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The “Eye Test”: UCLA Shows Southern Cal What In-Season Growth Looks Like

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The Bruins looked like a team that had gotten better over the season, while the Trojans did not.

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In the immediate aftermath of this game, I sent out an email that said “Is it kosher to just give everything an A in the Eye Test, with each description just being “34-27”?”. While I definitely got approval for that, I decided that I didn’t want to deprive you, my wonderful readers, of the joy of reading my words in the aftermath of a victory over our rivals.

So, obviously, the descriptions will be a bit longer before you see that A.

All joking aside, I already wrote a bit about my thoughts on this game, so I’m going to keep things a bit brief in some spots. Let’s get started.

Offense

Quarterback - By the stats, Wilton Speight had a pedestrian day: 13 of 22 for 166 yards, including one touchdown and one interception. But those numbers don’t do Speight any favors, as he did everything the Bruins needed him to do in this game. He made big plays with his arm and with his legs (he ran for a second touchdown) and played within himself. Even his interception was aided by Demetric Felton not fighting for the ball, instead letting Iman Marshall sit under the pass for an acrobatic interception at the back of the end zone.

Really, Joshua Kelley is going to get most of the superlatives from this game, and rightfully so, but Speight did so much in this game to help secure this victory from his beautiful touchdown pass to Theo Howard to the first 3rd down pickup on that 4th quarter drive that started at the UCLA 3. The only reason I can’t give him a pure A is because of that interception, so an A- will have to do.

Running Backs - I don’t think I can really write this one. Joshua Kelley ran for 289 yards on 40 carries, setting a new record for a running back in this rivalry game. He also had two touchdowns in this game, including the 55-yarder that gave the UCLA Bruins the lead for good in the 4th quarter. Kelley averaged 7.2 YPC, which is just ridiculous.

Martell Irby got a few carries to spell Kelley and he wasn’t incredibly effective, but, at least, he has the benefit of being a true freshman and you have to assume he’ll get better over the years. Anyway, this was an A. Shocking, I know.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Kelley, the receivers didn’t have a ton to do in this game when it came to, well, catching the ball, but they were still effective. Theo Howard actually had his biggest game in awhile. Aside from his big touchdown catch on the opening drive, he had two big 3rd down catches to help convert on eventual touchdown drives and his five catches for 76 yards led the team. Caleb Wilson also did his job, catching all four of his targets for 63 yards and averaging over 15 yards per catch.

Those two really were the offense from the outside. Christian Pabico had 3 catches for minimal yards and Demetric Felton caught one pass for a solid first down on that go-ahead touchdown drive, but that’s it for actual production. Devin Asiasi did see some targets, but he didn’t really have a chance at any of them.

More impressive was how this unit blocked. Obviously, the tight ends deserve a huge shout-out here, as UCLA went to a three tight end set for the majority of this game. That caused all kinds of problems for the Southern Cal Trojans, as the UCLA tight ends were able to make some great blocks in space. The receivers also did a great job of blocking and we actually saw more players like Chase Cota and Ethan Fernea come in just to lay some solid blocks. Hell, Delon Hurt came in on UCLA’s last drive in the 4th quarter and laid a key outside block to free Kelley up for an 11-yard gain. It was just an outstanding game from this group. So, we’re going with an A.

Offensive Line - When a running back goes for 289 yards, you know the offensive line is doing something right and this game was straight offensive line porn. In fact, this is easily one of the best performances of any UCLA offensive line in the past decade.

Seriously, go back and watch this game. Just listen to Brady Quinn gush about UCLA’s pulling action from the guards or the line completely sealing Southern Cal’s defensive front on outside runs. Andre James did this on Kelley’s go-ahead run when he blocked two Trojans at once and it is just the funniest thing. A lot has been rightly said of Boss Tagaloa’s emergence as a Pac-12 level starting center and he showed off some serious athleticism in this game on pulls, but I also have to shout out Christaphany Murray and Michael Alves for looking great at the guard spots as well.

Special shout-outs go to walk-on Sam Marrazzo and true freshman Alec Anderson, who both saw a decent amount of snaps in this game and looked like they belonged which is no easy feat against a defensive line with the talent that Southern Cal normally has. Another special shout-out goes to Justin Murphy, the grad transfer from Texas Tech who hurt his knee earlier this season, had surgery, rehabbed, and came back to make a huge contribution in this game.

Were there some issues? Of course. Pass protection had a few hiccups, including the sack given up, and Speight had to make some solid plays just to avoid a few more sacks. But when you get THAT level of production in the run game, it’s hard to give this group anything other than an A.

Overall - The only reason this grade isn’t going to be a pure A is because of some rough patches at different parts of the game, specifically in the 3rd quarter where the Bruins were kept off the scoreboard while Southern Cal was able to steal all of the momentum. But, generally, the offense did a very good job with the running game obviously standing out. So, an A- feels like the right way to go here.

Defense

Defensive Line - The defensive line wasn’t bad! It was actually clearly better than they had been the last few weeks at any rate. Part of that has to do Southern Cal’s offensive line and running game being really bad (their rushing attack ranks 87th according to S&P+), but the Bruin defenders did their job by occupying offensive linemen and not getting pushed downfield for a good amount of the game. The Trojans were held to 112 yards on the ground, which is a far cry from some of the numbers the UCLA defense has allowed in recent weeks.

Sure, anyone would have liked to see the line generate more pressure on passing plays (because, again, Southern Cal’s line isn’t very good), especially with the Trojans’ whole plan of attack seeming to consisting of JT Daniels throwing deep to a slew of five-star wide receivers. But considering some of the other recent performances, I don’t feel bad about a B here.

Linebackers - It also helped that the linebacker position wasn’t a total wash in this game, thanks to two performances. Krys Barnes tapped into some of the level of play he showed in the middle of the season against Washington and UC Berkeley,and ended up leading the team with 11 tackles including six solo tackles and one tackle for loss. He also played well in pass coverage, recording two breakups including the critical breakup on 4th down that sealed the victory for the Bruins.

The other good performance was from Lokeni Toailoa, who seems to have found a niche in recent weeks as a pass rusher. Toailoa recorded his second sack in as many weeks to stop Southern Cal’s first drive and deserved some QB hurries from the statistician in this game. One thing I have noticed is that QBH is very subjective. The statistician from Oregon was handing them out like hotcakes, but no one in this game recorded one on either team.

Other than that, the linebackers were fine? Or, at the very least, they didn’t stand out as being bad, which is something. I think a B here is fine as well.

Secondary - Back during the Oklahoma Eye Test, I wrote that it was going to be hard to accurately grade this unit due to having to guard a raft of NFL-level receivers without the aid of any sort of pass rush. It’s an incredibly difficult task and, honestly, it is shocking that Southern Cal did not have more success in this game. The Trojan aerial attack was able to gash the Bruins for nine chunk passing plays, four of which went for 35+ yards, and it’s hard to single out any single reason for that. Southern Cal hit UCLA with a variety of weapons as Michael Pittman, who had to shoot down rumors that he was going to enter the NFL Draft this week, had seven catches for over 100 yards while super freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown threw in six catches for 98 yards. Surprisingly, Tyler Vaughns was kept in check, with only one catch on five targets.

The big issues, and again it’s hard to argue they were truly issues, were Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates. Lake was just abused deep repeatedly, but I’m willing to cut him some slack here since this is really his first subpar performance of the year. Gates had the unenviable task of going one-on-one with Pittman for a good portion of the gmae and fared much better when he got moved off to Tyler Vaughns.

The rest of the secondary was fine. Nate Meadors had perhaps his best outing of what has been a disappointing, injury-plagued year. Pittman was able to get some big catches against him, but that was more of a case of better offense than bad defense and Meadors had an incredibly good play on his interception. Darnay Holmes wasn’t thrown near for a good portion of the game, which makes sense, because he had a pass breakup and got an interception on JT Daniels’s hilariously bad second interception. Meanwhile, Adarius Pickett, who left for a small amount of this game with a shoulder injury, was his normal consistent self, including a critical pass breakup late on the last drive when Daniels tried to go to the end zone.

In that Oklahoma game, I gave this group a B- for the job they did, and that feels like the right grade here as well.

Overall - The defense only truly gave up 20 points in this game and we could even consider lowering that number since the defense had forced a punt on another drive that was faked in order to continue the drive. It’s weird to look at a defensive performance where the team gave up 449 yards and say it was good, but honestly this was probably one of the best efforts from the defense this year, especially considering the talent that Southern Cal possesses. I’ll get into some more of the strategy with this defense in the later section, but for this game, the defense played as well as they could have, and I’m going to reward that with a B.

Special Teams

Overall - Well, JJ Molson made all of his kicks, including a clutch 48-yarder late in the 4th to push the lead to 7. So, that was a nice bounceback for him from a few disappointing outings. The coverage units did a good job limiting a Southern Cal return unit that desperately wanted to get a big return in.

Unfortunately, all the good was wiped out in a four minute stretch between the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd quarter when the special teams unit couldn’t stop a fake punt that continued a drive and led to a touchdown. This is the second time in three weeks that a team has clearly seen something in UCLA’s punt return unit and taken advantage of it, which is distressing to say the least. Then, after a three and out from the offense, Southern Cal loaded up and sent the house on a Stefan Flintoft punt attempt, easily blocking the kick and securing it for a touchdown. So, essentially 14 points can be directly contributed to the special teams.

Special teams has been a particular bugaboo for this team as the year has progressed and, despite Chip Kelly’s insistence that a dedicated special teams coach is unnecessary, what does seem necessary is that the coaching staff needs to spend more time on these units in practices during the week. Something to think about for next year. For this game, we’ll go with a D+.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - Almost as close to a perfect gameplan as you could ask for. Chip Kelly and the offensive coaching staff recognized that Southern Cal’s weakness was their rush defense. So, they designed a plan of attack to isolate Southern Cal’s defenders and require them to make plays and, more often than not, they couldn’t. Just take Josh Kelley’s go-ahead run in the 4th quarter: UCLA initially set up with an unbalanced line to the right, which makes the Trojans send most of their defenders to the right to defend. From there, the Bruins used motion to get Isaiah Langley and the rest of the Trojan secondary to move to the right and out of the play. This gave Kelley an easy hole to hit and run through on the left side as the Bruins ended up with a situation where they only had to get a hat on a hat. It was just a beautiful play design.

Were there some issues? Of course. Sequencing-wise, UCLA opened this game passing, which was odd, but eventually worked out and from the 2nd quarter through part of the 3rd, the playcalling got a bit too stale with too much run-run-pass to be consistently effective, but, again, so much of the play design was so brilliant that it’s hard to give the gameplan anything less than an A-.

Defensive Gameplan - For me, this was probably the best case scenario of what UCLA could reasonably expect to do against the Southern Cal offense. UCLA sold out to stop the run. For the most part, it was effective, while, at the same time, hoping the secondary could slow down the passing game just enough to give the Bruins the edge.

We also saw the return of, essentially, a bend-don’t-break defense, where the goal was to limit big plays as much as possible and really step up the closer the opponent came to the goal line. It’s simple math: zero is better than three which is better than seven. And it worked out well! The Trojans made it to the red zone twice and came away with a grand total of six points. By comparison, UCLA went to the red zone three times and came away with 17 points. That’s a big difference and, when you throw in the special teams blunders, it explains one of the biggest differences in this game. So I have to give the defensive gameplan itself a B+.

Overall - The offense was almost perfect. The defense did as well as could be expected. The special teams.....well, the offensive and defensive coaching jobs were good, at least.

More importantly, I love how focused the team stayed in this game despite this being a rivalry game and the usual bullshit that Southern Cal tried to pull, including punching Christophany Murray and the 3rd quarter dancing. In fact, I talked about it a few days ago. Let me just quote that a bit real fast here:

In fact, Chip Kelly began to make a chopping motion with his hands and the team followed suit. Joshua Kelley mentioned in his post-game interview that it was a reference to a saying the team had adopted in the previous week of practice, that they needed to keep chopping away and doing their jobs and ignore the taunts of the Trojans.

That’s the definition of good coaching — getting a group of football players to completely buy in to your system and plan and hold each other accountable towards achieving that goal. This is an A-, pretty easily, I might add, only taking a deduction for special teams.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - Two penalties for 15 yards. Yup, that’ll do! Of note, those two penalties came during the 1st quarter. So, the Bruins played 45+ minutes of clean football while the Trojans routinely committed penalties that aided the Bruins, either by stalling out promising Trojan drives or aiding UCLA drives.

Again, go back to that chopping bit up there. The whole team refused to be baited by Southern Cal’s hi-jinks and tomfoolery and, instead, stayed disciplined the entire game. Yes, there were a few hiccups when it came to execution, like the Velus Jones TD on a quick out where Quentin Lake took an amazingly bad angle stands out, but the team mostly played fundamentally sound football. I can’t give a perfect A grade here, but an A- feels exactly right for how this team performed.

Final Composite

Offense grade: A- (3.7)

Defensive grade: B (3.0)

Special Teams grade: D+ (1.3)

Coaching grade: A- (3.7)

Discipline grade: A- (3.7)

Final grade for Southern Cal Trojans: B (3.08)

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)

Arizona: C (2.08)

Utah: D (0.94)

Oregon: D+ (1.34)

Arizona State: C+ (2.2)

Ok, so the final grade ended up a bit lower than I expected, but I’m ok with that. UCLA didn’t play a perfect game and damn if special teams weren’t determined to throw this thing away at one point, but so many other aspects of this game from this team were good! It is indicative of the late-season growth that we’ve started to see over the past few weeks with the catalyst being the offense finding a new gear and looking the best it has all season.

So, now, we find ourselves with one game left against a hated foe in Stanford. Can Chip Kelly avenge 9 years worth of sadness? Or will the hangover from this victory be too much? We’ll find out on Saturday.


Go Bruins!