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Turnovers and Game Planning Again Doom UCLA

Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 27-21 loss to the Washington State Cougars to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Another week. Another loss. Another Eye Test.

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

Raw stats: 27 points allowed, 356 yards allowed. The Cougars went 6-17 on third down, and threw for 261 yards, only 3 more than UCLA had on the day.

Really, it’s hard to write this section because, after 6 weeks, it has become very clear that this is an excellent defense. I could almost copy and paste things I’ve written in past weeks, and they’d still apply here. For example:

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.

That’s from last week’s Eye Test. This week?

Only 5 drives that went further than 30 yards. This week, 3 of those drives ended in touchdowns, with a 4th ending in a field goal. The fifth resulted in an end-zone interception by Jayon Brown. 4 times, Washington State had a 3 and out.

UCLA absolutely did a fantastic job against a prolific Cougar offense, so consider the next few paragraphs to be a word of caution as much as anything.

First big issue? The continued play of Randall Goforth. Goforth continues to pop on tape, and not in a good way. At this point, he’s the weak link in the secondary by a country mile, and you have to wonder exactly why he gets so much play, because for every simple play he makes, there’s a missed tackle, or a blown coverage, or a missed assignment.

The second problem is that Washington State was able to move the ball fairly well against UCLA’s secondary when it wanted to. Now, I don’t think UCLA will see a passing offense as advanced as Washington State’s until USC and Cal, but for as strong as UCLA’s pass defense was believed to be the strength of the team, but the past few weeks have shown some cause for concern, because while the front seven have continued to ratchet up the pressure (with a caveat below), the pass defense has been willing to play more of a zone and allow for softer coverage. I imagine Utah will try to attack that this week.

Finally, this is a situational issue, but a few times UCLA gave up longer 3rd down conversions simply because they only committed 3-4 pass rushers. Ideally, you want to send more defenders on longer third downs, in an attempt to force a quick pass. It’s a weird strategy, to be sure, but UCLA has done this consistently this year.

For a grade, I have to go with a B+ (3.3) here, because again, we’ve seen this defense at their absolute best, so again, fairly or unfairly, we have to grade them against that performance. The defense did enough to keep UCLA in this game, and maybe one day they’ll get consistent support.

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

I’m going to be upfront on this again; the grade here is going to be a D (1.0).

There’s a big reason: UCLA once again wasted an entire half trying to establish a non-existent run game. In the first half, UCLA ran the ball 16 times, and gained 16 yards. I get that the coaching staff felt they needed to run the ball to support a backup quarterback, but gaining 1 yard per carry in the first half is not the way to do it.

The galling part is that Mike Fafaul didn’t look that bad throwing the ball! Fafaul went 24/40 for 258 yards, averaging 6.4 YPP. His QBR rating was better than Luke Falk’s! Fafaul’s biggest issue was the deep pass, where he was intercepted twice, but that should not have been surprising. So the issue becomes a question of why the gameplan chose to focus on the run game over the passing game.

Yes, I do know this is a question of hindsight. But, allow me to present some numbers:

vs. Texas A&M - 125 yards

vs. UNLV - 175 yards

vs. BYU - 50 yards

vs. Stanford - 77 yards

vs. Arizona - 125 yards

vs. Arizona State - -1 yard

Coming into this game, UCLA had totaled 551 rush yards. They’ve averaged 91.1 YPG, good for 127th in the nation. Meanwhile, Washington State entered the game with the 11th ranked rushing defense, having just come off a game where they limited Stanford to 61 yards, including bottling up Christian McCaffrey to the tune of 8 carries for 35 yards.

So again, the question becomes why did UCLA enter this game and feel that NOW they were able to run effectively?

And the self-evident answer, that this offensive coaching staff is grossly incompetent, is exactly why this grade is a D. You don’t get credit for almost digging out of a hole that you personally dug.

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

Yeah, I’m going to stick with just general observations. I think it just flows better.

Also please note that this column has now adjusted better than the UCLA offense over the course of the season. Is this a low blow? Absolutely.

Anyway, defense did a good job executing in this game. That feels easy enough to say in a game where Washington State had to fight for their yards. Yes there were some missed tackles (hey Randall!), but overall they did a great job.

The big issues, execution-wise, again reside with the offense, and it’s the same issues that have existed all year: run blocking and pass catching.

I went back to the Texas A&M game to see what I had written about the pass catching, since we’re past the halfway mark:

Dropped passes really started killing UCLA’s momentum in the second half, as the offense would get rolling only for a big gain to be dropped or, even worse, tipped into an interception.

Oh for those halcyon days when the dropped passes felt like an aberration. This week, the biggest culprit was Kenny Walker. At the beginning of the year, Walker looked like the most-improved receiver, and in fact is second on the team with 20 receptions. The problem is that, over the past few weeks the Kenny Walker of old has returned with a vengeance, especially dropping a sure touchdown in the 4th quarter that opened the door for Jordan Lasley to take over the game. When you throw in that opening-drive fumble caused in-part by careless carrying of the football, and Kenny Walker had himself a nightmarish game.

As for the run blocking, look. It’s getting hard to blame the players at this point. After 5 years of coaching a line, you should be able to show some level of improvement. The fact that Conor McDermott of all players has regressed should be as damning as any game film of UCLA’s running game.

Also, if you’re looking for some thematically-appropriate entertainment for your Halloween party this year, might I suggest creating a supercut video of UCLA attempting to run block? It’s sure to scare everyone at your party!

One quibble I raised was Mike Fafaul’s poor throws deep, which are in-themselves an execution issue, but realistically the offensive coaching staff should have already known what Fafaul’s strengths and weaknesses were and created a gameplan that limited those weaknesses. Still, after 5 years you’d assume Fafaul would know better than to throw a deep ball into double coverage.

Execution was a C+ (2.3), which feels fair for this. There were problems, and the Eye Test exists to hold the team accountable.

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:

14:15, 1st Q - Chop block on Josh Wariboko and Conor McDermott. Wariboko was getting his first start, and engaged McDermott’s defender low. Play negated a first-down gaining pass.

6:58, 1st Q - Block in the back by Nate Iese. Iese’s block was the one that opened up a lane for Adams to gain yards on the outside. Pretty obvious penalty.

2:59, 1st Q - Defensive Holding by Octavius Spencer. Another pretty obvious penalty. Spencer held the receiver as he crossed, and prevented him from from getting upfield.

8:03, 3rd Q - Defensive Holding by Randall Goforth. Goforth got beat in the back of the end zone, and held to try and prevent a touchdown pass. I guess he succeeded, but all he really did was just delay the touchdown.

2:24, 3rd Q - Pass Interference on Fabian Moreau. Moreau got put out on an island on a go route, and ended up holding the receiver while the ball was in the air. Another pretty obvious penalty.

13:06, 4th Q - False Start by Ishmael Adams. False starts by the receivers are just inexcusable.

There was a 7th penalty, but I couldn’t find it in my notes, and like hell I’m going to watch this game a 4th time.

Anyway, 7 penalties for 69 yards. The defensive penalties all tended to occur when the secondary got beaten. Meanwhile, the offense didn’t have much in the way of penalties, which was nice. Still, the biggest issue in this game, and another worrying trend that cropped up last week against ASU, was the return of penalties that extended or ended drives. Two of the three secondary penalties occurred on third down, with the third occurring on a second down inside the 5. Meanwhile the chop block directly led to a punt. UCLA had been doing a good job this year of limiting their mistakes, but with an offense this bad, UCLA really has to be perfect to make up it.

And hey, the drops on punt returns came back again. Weird how when you put a defensive back back to return punts, they have issues catching it. But then again, it’s hard to find a UCLA player who can consistently catch the ball anyway.

Also, this seems like a good place to put this, but 4 turnovers. 4. For the second week in a row. This offense just cannot afford to make those kinds of mistakes.

Grade was a C (2.0) because there was only slight improvement over last week.

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

I really don’t have it in me to repeat the point I made in section 2, so just go reread that, which covers the offensive section.

Meanwhile, I have to give the defensive staff credit again for slowing down a high-powered Washington State attack. UCLA held Washington State well below their season averages, and especially in comparison to their previous game against Stanford. Yes there were some tactical issues I question, such as the return of zone coverage and low amounts of pressure from the line on long 3rd downs, but again, the defense wasn’t the reason this game was lost.

Grade here again is a D (1.0), just because the offensive gameplan to open the game was so bafflingly awful that you can’t look at anything else in the same light.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

I don’t necessarily think you can put Mike Fafaul in the rarefied air of past heroic UCLA backup QBs, simply because he wasn’t able to lead the comeback, but let’s be honest here: those quarterbacks had coaches who understood how an offense is supposed to function.

That said, Mike Fafaul made the most of a bad situation, and for that he should be cheered. Blaming Mike Fafaul for this game shows a misunderstanding of the problems plaguing this team, because Mike Fafaul is not the one creating a gameplan to focus on a non-working running game, or teaching poor technique to the offensive line, or continually playing receivers who can’t catch over receivers with talent.

But I also have to ding this grade, because at some point someone on offense needs to step up, and the only guy who seems to take over the game when he’s in can only see the field late in games. If the coaching staff isn’t going to show any level of accountability in who plays, then the players are going to need to show why they continue to earn playing time. So we’re going with a B (3.0) here.

Grade Card for the Washington State Cougars:

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? D (1.0)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute? C+ (2.3)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? C (2.0)

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed? D (1.0)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? B (3.0)

Washington State GPA: C (2.1)

For reference, last week’s loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils graded out to a C- (1.8). The 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.

UCLA plays Utah this weekend before heading into the bye week, and this game has the making of a must-win. Not to win the division, mind you. That goal is out of reach (and if you’re keeping track at home, is absolutely a big problem), but just to save the season and make a bowl game. Utah is vulnerable, but it will require UCLA to play like they did against Texas A&M and UNLV, which doesn’t feel possible at this point. But we’ll see; after all, we are the optimists.

Go Bruins!