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The “Eye Test”: Special Teams Dooms UCLA at Oregon

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The Bruins did everything wrong on special teams and created an early hole they could never climb out of.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins have been blown out in back-to-back weeks for the second time this year.

Let’s take everything away and consider that fact for a second. The first one, at least, could be rationalized pretty easily. Oklahoma has the top offense in the country and was a road game, while Fresno State is a top 10 S&P+ team. They’re both incredibly good teams.

Utah and Oregon are not on that level, yet UCLA again saw itself get blown out in two consecutive weeks.

The Oregon game, in particular, stings for a multitude of reasons. The Ducks are not an exceptionally great team — they’ve played close games against Washington and Stanford at home, had a spirited comeback that fell short against Washington State, and spent the previous week getting blown out by Arizona. They are an utterly beatable team, similar to utterly beatable teams that UCLA has actually beaten like UC Berkeley and Arizona.

And, instead, UCLA got blown out.

It is, again, particularly painful because UCLA fans had talked themselves into the idea that Chip Kelly would change things. That we’d finally get a team that improves throughout the season, that wouldn’t make careless mistakes, that despite any talent deficiencies would play good football.

It is the 9th game of the season and that is just not the case. If anything, fundamentals have gotten worse.

So, let’s break this down a bit, and see where the problems are.

Offense

Quarterback - Last week I said Dorian Thompson-Robinson had won the starting job because of Wilton Speight’s average performance. This week, he decided to reopen the quarterback competition.

I want to make one suggestion first, which is that DTR should not have been playing to begin with. Reports all week suggested he was playing with the second string while Speight played with the starters and he was coming off of an injury, so it’s pretty easy to see the coaching staff again putting him in a poor position to succeed, all in the service of “getting the young guy some reps”. You end up with the return of Colorado-DTR, who was wildly inaccurate, missing reads, and generally looking inconsistent as all hell. After an opening completion, DTR threw seven straight incompletions. Wait, that’s not technically true; one of those was completed to an Oregon player. But he followed that up by a stretch where he completed 7 of his next 9 attempts, punctuated by a 63-yard bomb to Caleb Wilson. And then THAT was followed by the final stretch where 5 of his last 6 passes went incomplete. That is not to say DTR did not do some good things in this game. His pocket awareness seems to have improved and he’s more willing to scramble and use his athleticism to pick up easy yards and 1st downs. Plus, he was victimized a bit by drops. But a quarterback needs to be able to throw the ball with consistency and that’s not something DTR proved he could do with this outing.

All of that leaves out the fact that he again got injured in this game, opening the door for Speight to play in the second half and I don’t think his improved play was a coincidence. Again, he practiced with the starters all week. He should look like he’s on the same page with them. But I also don’t think it’s a stretch to say the offense just flows better with Speight at the wheel. Sure, he’s not a huge threat running the ball (though that was one of the prettiest option plays I’ve seen from a non-academy team) but he does enough with his legs to keep teams honest, and he’s much quicker when it comes to making decisions and getting the ball to receivers.

There’s actually some longer analysis of these two that probably exists but exists outside the scope of this article. For example, a bit of back-of-the-napkin math showed Speight got rid of the ball around 0.6 seconds faster than DTR did, but I didn’t focus enough on the play calls to note whether that was by design or not, though I will note that Speight is much more accurate on short and intermediate throws and, at first glance, it appears the play calls change when Speight is in the game to take advantage of that. DTR did have to deal with more QB Hurries, but I’m not willing to say the line just played better with Speight in, as it seemed DTR just held the ball longer which let defenders get to him more often. That and the official scorer was pretty QBH-happy. UCLA ended up with four and I still don’t see how they scored that. Again, an entire article focused on these two would be fascinating. Hell, just this rudimentary analysis is hitting over 700 words.

In any case, DTR’s injury complicates the math on who should be starting. If he was fully healthy, I’d say just throw DTR out there and let him figure things out. But this is his second injury in 3 weeks and, if he is going to play a part in UCLA’s future, it may make more sense to shut him down for the rest of the year just for his health. And, to be sure, Speight’s play in this game in relief of DTR again showed that he is a capable quarterback. Sure, he’s no the type of talent that will win you a game by himself, but considering how close this game could have been without some...incidents....all Speight would really need to do is limit mistakes and let the system and running game carry the day.

But, of course, this article exists to judge the positional play in this particular game, and here we got a below-average performance from one QB, and a solid performance from another. Put it together, and you end up with a C.

Running Backs - Joshua Kelley ran for 161 yards on 26 carries for an average of 6.2 YPC. He also led the team in receptions with six, though his catches only went for 32 yards total. Still, I just wanted to put those numbers out there, because they make an easy case for the A grade in this group.

But the important thing in this game was that Martell Irby provided solid backup touches in this game. UCLA essentially only brought two running backs up to Eugene, with Kazmeir Allen out with an injury and Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi being out since the beginning of October. With those circumstances, Irby needed to step up and be effective, if only to give Kelley a breather when needed, and he rose to the occasion. Six carries for 39 yards and a 6.5 YPC are solid numbers for a backup with limited touches, and he even contributed a bit in the passing game. He still has room to grow, but this was a positive outing in a game that did not feature a ton of true positives, and I felt the need to point it out.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - First, the superlatives. Joshua Kelley was covered, but, again, shout-outs go to Theo Howard, who managed to catch every ball that he had a remote shot of catching. His eleven targets led the team, but those numbers are inflated by scoring quirks, aka when a ball is thrown away out of bounds, it still registers someone as a target. For some reason, the only pass that doesn’t register a target was the interception. Football scoring is weird and continues to not make sense but whatever. He hasn’t been able to turn these catches into big gains, but, at this point in the season, just the ability to catch the ball for positive yards is a huge plus.

The other positive was Devin Asiasi. He caught three of his four targets and there is an interesting quirk where DTR will rarely if ever look his way, but the previous connection between Asiasi and Speight from Michigan repeatedly shows up. Asiasi is a solid weapon for the offense to utilize, and he’s playing consistently, which is important.

The rest of the receiving core? Woof.

First, Demetric Felton seems to have come down with a case of KennyWalkeritis. He’s fast and shows an ability to get open, but he has trouble catching the ball. Now, this may just be some simplistic thinking on my part, but I tend to think catching the ball is a pretty important facet of a receiver’s job! Felton is best when the ball is already in his hands. So, it would make sense to use him for things like jet sweeps or even as a running back, but his catching ability needs to see significant improvement to justify his large amount of playing time at this point.

Caleb Wilson also had a nightmare game. Though in this case, I might lean more towards this being a case of him pressing to make a good play. He had a drop and an OPI called against him that wiped away his second TD and he looked visibly frustrated all game.

Michael Ezeike finally returned from the Shadow Realm where he had been banished to and he really looked like he was pressing in an attempt to make an impact. He saw six targets but only caught one of them, instead showing off a number of drops. It wasn’t a great look, but considering how he went MIA for a few weeks, I’m willing to chalk this up to a true freshman pressing in an attempt to make an impact.

Christian Pabico played and actually caught a ball. Chase Cota played and did not see a pass thrown his way.

Again, if you were looking at a reason for the offense struggling at times, the receiving corps would be the main culprit. I stopped counting drops once I got to seven because, honestly, if you have more than five as a team, there’s a problem. Beyond that, the group struggled blocking, especially on the outside when DTR scrambled that way. This group was such a consistent bright spot early in the season. So to see them regress in this way is frustrating to say the least. We’ll go with a D- here.

Offensive Line - This is, again, a case where the offensive line was fine, looking much better in run blocking than in pass blocking for any number of reasons. Certainly ,Kelley’s talent covers for a lot of flaws in the offensive line, but they still were able to consistently open up holes and get Kelley into the second level of the defense. Pass blocking was less of a sure thing and raw numbers-wise only looks good due to the general scrambling ability of DTR, who avoided numerous sacks, and, to a lesser degree, Speight. It is fascinating to see this group develop in real-time, however, as they got better as the game progressed. Though just like with the QB section, I’m unsure if that’s just a result of the playcalling changing when Speight came in or not. Also important to note: despite the final score, Oregon stuck with their starters the entire time, so UCLA’s improvement as the game wore on was against Oregon’s best and not their backups. That’s an important distinction, as there are times when you can see a team doing better late in the game, only to realize they were going up against an opponent’s second-string.

On an individual level, this experience really seems to be helping Christaphany Murray, as he’s gotten better as the year progresses. Being cross-trained at center probably sped up his development more than it normally would, but he’s starting to look comfortable on the line. He still has the odd hiccup, but, in general, his play has improved. I also thought Jake Burton at right tackle had one of his better days and seems to be more comfortable after being asked to step in for the injured Justin Murphy.

Overall, it was an average to good performance from the line against Oregon. Could it have been better? Absolutely, but as stated the growth shown was a welcome sight. So, I’m going with a B-.

Overall - So, here’s the weird thing: the offense wasn’t awful?

They put up 496 yards of offense which is their highest yardage total all season and their 29 first downs again is a season-high. There were some obvious miscues like the drops and QB miscues from Thompson-Robinson led the Bruins to be -2 in turnover margin in this game while representing a 28-point swing of sorts. Still, there were at least positives, especially once Wilton Speight came into the game. So, we’re going to take that into consideration and go with a C+.

Defense

Defensive Line - So, here’s an interesting look at the stats to start: UCLA actually did better than Oregon on a YPC basis. Oregon ended up at 4.8 YPC and, if you take out one chunk run play at the end that went for 54 yards, that number plummets down to 3.6. Lead Oregon RB CJ Verdell on ran for 90 yards on 25 carries, an abysmal 3.6 YPC. In addition, over half (specifically, 23) of Oregon’s rushing attempts went for 3 or less yards.

All of which is to say that UCLA got some decent push in this game from their defensive front. I’m not saying it was the best push, but, on second watch, it became pretty clear that the defensive line was making improvement. Oregon has a veteran offensive line. So, you have to consider the fact that UCLA’s inexperienced front didn’t look overmatched to be a huge win.

I thought Atonio Mafi had one of his better games of the season, despite not actually showing up on the box score, as he was enough of a force that Oregon ran more and more of their runs to the outside to avoid him as the game progressed. Osa Odighizuwa got a QB Hurry, as did Elijah Wade, who we’ll just consider a defensive lineman even though he’s technically a linebacker with how UCLA’s 3-4 defense is set up. Again, it wasn’t a perfect outing, but at least it was better than we’d seen. So let’s go with a C+.

Linebackers - Here’s another fun-with-stats fact: guess who led the linebackers in tackles in this game? The answer: Tyree Thompson, with 4, tied with Darnay Holmes (a corner) and Elijah Wade (essentially a DLineman) for 4th on the team. The three ahead of him are all secondary players.

If you read that and said to yourself “oh, that’s a problem”, you’d be right!

Krys Barnes was a complete non-factor in this game, only registering 2 tackles, and the thing you’ll remember from him the most is his complete whiff on special teams. Thompson may have led the group in tackles but was all over the place in a bad way. I thought this was actually the best game Lokeni Toailoa has played, which you should feel free to read in whatever way you want. Keisean Lucier-South looked average, then got injured. There isn’t much in the way of depth left for this team, especially with guys like Elijah Wade and Odua Isibor, who are probably true defensive ends that are instead masquerading as outside linebackers, forced into playing a large amount of snaps out of position. This game was bad for the linebackers and I honestly don’t know if things will necessarily get better next year. This was an F.

Secondary - First, the bad. Well, not even bad, really, just unlucky. UCLA called a Cover Zero defense to try and get more pressure on the line, and Darnay Holmes got beat without a safety over the top. It happens. Hell, UCLA benefited from the same defense when they scored their long TD to Caleb Wilson.

Outside of that, the secondary was pretty good, considering how many hats they’re forced into wearing. Again, four of the top six tacklers in this team were in the secondary and the secondary, in general, accounted for almost half of the team’s total tackles. Hell, those top four accounted for 42% of the tackles. That’s an unreal spread and is partly a sign of just how ineffective UCLA’s linebackers have been this season. The secondary, especially the safeties, have been forced to cheat up to aid in run defense, while at the same time being forced into trying to play perfect coverage in pass defense to cover for the fact that UCLA has no consistent pass rush. It’s an impossible ask for any unit.

Adarius Pickett again led the team in tackles and Quentin Lake came in second with seven. It was a pleasant surprise to see true freshman Stephan Blaylock not only get a large amount of run in this game, but play well. Outside of the deep touchdown, Holmes also played well. And I know it would be easy to throw some blame their way, but, honestly, they played the best they could, considering they were going up against an NFL prospect at quarterback in Justin Herbert, a very good receiver in Dillon Mitchell, and had to essentially play run defense. It’s just too much to throw at one unit. This was a B.

Overall - If you look at this game just from a stats perspective, UCLA’s defense just did not get the job done. And that’s true! They were on the field for 35 of Oregon’s points, and that’s just not a number that will win you a lot of games.

But, at the same time, it’s hard to blame the defense too much for a few reasons. Consider that Oregon’s average starting field position in this game was their own 44 yard line. Consider that 3 separate drives for the Ducks started on or inside the UCLA 20 yard line. Consider that, twice, the defense did a good enough job to force a punt, only for Oregon to immediately get to continue a drive, either due to a fake punt or a muffed punt. It was almost like the special teams and, to a lesser extent, the offense had a grudge against the defense and were doing everything in their powers to put them in some terrible positions.

It would have been great to have a few of those touchdowns forced into being field goal attempts, especially since Oregon’s kicker isn’t the best. He did miss his one attempt that wasn’t a PAT. But, it would have been a minimization of the damage, if anything. Overall, I have to give the defense a C here. They weren’t the problem, though they could have been better.

Special Teams

Overall - Let’s document this:

  • On the first punt, there was no one in the right spot on coverage, resulting in an easy punt return touchdown for the Ducks.
  • On the second Oregon drive, UCLA forces a punt, except the Ducks run a fake. Krys Barnes is in position to make a tackle short of the 1st down marker, except he misses, and Oregon is able to move to the UCLA 10 yard line on a 28 yard gain.
  • At the start of second quarter, UCLA forces a punt. Adarius Pickett muffs the punt and gives Oregon the ball at the UCLA 11.
  • After UCLA scored the Bruins’ first touchdown, UCLA allows a 36-yard kick return. Honestly, this was the least egregious problem on this list, but it is being tracked for posterity’s sake.
  • To end the half, UCLA lined up for a 51-yard field goal. Well, it would have been 51 yards, except the Bruins committed a false start penalty on a half-ending FG attempt FOR THE SECOND WEEK IN A ROW and the now 56-yard kick ended up being just a few feet short.
  • UCLA tried to catch Oregon napping with a surprise onside kick, which is smart! Except they were offsides on the kick so it didn’t matter that they failed to recover the ball.
  • UCLA lined up for a FG attempt early in the 4th that would have cut the lead to 11. Well, I say they lined up. In reality, kicker J.J. Molson was nowhere to be found. He eventually rushed onto the field, the rushed snap was botched, and holder Matt Lynch was brought down after no gain.

If you want a positive, the Bruins did execute a successful fake punt, which was nice to see, even though they did not turn that into any points, but, with a performance like this, giving the special teams an F just doesn’t feel right. Like, it feels there should be a lower grade for a performance like this. I almost want to go back and retroactively bump up last week’s F, because that was bad, but this was malpractice.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - I have some questions regarding the playcalling, such as the decision to come out throwing. It just seems like the opposite of what you’d want to do, because Oregon is much worse against the run than they are against the pass and UCLA is much better at running the ball than they are passing. On paper, UCLA’s strength lines up well with Oregon’s weakness, so the continued early shift to the pass felt more like hubris than anything and directly killed a few early drives.

Beyond that, the gameplan wasn’t the biggest culprit to this loss. Again, UCLA failed to execute, especially from the receivers. But this was the second week in a row we saw these mistakes and, combined with the odd playcalling, we have to go with a C+ here.

Defensive Gameplan - Meanwhile, I just don’t know what the defensive staff should do at this point. It’s pretty clear they won’t get anything resembling a pass rush at this point, both due to inexperience on the defensive line and general awfulness from the linebackers. It might be time to just try something new. Maybe go to a nickel full-time? Run 5 defensive linemen and only 2 linebackers? See if LiAngelo Ball wants to come back to UCLA to play linebacker? I’m open to suggestions here.

Again, it’s hard to game plan for a game where you are stuck trying to defend a short field repeatedly, so I sympathize there. But linebacker play is just so bad that it may just be time to try literally anything new at this point. But that’s a discussion outside the scope of this specific game. I’ll give the defensive game plan grade a B-.

Overall - I don’t think the game plans themselves were the particular problem. As stated, the offense had execution issues, while the defense has a clear personnel problem that is almost impossible to plan around.

But, at the same time, this is the coaching section, and the complete collapse of the special teams unit in this game was a coaching failure. Even beyond that ineptitude, we’re seeing a breakdown in fundamentals that has yet to be addressed, at least not at a level to make a difference. I can’t, in good conscious, sit here and feel good about the coaching job shown in this game. It wasn’t great. This is a C- and not something I expected to be saying about a Chip Kelly team in November.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - Eleven penalties for 64 yards. Again, we got a raft of false start penalties (five in total) from all over, which is a huge sign that discipline is lacking and some of those penalties directly contributed to missed points. The yardage total is a bit of a misnomer, as the Bruins also committed two big penalties (a holding and a pass interference) that had their penalty yardage drastically cut due to the “half the distance to the goal” rule. For example, the pass intereference penalty ended up only being a yard. So, take that into consideration.

Drops were technically down from last week. Same with missed tackles. I’m sure that’s small comfort to people who watched this game. This was a D- grade if only because there was, technically, improvement over last week.

Final Composite

Offense grade: C+ (2.3)

Defensive grade: C (2.0)

Special Teams grade: F (0.0)

Coaching grade: C- (1.7)

Discipline grade: D- (0.7)

Final grade for Oregon Ducks: D+ (1.34)


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)

So, here’s my thing at this point: yes, you should assume that Chip Kelly’s tenure at UCLA was going to start rough and be a process, but at the same time UCLA has not gotten exceptionally better than where they were at the beginning of the season. Some of that isn’t their fault. The linebackers are just a nightmare regardless of the coaching staff, but we’ve seen solid progress from a few groups that is being sabotaged by others, and the degrading of fundamental play from this team should be extremely concerning.

Still, there’s three games left. This would be the ideal opportunity for this team to show some progress, especially against two big rivals to end the season. Let’s see how the close out happens.


Go Bruins.