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UCLA Travels To Bizarro World But Still Lost To Utah

Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 52-45 loss to the Utah Utes to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

NCAA Football: Utah at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Bizarro World! This week, UCLA shows a base level of competency in its offense unseen for a year, while the defense showed a base level of incompetency unseen since......gosh it’s hard to say, really. Even last year, there wasn’t this level of poor play.

Anyway, let’s get into this thing.

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

Raw stats: 45 points allowed (an extra 7 were scored via special teams). 539 total yards, of which 360 came on the ground. At the same time, Utah ended up going 3-15 on third down.

This was not a great game from the defense.

Let’s start with the obvious: the run game defense. UCLA entered the game allowing a bit over 4 yards per run. That average went up a whole half a yard after this game, as Utah averaged 7.3 yards per run. Now, to be fair, Utah scored on long runs of 43, 64, and 55 yards, but still. Utah RB Joe Williams had himself a game, running for 332 yards on the day. The more interesting fact was that on the 20 rushing attempts not taken by Williams, Utah only gained 28 yards.

The big problem was that this was easily the best offensive line UCLA had faced all year. I think we had been led into a false sense of security by how well UCLA played against Stanford, which over the past 8 years has been known for their great offensive line play. At this point in the season, though, we know that Stanford’s offensive line is nowhere near as good as they were in years past. So when Utah rolled in with their vastly-superior offensive line, UCLA suddenly found itself unable to generate any sort of consistent push. Worse, Utah’s offensive line was able to consistently get to the second level and engage the linebackers. Kenny Young and Jayon Brown had their worst games of the season, as it almost became clockwork to watch them get sucked in to the wrong gaps.

Let’s throw Jaleel Wadood in here as well, as all 3 of those long runs can partially be explained by him running in to help in run defense, and repeatedly making the wrong play. I don’t like pointing this out, because at the same time Wadood ended up leading the team in tackles, and if your safety is leading the team in tackles and you aren’t playing an air-raid offense, then something has gone terribly wrong. Still, you have to take the good with the bad with these kinds of things.

As for the secondary, look. Nathan Meadors was again unavailable for this game, so instead we got copious amounts of Johnny Johnson, Will Lockett, Marcus Rios, and Randall Goforth at the corner spot. Utah QB Troy Williams wasn’t terribly efficient, going 12/24 for 179 yards and an interception, but he also plays in an offense where he doesn’t need to be, because Utah is a run-first offense. That said, Meadors presence wasn’t as missed as it has been in past games, but it does play into the worrying trend where UCLA doesn’t look as good when the starters aren’t in the game.

Because, if there is a big issue going forward, it’s that simple fact. I think Colorado will present an offensive line with a similar skill level as Utah, but beyond that UCLA should at least match up well with their starters. But there is, unfortunately, a clear step down when it comes to the second string, and there’s no easy answer to this beyond more playing time, which UCLA realistically can’t afford at this point without completely giving up on the season. It’s a terrible Catch-22 of a situation.

And yet I still feel the need to say “but” with regards to this defensive performance, so....

But!

3-15 on 3rd down isn’t something that should be taken lightly. On top of that, the UCLA defense was on the field for 36:11, due to their run-first offense allowing them to take time off the clock. And for the third week in a row, the defense was forced to try and clean up the offense’s messes, as UCLA had 5 turnovers. The defense only allowed 13 points off turnovers, which seems insane, especially considering that 3 of those turnovers let Utah start drives in UCLA territory.

But!

I also can’t say time of possession was an obvious data point for why the UCLA defense did so poorly. Utah scored 27 points in the first half, and 25 in the second. And 3 of Utah’s touchdown drives lasted all of 3 plays or less. This was more a schematic problem than something that could be blamed on the offense.

So, with all that said, I have to give the defense a D (1.0). It wasn’t a good performance from a unit that has been so good this year.

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

This was just a complete oddity of an offense.

Common sense would normally indicate that you don’t implement an entirely new offense with a backup former walk-on quarterback against a top 30 defense in one week of practice, so kudos goes to the offensive coaching staff for trying something new. The raw stats do tell something of a story, that UCLA recognized they could throw against a weaker Utah secondary, and just decided to go whole-hog in that direction.

In one sense, the offense wasn’t all that new. Really, they were running concepts that should have been familiar to anyone who has watched UCLA over the previous 4 years. Yeah, this was a straight-up Noel Mazzone offense, minus all of the run plays. The return to a system everyone was more familiar with and recruited for seemed to help, as the offensive line had one of their best pass-blocking games of the season. Yes, they still had some issues, but compared to how UCLA looked against Arizona State, this was a big step up.

There were some noticeable differences in how Mazzone would call these plays and what Polamalu did, specifically a consistent attack of the middle of the field. One of the few bright spots under Polamalu has been the recognition that UCLA has the athletes to exploit the middle of the field whenever possible, and in this game, Nate Iese became an absolute terror in this spot. 8 catches for 146 yards, with many of those coming over the middle. Jordan Lasley, on his touchdown catch, also exploited this area of the field. It’s a welcome development, because one of the criticisms of Noel Mazzone would be that, while he would attack sideline to sideline to spread the defense out, he would never take the next logical step and go vertical up the middle.

There were still a few key spots where I have issues in the offensive playcalling:

Let’s talk about that 4th down attempt in the second quarter, where UCLA got stopped for a loss. Now, theoretically, attempting to run for 1 yard on 4th down isn’t a bad decision. That theoretical math doesn’t factor in possessing the nation’s worst rushing attack, combined against a fairly stout run defense. What ended up happening should have been obvious before the ball was even snapped: Scott Quessenberry, Najee Toran, and Andre James just get taken out immediately, and the Utah safety was given a free lane to take out Bolu Olorunfunmi behind the LoS.

I know we constantly believe the coaching staff should be more aggressive in general, but the decision to air it out with a minute left in the half was a poor one. Utah only had 1 timeout, so the smart play would have been to just run out the clock and head into the half, only down 3. That should especially have been the play call after 1st down, where Fafaul had the ball knocked down at the LoS, and the defense seemed to fall back into total pass protection. Just a poor decision from the coaches.

And just in general, look. Going full Air-Raid to surprise Utah is fine. It’s actually going to earn the offense their best grade in a long time. But it isn’t an answer going forward. The obvious problem is that even Air-Raid teams will run the ball, if only to keep defenses honest. Just for fun, go look at the box score for last weekend’s Oklahoma-Texas Tech game. Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes tied the NCAA record with 734 passing yards. That’s incredibly impressive, even in a loss. And yet, despite that, Texas Tech also ran the ball 21 times. Yes, 12 of those were by Mahomes, but that was using designed quarterback draws or scrambles. It ended up keeping the defense honest enough for Mahomes to continue throwing all over the field.

Now, neither Mike Fafaul or Josh Rosen (if/when he comes back this year) are athletic enough to do what Mahomes did. But that again highlights the need to have some kind of rushing attack. IF UCLA plans to revert to more of the spread, up-tempo style that UCLA had employed in years past, it might behoove the staff to implement some of the run concepts used previously, as the offensive line looked better when asked to execute pull and zone blocks rather than straight man-to-man blocks, simply because they are longer bodies. Good news is UCLA has a bye week to figure out what it wants to do.

Like I said, though, UCLA implemented a new (well, old) offensive system on a week’s notice to great effect, so it should be rewarded as such. This was a B- (2.7), getting dinged for the continued lack of run game and miscues in coaching decisions.

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

Bizzaro World: Where UCLA can throw 70 passes and somehow come away with a minimal amount of drops.

Seriously, for as bad as the pass drops by the wide receivers have been this season, this was maybe their best game? There’s a few reasons for this; number one being the deemphasis on some of the wide receivers who saw increased time earlier in the season. Kenny Walker only had one catch in this game, and saw minimal targets. Mossi Johnson only saw a few targets, but neither ball was thrown well to him. Instead, Mike Fafaul focused on fewer targets, which seemed to work out well for UCLA. Nate Iese and Jordan Lasley combined for 15 of the 40 completed passes, and UCLA would do well to limit the rotations going forward.

I also want to point out something regarding Mike Fafaul. Now, with Josh Rosen, we often talk about his ability to throw a receiver open. That is to say, he’s so gifted with his arm that he can make passes into windows where only his receiver can get to the ball. Mike Fafaul doesn’t have that ability, but he does have a pretty mean pump-fake. Fafaul’s pump fake legitimately led to 2 of his touchdown passes, which is an insane thing to type in 2016, but here we are.

Now, personally committing 5 turnovers is never good, especially because most of them could be traced back to a poor decision or bad execution by Mike Fafaul. On the fumble, the obvious poor decision was the one where he decided not to slide, instead attempting to cut back and gain more yards. Can’t do that. Ever. On two of the interceptions, the blame can very clearly rest on Fafaul underthrowing the ball, or just not reading the defense as to how he needed to throw the ball.

The defense very obviously had issues, but it’s hard to single out a single group. The biggest point of failure was in the front seven, which had issues filling gaps in the run game and left a lot to the secondary. Kenny Young and Jayon Brown had average days, which unfortunately can’t happen, just because so much of the defensive scheme relies on them diagnosing plays and filling the correct gaps. But they weren’t helped by the scheme in this game, which weirdly-enough took guys out of the box to help in the secondary against an average Utah passing attack.

The secondary had some issues in pass coverage, specifically with whoever got to be the non-Fabian Moreau corner at any given moment. Randall Goforth got beat on a long pass, as did Jaleel Wadood and Johnny Johnson. Marcus Rios did give up a long touchdown catch that was (luckily for him) overturned due to a Utah penalty at the line.

Execution was weird, because while the offense had its best day of executing (with some setbacks, of course), the defense had its worst day (with some positives, of course). So I feel like a C (2.0) describes this perfectly. It was as average as it could have been.

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:

7:52, 1st Q - Block in the back on Cameron Griffin. Pretty obvious, and what’s worse, the penalty was useless, because Adams only gained a couple more yards after that. UCLA also had a running into the kicker on Lokeni Toailoa that was declined, so overall not a great punt.

6:53, 3rd Q - Pass Interference on Fabian Moreau. Moreau got caught using his right arm to hold one of the receiver’s arms back. It’s the correct call, but one that occasionally gets let go considering both guys were fighting for the catch. But, considering how many PIs the refs called against Utah, I’m ok with it being called tight both ways.

12:06, 4th Q - Block in the Back. I’m not sure who they called it on, the most probable defender being Josh Woods just running into a dude at the beginning of the return. The block didn’t lead to any major yards gained, so just another poor penalty.

(There was also a kick out of bounds, but those don’t count as penalties so they’re not listed in the totals, and I also have no idea how to realistically calculate the yardage for that. So I’ll just put it here so you all know that I didn’t forget it.)

3 penalties for 35 yards. That is easily one of the best marks in the Jim Mora Era.

Here’s the craziest thing, Utah definitely looked like the more undisciplined team. Utah penalties allowed UCLA to stay in the game early, which is ironic because for years here we would state that taking bad penalties was a sure way to keep a bad team around.

For special teams, the obvious big problem was that opening kickoff returned for a touchdown. Utah didn’t break out after that on kick returns, so I’m willing to chalk that up to a singular bad coverage, but still. UCLA was actually pretty decent in kick returns, with Ishmael Adams averaging 26 yards on 4 kick returns, and Adarius Pickett going for 35 yards in his lone punt return.

Weirdly enough, neither of the true freshman specialist kickers performed the job they were brought in to do. Austin Kent had no punts today, his workload split between Adam Searl and Stefan Flintoft. JJ Molson still handled kickoffs, but field goals were performed by Andrew Strauch. Look, if you have issues recruiting to the point where you have to trust true freshman, that’s one thing, but to then jerk them around midseason like this is crazy, and a good sign of a losing football team, because the problem is, very clearly, not those specialists when it comes to who is losing these games.

Considering UCLA needed to play as clean a game as possible to win, the fact that they succeeded is enough to award an A (4.0) here. UCLA should strive to be this good all the time, but it was nice to see it at least once under Mora.

Although, considering this was a Bizarro World version of UCLA, I guess it makes sense that the team was super-disciplined.

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

I really don’t know what to do here.

On the one hand, I have to give credit to the offensive coaching staff for implementing a new (old) offense in one week. And at the same time, I have to ding them for REALLY abandoning any semblance of trying to make the run game work.

At the same time, the defensive coaching staff had a really weird game plan from the word go, routinely playing more guys in pass protection than in run defense, and allowing the team that is good at running to have the opportunity to be good at running.

And the worst part is I’m so tired of writing about the failings of this coaching staff that when the script completely flips and the offense was let down by the defense, I don’t have the inner fortitude to write about it, because that fact is interesting right now only as an anomaly. I have faith that Tom Bradley will figure out what went wrong in this game and correct going forward, but I have less faith that Kennedy Polamalu will build on the successes of this game going forward.

I will give them a C+ (2.3) if only because the offensive gameplan was so unexpected, but nothing was actually outstanding outside of that.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

Takkarist McKinley. Good lord Takkarist McKinley. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s the best defensive lineman UCLA currently has, and he took his game this year to the next level. The defense just plays better when he’s in the game, as he’s big enough to set the edge, but fast enough to cause havok on the pass rush. I know this was a loss, but go back and watch Utah’s third offensive series. Utah gets all of two plays, as on the first McKinley blows up the read option from the word go, and on the second McKinley beats the Utah guard to the spot and gets rewarded with a strip-sack. Provided he doesn’t suffer a serious injury the rest of the way, it’s hard not to see any way that Takk doesn’t get himself paid come April.

I’m going to point him out here, but for the past few games, Jordan Lasley has entered the game and just immediately taken over as UCLA’s best receiver. In this game, Lasley was finally allowed to play in the first quarter, and on his first drive he caught 3 passes for 26 yards, while drawing a defensive holding penalty on a 4th pass attempt. Good things tend to happen when you let your best players play, and Jordan Lasley absolutely showed why he is the best receiver on the UCLA roster at this moment.

But I’m going with a B+ (3.3) here only because no one defensively (outside of McKinley) really stepped up to make a consistent impact, and the defense needs that to be successful.

Grade Card for the Utah Utes:

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? D (1.0)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? B- (2.7)

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? A (4.0)

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed? C+ (2.3)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? B+ (3.3)

Utah GPA: C+ (2.6)

For reference, last week’s loss to the Washington State Cougars graded at a C (2.1), while the previous 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.

The bye week is now. There won’t be another Eye Test until after the Colorado game in a week, and thank God for that, because this team is very quickly burning me out.

Go Bruins!