’s backfield spell Bryce Love.
Tom Bradley’s defense was committed to containing McCaffrey and making the other 10 guys on the field win the game, and it worked until Stanford's ultimate possession.
On the final 70-yard drive that would win the game for the Cardinal, McCaffrey only touched the ball once on a 4-yard carry.
Though the Bruins allowed 5.6 yards per carry (certainly not great), it’s hard to get too upset about a unit that limited arguably the best skill talent in college football, and a Cardinal team that has mostly owned the conference recently to only one touchdown, and 16 points earned by the offense.
The Real Problem for UCLA This Season
The Bruin offense was remade to be a pro-style, run-the-ball-down-your-throat type of scheme, but UCLA is running the ball worse than an Air Raid team right now. Kennedy Polamalu called 33 runs to 27 passes last night (caveat, sacks sometimes get counted as "run plays" in stats), but the Bruins only gained 77 yards on the ground, a measly 2.3 yards per rush. The Bruins currently sit dead last among Pac-12 teams in rushing offense, averaging 3.2 yards per carry—to illustrate, the next worst, Oregon State, is average 3.9 yards per carry.
One more time for emphasis: UCLA is the worst team at running the ball in the Pac-12 conference and it’s not all that close.
Despite the drops, despite Rosen’s shakiness in the offense—both continue to improve and were better last night (on the whole; yes, one drop was particularly huge)—UCLA’s offense is pedestrian right now because the offensive line can’t open up holes and UCLA’s elite stable of running backs have nowhere to go.
Josh Rosen continues to improve, and I thought he had his best game of the season last night. There was one obvious play where he missed Nate Iese up the seam, though he found him later in the game for a big gain. He completed 18 passes on 27 attempts for 248 yards. His completion percentage continues to improve, his passer rating continues to improve. It didn’t feel like he left points/opportunities on the field. I am no longer worried about Rosen getting comfortable in the offense.
What we should all be worried about is how poor the Bruin offense is at running the ball. It may be the one piece, as the defense, the quarterback, the receivers, and everything else begin to fall in place, that could handicap the team this season.
With UCLA’s new offense looking to control the tempo and control the ball, the Bruins get fewer snaps per game, and a slimmer margin of error for mistakes in general. In the 2012 Pac-12 Championship game against Stanford, UCLA ran 71 offensive plays. Last night, UCLA ran only 60 plays from scrimmage—11 fewer plays. Part of the M.O. of this kind of offense, Stanford’s M.O., is playing mistake-free football. Two dropped passes don’t mean as much when you get 71 plays. When you get 60 plays, a single drop, a single offensive penalty, has much more impact.
But beyond mistake-free football, the other necessary component to this style of ball-control offense is being able to reliably run the football.
The offense will not work if the offense can’t get yards on the ground.
While the last drive was painful, and it felt like the defense lost the game in the waning moments, UCLA is doing almost everything right four games into the season except for the one old-school thing that you must do well to run this old-school offense: Establishing the damn run.
What Does It All Mean?
If UCLA had stopped the Cardinal’s last offensive drive (or had a better running attack, a balanced offense, and wasn’t in that situation to begin with), this would have been a course-altering national statement for a coach and program that has risen from mediocrity but failed to gain acceptance among the elite.
As a loss, as long as the players don’t let the sting of this defeat effect their level of play and wind up in a tailspin, the loss to Stanford will just be another opportunity lost for Jim Mora and his Bruins.
To achieve their goals for the rest of the season and potentially face Stanford again in Santa Clara, the Bruins will have to move on from this one pretty fast and get ready for an Arizona team that travels to the Rose Bowl next week after their own heartbreaking loss at home against a top ten team.
Losing one game, even against Stanford, won’t mean much if UCLA can’t figure out how to establish the run game, and drops 2-3 more games this season.
Losing one game, even against Stanford, also won’t mean much if the Bruins can rattle off victories during a manageable section of their schedule, figure out how to run the football, and win the division to earn a second shot against the Cardinal.