On UCLA’s second snap from scrimmage, Mike Fafaul lined up in a shotgun, his Bruins with a second-and-eight opportunity. He clapped his hands, ready for the ball to be snapped. Center Scott Quessenberry, who we now know had been out of practice for much of the week with a shoulder issue, had on the previous play snapped the ball high, though Fafaul was able to snag it out of the air and hand it to Soso Jamabo for a short gain.
This time Quessenberry’s snap flew right over Fafaul’s head. Fafaul, the smart and scrappy guy that he is, recognized Jamabo’s better position to recover the fumble, and blocked a Colorado defender from getting the ball. UCLA would lose 22 yards on the play, and be forced into a third down with thirty yards to gain.
Moving Backwards or Going Nowhere At All
UCLA’s offense found a new way to be bad on Thursday night. With all the various other ailments plaguing Kennedy Polamalu’s offense, the occasional spoonful of bad snaps was not the proper remedy.
The Bruins, in possession of the ball, found themselves moving backwards or nowhere at all too often. UCLA had six negative yardage plays on the game, despite Fafaul only being sacked three times. They fumbled for a loss of 22 yards, they ran for a loss, and there was a even a forward pass from Fafaul to Darren Andrews that lost yards.
On 18 plays, failed runs and incomplete passes, the Bruins were not able to move the ball forward at all—I’m including in that count Mike Fafaul’s one interception. UCLA had 59 offensive plays, and on slightly over 40% of those plays, either went backwards or nowhere at all. When they did advance the ball, it was rarely for more than a yard or two. The Bruins finished with 0.8 yards per carry—that of course includes sacks and a 22-yard fumble for a loss—and 6.4 yards per attempt in the passing game, for a total of 210 yards gained in the entire competition.
To put that into context, Stanford, the conference’s worst team by the yards/game metric, averages 304 yards/game.
But perhaps the most damning statistic for the offense is the points scored off turnovers. It is almost a death-and-taxes truism in football that if you win the turnover margin, you will win the game. So how do you win the turnover margin at +3 and lose by two scores?
The UCLA offense only scored 3 points off of 4 turnovers on Thursday night against Colorado. The special teams can equally be blamed for this blunder, but that’s less than a point per turnover. Colorado scored its only offensive touchdown off of a UCLA turnover. That’s seven points per turnover. You can do the math.
And late in the fourth quarter, just when you might have been saying to yourself, hey, at least there haven’t been any dropped passes, Eldridge Massington—proven to have one of the most suspect pairs of hands on the UCLA receiver corps—dropped a six-point dime from Mike Fafaul.
With 5:43 left in the second quarter on a second-and-seven play, UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley easily slid past an offensive lineman given the unenviable task of trying to block him, and focused his gaze on Buffalo quarterback Sefo Liufau—one of college football’s toughest quarterbacks to bring down. McKinley, unseen by Liufau, had a clear shot, and hit the passer on his open side. The football soared into the air, not because it was a forward pass, but by pure force of the hit.
At game speed, it was difficult to tell if it was a fumble or a pass, so good thing UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown caught the ball in its downward trajectory, rather than off the ground. Brown took off for the edge to turn up field. McKinley, the same man who had just taken down Liufau, came back into the broadcast frame and beat a Colorado skill guy to the sideline to lay the block that opened up space enough for Brown to advance the ball 49 yards to the Colorado 18-yard line.
Takkarist McKinley is the Leader of This Stellar Defense
Led by McKinley, the Bruin defense continues to ascend as all other phases of the game for UCLA head in the opposite direction. The Bruin defense, despite its bend but don’t break philosophy, forced four turnovers against Colorado, the most turnovers it has forced against a team all season. Colorado had never lost more than two turnovers in a game in 2016, averaged one turnover a game, and in their previous game against Stanford, won the turnover margin at +4.
Averaging 495.75 yards per game, Colorado was only able to muster 304 yards of offense against the Bruins—their worst output of the season. Their 3.6 yards per play was worse by more than a yard than its previous worst game by that metric, against #2 Michigan in the Big House—a game where Liufau, who’s toughness and ability to extend plays kept his offense from being even worse on Thursday night—didn’t play for about half of the game.
The Colorado offense only scored three points in the entire game when they started a drive in their own territory, meaning only once were they able to get across mid-field to muster points, a field goal.
The rest of the Colorado scoring, when not actually during a special teams play, could be chalked to an offensive turnover—their lone offensive touchdown scored on a drive that began at UCLA’s 38-yard line after Fafaul’s interception—and poor special teams—the Bruin defense was able to hold the Buffalos to a field goal after advancing a punt return to the Bruins 17-yard line, even despite a substitution infraction that gave Colorado an unearned extra set of downs.
McKinley gets better and better every week, even when it seems like he can’t possibly continue to outshine his previous performances. In front of a national audience, if such uninterested fans could even stomach the bout, McKinley proved why he may very well be the best pass rusher in the country, and his two sacks against Colorado put him atop the sacks list nationally: Takk is #1.
With 2:40 left in the game, able to force Colorado into a fourth down with four yards to go, there was still a chance, albeit a desperate and unlikely one, that UCLA, down two scores, could somehow pull off the upset. Even with no time outs, it was enough time to work a two-minute offense, and see what happens when you try an onside kick.
Colorado, after a timeout to stop the clock with one second left on the play clock, sent its punt team onto the field. Just before the punt was snapped, a UCLA defender jumped offsides to give Colorado a new set of downs, and they would be able to run out the clock.
To a national audience, the penalty was a fitting end to an ugly game during which 25 flags were thrown, including several fifteen-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against each team. But to the Bruin eye, it was an even more fitting end that it happened on special teams, that third and oft-forgotten phase of football, that is now giving the Bruin offense a run for its money in an inglorious race to the bottom.
And You Thought the Offense Was Bad
How do you lose a game when you win the turnover margin +3? Complete ineptitude on offense helps, and ghastly special teams will put you over the edge.
The punting unit allowed half of Colorado’s points for the game. First, in the third quarter, when the punt team spotted the Buffalos possession at the UCLA 17-yard line. If they hadn’t advanced the ball a single yard, Colorado was still in field goal range—those points are on the special teams. And second, the dagger, allowing a touchdown return in the fourth quarter. Down by three, the Fafaul-led offense may have had a chance, down ten, the game was over.
J.J. Molson kicked a career-long 48-yard field goal in the game, but the Bruin kickers—Molson and Strauch--missed three field goals during the game. That’s nine points the Bruins left on the field, and 10 points spotted to the Buffalos, all from special teams play alone, a swing of 19 points if you’re keeping score at home.
Frustrated by punting woes and a few missed field goals from Molson, Mora made the decision to go to a musical kickers style of special teams, whenever the music stops, whoever’s closest to the chair gets to take the kick, I guess. UCLA used two punters and two field goal kickers in the game, as it has through the several games now. The kicking game has only gotten worse since the tactic was put into effect.
UCLA plays its last perhaps winnable game against Oregon State at the Rose Bowl next Saturday.