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UCLA Football Gets Exposed by Arizona State

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Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 23-20 loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry this is late. I got sick right when I began to write this week’s Eye Test. The fact that I got sick at the same time I was watching his game repeatedly is strictly coincidental. I think.

Anyway, into the Eye Test.

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?

Raw stats: 275 total yards of offense allowed, averaging 3.55 yards per play. In that, ASU got 2.3 yards per run, 5.0 yards per pass, went 4-17 on 3rd down, and had 3 turnovers. ASU had 6 scoring opportunities on the day, and ended up scoring 3.83 points per opportunity. In particular, on 3 of those scoring opportunities, ASU began their drive already inside scoring range.

Overall, ASU only had 3 drives that went further than 30 yards. On two of those drives, the Sun Devils scored a touchdown, with an interception in the end zone by Adarius Pickett ending the third. Other than that, Arizona State’s offense experienced a day of problems, including 13 drives that lasted a total of 4 plays.

So how did Arizona State even get to 23 points?

Well, part of it was field position. Specifically, those three scoring drives that ASU got field goals on all began inside the UCLA 35 thanks to UCLA turnovers. The sheer fact that the Bruin defense was able to minimize the damage was something of an amazing feat.

But consider that first half. Arizona State ended up with 59 total yards in the first half. UCLA did whatever it wanted against Arizona State, and it was about the only thing in the entire game that was enjoyable to watch.

Now, there are, of course, a few caveats. The first was that UCLA was playing against ASU’s backup quarterback. Now, Todd Graham and his coaching staff recognized that fact, and tried to limit how much Brady White had to do. Still, White going 19/36 for 179 yards, throwing an interception and touchdown apiece, about what you would expect from a backup with little game experience going against one of the better defenses in the conference.

The other caveat is definitely that second half. Arizona State finally saw some success, with 3 long drives in the second half that got the most of ASU’s yardage. Those drives featured Brady White connecting on a few of the deep balls to Tim White he had been attempting throughout the game. Randall Goforth, who took over as a starting corner while Nate Meadors mysteriously wasn’t playing, once again got repeatedly exposed in the passing game, including giving up ASU’s second touchdown. And the run defense had their worst performances on these drives, though it didn’t help that McKinley started having injury issues at this point.

At the end of the day, though, the defense did more than enough to win this game, and even an average game from the offense would have both provided the defense the rest they needed and the support to win comfortably. Defense gets a B+ (3.3).

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no

I’m going to give you guys a heads up now: the next few sections are going to take the coaching staff, specifically the offensive coaching staff, to task for how bad this game was.

Let’s start with some raw stats, because this is scary: UCLA scored 20 points on 443 yards of total offense. 444 of those yards came through the air, which means that UCLA had -1 yards rushing. Now, obviously that includes sacks, so to be absolutely fair, I will state that the running backs did gain 40 yards on actual rushing plays. UCLA had 7 scoring opportunities on the day, and ended up averaging 2.86 points per opportunities.

Now, for a few positives: UCLA was able to drive at times! Their most successful plays tended to be seam routes to the tight ends. Austin Roberts in particular was a weapon, as he ended up leading the team with 3 receptions for 106 yards, with Nate Iese pitching in 4 catches for 60 yards. That said, UCLA’s drives all tended to feature UCLA gaining a huge chunk of yardage that accounted for a majority of that drive’s yardage. Just for reference, this included a 49 yard pass to Roberts, a 66 yard screen pass to Soso Jamabo, a 52 yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lasley, and a 42 yard pass to Roberts. UCLA was able to take advantage of a suspect ASU defense to bust out some really explosive plays.

And now for the bad.

See, ever since Todd Graham arrived in Tempe, the calling card of the Sun Devil defense has been their relentless pressure. And, so far one of the calling cards of the 2016 UCLA Bruin offense has been poor offensive line play, especially in the run game. So, you would think SOMEONE on the coaching staff would consider a gameplan meant to minimize the amount of time the UCLA offensive line would have to block. Doing things like quick passes, bubble screens, outside pitches, moving the pocket, and the like are all designed to get a defense back on its heels and moving side to side, while at the same time using the defense’s aggressiveness against them. We saw this work at times, especially on the screen pass to Jamabo (Jamabo himself had a good game catching passes out of the backfield, grabbing 4 balls for 85 yards). The problem was, much too often, UCLA kept running long-developing pass plays, forcing Josh Rosen to hold the ball and wait for a receiver to get open, thus giving the ASU front seven ample opportunities to tee off on UCLA’s best player.

Also, I don’t think there’s anything else I can say about the running game at this point. It’s bad. There are obvious solutions, such as more outside runs and misdirection plays. Yet while UCLA ran 3 jet sweeps against Arizona that opened up a new dimension in the run game, they ran none in this game. Instead of anything new and interesting, UCLA ran the same problematic run designs that haven’t worked for 6 weeks now.

It has become very obvious that Kennedy Polamalu is in over his head, but the most distressing fact is that he appears to be even more a creature of habit than Noel Mazzone was. Polamalu wants to run his offense a certain way, despite any and all personnel deficiencies, and continues to show a refusal to adjust to what is or is not working. Perhaps the best thing he did in this game was basically abandoning the run game in the second half, but even that is problematic, because you need to be able to run, if only to keep the defense honest.

This is an F (0.0). It will not be the first you see here.

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute?

Gonna try something new again here, because I don’t like how this section looks when I just dump a good amount of my notes here. We’ll see how it goes, and if people really do like the large amount of notes, I’ll bring them back next week.

But there’s a few things to point out here, and both sides of the ball are going to see some negatives.

Let’s start with the defense, if only because it’s short. This specifically has to deal with Randall Goforth. Goforth gave an admirable effort in filling in for the missing Nate Meadors at the starting corner spot opposite Fabian Moreau, but at this point having him on the field at any point immediately creates a weakness for opposing offenses to exploit. Arizona State keyed in on this in the second half, in particular picking on Goforth on the touchdown pass. The bigger problem here seems to be that the defensive coaching staff, and in particular Defensive Backs coach Demetrice Martin, either feels that Goforth is good enough to be the backup cornerback, or that he’s that unsure of the other options that Goforth suddenly becomes the best option. If I’m being honest, neither of those fill me with confidence, and I’d rather have seen Johnny Johnson rolled out opposite Moreau, but considering the defense wasn’t the reason this game was lost, this is more of a thing to consider going forward.

But really, this space is again reserved for the offense, which again had multiple issues.

First, and obvious, we once again must talk about drops from the wide receivers. This week’s biggest culprit was Kenny Walker, who had been one of the more consistent receivers up to this point. Unfortunately, 2013-2015 Kenny Walker showed up in this game, dropping two touchdown passes in this game. After the second one, Josh Rosen was shown on camera chewing out Walker, and with reason. More interestingly, after that second TD drop, Walker only saw one target, with Rosen instead choosing to target Jordan Lasley and Austin Roberts (no seriously - on the touchdown drive immediately following the field goal, UCLA ran 5 pass plays, 4 of which went to Lasley, and a 5th to Soso Jamabo). There’s a larger point to be made about the receivers, but that’ll be down in section 5.

The other, big execution problem we need to have a discussion about was the play of Mike Fafaul. Now, let me make sure I say this up front: I cannot rightly criticize Fafaul himself for his play in this game. He’s a former walk-on quarterback, after all. See, the bigger problem is that Fafaul looked completely overmatched while he was on the field, which calls into question how well he was prepared. Well, that’s not true. What it does call into question is how UCLA got to the point where a former walk-on quarterback was the best option to back up a former 5-star prospect. Part of this blame falls on former OC Noel Mazzone, who’s inability to recruit quarterback prospects is the stuff of legend. But even then, it’s hard to believe that neither of the two true freshman brought in this year was not a better option. Both Devon Modster and Matt Lynch have higher upsides than Fafaul, and Devon Modster in particular should have been the one to come in to replace Rosen, if only because he has a skillset that would allow for different looks. But, then again, that would require the offensive coaching staff to recognize the relative talents of the players.

Obviously there remained issues in the run game, but at this point it should be painfully obvious that the problems aren’t due to effort so much as poor scheme that does not fit the personnel. Though I will say that pass blocking did take a step back this game, and in particular Conor McDermott is having a nightmare season, to the point where I can’t imagine him achieving that high draft pick that he seemed destined for when he returned after last season.

This section is a C (2.0), because after 6 games, it shouldn’t be too much to ask your receivers to catch a ball.

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense?

A look at the penalties on an individual basis:

10:41, 1st Q - False start on Scott Quessenberry. Shifted back while not snapping the ball. Turned a 3rd and 13 into a 3rd and 18, and made for a longer field goal, which JJ Molson missed.

0:57, 1st Q - Hold on Najee Toran. Toran got robbed on this one, because he didn’t hold the defender so much as used the defender’s momentum against him to knock him down. Still, killed any shot UCLA had at scoring a touchdown on this drive.

6:21, 2nd Q - Kick catch interference. Obvious penalty, UCLA player doesn’t even bother looking for the ball or the returner, and just runs backwards into Tim White. Luckily for him, ASU committed a dead ball penalty after the fact, wiping out the 15 yard penalty. Still, can’t happen.

4:18, 2nd Q - False start on Conor McDermott. UCLA was already in a 3rd and 13 situation, and this again became a 3rd and 18. What was worse is that Fafaul connected with Walker on a 13 yard pass that would have converted a first down.

3:51, 4th Q - Offensive pass interference on Nate Iese. This is just one of the dumbest penalties UCLA has had under Mora. The key to a rub route is to not actually straight-up block the defender, but that’s exactly what Iese does to free Andrews. What’s worse, it took UCLA out of field goal position, and allowed ASU to start teeing off on an already-hurt Rosen. Just an absolutely awful penalty to take.

5 penalties for 50 yards. Again, around what UCLA had been averaging on the year, which is a noticeable improvement from last year.

That said, this one was different. We’ve lamented in the past that UCLA would consistently commit penalties that would either kill drives or extend them, and in this game, 4 of those 5 penalties actively led to a drive stalling out. 3 of the penalties was on the offensive line, which is just the cherry on top of the awful sundae that was UCLA’s offensive line in this game.

On top of that, I’ve used this section to talk about special teams, so it seems now would be the time to talk about the freshman specialists. Molson was 2-4 on field goals, in the type of performance you’d expect from a true freshman kicker on the road. Both of the misses came from the left hashmark, which has been the spot where Molson has consistently had issues. A good coaching staff might recognize that fact. Austin Kent, meanwhile, had his worst punting day of the year, averaging 36.4 yards per punt, with none landing inside the 20.

We should also talk about punt returns, because after a good first outing last week against Arizona, Adarius Pickett was dreadful returning punts this game. Pickett had 3 returns for -3 yards, and had issues cleanly catching the ball, including muffing 1 punt that he luckily recovered. It makes one long for the days of Taylor Embree, who wasn’t going to beat you going with his speed, but at least could be counted on to catch the damn punt.

This section was rather negative, so I will point out that, overall, the effort level wasn’t an issue, and in particular you have to highlight the effort of Josh Rosen, who came back from injury to put on a show in the second half, despite having absolutely no support from his offensive line and running game.

Still, there were worse penalty issues in this game, and bad special teams, so this is a C- (1.7).

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed?

F (0.0). I’m just going to get that out of the way now.

Anyway, halfway through the season, I feel confident in labeling the Kennedy Polamalu Offensive Coordinator Experience (TM) a failure. The man is just so clearly out of his element. Again, I have to point out that anyone who has ever watched an Arizona State game in the past 5 years should have a basic concept of what they want to do, and instead of scheming against that, Polamalu and the offensive coaching staff instead chose to utilize the same failed schemes from the previous 5 games. The only offense that worked for UCLA in this game was some variation of "Give Josh Rosen enough time to make something happen", which isn’t an offensive gameplan so much as an admission that the actual gameplan was awful.

There’s a problem at the heart of the offense’s woes: that UCLA is trying to run an offensive scheme that it doesn’t have the personnel for. I’ve stated in previous Eye Tests that I actually like the offensive scheme conceptually. Being able to run multiple looks creates problems for a defense. Consider the New England Patriots, who are running two-tight end sets that can fluctuate between power run and a spread, throwing Rob Gronkowski out wide. It allows for the offense to find and attack mismatches, whether it be a weak run defense, poor side to side defending, or a weak vertical defense.

The biggest problem right now is that UCLA has had 4 years of recruiting exclusively for a spread offense. In particular, Noel Mazzone’s offense favored offensive linemen who were longer, because they were required to move much more horizontally and redirect defenders rather than hold their blocks for long periods of time (coincidentally, this was always why UCLA would have issues with long-developing pass plays under Mazzone - the line just wasn’t built to hold their blocks for that long). The new system requires bigger, beefier linemen that can win one-on-one battles consistently. It also requires active recognition of any stunts or movement from the defensive line, while in the Mazzone offense this wasn’t as big of a deal simply because it was designed (in theory) to have the ball out of the quarterback’s hand before those types of moves would make a difference. So, while some of the blame for the poor offensive line performance does fall on the players, a lot has to go on the coaches for trying to fit a square peg in a round hole repeatedly.

And, just to head some people off at the pass, yes I know this is the first year under a new offensive coordinator in a new system. To respond, first, go sit in the corner and think about the dumb thing you just said, because you are arguing that basic football ideas of fitting scheme to talent and adjusting based on your opponent are part of growing an offense, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. UCLA should not be a program for on-the-job training, as I assumed the Jeff Ulbrich saga demonstrated.

We also have to, once again, talk about the receiver rotation. After the Arizona game, Coach Mora made it a point to state that Theo Howard would see the field more often, and Mora ended up being technically correct. Howard ended up with 2 catches on the day, doubling his reception total on the year. At this point, UCLA should be looking for as many ways as possible to get the ball into Howard’s hands, if only because the alternative hasn’t been working up to this point.

More baffling was the usage of Jordan Lasley. Lasley did not see the field until the third quarter, entering the game on the drive after Kenny Walker missed his second TD catch. From that point, Lasley became something of a featured receiver, being the target of 8 of Rosen’s final 20 passes from that point on. It became very clear near the end of the game that Lasley was the receiver that Rosen trusted the most, which in turn calls into question why Lasley didn’t see the field until the third quarter. Obviously, the answer here was that it was important for Josh Rosen to be as uncomfortable in this game as possible, and taking away his favorite targets was key.

At this point, if the starting wide receiver group against Washington State isn’t Lasley, Howard, Darren Andrews, and a rotation of the three tight ends (who, for a group that should have been an obvious weakness entering the year, have really become the biggest strength on the offense), then Eric Yarber should be fired and forced to find his own way home from Pullman. It’s that simple.

I don’t have the energy to go into why Adrian Klemm should be fired at this point. Partly because Joe has done a nice job beating that drum for me, but still.

But my biggest overall concern is that, for as bad as Kennedy Polamalu has been as OC, I don’t see anyone on the offensive coaching staff that could step up and replace him due to a midseason demotion/firing, and have the team looking better. Maybe Rip Scherer, who’s somehow been the best offensive coach this year, but even then this offense is just going to be a trainwreck. Hell, I imagine Tom Bradley could call a better game at this point.

It feels a little too obvious that a complete housecleaning is in order for the offensive side of the ball, and I don’t have any faith in Jim Mora to take that step.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

This is going to be real quick, but after this game, it should be very clear to everyone that Josh Rosen is not the reason this team is losing games. Rosen just does so much to mask problems with the offense. Beyond that, anyone who questions his heart and commitment to winning should be forced to watch this game. Josh Rosen was in noticeable pain in the second half, and kept taking shots that would eventually knock him out for good, but he kept fighting because the only way the Bruins would even have a shot at winning would be if he was on the field. It was such a gutty performance (HE THREW FOR 400 YARDS AND MISSED ALMOST A QUARTER OF PLAY) that he earned the team an A (4.0) in this section all by himself.

Grade Card for the Arizona State Sun Devils:

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? B+ (3.3)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? F (0.0)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute? C (2.0)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? C- (1.7)

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed? F (0.0)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? A (4.0)

Arizona State GPA: C- (1.8)

For reference, last week’s victory over the Arizona Wildcats ended up with a B+ (3.2) grade. The loss to the Stanford Cardinal graded out to a B- (2.7). The victory over the BYU Cougars graded out to a B+ (3.3), while the win over the UNLV Rebels graded out to a C (1.9). The opening loss to Texas A&M graded a bit better at a C+ (2.6), and probably would be higher on review.

On the surface, this grade just feels wrong. Yet, that in itself is the beauty of the Eye Test. The defense played well enough that they should have won this game, and between them and Josh Rosen they prevented this grade from being even worse.

Still, in year 5 of the Jim Mora era, for there to still be games in the season where the team just looks so unprepared for what the opposing team wants to do is unacceptable. And in year 5, no matter what he states to the media, the failures of this team ultimately rest on the shoulders of Jim Mora. The time for excuses has passed. Results need to start appearing.

Go Bruins.