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UCLA Saves the Worst for Last Against USC

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Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 36-14 loss to the USC Trojans to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, was this game not good. In fact, it was bad. I wrote about some more personal thoughts on the game and season in a different article, which you can find here.

So let’s break this thing down and find out just how bad a bad team can really be.

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

Raw stats: WHERE DO WE START?

527 total yards. Only Utah put up more yards against the Bruins this year, and they had to because that game was a shootout. The only reason USC didn’t get to 600+ was because Clay Helton called off the dogs.

267 passing yards. Sam Darnold wasn’t as good as he has shown he could be in this game, getting only a 74.3 QBR, which was under his season average, and throwing 2 picks. But then again, he didn’t need to be, as he was efficient, and he had help from...

260 rushing yards. 4.5 yards per carry on 58(!) rushing attempts. USC decided early on that UCLA couldn’t stop their run game in any meaningful way, and they were right.

31 first downs. USC went 12-21 on third down, and 2-2 on fourth. I’m honestly surprised USC was that bad on third down, considering they regularly found themselves in 3rd and short situations.

Time of possession: 43:47.

A lot of ink has been used and will continue to be used, with good reason, to describe how the offense’s inability to do anything football-related hurt the defense, but that hides the second truth from this game: the defense got completely outworked in all facets of the game, and couldn’t get off the field to save their lives.

Let’s make sure to highlight that fact: the failures of the defense in this game were total, on both players and coaches. Plays that have normally been made this year by the defense, either completing sacks, making tackles, or defending passes, did not occur at nearly the same rate that they have in many of the other games. And unlike the Utah game where single plays did the defense in, these were long, sustained drives. USC is too talented of a team to not take advantage of any and all mental lapses, and if you give them an inch, they will take 10 yards.

Coaching-wise, this was easily Tom Bradley’s worst outing of the season, for multiple reasons. USC was keenly aware of Takkarist McKinley’s ability, and routinely ran plays away from him. It’s a pretty simple concept, really: if you know a team has a talented edge rusher, run plays to the opposite side and make him catch up. UCLA never accounted for that in any meaningful way, either by moving McKinley around or running stunts and twists to get better matchups.

For the linebackers, Kenny Young was again the best of the bunch, mostly because he has the best mix of athleticism and experience. Josh Woods has the most athleticism of the group, but he looked a bit lost on tape, and while Jayon Brown is a workhorse and an incredibly sharp football mind in the mold of Eric Kendricks (and got an interception for his efforts), he’s also the least athletic of the trio, which meant USC picked on him in the passing game when he was lined up in coverage against USC’s hyper-athletic receivers.

Speaking of getting picked on in coverage: Randall Goforth! I love Randall, and think he’s a great example of a Bruin, but good lord I cannot wait for him to graduate, because this coaching staff has a fascination with playing him despite evidence that he is of average ability and that better coverage backs exist on the roster. Goforth got picked on constantly in the passing game, including giving up a long touchdown pass thanks to an incredibly-poor mistiming of his jump. And considering how much USC was able to run in this game, you’d think Adarius Pickett, a bigger safety who can easily run defend and pass defend, would have had more play, but no. Nate Meadors had his worst game of the year, which is disappointing but at least he’ll have room to grow, and Fabian Moreau essentially held his own, giving up a few big plays but coming up with some good defensive plays including the interception return that set up UCLA’s second touchdown.

The worst part was that there didn’t seem to be any adjustments in the second half. The same personnel packages remained in place, there was little added pressure thrown Darnold’s way, and USC began to move the ball at will. If there’s a more damning stat, it’s this: in the third quarter, after the defense was able to rest, USC had 2 drives that lasted 12:41 seconds, and that second drive didn’t end until 13:33 in the fourth quarter. The UCLA defense looked completely outmatched in all facets for the first time this year, and thus earned a D- (0.7).

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

Do I really have to do this section? I’m just going to put up some numbers here instead.

UCLA ran for 55 yards, ironically one of their better efforts on the year. Of course, only 12 of those yards came after the first quarter. That’s not very good!

UCLA was 2-11 on third down. That’s not very good!

UCLA only held the ball for 16:13. That’s not very good!

UCLA had 145 yards in the first quarter. They had 122 yards the rest of the game. That’s not very good!

F (0.0), but really this was the platonic ideal outing for this unit in 2016: early signs of life giving way to abject failure.

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

Mike Fafaul was actually pretty decent in this game! Like, he obviously wasn’t going to win the game single-handedly, but he played within himself and didn’t make a bad decision with the ball, ending up with 0 interceptions. Essentially, he played well-enough to win.

Wide receiver drops were once again a problem, with Jordan Lasley and Theo Howard among others getting in on the action, but I don't necessarily believe that was a direct cause of the loss as you could in other games. And even with the drops, Jordan Lasley continued to show why he should have been the #1 receiver this year, looking extremely good against USC’s secondary. So, I guess there was progress here!

Tight end play was fine. Nothing really spectacular. Caleb Wilson had a nice game against his former team, whicb is nice, and he’s set up to take a more active role in the offense next year when Nate Iese graduates.

The offensive line play in this game, though. Oh boy. I think it's officially at the point where a new offensive line coach wouldn’t be able to come in and fix it for a few years. The interior line is an absolute mess, having trouble in both run blocking and pass protection, while the outside, supposed bedrock that it is, has struggled mightily this year. And beyond the starters, it's hard to envision any help coming in the next couple of years. Andre James should fill one of the tackle spots vacated by the graduating Conor McDermott, and he’ll be adequate, but that's about the only sure thing left. A lot was made of Adrian Klemm upgrading the talent on the line, and while that is still true, the flip side is that the line has reverted to Neuheiselian levels of ineptitude, and the pipeline seems to have dried up.

The running game was bad, but it's hard to blame the running backs when there’s a rotation 5 deep, and no one is able to generate any rhythm. Both Olorunfunmi and Jalen Starks had a good amount of carries in the first quarter, and then they barely saw the field after. Just baffling.

Defensively, it's hard to see this as a lack of effort. Players where in position and frequently made the tackles they were supposed to. If you want to point at a position group that was lacking, I guess you could point at the front 7 in total, because when 3 of your top 4 tacklers are defensive backs, that's either a sign that the other team was throwing all day (USC wasn't) or that the front 7 was getting pushed around in the run game (they were).

Special teams was a mixed bag. The field goal that was blocked is part lack-of-effort on the blockers on the left side, and part just getting outcoached again by USC, as the Bruins didn’t really have an answer for the Trojans lining up a 6’9” offensive lineman to block kicks. Punts and kickoffs were actually pretty good, especially because the Bruins limited the dangerous Adoree Jackson to minimal yardage.

Overall, effort wasn’t much of an issue, but the offensive line play and continued drops bring this grade to a B- (2.7).

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:

13:29, 1st Q - Unsportsmanlike Conduct on Jordan Lasley. Lasley got this penalty for doing an 8-Clap and then high-fiving fans. This penalty is stupid and bullshit, and I won’t discuss it further. (The penalty also let USC have starting field position at midfield, which is double-bullshit).

15:00, 3rd Q - Facemask on whoever changed their number to #37, because UCLA kept changing jersey numbers for some stupid reason (yes I know there’s a real reason, but for me this stuff reeks of showmanship). Pretty obvious grab.

8:21, 4th Q - Unneccesary Roughness on Denzel Fisher. Gave the USC wide receiver a cheap shot after the play. Just dumb, dumb, dumb.

At first glance, 3 penalties for 44 yards isn’t necessarily bad. Hell, it’s a marked improvement over the last few games for the Bruins. That said, all 3 penalties were of the 15 yard variety, even the celebration one which I’m still claiming bullshit on. No penalties committed by the offense, so you can’t use that as an excuse for their poor outing, while 2 of those penalties allowed USC to start drives at midfield, which just seems like a bad idea. So this is getting a B (3.0). Low amount of penalties, and ultimately did not matter in the grand scheme of things, but not great penalties to have either way.

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

F (0.0). Wow, that was easy.

And if you really want an advanced explanation of this, it’s pretty simple: when you get outcoached THAT badly, you don’t deserve anything better as a grade.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

The seniors played their last game in the Rose Bowl, so they get the honors here this week. This senior class includes players that helped key the turn around from 50-0, were key players in one of the best seasons in recent UCLA memory in 2014, and were let down the past few years by poor coaching. They have been warriors and great examples of what it means to be a UCLA Student-Athlete, and for that they deserve not only our respect, but our praise and adulation. A (4.0).

Grade Card for the USC Trojans:

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? D- (0.7)

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? B- (2.7)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? B (3.0)

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)

USC GPA: C- (1.7)

For reference, the last game, a victory over the Oregon State Beavers, graded out to a B- (2.7). The previous loss to the Colorado Buffaloes graded out to a season-low C- (1.6). Prior to that, the loss to the Utah Utes graded to a C+ (2.6). The 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.

This is the second-lowest grade of the season, which feels right. This wasn’t a player-issue that caused the loss, which is why they graded so much better in those sections. But the sections where coaching was a factor had some of their worst grades of the year. Ideally, you’d like to grow as the season progresses but UCLA has been on a pretty obvious regressive streak this season.

The Bruins will have a chance to gain some momentum heading into the offseason with a victory against UC Berkeley, but it’s hard to be that excited about any of it considering where this team was supposed to go.