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The “Eye Test”: A Good UCLA Performance Falls Apart Against Colorado

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Bad QB play led to the rest of the team collapsing in a tough road environment.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to be honest up front: I spent very little time this past weekend thinking about UCLA football.

It was actually rather nice. I spent Saturday watching some decent football games, while Sunday I spent alternating between wondering why I was being punished as a Chargers fan and wondering what Josh Rosen had done to deserve his current fate.

Rosen went from a UCLA Bruins team that routinely dropped his passes, couldn’t block to save their lives, and had suspect coaching to an Arizona Cardinals team that....routinely dropped his passes, couldn’t block to save their lives, and has suspect coaching. It’s like the worst case of deja vu ever.

Sunday night was spent watching LeBron James play his first (meaningless, but still) minutes in a Lakers uniform, while also checking in on some independent wrestling.

So yeah, I didn’t even come back to watch this game again until Monday night and it felt great.

It also let me come at the game in a way that is going to make some of you angry with the grades. I get the visceral need to throw awful grades around, especially in a loss like we had against Fresno State (and trust me, you’ll see at least one of those today), but the purpose of the Eye Test is to try and grade the whole game. Take the good and the bad and come to a reasonable approximation of how the entire program performed. It provides a way so that individual players can’t straight-up tank a grade and puts more focus on the team, just as every football coach loves to say. So, I hope you all understand the grades.

That said, let’s get to the bloodbath, which I know is why you came here in the first place.

Offense

Quarterback - F. I mean, come on, you watched that game, right?

Look, I get that Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a true freshman. I really do. But games where he took the majority of the snaps (3 of which he started) are enough data points to showcase that he’s not ready. Worse, he’s getting worse. Just from a statistical standpoint, his passing efficiency rating of 108.5 puts him at a wonderful 114th in the nation, which is also worst in the Pac-12 by a considerable margin (Also very low? JT Daniels, ranking 87th with a 127.4. Moral of this story? True freshman QBs are normally not ready for prime time).

In this game, his stat line of 17-35 for 138 yards (good for 3.9 YPC, which, yikes) was bad enough to make me go back and compare it to some recent bad QB times in UCLA history. Mike Fafaul, a senior walk-on, routinely threw for more yards and completed more passes despite playing on a team where the running game was optional at best. Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut actually tended to have comparable total completion numbers, but would routinely throw for more yards and usually with less attempts (though shout out to Prince’s 9-18, 92 yard line against UC Berkeley in 2011 for making me giggle, especially since UCLA won that game 31-14). Kevin Craft, who Joe has made the comparison to and who, hilariously enough, is the last UCLA quarterback to beat Stanford, actually put up surprisingly decent numbers most of the time. He put up some absolute clunkers (15-31 for 81 yards in 2008 against Arizona, which is amazingly awful) but, again, he tended to understand what he needed to do and could accurately place the ball more often than not. The point is Thompson-Robinson is up there right now with some of the bad performances in recent UCLA history.

To break his game down further, let’s break this thing down and recognize that Thompson-Robinson was only “good” for one quarter in this game, specifically the first quarter, where he went 8-11 for 61 yards.

Those are pretty good numbers!

But, even that first quarter was highlighted with some poorly-thrown balls. Hell, the touchdown pass to Michael Ezeike had more to do with the insane effort of Ezeike than DTR’s placement. Two first quarter sacks can be pinned on Thompson-Robinson’s inability to recognize pressure before the ball was snapped. Those sacks had to have been in his head the rest of the night, because his default motion when any sort of pressure appeared was to turn and run backwards, which is exactly what you do not want to do.

As I said, he really started to fall off after the 1st quarter as he went 4-8 for 35 yards in the second quarter, which was exactly when UCLA needed him to step up and potentially give the team the lead. Instead, he underthrew what would have been a potential touchdown to Theo Howard while missing more than a few wide-open wide receivers. Michael Ezeike, in particular, could have had a few more touchdowns had Thompson-Robinson looked his way more often as he had this amazing ability to get completely open. And the second half, well, 5-16 for 42 yards kind of speaks for itself.

The worst part was, looking at the entire picture, this should have been a game where Thompson-Robinson took a step forward. There was an actual ground game to carry the team (151 yards on 5.4 YPA) and take pressure off the QB. The offensive line took another major step forward and the receiver rotation seemed more set than it had been. Yet, instead of taking another developmental step forward, Thompson-Robinson went backwards and in a way that should realistically raise questions of how helpful these games actually are to his development.

At this point, it feels clear that Chip Kelly is going to remain stubborn and stick with the quarterback he recruited. Wait...Jim Mora recruited Thompson-Robinson? Chip Kelly’s QB recruit was Wilton Speight? And Wilton Speight won the starting job out of fall camp? Huh. It’s almost like the plan really was to give Thompson-Robinson some experience but redshirt him this season so that he could develop better habits. Instead, he’s developing bad habits in game situations, which are much harder to break. If you want a non-UCLA example, just watch Florida State’s Deondre Francois, who was broken his first year by a bad Florida State offensive line and has not really recovered in the years after.

Having a reset where Thompson-Robinson sits on the side, watches some other, more experienced quarterbacks run the offense, get reps in practice, and prepare for a potential battle next year isn’t the worst idea in the world.

Running Backs - Honest confession: I had essentially written off Joshua Kelley prior to this game as a guy who was going to be buried on the depth chart after Martell Irby and Kazmeir Allen showed they could perform at this level right away to go along with Soso Jamabo returning from suspension and injury.

So, Kelley’s 12 carry, 124 yard outburst was a pleasant surprise to yours truly. The offensive line gave the running backs holes for the vast majority of this game and Kelley really took advantage, running with purpose and decisiveness, and breaking a number of tackles to get some huge yards after contact. I wish the NCAA actually tracked numbers like this.

Kelley’s effectiveness meant no other running back carried the ball more than 4 times and it may be time to consider shortening that RB rotation, because I just can’t see Soso Jamabo being a major contributor at this point in his career while Bolu Olorunfunmi seems destined at this point to be a short-yardage back.

Kazmeir Allen got two rushing attempts and he even got to run to the outside, which resulted in two quality runs, and added a nice 8-yard gain in the pass game. Irby did not look as great in the run game, but did chip in a 19-yard reception to at least prove a positive contributor. All things considered, having a 100+ yard rusher is enough to get this into B territory and I liked what Allen and Irby did in this game, so I’m ok giving this group a B+. It was a very encouraging game from this unit.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - This group is literally impossible to grade because of how inaccurate Thompson-Robinson was. What I can say is the group seemed to run the correct routes, managed to get open repeatedly, and didn’t drop passes that were catchable. Hard to say much else, though. INCOMPLETE GRADE.

Offensive Line - I’ve been banging the drum for the offensive line to try a new lineup for the past few weeks. So, on a positive note, I’m happy to say that my suggestion proved to be right.

Of course, what I hadn’t taken into account was the return of Boss Tagaloa. In my defense, reports from the fall camp made it sound like Tagaloa was in the doghouse and was potentially the third-string center. So, I’m willing to give myself a pass.

Tagaloa inserted into the starting lineup at center and looked like a legitimate D1 starter at the position, which is impressive since he only switched over this past spring. The move also prompted Christaphany Murray to shift over to right guard and Justin Murphy shifting to right tackle. Both guys played much better at their new spots. Murray, in particular, looked much more comfortable which makes sense since guard was his primary position in high school.

The resulting changes led to an offensive line performance that was, dare we say, actually good, especially when it came to run blocking, where the addition of Tagaloa helped the interior create way more leverage than we’d seen in previous weeks, and, which contributed to one of the better days we’ve seen a UCLA rushing offense have in years.

Pass protection was also pretty solid with the sacks having more to do with bad pre-snap recognition from Dorian Thompson-Robinson, especially on one that was so clearly a blitz attempt that it is baffling that Thompson-Robinson did not recognize it. More often than not, he was given ample time in the pocket which, at least, is a good trend coming off the solid pass blocking against Fresno State. Was everything perfect? No, but, again, I feel pretty good about giving the line a B in this game.

Overall - Two of the position groups did what they had to do to give UCLA a shot to win the game. A third was never really given an opportunity to impact the game because the 4th position group was a train wreck. Unfortunately, that 4th group was the quarterback position which is kind of important when trying to run a successful offense. Good quarterback play can elevate underperforming units (see: Josh Rosen), but this game proved the opposite can be true as well, as bad quarterback play can sink otherwise-successful units. So, the offense, in general, is getting a C- in this game. Sorry, everyone else.

Defense

Defensive Line - If you were looking for problems with the defense, the defensive line, surprisingly, was the unit with the least amount of problems. Despite being a bunch of big guys stuck on the field way longer than they should have, the unit held their own for a good chunk of the game and only really faded once everything around them crumbled to dust.

A special shout out goes to Atonio Mafi, the giant true freshman who is being tasked with manning one of the tougher spots on the defense as a nose tackle and is more than holding his own in that spot. He’s going to be very special for years to come and, at some point, he’s going to have a breakout game (I’m looking at you, Arizona).

The rest of the defensive line played fine. Like I said, they really didn’t have a ton of issues, and did their jobs for the most part. Rick Wade played much better than he did against Fresno State, which was a nice trend for the senior leader of this line. They’re still so inexperienced, though, that I still don’t understand why there’s such a reliance on a simple 4-man rush to create pressure, but those are more questions for a later section. So I’ll again push and go with a B here.

Linebackers - (Insert the weekly section about the inside linebackers being bad here.)

Jokes aside, the inside linebackers were at least a bit more hit or miss this week, though the lasting image in my head is Krys Barnes doing everything in his power to run right into the pile of human bodies rather than fill the hole that the Colorado Buffaloes running back was clearly going to run into. It’s like he has a magnet in him that draws him to make unnecessary contact with an opposing line.

More importantly, the outside linebackers had issues in this game. Jaelan Phillips was ineffective before he left the game, though a later Instagram post indicated that he’d been dealing with injuries for awhile now. So, we’ll give him a pass. He also had 7 tackles somehow, which is really impressive, all things considered. Keisean Lucier-South, who had been the clear bright spot of the linebacker corp this season, had a real up and down game. Any memories of him making the smart, sound play (he had 3 TFLs) are wiped out by the lasting memories of him completely whiffing on a sack attempt when he had Colorado quarterback Steven Montez dead to rights, instead letting him scramble for a big first down in the red zone at a critical juncture or how he completely bit on a play fake and had to scramble back just to save a touchdown on the WR pass. In football, you are as good as your memorable plays and KLS had memorable plays for all the wrong reasons. D+ feels good here.

Secondary - This section is so weird, because more than any other game, I feel like the coaching staff let this unit down. Real quickly because I’m going to get into this later, but the decision regarding how to defend Laviska Shenault Jr. was just unfair to the secondary. So, it’s hard to hold that against them. Darnay Holmes, in particular, looked like he had a big miscommunication issue that led to the first long touchdown by Colorado to Shenault, as he played defense assuming he had safety help over the top which, of course, was not there. It’s become more than obvious that this unit struggles without a consistent pass-rush, which makes the decision to repeatedly send only 4 rushers hurt even more.

Nate Meadors was the victim of some really ticky-tack officiating, especially on the first pass breakup that was called pass interference. Meadors made a good play and the Buffaloes got bailed out by the Pac-12 refs. The horse-collar tackle later in the half was, again, technically correct but not something that gets called all that often and I’d even argue on slo-mo replay that Meadors got the inside of the jersey rather than the horse-collar, but Meadors should have kept his hands lower, regardless. Luckily for Meadors, the big play that really was embarrassing for him didn’t actually count. Meadors allowed Jay MacIntyre to straight-up take a jump ball away from him. Luckily, Colorado committed a penalty on the play to negate the long completion. So, congrats...I guess...Nate?

Adarius Pickett and Quentin Lake were quietly solid. though Pickett’s best hit of the game almost took Holmes out for the rest of the game. A C-, considering how the unit played and the gameplan didn’t help them, feels about right.

Overall - So, here’s a fun stat: through the first half, the Colorado offense had only outgained the UCLA offense by five yards. Really, outside of a few individual mistakes, the first half was a very good half of football from the defense, maybe one of the best they’d put on all season.

The second half was where the wheels fell off and even that feels like something it’s hard to fully place on the defense. Certainly, the offense didn’t help matters. They only gained 4 first downs in the entire second half and only held the ball for 8:39 in the second half. That’s a lot of time to leave a defense on the field at altitude. So, it’s not a shock that the defense began to fade. The missed tackles didn’t really make their presence known until Colorado’s second TD drive of the second half, at which point the Buffaloes were able to salt the game away. Still, UCLA took a 16-14 lead with 10:36 left in the third quarter and the defense immediately folded to allow a huge response TD, which has become a thing of late with this team. One of the things this defense needs to do to grow is start getting those crucial shutdown series after a score.

Given all of that, I don’t feel bad about giving this defense a C- grade. It was very good for the first half, and then not good at all in the second.

Special Teams

Overall - Ready to see a grade that single-handedly helps boost the final grade? Because I’m about to give the special teams an A-. They did (almost) everything right. JJ Molson seems to have ascended to take his rightful place amongst UCLA’s placekicking heroes of yore, as he went 3 for 3 from 21, 50, and 41 yards and none of the kicks seemed even close to being missed. Stefan Flintoft averaged 49.5 yards on his punts and, according to the broadcast, he is one of the best punters in the country, which is something to hang your hat on this season. The only negative that dings this grade was on punt coverage, where Colorado was able to gain one solid return of 23 yards, but, for the most part, kick coverage was solid as well. Good job, special teams! Happy to see you show up this week.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - OK, I promise this week I’ll just focus on the gameplan specific to this game, which I felt was...fine? I liked that UCLA finally started using pre-snap motion more often which, theoretically, helps the quarterback figure out what kind of defense the opponent is running. I also liked the increased amount of misdirection and motion, especially the jet sweeps and pitches utilizing the correct personnel for once, though I’m still not forgiving the coaching staff for running a jet sweep with Christian Pabico when Theo Howard and Demetric Felton were sitting right there.

The problem was that the offense too often fell back onto concepts that had not proven effective in the first 3 games and did not prove effective again here. It’s pretty clear that Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggles at executing traditional standard drops on 3rd-and-longs, yet the offensive playcalling continually set him up for failure by putting him in those situations anyway. The continued insistence of not letting him run (at least, I am assuming this is the case, unless he is just refusing to keep every single time on the read-option, which may be the case but speaks worse of him) is handicapping the offense by not taking advantage of one of the few things hecurrently excels at. Still, I liked the playcalling and wrinkles in this game more often than not and this game falls more on failed execution than on playcalling, so a B- feels fine here.

Defensive Gameplan - Meanwhile, I have a lot of problems with the defensive gameplan and I think part of it has to do with some failed self-scouting. The defensive coaching staff seems much more convinced than everyone else that the secondary is full of shutdown corners who can stay on an island by themselves against anyone. I get this idea, to some extent, as the secondary clearly possesses talent and has shown the ability to do so in the past, but it’s never been consistent from this group. So, I have to again point out there was a bad strategy in this game to leave them alone while not generating much of a pass rush.

I alluded to it earlier, but the gameplan revolving around Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault seemed ill-advised at best. Shenault has been a nightmare for defenses so far this year. The decision not to bracket him at all times was just odd to me. If I’m a defensive coordinator, I’d rather double-cover Shenault and take my chances with the rest of Colorado’s receiving core than let him run loose in single-coverage. Rather predictably, Shenault tore up UCLA to the tune of 12 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown.

But, again, the defense, in general, played well until they gave out. If you want to nit-pick some more, you’d have liked to see more aggression as the game went on, as letting Colorado march down the field at altitude is a recipe for disaster. A C+ feels fine here.

Overall - This is the first game where I feel like the coaching wasn’t the prime culprit for the loss. The offensive gameplan was, generally, fine, and failure on that end had more to do with execution at a particular position than anything else. The defense played well for a half and eventually gave out due to exhaustion, though the gameplan didn’t aid them as much as it could have. There were problems with the gameplan, but, at this point, I’m almost used to them. I don’t know if that means I’ve been numbed into submission or what. I didn’t even write 2000 words about the offensive system this week! What is even going on anymore?!?But, a C+ feels fine for the coaching this week. It wasn’t a soul-crushing negative this week, which may be the best we can hope for this season.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - Hold on, I got something for this. How did this game go from a discipline and execution standpoint?

Eight penalties for 67 yards isn’t the worst, but half of those penalties gifted Colorado a first down and artificially extended drives, which isn’t good, especially when two of those penalties were committed by the same person. It’s hard to truly blame the team on the discipline front because the Pac-12 refs clearly let the game get away from them at some point. For example, I have no idea how Brett Tonz of Colorado wasn’t tossed from the game for one of the more blatantly unsafe and cheap plays I’ve seen in awhile, but you can’t blame the refs for everything.

Execution, I mean, you all watched that Steven Montez run, right? It was emblematic of a second half where nothing in execution really worked. The defense got tired, started missing tackles en mass, and the game got away from them. Meanwhile, the offense could not complete a pass for almost 20 minutes of game time. Not. Great. Bob. D-.

Final Composite

Offense grade: C- (1.7)

Defensive grade: C- (1.7)

Special Teams grade: A- (3.7)

Coaching grade: C+ (2.3)

Discipline grade: D- (0.7)

Final grade for Colorado: C (2.02)

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)

That grade...honestly feels right? There was a good half of football, followed by a bad half, and some of the grades were sabotaged by a few individuals, but this was one of the better coached games we’ve had all season and the special teams really balled out.

Now comes the fun part: a game against another Top 10 team in the Washington Huskies. No way this goes bad.


Go Bruins!