Somewhere in the understructure of Sun Devil Stadium late Saturday night, UCLA head football coach Jim Mora sat in a cheap chair in front of a cheap microphone on a cheap table set upon a cheap platform. Two True Blue backdrops with a pattern of logos made the room of linoleum tile and white-painted cinderblock even more dismal by their feeble attempt to be cheery. The head coach was exasperated.
"We’ve just been so putrid on offense the last four weeks," he said. "Unable to run the ball, unable to protect the passer. It’s very, very, very disappointing."
He finished the statement breathlessly.
The last time Mora was so plainly resigned in a post-game presser, following a Foster Farms Bowl loss to a Nebraska team with a losing record, he vowed to make drastic changes to the program, and did.
The Bruins "got bigger," with protein shakes, in the weight room, and by adding a bigger body at the line of scrimmage in a 4-3 defensive scheme.
This half of the program shift has worked very well.
The Bruins switched to a more pro-style offense, vowing to run the football in between the tackles, control the clock, and set up a vertical passing game for their gifted passer.
This half of the program shift has not worked very well.
"Number one, we can’t run the football," Mora said. "At all."
"At all" is right. The Bruins final tally for rushing in the game was one yard in the red, a stat that deceptively includes 41 yards lost by sacks. The UCLA backs gained 40 yards on the ground on 17 carries, averaging a little over 2 yards per attempt, even worse than their own Pac-12 worst 2.95 yards per carry through six games.
"It starts with us as coaches, you know. Obviously, we’re doing a horrible job, and we have to get it fixed," Mora forthrightly admitted.
Does this replay of unequivocal candor forebode another set of drastic changes to come? Can such changes be made—and work—at the half-way point of a football season?
The head coach and reporters dialogued in the dreary chamber, a late-night scene of Sartrean drama that no one wants to buy tickets to.
You Can’t Pass Your Way Out of an Inability to Run the Football
Kennedy Polamalu went full Air Raid against the Pac-12’s worst passing defense. Josh Rosen and Mike Fafaul threw the ball 54 times against the Sun Devils. Two actual Air Raid teams, Texas Tech and California, threw the ball 53 and 56 times, respectively, against Arizona State. That doesn’t count sacks, where a pass was called but no attempt was made.
The strategy may have actually worked too, except that the UCLA receivers again dropped passes blowing crucial opportunities, and the offensive line couldn’t protect Rosen. Much like the first half of last week’s game against Arizona, when you’re only throwing the football and won’t/can’t run it, the Arizona State defense sent pressure all night and took out Rosen who got Beat Up over the course of the game. Rosen was only able to take snaps for a little less than three full quarters.
Rosen still passed for 400 yards when he was in, a level of production that should have garnered more than 20 points, and the number of yards exceeded in about three quarters what the Arizona State defense was giving up through the air per game.
Again, all other issues aside the plan may still have worked if Rosen had been able to play the whole game, but a game plan ripped out of Mike Leach’s playbook certainly wasn’t going to work on Mike Fafaul’s shoulders.
When you’re a pro-style team, the answer to not being able to run the football isn’t to just start throwing the ball 60 times a game. This is not a viable long term solution. Passing too much is just as predictable as running too much. The offense has to find answers to the rushing attack to balance and give opportunity to what Josh Rosen can do through the air.
Speaking of Josh Rosen...
Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Any Worse for the Offense
With receivers not able to catch the ball, an offensive line unable to open up holes in the run game, backs who can’t hit holes when the holes are there, and leaky pass protection, the one piece of the offense that wasn’t an issue—the wunderkind with a golden arm from Manhattan Beach—could now be the biggest issue of them all.
As of Sunday, we haven’t gotten any word yet if the fourth-quarter injury that sidelined Rosen for the last part of the game is a serious injury, or if the sophomore had just taken too many hits. But an offense that was below average with one of the most naturally gifted quarterbacks in college football is disastrously awful without him.
While early on it seemed like the offense had potential but just needed to fix a few things, those bulleted points for improvement have amassed now into an expanding amorphous blob of trouble, and the offensive side of the ball for UCLA it a total mess.
I haven’t yet felt masochistic enough this morning to try to fully imagine what a Rosen-less UCLA offense looks like for the rest of the season. I hope we don't have to find out.
The Defense Can’t Do It All
Three times the UCLA offense turned the ball over in its own territory. Three times off of turnovers the UCLA defense didn’t allow an Arizona State first down. Each of those three times, however, the Sun Devils got the ball in field goal range allowing Zane Gonzalez to set a new NCAA record for field goals off of turnovers by the Bruins.
A defense needs help from its offense. Any defense, no matter how good, no matter the scheme, if it has to stay on the field and the offense can’t generate points, will give up touchdowns late in the game. Any defense, no matter how good, no matter the scheme, can’t keep points off the board when the offense turns the ball over inside or near the red zone.
The defense couldn’t have played much better in this game, as has been the case through most of the season now. The offense couldn’t have played much worse.
Where Do We Go From Here
Jim Mora seems to be finally aware that his offense has serious problems. Talk of "If" moments and "trying to have success in all three phases," has now become "the offense is putrid."
It’s difficult to see how this team, without major improvement on the offense, can still compete for the South. A team talented enough to win the conference may now just be playing for bowl eligibility.
The problems are on one side of the ball.
Coaches at the helm of bad football teams can be alarmingly naive about the state of their program (see: Turning the Corner, a memoir by Rick Neuheisel), but if Mora didn’t understand the extent of his offensive issues before, he made it clear last night that he does now.
What’s your move, Jim?