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The “Eye Test”: Bruins Backslide But Escape Against Arizona

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UCLA did a lot of bad things, but did the good things when it mattered against the Wildcats

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

What a weird game.

The UCLA Bruins raced out to an early lead and looked like they would cruise to another easy victory. Then things began to go sideways. Arizona got pressure defensively. The Wildcats’ running game got going. Dorian Thompson-Robinson got knocked out of the game. Wilton Speight looked rusty. The UCLA defense brought back their classic third quarter collapse.

And yet UCLA still won.

I’m still not sure what I watched. I left the Rose Bowl confused. I watched my recording of it Sunday night and ended it confused. Hell, I did a third rewatch on Monday and I’m still unsure of how UCLA ultimately won that game, because everything from my eyes to the stats screams that they had no business winning.

So, while this might be the Eye Test, consider this one an autopsy, as we try and figure out what happened to get UCLA the victory on Saturday.

Offense

Quarterback - Let’s start with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, since he was only in the game for a quarter and change before being knocked out. DTR was not as good as he was against UC Berkeley, but that wasn’t as surprising for a few reasons. For one, DTR was really good against the Golden Bears. So, I was not really expecting him to stay at that level in this game. But the other reason was bigger: the offensive line really regressed in this game. I’ll get into that later, but I felt that Thompson-Robinson looked ok despite the large amount of pressure. He obviously felt more comfortable with making a play with his feet, such as his 10-yard scamper that was almost a touchdown on the first drive along with a few keeps on the read-option and that’s a good sign for the run game, in general. There were still some other issues, such as a missed deep throw to Demetric Felton and that amazing attempt at true option play to the outside, but overall a lot of the offensive issues when he was in the game weren’t his fault. Like I said, not as good as the UC Berkeley performance, but understandable.

This brings us to Wilton Speight, who took over for Thompson-Robinson midway through the second quarter. It was a shaky performance, to be sure, but it was shaky in a way that said “he’s working through playing rust” rather than “this guy just isn’t that good”. The first Speight drive resulted in a 3 and out, but the second one was a confident 75-yard drive that included an incredibly-good passing conversion on 4th and 6th and ended with a touchdown pass to fellow Michigan transfer Devin Asiasi. The 3rd quarter was a total team collapse in many ways, though it didn’t help that Speight fumbled the ball twice, but Speight was instrumental in the touchdown drive that answered Arizona taking the lead, going 3-4 for 55 yards on that drive alone.

Then we get to the 4th, where Speight finally seemed at ease with the game. The Bruins only had 2 drives in the 4th quarter, but both were instrumental to the victory, and Speight was as perfect as you can be on both drives. The only missed pass he had in the quarter was the result of a defensive holding, which was called and resulted in a key 1st down on the final drive. All of his other passes ended up going for 10+ yards in the quarter and he also contributed another huge 3rd down conversion on the final drive when he kept on the read option, reading the crashing DE perfectly and gaining the necessary yardage before sliding and protecting himself.

Overall, the quarterback play was fine. I think Speight showed enough in this game to prevent a sense of dread going into the Utah game, as it’s clear he can still be an effective quarterback, and being able to work off the rust of not playing in a game situation and still picking up the win has to be a huge confidence boost. And, like I said, there were more obvious reasons for UCLA’s struggles in this game, so a B- feels like a good grade.

Running Backs - Joshua Kelley ran the ball 31 times in this game and caught 4 passes. The rest of the running back group combined for 0 rushing attempts and 2 catches on 3 targets. So, yeah, it’s pretty obvious now that Kelley has become THE focal point of the rushing attack and he rewarded UCLA again with his 4th straight 100+ yard performance, running for 136 yards on 4.4 YPC.

But those weren’t the easiest yards and, in the first half, Arizona really made it their focal point to stop Kelley and the UCLA run game. UCLA only had 63 rushing yards at halftime and, officially, Kelley had only rushed for 36 yards at this point with 4 of his 13 attempts going for negative yards. Luckily, he was able to contribute in the passing game during the first half, where his 4 catches went for 43 yards and averaged 10.8 YPR. And in the second half, Kelley was able to find more running room, especially as Speight became more accurate and the offensive line started to play better. Kelley gained 100 yards on the ground on 18 carries in the second half for a robust 5.5 YPC and only had 1 attempt that was stopped for negative yards, which came after UCLA had secured the game-sealing 1st down on the final drive. It was a hell of an effort to stay in the game after an abysmal 1st half.

I did note that no other UCLA running back had a carry in this game (receiver Demetric Felton did have a couple of sweep attempts) but they were still effective. Kazmeir Allen scored the opening touchdown after running a wheel route (which, as has been categorically proven, is always open), while Martell Irby only saw one pass go his way. He, unfortunately, made the freshman mistake of not getting the 1st down on a 4th down play, as he tried to dance outside rather than trust his size and push forward. Overall, not a bad outing from this group. Obviously, it was hampered by the offensive line, but Kelley really came on strong in the second half when he was needed, so a B feels fine here.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - Another pretty good outing from this unit, again showing that, when given the opportunity, they can be extremely productive.

Let’s start with the heavy hitters. Caleb Wilson again had a huge day, catching 6 of his 9 targets for 82 yards, while again doing a solid job of run blocking when called upon. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wilson’s resurgence coincided with UCLA’s offensive turnaround, as he’s such a matchup nightmare that his mere presence and involvement can have a huge impact on the game. He also has such a great feel for the game, specifically knowing how to slip into coverage gaps for big chunks of yardage (Wilson ended up being responsible for 3 of UCLA’s 9 chunk-yardage passing plays).

Theo Howard, again, showed why he is the #1 wide receiver on the team, because while he was only targeted 4 times (tied for 3rd most on the team), he made 3 of those catches and led the team in receiving yards with 84. He’s such a big-play threat that opposing teams are again forced into accounting for him on every play and, when they mess up, like when he was able to leak out behind the coverage on a scramble play, he can make you pay as he ended up with a 58-yard reception. It’s something of a “pick your poison” scenario, as opposing defenses end up trying to choose between shutting down Wilson or Howard, usually with poor results.

The other benefit of Howard and Wilson gobbling up the attention is it allows some of the other receivers space to operate, and Demetric Felton was the big beneficiary of that fact in this game, leading the team with 10 targets (though I’ll admit that a few of those targets clearly had no chance of success) while also getting 3 rushing attempts. Felton saw mixed success, but he showed a lot of promise and his speed is really just another factor that opposing defenses need to consider going forward.

Interestingly, I didn’t see Michael Ezeike on the field in this game. Dymond Lee was given the start and did make a catch, but didn’t have much of an impact. I was excited to see UCLA actually utilize Devin Asiasi in the red zone, and he got his first touchdown reception as a Bruin. Hopefully he gets more use going forward (and I think my favorite thing all game was that they showed the sideline after the touchdown and Caleb Wilson came over to celebrate Asiasi’s touchdown catch like 3 separate times. It was really adorable to watch.

As a group, the receiving core did their jobs and did them well. Feels like an A- is the correct way to go here.

Offensive Line - I honestly wish I knew what was going on with this unit on Saturday.

Let’s get one obvious point out of the way: the first unit did not really have a lot of practice time together, as Andre James was not with the team for most of the week while he dealt with the death of his father. Considering all of that, it was shocking to see him play on Saturday and even more surprising to see him be the best performer on the line. To be fair, James is the most pro-ready player on that offensive line, but it’d be easy to forgive him of any poor play considering the circumstances, but James balled out.

The rest of the line, however, struggled. Part of that has to do with Arizona’s defensive front, which entered the game with 24 tackles for loss and 9 sacks in Pac-12 play, good for 3rd and a tie for second in the conference, respectively. The Wildcats don’t have an overwhelming amount of talent in their defensive front. So, they make up for it by running a variety of stunts and bringing pressure from all over the field. This really was the first defensive front that UCLA has experienced that did this and their communication to handle that pressure was not good at the slightest. Boss Tagaloa seemed to have issues with pressure recognition pre-snap and with a few bad snaps, while the right side of the line with Christaphany Murray and Jake Burton could not get on the same page for a good amount of the game.

The one positive is that line play did improve in the second half. That may seem obvious from the increased rushing totals, but consider the tackle for loss numbers by half. In the first half, UCLA gave up 10 tackles for loss, including 3 sacks. In the second half, they only gave up 2 tackles for loss, including 1 sack, and one of those TFLs came on the second to last play when UCLA had already secured a game-ending 1st down. That’s a huge turnaround and its equal parts the Arizona defense fading and the UCLA offense, especially the offensive line, playing much better.

But, boy, that first half was brutal, and I can’t look past it on this grade, so we’ll go D+ (though if I were to grade it by halves, you’d be looking at an F/B- split, so maybe go with the grading that suits you here).

Overall - A lot of UCLA’s issues on offense in this game can be pinned on the offensive line’s struggles and, much like the Colorado game, it was a great example of how a poor performance from one unit of the offense can completely derail the entire operation. With the offensive line’s poor showing, the running game struggled and Dorian Thompson-Robinson was eventually knocked out of the game. Thankfully, things picked up in the second half and, believe it or not, the 460 yards gained by the Bruin offense was the most they’ve gained in a game this season.

So, I love the response to adversity, but have to also ding them for how out of sorts things looked early. I couldn’t decide between a B- and a C+, but I think I’m going to bump the grade to a B- for a simple reason: that last offensive drive. With the game on the line and with 6:28 to play, Wilton Speight and the UCLA offense was methodical, using the entirety of the game clock to march 55 yards in 12 plays, even killing all 3 of Arizona’s timeouts in the process. They made 2 big third-down conversions, got another conversion thanks to an Arizona penalty (that was necessary to prevent UCLA from converting anyway), and executed brilliantly. That’s the kind of drive that can give UCLA fans confidence going into the Utah game.

Defense

Defensive Line - Last week, I gave the defensive line a C for what was an average performance against UC Berkeley, so it only makes sense that this grade is going to be much worse for a performance that, any way you look at it, was much worse.

From a raw numbers standpoint, UCLA was only able to generate one tackle for loss and that was by a linebacker. There were no sacks, not even a QB hurry, as Arizona backup Rhett Rodriguez was given all day to throw. Let’s not forget the rushing stats; Arizona put up 289 rushing yards on 38 attempts, good for a blistering 7.6 YPC. J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell split the workload for the Wildcats, yet both running backs averaged 8.1 YPC, which is obscene.

And, from an Eye Test perspective, UCLA was just unable to generate a push of any kind against the Arizona offensive line. The Arizona line was able to dictate the terms of this game, creating holes for the running backs and clean pockets from the quarterbacks, and it was dominating enough to give one pause. You could blame this on the freshman wall, especially since UCLA plays so much youth on the line, but there are also some seasoned players in this group and no one had anything even remotely resembling a good game.

Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on with this group at this point. This is the second game in a row where I watched and was disappointed with the performance of the defensive line unit, but more importantly this is the second game in a row where the defensive line has regressed. We’ve talked about the problems with the secondary and linebackers at length in this column, but this was the game where the defensive line was the big culprit for all of the defenses’ struggles, and that’s not a great sign. This was an F performance, and the defensive line cannot afford to play this poorly against Utah, or even for the rest of the year.

Linebackers - The defensive line play was abysmal, but the linebacker play wasn’t much better. I’ve gotten to be nice towards the inside linebackers for the past few weeks but I’m sorry to report that inside linebacker play has returned to form. Arizona’s offensive line found the tractor beam that other teams have used to suck Krys Barnes and Tyree Thompson into the wrong spot at every opportunity, which, in turn, makes for really successful run plays. I was at least surprised to see Leni Toailoa play a decent amount and look ok on the field and Bo Calvert got some more run in this game, but this inside linebacker unit just cannot afford to play bad.

The only reason the linebacker grade is a D and not an F is because of the outside linebackers, who at least played decent. Keisean Lucier-South played with a good amount of energy and he was responsible for the lone tackle for loss of the game when he blew up a run play from the get-go, but he missed a decent amount of tackles. Odua Isibor has continued to improve and, while he’s not a perfect replacement for Jaelan Phillips, it is nice at least to see him improve into a competent player. Buuuuuuuuuut, that’s about it. Just not a good performance from this unit.

Secondary - Surprisingly, not as bad as I thought?

Let’s start with the major positive, which was the play of Darnay Holmes. Holmes was really, really good in this game and I’m not even talking about his chase-down forced fumble (which I’ll get to in a second). Holmes was active on the outside and did a good job of defending the pass. It certainly helped that Arizona made the decision not to attack him and, instead, focus on Elijah Gates, but Holmes did his job.

Now I’ll talk about that run-down forced fumble. I’m still not sure how Holmes caught up to J.J. Taylor, who hit the hole hard and was at top-speed rather quickly, but he still managed it. But to follow that up with the heads-up decision to punch the ball out WHILE RUNNING AT TOP SPEED was just impressive, maybe one of the most impressive things I’ve seen at the Rose Bowl in quite some time.

Ok, now, to shift to the other side of the field. Elijah Gates wasn’t very good in this game, but part of this was by design. Arizona decided to focus on him in the passing game and stuck him against receivers who had 6 inches on him. Gates gave up a number of big passes and had a defensive holding that was declined by the Wildcats. So, it was not a great outing from that perspective. That said, he did also make a good handful of plays to break up passes and had a key interception deep in UCLA territory to prevent another Arizona scoring drive, so take the good with the bad here. Colin Samuel also saw some run with Nathan Meadors injured and he was ok, but he made a really bad play on Arizona’s first touchdown pass.

Safety play, at least, was its usual consistent self. Adarius Pickett was Adarius Pickett, which I think is just a sentence I can copy and paste into every column from here on out, while Quentin Lake got his first career interception, which conveniently came in the end zone to prevent Arizona from scoring again. If anything, the secondary was the only thing keeping UCLA’s defense in this game, as they forced 3 turnovers at extremely opportune moments. Compared to the rest of the defense, this was a solid performance, but a C feels like the correct grade.

Overall - I mean, do I need to repeat those rushing stats?

But, seriously, the defense was not very good in this game, especially the front seven. UCLA could not generate anything resembling push up front, which cascaded into the secondary being forced into doing most of the heavy lifting, which is a big problem. I felt the secondary played as well as could be hoped for, especially since the rest of the defense left them on an island for the majority of the game, thanks to a lack of pass rush. Hell, those 3 turnovers all came from the secondary and all on individual great plays.

Really, that secondary play is the only thing keeping this grade from being worse, but we’ll go with a D+ this week. If the UCLA defense plays like this against Utah, it’s going to be a long Friday night in the Arroyo Seco. They might end up playing the Dodger game while the defense is on the field, if only to distract the fans.

Special Teams

Overall - Let’s switch things up this week and talk about Stefan Flintoft first. He was really good! 7 punts for an average of 48.4 yards, including 3 punts of over 50 yards (with a long of 57). UCLA’s offense really struggled for a good portion of this game, but Flintoft was able to flip field position enough times to keep UCLA in the game and make things more difficult for the Wildcat offense.

J.J. Molson only had one field goal attempt, but it was a confident make from 40 and he made all of his extra point attempts.

And that was about it? The Bruins seemed to kick it shorter on kickoffs, which appeared to be by design to create more of a field-position advantage and kick coverage was generally good. The only reason this is an A- and not an A is because punt coverage had some iffy moments, especially a 20+ yard punt return that gave the Wildcats great field position. It would have been nice to see a solid return as well, but Arizona really did not give UCLA much of an opportunity for that.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - Kudos to the offensive coaching staff for the way they were able to adjust on the fly to DTR’s injury. Thompson-Robinson and Speight have different strengths. So, for the offense to shift its concepts and strategy as quickly as it did was impressive. Another good sign was how the offensive playcalling did not try and adjust for the quarterback change by going to a run-heavy scheme. UCLA entered the game with a clear advantage against the Arizona secondary, which was without their top two corners for this game, and the coaching staff trusted Speight enough to let him sling the ball around.

Honestly, I don’t have many problems with how the offensive coaching staff approached this game. They were smart with their aggression, especially when it came to 4th down calls, and the problems in this game had more to do with player execution, especially on the offensive line, than with the scheme. So I’ll go with an A- here.

Defensive Gameplan - Conversely, while the defense played poorly, the scheme and gameplan did not do them any favors.

At first glance, it looked like the gameplan was to fluster backup quarterback Rhett Rodriguez, which, hey, wasn’t the worst idea in the world! It certainly worked last week against UC Berkeley. But it was pretty clear early on that this wouldn’t work, specifically because UCLA could not generate a pass rush to fluster Rodriguez in the first place, and the Bruins were allowing the Wildcats to run at a pace that Rodriguez did not have to win the game on his own.

This trickle-down effect of a poor gameplan repeatedly hurt the defense. Without a pass rush of any sort, the secondary was forced into the untenable position of covering receivers for long periods of time. Whenever UCLA sent a blitz, it was fairly obvious and Arizona was easily able to recognize and pick it up.

I wrote this after the Washington game:

Coach Azzinaro’s defense seems predicated on strong defensive line play, linebackers that can fill gaps, and a secondary that can shut down receivers with minimal aid. You can see the problems here, right? The defensive line is young and inexperienced, the linebackers are....well, they’re the UCLA linebackers, and the secondary has regressed from last year to the point where they can’t realistically defend for long periods of time. There are schematic fixes to this, and the second half of this game showed that Coach Azzinaro at least understood that, as he called way more blitzes and threw addtional pressure at the Washington defense, but at some point those problems need to be recognized from the beginning of the game.

Two games later, and this statement seems prescient. UCLA came in with a poor gameplan and was slow to adjust when that gameplan didn’t work. I mentioned this a lot during the Jim Mora years, but one of the most successful things a coaching staff can do is self-scout effectively. For those unaware, self-scouting is the ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel to better design a scheme to minimize those weaknesses and amplify the strengths. Even with all of their faults, the secondary is the strength of the defense, and the front 7’s lack of push is the big weakness. Again, there are schematic changes that can be made to cover those weaknesses up, but they have to first be recognized.

Oh, and I said all that without mentioning the 520 yards Arizona was able to gain in this game. Seriously, without the secondary forcing 3 turnovers this is a clear loss because the defense almost refused to make a stop. F.

Overall - The two grades up there make it pretty clear that my thoughts on the offensive and defensive schemes have shifted pretty clearly from where they were at the start of the season, when I couldn’t stand the offense and the defense did so many things right. I’m honestly searching for reasons that would explain the shift. Certainly injuries have played a part, as the defense in particular has lost a decent amount of talent that was expected to contribute this year (Jaelan Phillips, Je’Vari Anderson), but the offense has done a much better job of weathering that storm and coming out the other side.

I mean, on some level that should make sense? Chip Kelly is an offensive guru and we all expected that the offense would end up in a good spot (albiet maybe not in this form), while Coach Azzinaro is an experienced position coach but relatively inexperienced as a defensive coordinator. But the way the season has played out has been interesting to say the least.

Of course, these grades are more on a game-by-game basis, not based on the entire season (and maybe this year I find enough time to do a season review Eye Test who knows), and if we’re looking at just THIS game, the coaching was a mixed bag, with a positive offensive performance and a disappointing defensive performance. Let’s split the difference and go with a C.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - First, the raw numbers:

12 penalties for 103 yards.

That’s bad! Throw in 3 penalties that were declined (all of which would have been for at least 10 yards) and you have a very bad day from the discipline standpoint.

On offense, the majority of the penalties were false starts, and to the offense’s defense, two of those came against special teams. But two other false starts came on 3rd down, making those conversions tougher when they did not have to be. The defense ran the gamut, with two personal fouls, a defensive holding, and a facemask.

But this section also involves execution and, more often than not, UCLA had execution failures, such as blocking well or executing a blitz without completely revealing it pre-snap or tackling properly. It just wasn’t great from an execution standpoint and UCLA was honestly lucky to even be in the game in the 4th quarter. So, this section is getting a D-, if only because most of the offense executed well when they were able to.

Final Composite

Offense grade: B- (2.7)

Defensive grade: D+ (1.3)

Special Teams grade: A- (3.7)

Coaching grade: C (2.0)

Discipline grade: D- (0.7)

Final grade for Arizona Wildcats: C (2.08)

And, to recap, here are UCLA’s grades so far this season (along with handy links to the Eye Test for those games):

Cincinnati: C (2.12)

Oklahoma: C+ (2.2)

Fresno State: D (1.0)

Colorado: C (2.02)

Washington: B (3.0)

UC Berkeley: A (3.62)

We talked about this idea a lot the last few years, that you shouldn’t accept in victory what you wouldn’t in defeat. This game was a pretty good example of that concept. Yes, UCLA won, but they did not play well in securing that victory and we need to be able to recognize that fact. Otherwise, we risk the chance of getting surprised by a truly bad performance.

This was also something I saw coming last week. Call it a conflux of factors: UCLA played their best game of the year by far and secured their first win of the season. Now, they were coming home to face an opponent that was not playing their best football and were without their starting quarterback. It all had the makings of a clear let-down game and the grade reflects that.

But it’s also nice to see UCLA win this game despite all of that. I’d rather have this kind of let-down game now against an opponent UCLA can still beat despite their play than this coming week against an actually-good opponent.

So, let’s try to not play like this again, alright?


Go Bruins!