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The “Eye Test”: Bruin Offense Shines, Defense Struggles versus Hawai’i

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The offense was perfect, the defense less so against an outmatched Hawai’i squad

Hawaii v UCLA Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Offense

Quarterback - I think Caleb Wilson had himself a pretty good game. He was throwing a crisp ball and hit his receiver in stride, and probably would have had more touchdown passes had his receiver not bobbled the ball and let the defender catch up to him. I think he’s going to be a productive quarterback for the Bruins going forward.

Ok, enough fun.

I really don’t have much to say about Josh Rosen. Going 22-25 for 329 yards and 5 TDs tends to do the talking for you. The impressive thing, for me, is that it’s now 2 games into a new offense, and Rosen seems to have complete mastery of what he wants to do in it. Some other parts of this are going to go longer, so I’m just gonna burn through this section super fast.

As for Devon Modster, it wasn’t a great debut by any stretch, but UCLA did create the perfect opportunity for him to get his feet wet. If anything, it did help underscore just how talented Josh Rosen was to come in and play (and play well) as a true freshman. This really was a great learning experience for Modster, and he should grow from this, and at the very least should provide some competition for the starting QB spot next year. Plus, Rosen was so good in this game that I’m not going to punish the grade at all. A.

Running Backs - Not a bad day from this group! 155 yards on 23 carries for a 6.7 YPC average is the kind of output the Bruins only saw twice last year (UNLV, Oregon State), so hopefully this creates something to build on. Nate Starks put in 42 yards on 7 carries, while Bolu Olorunfunmi added 32 yards on 6 carries, so these weren’t the best performances overall, but considering how well Rosen and the passing game looked today, this group might just need to be solid and productive to aid the offense. Again, not a lot to say for the offense in general, but a solid performance gets this group a B.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - Theo Howard, have yourself a day! 7 catches, 110 yards, and 1 TD comprised his coming-out party, and Theo Howard Believers (of which I am a card-carrying member) got some vindication for calling for an increased role for him last year. His touchdown catch was incredibly impressive, with how Howard managed to catch the ball in midair, land, shift his momentum, and turn upfield in the opposite direction all in one motion. Simply beautiful.

With Lasley not playing in this game, some of the other WRs got into the action. Christian Pabico had a nice bounce-back game after a disastrous debut, grabbing all 3 of his targets. Darren Andrews was his standard, consistent self, hauling in 3 touchdown grabs on the day. Eldridge Massington saw his first game action of the year, and looked fairly good, though it feels obvious just how little faith the coaching staff has in him compared to some of the other options. Caleb Wilson caught his first touchdown pass of his career, which seems crazy to say considering his performance last week.

If anything, the play of the tight ends in this game is going to bring the overall grade down. It’s not that they didn’t catch a ton of passes - the group only saw 6 targets total, and 2 of those came with Modster in. Hawaii seemed to focus on stopping Wilson in particular, so it’s more of a good sign that the Bruin offense was able to adapt and have success when one of their weapons is schemed against. Where the grade is going to come down is from blocking, because boy howdy did the tight end group do their damndest to get Rosen killed. Blocking is not Caleb Wilson’s strong suit yet, and Jordan Wilson similarly did poorly in pass protection, but this just can’t happen if Josh is to survive this year. Still, overall a solid performance, so A-.

Offensive Line - You know, the offensive line wasn’t that bad on rewatch. They certainly did a solid job in pass protection, giving Rosen plenty of time to pick apart the Hawaii secondary, and the run blocking did create some decent holes; or at the very least, the run blocking made sure that the running backs weren’t getting hit 5 yards in the backfield, which is progress! The right side of the offensive line, with Andre James manning the tackle spot while true freshman Michael Alves plays guard, has actually been consistently good so far this season, and Scott Quessenberry seems to have taken a leap forward and is starting to justify the preseason hype for me. Kolton Miller, however, has been a huge disappointment so far, especially after a year where he was clearly the Bruins best lineman. By my naked eye, I’d estimate he’s whiffing on at least 2 major blocks a game, and is going to get Rosen killed at some point. B grade overall this week, with signs that the group can grow.

Overall - Hey, I’m gonna make this super quick. The offense gets an A this week. The halftime clock did a better job of stopping the UCLA offense than Hawaii did, and while you can argue there’s a significant talent gap between the two teams, this side of the offense did exactly what you should expect when that talent gap exists. Good job, here’s hoping that momentum continues this week against Memphis.

Defense

Defensive Line - Now, a few of these position grades are going to be curved, as the team did lose some starters to injury during the game. That said, this didn’t happen as much with the defensive line. Boss Tagaloa was out for this game, but the rest of the defensive line seemed to regress in this game. Some of it made sense; Jaelan Phillips, for example, looked like a true freshman again, which is understandable. But too often the defensive line was taken out of plays by the Hawaii offensive line, and that’s a problem. Tom Bradley’s scheme (and trust me, we will get to this scheme) has relied on overwhelming opposing offenses with talent that has to be accounted for, and we’re starting to see what happens when there isn’t an obvious guy like that on the line. Maybe Phillips becomes that guy this year, maybe Jacob Tuioti-Mariner takes the next step. Right now, that guy doesn’t exist on the line, and so the scheme is going to need to change at some point. But in this game, the line did not play well, and so they get a C-.

Linebackers - There’s a bit more of a curve with the linebackers, since they lost Kenny Young early in the game to a hit that the Pac 12 finally figured out was a targeted blow to the head. Better late then never, morons!

Still, this group struggled. Josh Woods did not have a great opening game against Texas A&M, and that continued in this game, as he was constantly taken out of plays, at times when he in the right spot to begin with. Lokeni Toailoa took a step back in this game, which is understandable since he ended up playing more minutes, but he too just got locked up too often. Breland Brandt, who came into the game once Josh Woods was thrown out (and we’ll get to THAT miscarriage of justice in a bit as well), did not look great, which again isn’t surprising since not a ton of players do great when thrust into a position to play unexpectedly, but again, not a great look. Mique Juarez saw the field,

The good news is that Krys Barnes, thrown into service once Young exited the game, and he looked very good. As a fellow resident of the 661, I’m a big fan of Barnes and his game, and he did not disappoint, leading the team in tackles with 12, including 7 solo. Not a bad first outing. Still, this group had issues, and Kenny Young getting knocked out only exacerbated those issues, so going with a C- again here.

Secondary - The injury bug really hit this group hard, so they’ll really get some benefit of the doubt, because safeties Will Lockett, Keyon Riley, and Octavius Spencer probably didn’t expect to be seeing significant minutes after both Adarius Pickett and Jaleel Wadood left the game in the first half. I’m not going to be too harsh there, as they got some great experience in a blowout.

The starting corners, though, did play the whole game, and Darnay Holmes and Nathan Meadors (with special appearances by Denzel Fisher and Morrell Osling) have shown themselves to be the strength of the defense so far. Holmes is just so talented, and if you didn’t believe that before, watch how he read the quarterback and made the read on his pick six. Meadors as well looked very solid, even if he did get caught with a PI at one point. The cornerbacks played a good game, and that’s going to raise the grade for this group to a B. Still hoping for a quick recovery for Pickett and Wadood, though.

Overall - The absolute best thing about this game was that the offense was so good that it covered up some poor play from the defense. Some of that poor play was unavoidable due to injuries to three main contributors, but some other units struggled, which is a concern going forward. So the defensive personnel is going to get a C- for this game, and hopefully that experience pays off in better play going forward.

Special Teams

Overall - Gonna condense this section, because we really didn’t get to see much of the special teams unit. And that’s not a bad thing! Stefan Flintoft only had 1 punt in this game, and that came in the 4th quarter. J.J. Molson did not have a field goal attempt in this game, but he was perfect in extra-point attempts. The coverage unit was good. Darnay Holmes had a 50+ yard return on one of his few attempts. This was all good. Special teams gets an A. Great job.

Coaching

Offensive gameplan - Do you know how exhilarating it is to have an offensive coordinator who seems to understand his personnel and how to deploy it against opponents to achieve success? Because Jedd Fisch is making me a believer in 2 games. In this one, he recognized that Hawaii was dead-set on defending the middle of the field, and especially did not want Caleb Wilson to beat them. So Fisch responded by treating the Hawaii defense to a steady stream of throws to the outside, taking advantage of all the speed UCLA has managed to accumulate. On top of that, Fisch seems to understand that the running game isn’t going to be the strength of this team; that position belongs to Josh Rosen. The Bruins shifted to more of a pass to run offense, which absolutely makes sense given the personnel. There was variety in how UCLA ran the ball, and what passing routes they ran, and that’s just so novel at this point that I’m basically falling in love. You score a touchdown on the first 7 drives you have with time on the clock, you get an A.

Ok, one thing really fast, because I spent all night thinking about this, but I need to repeat just how smart that trick play with Caleb Wilson was. Because suddenly opposing teams have a whole new dynamic they’ll have to account for in this offense. Jedd Fisch doesn’t have to call that play again; in fact, I doubt Fisch calls that play again this year. But the fact that teams now know it’s there means they’ll have to account for it defensively, meaning you could do things like run a screen out of that set while the DBs play back to protect from a pass, or a double-reverse where Wilson gets the ball first, causing the defense to hang back instead of pursue, giving the offense an advantage. IT’S SO GOOD that’s all I wanted to say thank you for reading this article please like and subscribe.

Defensive gameplan - TIME TO REPEAT THIS ARGUMENT AGAIN!

Here’s where I’m at with Tom Bradley; I understand what he’s trying to do. Bradley, as a practitioner of bend-don’t-break defensive philosophy, is constantly trying to limit the big play. That’s why he played so much nickel defense against A&M, and why the corners are constantly giving cushion to opposing receivers - the scheme is trying to limit the damage. The thought process is that college players are more prone to making mistakes, so if you play sound defense, the opponent has a better chance of stopping themselves. It’s like a goofy version of Art of War, if you think about it.

The problem is that this isn’t the strategy that any top defense uses. The new, common defensive philosophy regarding college offenses is that most college quarterbacks do not do good under pressure. There isn’t a hoard of college passers on the level of a Josh Rosen, or a Sam Darnold, or other top-tier quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield. Most of these quarterbacks will struggle when you send pressure. This creates a trickle-down - passing routes get shorter because plays have less time to develop, and run defense tends to be better because you’re committing more players to the box to stop the run. If you want examples of this in action, go watch a replay of what Clemson did to Auburn, constantly sending pressure and getting sacks and QB pressures that completely stopped the Auburn offense from establishing any rhythm.

To take this idea further, these teams tend to have a talent advantage compared to their opponents, and choose to be proactive with that advantage early. UCLA, for most of their games, will have a talent advantage on the defensive side of the ball, if only because defensive recruiting has been really, really good for years (after all, the Bruins brought in the consensus #1 overall recruit and #1 cornerback in the nation last cycle, and have done things like bringing in top linebacker classes to go along with great DLine and secondary classes). But this current defense is lacking some of the top-level talent that previous defenses possessed. Just to compare it to last year, Bradley had the services of two NFL-level players in Eddie Vanderdoes and Eli Ankou to clog up the middle and occupy multiple blockers. Boss Tagaloa is maybe the closest to filling that role, but no player on the roster can reasonably fill this role. Similarly, the defense last year had Jayon Brown, who was able to fill all kinds of holes in the defense and was a tackling machine. Right now the defense has Kenny Young, who is arguably better than Brown was in pass coverage but not as great of a run defender, and a few other linebackers with bits and pieces of Jayon Brown’s skillset, but not true 1:1 replacements.

There’s a lot going on here, and realistically I should probably just spin this entire section off into its own separate post, but the point I’m really trying to make is two-fold. On one hand, Tom Bradley adheres to a defensive philosophy that is going to hold the talent at UCLA back because it is inherently passive compared to the more aggressive defenses that litter the top of the advanced stats board.

The second point, more relevant to this game, is that poor run defense is really a feature and not a bug for Tom Bradley. In his first year, the run defense ranked 62nd according to S&P, while last year’s team, featuring three top-tier NFL talents at the height of their collegiate powers, flew up to 21st (for reference, the passing defense has been a top 25 unit both years, a trend that should continue this year as well). This year looks to be similar to that first year, something I’m basing off the fact that the Bruins have given up over 600 rushing yards in the first two games. As of right now, the Bruins rank 116th in the nation in rushing success rate allowed. The run defense has managed to not-only regress, but crater.

That’s not good, no matter how you try to rationalize it. I saw some people on Twitter try to claim things weren’t as bad, because 124 of the Rainbow Warriors’ 281 yards came on two chunk rushing plays. I would argue this is actually a worse outcome for a Tom Bradley defense. The goal is to keep everything in front of you, essentially allowing for efficient offense while limiting explosiveness. If you end up giving explosive plays, especially explosive rushing plays, you’ve failed.

As for the argument that the defensive scheme was ultimately fine because UCLA was winning handily anyway, I’m going to let Josh Rosen answer this one:

If you want to be one of the better teams in the country on defense, we have to expect to stop them every single time they touch the ball and on offense, we have to expect to score every time we touch the ball and you can’t be happy with 70, 80 percent success rates that normal people would consider good or what not. You have to set the bar unreasonably high and always strive for it.

The defensive gameplan again gets a D. Things have to turn around, and in a hurry, because Memphis isn’t a joke.

Overall - Credit to Jim Mora here: there was every reason in the world to expect UCLA to come out flat in this game because, well, that’s been a defining trait of this program under his watch after a big game. Especially coming off a short week, you’d almost expect the team would still be struggling with their emotions in the aftermath, but the 24 hour rule seems to have worked.

I’m also not going to fault Mora for keeping Rosen in until the 4th quarter. Mora and Fisch seem to understand that Rosen is a legitimate Heisman candidate, and having one of those is a great way to recruit to your program. Let him pad his stats, and then pull him in the 4th is exactly what I would have done as well.

In general, I was extremely positive on one side of the ball, very negative towards the other, and watching the game a few times did nothing to change that. But a blowout is a blowout, and the team was focused, so I’ll give the coaches a B+ overall. Hopefully they don’t make me look like an asshole next Saturday for giving them the benefit of the doubt here.

Discipline

Penalty Breakdown - A look at each of the penalties committed by the Bruins:

10:04, 1st Q - False start on Giovani Gentosi. Jumped the gun before the ball was snapped. Not a great penalty, but if you’re going to commit a false start, doing it at your own 1 yard line is as good a place as any to do it /sarcasm.

6:43, 1st Q - False start on Josh Wariboko-Alali. Made the PAT a bit farther.

6:39, 1st Q - Pass interference on Nathan Meadors. Grabbed the jersey of the receiver and turned him around. Pretty obvious, and probably unnecessary.

13:10 (I’m just guessing at times now because I don’t want to go back a 5th time tbh), 2nd Q - Defensive holding on Mossi Johnson. Yeah, pretty obvious, and again unnecessary.

11:30, 2nd Q - False start. No one was set. Kind of concerning that this happened without the pressure of having to score quickly.

1:05, 2nd Q - Pass interference on Keyon Riley. At least this one was a bit more necessary to prevent a big play! Honestly with how different college and NFL pass interference penalties are, it will always make sense to commit one instead of giving a touchdown. Not that a touchdown was a sure thing here, but just a general statement.

6:53, 3rd Q - Holding on Eldridge Massington. Sure.

5:20, 3rd Q - False start on Andre James. Yup.

10:05, 4th Q - Personal Foul, Targeting on Josh Woods. Ok, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. On a strict rules basis, yeah, this was targeting. Josh tried his best to pull up, and it wasn’t a malicious blow to the head, but it was still a blow, and by the letter of the law, counts. The problem is that, if you’re calling this one targeting, then you ABSOLUTELY have to call the hit laid on Kenny Young targeting. Not pick up the flag and claim that the hit was shoulder to shoulder, and that Young’s helmet came off when he hit the ground and not because the offensive player’s helmet lifted it off. And you don’t follow that up by having THE VP OF OFFICIATING come on your telecast and try and spin a yarn of bullshit about why the call was correct. Every once in a while some of the officials in other conferences try and make claim to being the worst, at which point the Pac 12 officials decide to remind everyone why they’re the Big Dog of Bad Refereeing. Between this game, the USC/Stanford issues, and Utah/BYU, it was a banner day for Pac 12 officiating.

5:44, 4th Q - Holding on Will Lockett. It was on a kick return with the backups. Just clean it up.

That comes out to 10 penalties for 83 yards. Let’s go ahead and take away that bad targeting call, brings it down to 9 penalties for 73 yards. That’s still a lot of penalties, but the vast majority of them are procedural ones that should be cleaned up (especially the false starts - just because it didn’t hurt the team here doesn’t mean it won’t in the future). There were a couple of unnecessary PIs from the secondary, and that needs to get cleaned up. Going with a C here.

General comments - I guess I have to put this in writing as well, but I’m ok with celebrating after you make a big play. Football is an emotional sport, and no matter how far down or up you are, that emotion can feed you and lead to improved play for yourself and your teammates. Plus I’m not going to hold 18-22 year olds to a standard that paid professionals in the NFL don’t even hold.

Discipline in this game wasn’t great, which makes the Bruins lucky that it didn’t need to be. Still, have to be better.

FINAL COMPOSITE

Offense grade: A (4.0)

Defensive grade: C- (1.7)

Special Teams grade: A (4.0)

Coaching grade: B+ (3.3)

Discipline grade: C (2.0)

Final grade for Hawaii: B (3.0)

For reference, last week’s game versus Texas A&M graded out to a C+ (2.26).

Again, a B feels right overall. The defensive performance clearly brought the grade down, and thanks to Josh Rosen, there’s a clear set of goals the team is trying to achieve, and I’ll grade them based off of that.

Next game is this Saturday against Memphis.

Go Bruins!