Well, that was a swift kick to the down under.
The UCLA Bruins may have been feeling good about life, suddenly riding a winning streak, but reality returned with a vengeance Friday night. Utah came into the Rose Bowl and showed UCLA what a good team actually looks like, as they proceeded to walk all over the Bruins for 60 minutes. Honestly, we should have seen it coming.
The sad thing is that, with a few exceptions, everything UCLA did bad in this game was something I had pointed out over the past few weeks. It’s the reason we do these Eye Tests in the first place, because taking a close look at everything going on in a football game is important regardless of the outcome. What happened on Friday was as much a culmination of problems that had shown up in recent weeks as anything else.
As an aside, I stayed for the entire game, and I can tell you that by halftime no one wearing UCLA colors in that stadium cared about anything UCLA wanted to do, and were instead watching the Dodger game. Seriously, in the 4th quarter a good majority of the shady side was not even facing the field, and were instead turned in their seats trying to watch the game in the private box TVs. The funniest moment for me came when the UCLA band took the field, with the announcement somehow coinciding with Cody Bellinger throwing out Ian Kinsler at home, resulting in the crowd giving the UCLA band a huge cheer. The most disappointing thing was the Rose Bowl not putting the baseball game back on the big screen when the football game had ended.
Anyway, let’s dive into this.
Quarterback - Well, this game did go well for one Bruin, at least, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson essentially secured the starting QB job for the foreseeable future, as long as he’s healthy.
Which is not to say that Wilton Speight was unplayable in this game. He was actually perfectly fine for the good majority of the game and I’d put more blame on the passing game failures on the receiving core, who dropped a ton of passes and did not help the offense get into any sort of rhythm. Speight also showed off a surprisingly good ability to run when necessary to pick up decent yardage and was incredibly elusive in the pocket, avoiding a number of near-sacks throughout the game.
The problem, then, was that everything Speight was doing is something that Dorian Thompson-Robinson is also capable of and, in some ways, is probably better suited for. Speight kept on a few designed runs and I couldn’t help but think how much better DTR would have looked on those plays. It was the same with the throws, but I don’t know if DTR would have necessarily fared better here, considering how the receivers played. If anything, Speight proved he could be a capable quarterback if needed, but DTR has a higher ceiling. For this game, I’ll give Speight a C-.
Running Backs - It was an interesting game, to say the least. Utah isn’t a joke on defense. So, while Joshua Kelley only gained 90 yards in this game, breaking his streak of 100+ yard efforts, those were some hard-fought yards and, perhaps, more impressive than any effort of his this year. That said, 50 of those 90 yards were gained on 2 carries of 25 yards each. Though, to be fair, one of those was a touchdown so it could have gone for much more. On his other 14 carries, he averaged 2.8 YPC. He added 2 catches in the game to put him over 100 all-purpose yards, but it was a relatively quiet, workman-like performance from Kelley.
Interestingly enough, the running back rotation has become almost non-existent as the weeks progress. Kazmeir Allen was targeted more times in the passing game (2) than he was given rushing attempts (1), and Martell Irby did not really see the field in any meaningful capacity. With their redshirts burned for the year, I’m not sure why they weren’t given more opportunities late when the game got out of hand just to get some experience against a top defense, but that’s maybe a question for a different article. As for this game, a B- feels right.
Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - The one big positive from this game is that Theo Howard was again very sure-handed and provided a nice outlet whenever the ball went near him.
That’s about it, though, as the receivers and tight ends had a nightmare of a game. Demetric Felton, in particular, was the primary offender, dropping a number of passes including a deep pass that Speight threw perfectly. What made this drop worse was the fact that Felton had his defender beat. Caleb Wilson also got in on the act with a few drops, as did Dymond Lee. We even got a return of an old standby with Christian Pabico playing late and dropping a pass. I counted six drops on the game, which is an unacceptable number, especially considering how many of those prevented a key 3rd down conversion or even a touchdown. I’m still staring at you, Felton.
In hindsight, I had been rather lenient on the receiver group, in general, because of the brilliance of Howard and Caleb Wilson, but this game highlighted the problems that the unit has at the moment. Felton and Lee, at this point, feel like placeholders for the more talented freshmen, Chase Cota and Kyle Phillips, who are either injured or M.I.A. for whatever reason. I couldn’t find any information on whether Michael Ezeike is injured or what and he hasn’t tweeted anything since the UC Berkeley game. But you also need players that can, to put it nicely, do what they are recruited to do, and that just did not happen in this game and was the biggest culprit for UCLA’s offensive issues. The receivers get an F. Let’s try to actually catch a ball this week.
Offensive Line - The offensive line was not as bad as it looked like on first watch. Part of that is, admittedly, me grading on a curve. Utah has a strong defense, especially its front seven. So, UCLA even having anything resembling a decent ground game has to be considered a win. If you want a comparison, Southern Cal managed to only gain 73 yards on more carry attempts against this same Utah defense a week prior. And, Speight was kept relatively upright, with only one sack allowed to go with only 3 TFLs. Again, to make a comparison, Southern Cal allowed two sacks and 7 TFLs the week prior. But a lot of credit should go to Speight for routinely avoiding the pass rush to gain positive yards with his legs, make a solid outlet throw, or just throw the ball away.
Still, in general, this was an encouraging performance against a strong defense for a unit that entered the season looking like the clear weakness of the offense. Adding on, this was something of a bounce-back performance from the offensive line after the previous week’s disaster against Arizona, which is another good sign going forward. So I’ll go with a C here.
Overall - The big problem for the offense was execution and, while each unit had some issues, the biggest culprits were on the receiving corps, who just had a nightmare of a game.
But you can’t blame this offensive performance on the receivers solely. As mentioned, every unit had problems of some kind and they all manifested at different times to kill UCLA’s chances in this game. Again, it should be noted that Utah is very good defensively (17th in the country by defensive S&P+). So, some issues were to be expected. But this was as much a case of bad offensive performance as it was good defensive performance, which means the grade should reflect that accurately, so the offense gets a C-.
Defensive Line - I just don’t know with the defense anymore and I’m getting tired of having to write the same thing over and over. Consider the defensive line, and these facts:
- The defensive line is young. No really: the Bruins officially started 2 true freshman along the line, along with a redshirt sophomore and a redshirt freshman. The depth chart also includes two more true freshman who plays consistent snaps, along with two true sophomores. Only 4 of the 12 linemen listed on the current depth chart have been out of high school for more than 2 years.
- The talent is developing. The two most-talented defensive linemen also happen to be the two true freshmen who are starting, and they’ve got, at most, a summer in an actual college weight program. That makes a huge difference.
- The defensive line is being asked to cover for an incredibly-weak linebacker group (this also applies to the secondary). By this, I mean they are forced into having to generate pressure without consistent help from the linebackers. That’s not good.
So, with all that said, I get wanting to go easy on this group, but Utah ran for 325 yards. Osa Odighizuwa was probably the best defensive linemen, but we’re using that phrasing generously, as the defensive line, in general, spent the game getting eaten up and moved at will by the Utah offensive line.
If y’all will permit me, I’d like to make a rather goofy detour real quick, because the defensive line at the moment reminds me of Dragonball Z.
Now, that everyone has run away screaming from this column, let me explain.
One of the goofier, but consistent rules on the show revolves around a particular Saiyan power that says that, if a Saiyan gets beaten close to death but survives, they will become stronger. Right now, UCLA’s defensive line is on that Saiyan-ish in a bad way. They’re taking their lumps and getting beaten down, but the hope is that these struggles will make them stronger in the long run. So, while the defensive line is earning grades like a D- in this game, hopefully this leads to better things down the line.
Linebackers - Let’s continue this parade of same with the linebackers, where at least I get to say something new, because Tyree Thompson looked downright competent at times in this game. He led the team with 11 tackles and he seemed to take an interesting strategy in this game, which was to be super-aggressive at all times. It led him to fill holes rather quickly, which is a positive, but also led to his aggressiveness causing him to overrun plays at times. Honestly, considering the alternatives we’ve seen all year, I’ll take the negative plays if it leads to actual positives.
Leni Toailoa was the only other linebacker to have even a decent game, as he was second on the team with 8 tackles. He still seems rather undersized and got dragged more than a few times, but, at least, he seemed to be in the right place a good amount of the time. So, that’s something.
Other than that, this was bad. The clock struck midnight and Krys Barnes has turned back into a pumpkin, continually getting sucked up by the offensive line and having poor tackle attempt after poor tackle attempt. Keisean Lucier-South has talent, but opposing teams have recognized his shortcomings, specifically, his lack of discipline on the edge, and are taking advantage of him. And, again, 325 yards rushing. That’s, again, an indictment of the front seven and their poor tackling. Another D-, if only because I liked Thompson’s change in approach.
Secondary - And then we get to the secondary, where I, again, get to talk about how the secondary is stuck on an island, having to guard much longer than they should have to because the front seven just cannot generate anything resembling pressure. At least in this game, the corners could say they had a decent game, if only because Utah never had to throw near them. And, again, I get to talk about how the secondary did their best to try and keep UCLA in the game, getting another end-zone interception in this game.
But the bad tackling from the front seven also appeared in this group, especially from Adarius Pickett of all people. The secondary too often went for big hits rather than sound tackling and, against a running back like Zack Moss, that’s just not going to work. Now, armchair analyst and all, but it also looked like the secondary was trying to keep Moss upright so they could attempt to strip the ball and it led to Moss adding more yards to his carries. That could have been a result of the secondary feeling they needed to force more turnovers to compensate, but it just did not have the intended results. So, for a third time, a D-.
Overall - Here is a very good video analysis of the defense in this game:
But, seriously, this was just bad. Again, Utah has a lot of upper-classmen, but this performance had as much to do with bad technique and fundamentals as anything else. UCLA just could not use proper tackling techniques in this game and a defense that can’t tackle properly is going to struggle. I just don’t have the patience to talk about this anymore. Maybe next week will change my mind. D-.
Overall - We were at the point where special teams was a clear bright spot. So, it was disappointing to see the backsliding in this game.
JJ Molson missed a FG attempt, but it’s hard to blame him, as the kick protection unit committed a false start to turn Molson’s 47-yard attempt into a 52-yard attempt, which fell short. Had the false start not happen, Molson’s kick would have been good and UCLA would have gone into the half only down by seven. Instead, the kick missed, Utah went into the half with a ton of momentum and, in the second half, the dam broke.
The punt coverage unit was also awful. Britain Covey had 2 punt returns and each went for 30+ yards. There is no good way of spinning that. Stefan Flintoft would have been better off kicking the ball out of bounds.
Oh yeah, and Adarius Pickett muffed his first punt return, a punt he should have been nowhere near in the first place.
This was an F. The offense and defense obviously had their issues, but special teams was actively contributing to this loss in the worst ways.
Offensive Gameplan - I don’t think the offensive gameplan in this game was that bad. Or, rather, it wasn’t the cause for this loss.
Let’s be clear, however. This is still an offense that requires a high degree of execution to run effectively and this game was another good example of that. Receivers could not catch balls thrown their way, which led to getting the quarterback out of rhythm. The offensive line did the best they could and were successful in many ways, but that level of success was not nearly enough to overcome the talent advantage that Utah had. The first drive was a good example of the success the offense could have if they executed effectively throughout the game, but it was not meant to be. So, the gameplan gets a B.
I mean that’s the grade for the game, but at the same time, nothing I saw in this game that made me confident in the future. That’s something that can wait till the year-end Eye Test, though.
Defensive Gameplan - It’s the same basic thing here, because it’s hard to create a gameplan that accounts for your defense forgetting how to tackle. If there are issues, it’s maybe more in the inability to develop a scheme that can generate more consistent pressure in the backfield, but right now I’m more willing to put that on the defense just not having the horses to do that yet.
So again, a B for the defensive gameplan, which was fine with a couple flaws.
Overall - I guess coaching was....fine? It’s a double-edged sword, really. From a gameplan perspective, the coaching and gameplan weren’t the reason UCLA lost this game and they even came out prepared to start the game, leading 7-3 after the first quarter. But the other side of the coin is that so many of the issues here were on some fundamental things, like tackling, and catching. To see the team erode at those fundamentals in recent weeks to the point where this whole game unfolded the way it did is, frankly, disappointing, especially from a coaching staff that has stressed fundamentals and smart play from the get-go.
It’s weird, in that I can see the arguments both ways for giving a good grade here, and giving a bad grade. I’ll split the difference, however, and go with a C+.
Overall - F.
I mean, it was bad. Discipline was...ok? There were some big penalties (like the false start to make Molson’s FG attempt longer) and it’s pretty concerning that the special teams unit is having so many issues with just lining up and not jumping early, but 5 penalties for 40 yards is not the biggest issue in the world.
No, the reason this is an F is because of Execution and, my god, the missed tackles. The arm tackles that got broken. The dropped passes. The missed blocks. The poor throws. I think the only person who did not really have issues was Stefan Flintoft, and even he had some punt issues where he outkicked the coverage (although, let’s be fair here: by outkicked the coverage, I mean he trusted the coverage to do their jobs). It was bad. We all saw it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Offense grade: C- (1.7)
Defensive grade: D- (0.7)
Special Teams grade: F (0.0)
Coaching grade: C+ (2.3)
Discipline grade: F (0.0)
Final grade for Utah Utes: D (0.94)
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)
Arizona: C (2.08)
Yeah, that’s about right for this level of ass-kicking. Utah is good, but UCLA did as much as possible to help them get this victory.
So, now, we move on to Oregon, who may be missing their quarterback. It’s a road game, and Autzen is a rough environment for any team, but, without their QB, Oregon is an average team. So, theoretically, UCLA has a chance. The problem is this team has gone backwards over the last two games. So, a total course-correction is necessary for UCLA to have a chance.