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The “Eye Test”: UCLA Doesn’t Solve the Stanford Problem, But Shows it has a Plan

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In the process, the Bruins showed clear improvement over the beginning of the season.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, normally, this section up top is where I talk about the game, but, honestly, it was such a weird game (and I’m going to be talking about that later) that I’m instead going to do some housekeeping instead.

And, on that front, I want everyone to know that this isn’t the last Eye Test of the year. If you’ve been following along, you’ll have noticed I’ve been including these handy little graphs at the end of each section that keep track of the grades through each game. In the next few weeks, I’ll be taking those and doing a few season wrap-ups on each section of the Eye Test, to talk about how far the team has gone and where we go from here.

Everyone good with that? Good. Let’s get started on this weird game then.

Offense

Quarterback - We’re starting weird right off the bat, huh?

Let’s start with a statement: Wilton Speight did some incredibly dumb things late in this game that made it hard for the Bruins to win. He took two very bad sacks on UCLA’s second to last drive that prevented the UCLA Bruins from scoring and the last drive also featured some passes that, had they been better, would have maybe let UCLA tie up the game. And this is not mentioning the fumble early in the third or the ill-timed interception that ended a promising drive late.

But, at the same time, it’s hard to say UCLA even has a chance late without Speight. For most of this game, Speight played extremely well. He was a bit erratic early, which you can perhaps blame on knowing this was his final college game, but he generally played well, making good throws downfield and picking up chunks of yards throughout the game. UCLA had 14 chunk passing plays of 15+ yards in this game.

The problem in this game was that the offensive line really struggled and the running game never truly got going, in part because every remaining running back got dinged up on some level during this game, which meant that the offense got dumped onto Speight’s shoulders. It’s been mentioned before that Speight is never going to win you a game by himself, which is exactly what happened in this game. So, I can’t truly blame him for having, by his standards, an average game. But it does mean he’s going to get a B grade here.

Running Backs - Hard to grade this one for the following reasons:

  • Joshua Kelley - Left the game due to injury.
  • Martell Irby - Suffered ankle injury during game.
  • Kazmeir Allen - Returned from injury in this game and looked like it.
  • Bolu Olorunfunmi, Soso Jamabo - Out for year

UCLA only came into the game with 3 running backs, one of which was just coming back from an injury, and watched as they all got hurt to various extents. The good news is none of the injuries suffered in this game look serious and, with the season over, they’ll have plenty of time to heal up. The bad news is, for this game, it resulted in a running game that could never seem to get going.

To be fair, Kelley really did not seem like he had a chance in this game, as Stanford stacked the box to take Kelley away. Irby faired much better and, honestly, it was encouraging for next year for him to again look like he belongs at this level. He and Allen will get better due to a year in the strength and conditioning program and next year UCLA could have a 3-headed hydra in the backfield. But for this game, it was a C-.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - Let’s continue the weirdness with the receivers, where nine, yes, nine different receivers caught the ball, including walk-on Greg Dulcich. Michael Ezeike and Chase Cota saw increased action in this game and responded well, which is a good sign going forward, while Demetric Felton and Dymond Lee did not see much of any action, which was an interesting wrinkle.

It was, of course, still a day led by the tandem stalwarts of Caleb Wilson and Theo Howard. Wilson was incredibly good, grabbing nine catches for 184 yards (at a 20.4 YPC average) and it could have been more had he not dropped a few catchable balls thrown his way. I’m not going to focus on Caleb’s upcoming decision at the moment (that’s something that belongs in the next few articles anyway), but, suffice to say, his final run of games here has put him on a lot of radars. As for Howard, he again proved to be his reliable self, with five catches for 88 yards. If you want to know how good he’s been this year, Howard went the entire year without dropping a catchable ball, which is an insane level of consistency.

There were a few problems with the group, sure. A few dropped passes here and there hurt, and there were some struggles to get open late in the game, but, overall, a solid performance from this group, so I’ll go with an A-.

Offensive Line - I don’t know. On first glance, this felt like a huge regression for this group. On rewatch, it became less bad, as a lot of the running game issues fall back on a combination of the running backs getting hurt and Stanford stacking the box. It’s hard to block eight guys with five linemen and a tight end. But pass protection really did fall back, with the Cardinal able to rack up six sacks on the day, to go along with 10 tackles for loss. Both tackle spots were issues, with the right side and its rotating cast having more issues throughout the day. Too often, Stanford was able to generate pressure by just sending an extra attacker to the side. For a year that has been so good for the offensive line in so many respects, this was a clear dud of a game, so taking everything into account a C feels appropriate.

Overall - Here’s where it gets weird. On an individual level, there were all kinds of problems. Wilton Speight was not as smart with the football as he has been, the running backs were all sorts of injured, and the offensive line struggled. Yet at the same time, the offense put up 528 total yards, their highest total of the year. A lot of that has to do with the playcalling and scheme, but the players consistently stepped up when they had to to make plays. So, I really can’t give the overall unit anything lower than a B+.

Defense

Defensive Line - Ready for the weird to continue? Because for the second straight week, UCLA’s awful run defense mostly held up. I’m fairly certain Bryce Love has been hurt for much of the year, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that UCLA held him to 85 yards on 22 attempts for a measly 3.9 YPC. That’s a huge win no matter how you slice it and credit should go to the defensive line for holding up against the typically strong Stanford offensive line. Plus, you have to love the safety by Martin Andrus, which was just a great individual play to break through the line and make the tackle in the end zone.

The problem is that, yet again, we went another week without any sort of pass rush and that proved to be a killer in this game. KJ Costello isn’t the best QB in the world but, if he’s allowed to stand around with all kinds of time in the pocket, he’ll make his throws more often than not, especially with the receiving corps that Stanford has. It’s not going to hurt this specific grade a ton, considering UCLA sent pressure from all over and struggled no matter who was flying in, but it doesn’t help that the defensive line wasn’t able to generate anything on their own. So we’ll go with a B- here.

Linebackers - Again, it’s another week where I can’t really say anything of note about the linebackers. This unit was just so decimated by injuries that it’s hard to hold anything really against them, but it wasn’t a great game again. The linebackers are responsible for a good amount of the pass rush, especially from the outside, but a combination of Keisean Lucier-South being injured and guys like Odua Isibor and Elijah Gates really lacking in experience is just a recipe for disaster this late in the year.

There were positives, of course. Lokeni Toailoa seems to have developed a bit as a pass rusher from the inside. He’s not great at run defense, though, so there’s still a ton of issues. Krys Barnes was pretty good in run defense, as was, surprisingly, Tyree Thompson, which was a good sign considering Stanford’s rushing attack. But, considering what Stanford was able to do on offense, not generating anything resembling a pass rush is a bigger issue. So, we’ll go with a C.

Secondary - Ok, hear me out: this wasn’t a bad game for the secondary.

Ok, sure, 344 pass yards isn’t great, but consider a few things:

  • UCLA had no pass rush in this game. I know I’ve mentioned this every week at this point, but it still stands. It is much harder to cover someone for 5-6 seconds than it is 2-3 seconds, and even the best secondary players would have issues in this scenario.
  • The scheme and the playcalling also did not help the secondary. When you send extra guys on the attack up front and they can’t get through to the quarterback, that means you’re stuck trying to defend longer with less guys in coverage. This is especially problematic when the safeties have to play up anyway to help in run coverage.
  • Stanford’s receivers are really good! They’re a particular matchup problem for this group, as they’re large, strong receivers who can beat you to a position, while the Bruins have smaller, quicker cover corners.
  • Stanford gets a way with a LOT of offensive pass interference. I put this last because I don’t want to be that guy who complains about the refs, but being in the Pac-12 Conference has its perks for Stanford, as the general incompetence of the referees means their receivers can get away with things, particularly near the end zone, that they wouldn’t be able to in other conferences.

With all of that said, it was pretty clear that the Stanford plan of attack meant going after Elijah Gates and Quentin Lake, the two more inexperienced members of the secondary. UCLA actually rotated in quite a few guys here (for example, Elisha Guidry recorded a tackle, and Jay Shaw had two pass breakups) but, in general, Stanford didn’t really attempt to attack Darnay Holmes and Adarius Pickett, which makes sense! Pickett had an interception at the start and Holmes had two pass breakups beyond his generally good coverage. He also drew the only offensive PI called against Stanford, a sign of how good he was in coverage that it became clear that the Stanford receiver had to do something just to get open. The yardage total is rough, which is why this is a C+ grade, but know they played well enough that, had some of those factors been any different, this would be in the B range easily.

Overall - On the one hand, it’s not shocking that the Bruin defense struggled here, as they’ve been struggling all season and really needed the season to end just so they could heal up and get more bodies into the system. On the other, it’s still not going to get the defense a great grade. But I did appreciate the effort and the game did have enough surprises, such as the defensive line play in run coverage in particular, to make me excited for the future. Still, C+ is the grade we’ll go with this week.

Special Teams

Overall - Well, there were some positives, at least! Darnay Holmes finally got to return a kick and he took it all the way to the house. Suddenly, I have all kinds of questions about why UCLA refused to return a kick all year.

That gets into the bigger questions of why UCLA did so many things in special teams this year. We still don’t know why Stefan Flintoft wasn’t kicking in his last game as a Bruin, with backup Andrew Strauch kicking instead. You could tell the difference, as Strauch’s 36.3 yard average was well below what Flintoft had done all season and, with a long of only 42 yards, that’s a pretty accurate measure of Strauch’s kicking in this game. JJ Molson made his first two attempts, but missed his third. I’m not going to hold that against him, though, as the 3rd was from 53 yards out.

That doesn’t even begin to get into the coverage game, which flat out stinks. Trent Irwin had a 22-yard punt return that set Stanford up inside the UCLA 40. Cameron Scarlett had a 74-yard kick return that set Stanford up to steal points and momentum at the end of the 1st half. The Bruins would have been better off just kicking out of bounds at this point, because they just can’t seem to figure out what to do in coverage.

All of this speaks to the biggest coaching issue this team had this year: special teams. Chip Kelly has made a big huff over not needing a dedicated special teams coach, but what we saw this year was completely unacceptable, even from a rebuilding team like UCLA has. Adequate special teams play may have even flipped a few of these games. Oregon, in particular, was a game that would have been close had special teams not gifted the Ducks 21 points. The record would have been more understandable. This has to get better next year, full stop, because I really don’t want to write these long sections about special teams of all things. Let me go back to debating which QB played better! This was a D.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - I’m going to save the “boy, I look real dumb” take for a later article, but this was the type of game that clearly showed that this scheme that Chip Kelly is employing can work despite some suboptimal play from a few sections. Part of that is due to the recognition that UCLA could take advantage of Stanford’s secondary, which instantly took away any advantage the Cardinal defense might have created by stacking the box. Wilton Speight wasn’t great in this game, yet he was still able to torch the Stanford secondary to the tune of 466 passing yards. That’s impressive and an A any way you slice it.

Defensive Gameplan - The defensive gameplan....I don’t know. If I had to pinpoint anything, it was probably way too aggressive considering UCLA’s personnel deficiencies at this point in the year. The run defense plan was actually solid, propped up by improved play by the defensive line and inside linebackers, but the pass rush is so anemic and throwing extra bodies from all over the field just doesn’t work at this point in the year. So, I’m still not sure why the Bruins are so committed to blitzing. I guess I should be thankful that the defensive coaching staff is still utilizing the scheme that they intend to use once the defense is built up, which gives the players playing right now plenty of game reps to get better, but it didn’t do UCLA any favors in this game, so I’ll go with a C- here.

Overall - I think I’m going to save a good amount of words in this section for the next article focusing on the coaching over the year. So, let’s be judicious here and do a rough middle ground between the offense and defense grade, which would be a B, and then knock it down to a B- because special teams continues to be a disaster.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - I actually thought the discipline from the Bruins in this game was fine? Six penalties for 63 yards isn’t great, but it’s not the worst. Honestly, the pass interference penalties UCLA got felt incredibly weak, especially compared to what Stanford’s receivers were able to get away with down by the goal line. While I know I’m supposed to frown on Darnay Holmes’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty where he ran into the crowd to celebrate his kick return touchdown, I can’t help but like it. Sorry. Plus, it seemed to fire up the team as the defense actually forced a punt on the ensuing Stanford drive.

Execution-wise, the offense had some issues, especially with pass protection and Caleb Wilson catching the ball, but, in general, the team executed well and that’s something that’s a huge step in the right direction from where this team was under Jim Mora. I’m going to go with a B overall here.

Final Composite

Offense grade: B+ (3.3)

Defensive grade: C+ (2.3)

Special Teams grade: D (1.0)

Coaching grade: B- (2.7)

Discipline grade: B (3.0)

Final grade for Stanford Cardinal: C+/B- (2.46)

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)

Southern Cal: B (3.08)

There you have it, the final Eye Test of the year.

Yep, that’s it.

Ok, you’ll see some more Eye Test-adjacent articles in the next few weeks breaking down how the team did over the year,and where we go from here. So, look forward to that, but, for now, I want to spend some time not thinking about UCLA football for a few days. So, I’ll see you all in a week!


Go Bruins!