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The “Eye Test”: UCLA Football Has a Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day Against Fresno State

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The Bruins routinely looked adrift against a decent Bulldogs team, and now we have more questions than answers.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at UCLA Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler warning: Those of you looking for progress or someone to tell you things are all right should look away right now, because there are going to be a LOT of bad grades in this Eye Test. You’ve been warned.

Offense

Quarterback - Rightly or wrongly, the conversation surrounding Dorian Thompson-Robinson is going to revolve around the comments of his father in the post-game aftermath (now where have I heard that before?) and not about his play in this game. I’m not really going to address anything regarding that situation here. So, if you were hoping for analysis on that front, sorry to disappoint.

What I will say is if Thompson-Robinson isn’t the starting QB against Colorado, it won’t be because his dad said some mean things about Chip Kelly. His play in this game will have a bigger effect on that, because it was not good.

A 10-for-24, 151-yard performance doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, especially when you consider that the offensive line actually did a solid job in this game (no really, I’ll get to that in a bit). Thompson-Robinson was given a relatively clean pocket for most of the game and all it did was highlight just how much of a true freshman with minimal varsity-level high school experience he really is. Overthrows, underthrows, throws where he tried to get the ball into the tightest of windows, slow movement through progressions, locking onto receivers, which directly led to the first interception.

There was one completion to Theo Howard that somehow managed to get through four defenders. I watched this play multiple times and I still have no idea how it got through.

And it wasn’t that the wide receivers couldn’t get open. There was routinely at least one open receiver on many of the plays, just nowhere near where Thompson-Robinson had decided to focus.

Look, I get it. The college game is, by its very definition, going to be much faster than the high school level, even if you played at one of the top high schools in the country. You just aren’t facing the same caliber of player each week between the two levels. But, at the same time, we’re three games in to the season and I’m left sitting here wondering why they won’t end the charade and let Thompson-Robinson redshirt. I get that there is the new four-game rule, but, at this point, doesn’t it make more sense to sit him, so that you can use that last game in case of an injury or burn it at the end if someone else makes it through? I have this theory that what we’re watching right now is what Brett Hundley would have looked like had Rick Neuheisel not made his best decision as coach of the UCLA Bruins and let him redshirt for a year, because unless you are a true prodigy, like Josh Rosen, a quarterback, more than most players, benefits from that year on the sidelines.

To throw some positives in here, Thompson-Robinson was at least more decisive when it came to running the football. His 8 carries for 49 yards led the team and seemed to help the pass protection as the Fresno State Bulldogs did not seem to rush more than the defensive linemen just to protect against a run. But on the whole, this was a D- performance. Giving Devon Modster a shot at this point isn’t even about salvaging the season, but rather to see if this offense is even worth keeping around (more on that in a bit).

Running Backs - I just don’t know with this group right now. On the one hand, the offensive line was able to open some holes, which Fresno State promptly filled with linebackers because, hey, that’s what linebackers are supposed to do in those situations, and the running backs were at least able to gain a few yards on most plays. On the other hand, there wasn’t really a standout performance here, as the running backs weren’t able to generate much in the way of yards after contact.

But I can’t really put this all on the running backs, because no one really played enough to get in any sort of rhythm. Simply put, it is crazy that four different running backs got at least four carries in this game. Soso Jamabo came back from suspension this week and promptly replaced Joshua Kelley in the rotation, and Martell Irby got an increased workload which showed that he’s probably the best every-down back in the stable, but guys came on and off the field with such regularity that consistency was almost impossible. So I’ll go with a C- here, as I can see why things weren’t better for the group overall, but, at some point, someone needs to grab the bull by the horns and take over this group.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - In a continued theme with the offense, I have no idea what UCLA is trying to do with it’s passing attack.

Here is what I know: despite the roster flaws, UCLA possesses two good playmakers in Caleb Wilson and Theo Howard. There is some potential in the true freshman, but, at this point, the passing attack should probably revolve around those two. That’s usually what a lot of good offenses do,. Build your passing game around a few true weapons, while the other receivers act to compliment them. Just take Oklahoma, for example. Their passing game is built around CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown, with Grant Calcaterra acting as a great third option. The other wide receivers in that attack fill in the margins.

With UCLA, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, you have two distinct problems. Just like the running backs, there is so much rotation going on that it’s hard for guys to really get any consistency. eight players were targeted in the passing game and none more than four times. While Theo Howard was able to use his speed to break out for a long touchdown pass along with generally eluding tacklers on the four times the touched the ball, Caleb Wilson did not record a catch. Officially, he was targeted three times. So, I went to watch all of the plays and came away realizing those were only targets by technicality, as Thompson-Robinson threw three balls in Wilson’s general vicinity that were nowhere catchable (in fact, two of them were throwaways that Wilson just happened to be the closest receiver to). It’s just bizarre to the point where I can’t believe that Chip Kelly still doesn’t understand the specific personnel he’s working with.

The other receivers didn’t fair much better. Chase Cota showed some great flashes, but failed to protect the ball at the end of his 33-yard catch-and-scamper, fumbling it right back to Fresno State. Dymond Lee had a nice catch, yet was also directly responsible for the 2nd interception. Christian Pabico got hurt at the midway point. Kyle Phillips caught a pass, and Michael Ezeike saw the field.

Again, it’s hard to blame this group too much; as mentioned above, Thompson-Robinson was just bad as a passer in this game and the unit as a whole would have looked better with even halfway decent throws all game. But, outside of Howard, there wasn’t much in the way of good play from the receivers when they did get the ball, and they directly created two turnovers, so a D+ is what we’re going with.

Offensive Line - Ok, hear me out. the offensive line was easily the best unit for the Bruins on offense.

I don’t know what it was, but this unit wasn’t the burning wreck that it was the previous two weeks. The line only allowed one sack (well, technically a second one did occur but Fresno State did commit a penalty on the play so I’m willing to give the line a pass), three TFLs, and one QB hurry. That’s really good! Pass protection, in particular, was actually good, as Thompson-Robinson was given plenty of time to let the passing routes develop. There were even a few designed rollouts to move the launch point that the offensive line executed on with some level of success. That Thompson-Robinson completely missed both of these passes speaks more to his performance than anything else. Even, in the run game, UCLA was better than usual. Their 3.9 YPC on the day would have put them 73rd last year, and was 0.4 yards more than they averaged all of last year, when the Bruins had two NFL draftees on the line.

Were there still problems? Sure. A few penalties absolutely killed a drive in the 3rd quarter when UCLA had all of the momentum and could have potentially taken the lead. There was the botched handoff between Thompson-Robinson and Christaphany Murray that led to an early turnover.

By the way, doing an under-center snap between a true freshman center who primarily played guard in high school and a true freshman quarterback who almost exclusively worked out of the shotgun in high school? It doesn’t take an offensive genius to figure out that there might be some issues there.

The interior still feels weak, but it’s not their fault so many runs up the middle keep getting called. So, the C+ grade is still rather low, but this was easily the best performance of the line all season. Hopefully, they build on this going forward.

Overall - 270 yards of offense. A quarterback who went 10 of 24 passing with 2 interceptions. 3 fumbles and only 1 recovered.

Honestly, I’m surprised UCLA didn’t lose by more.

The offense was inept in almost every sense of the word. They needed a breakdown in the opposing secondary to score the first time and a muffed punt to give fantastic field position the second time. That was it. The Bruin offense only got inside the Fresno State 40 one other time. Three drives out of thirteen making it inside the opposing 40-yard line? That’s awful. And, again, the offensive line was actually good here, so you can’t even blame them for this awful performance.

This is a D-. There are worse grades coming, believe me.

Defense

Defensive Line - When I did my rewatch, I felt a C+ grade for the defensive line was the right call and I’m still debating whether that is too low.

The reason I ultimately ended up sticking with this is because the defensive line didn’t do the best job of getting into the backfield. Only one sack by a blitzing linebacker, one QB hurry, and four TFLs underline that Fresno State was able to keep their QB rather clean.

The more interesting part was that UCLA had much better performances from their younger players compared to the older guys. Rick Wade, normally very stout, had a nightmare of a game and Osa Odighizuwa’s two-play adventure (he dodged a clear facemask penalty only to line up offsides on the very next play) was a very “fun” highlight. Meanwhile, the younger guys in the middle of the defensive line played rather well to the point where Fresno State found most of their success running to the outside, where they were able to pick on the defensive ends and UCLA’s continually poor linebackers. So, there were some successes to build on here and it was probably the best performance from the defense. Though, again, the bar is about to be lowered quite a bit.

Linebackers - Honestly, I feel I could copy and paste my comments from previous weeks here going forward and it would make complete sense. The inside linebackers were again atrocious, though they added indecisiveness and a lack of speed in pursuit to their bag of tricks this week. Keisean Lucier-South tried to single-handedly rescue this grade with some solid play including his strip sack of Marcus McMaryion. It feels like Jaelan Phillips has hit a bit of a wall or, at the very least, has become less effective over the past few weeks, although it’s a question of whether that’s on him or whether teams are doing a better job on neutralizing his pass rushing ability.

I want to do a quick shout-out to the coverage ability of the linebackers in this game. It was bad and deserves to be pointed out as such because Fresno State was able to repeatedly abuse the middle of the field.

It’s a D grade for the linebackers. I can’t wait to write this same section in a few weeks.

Secondary - Well, for what had been UCLA’s clear defensive strength, this was a nightmare performance from the secondary in a game that, as it turned out, featured little margin for error.

Let’s start with a caveat. I don’t think UCLA’s defensive scheme to start this game helped at all. The Bruins came out playing with a huge cushion on the Fresno State wide receivers, which, to their credit, the Bulldogs recognized and abused early and often. Combined with a front seven that did not send extra pressure all that often, it was a weird return to the bend-don’t-break defenses of Jim Mora and Tom Bradley.

But that doesn’t excuse the poor play from the secondary. This was the second poor performance in a row from Nate Meadors. It was easier to excuse that last week against Oklahoma’s stellar receiving core, but Fresno State doesn’t have the same level of talent and they were still able to get solid gains against Meadors. More distressingly, Darnay Holmes apparently flew too close to the sun and got his wings burned as Fresno State chose to pick on him early and often. The big highlight from the defense in this game is going to be Holmes giving up a sideline out and then getting dragged 5 extra yards by the opposing receiver, which just wasn’t a good look by any stretch of the imagination.

The safeties were a little more consistent. Adarius Pickett joined the linebackers in getting picked on over the middle of the field, but he, once again, led the team in tackles, proving he is at least adequate at coming up and stopping runs. There is almost an amazing alternate reality where UCLA just moves him to inside linebacker to fix that unit. I don’t know if I love the thought of that or hate it. Quentin Lake has quietly emerged as the most consistent player in this unit and he was quietly effective in this game.

Had everyone played to Lake’s level, this would have been better. But they didn’t and the corners in particular had an extremely poor game, so this is a D-.

Overall - On the one hand, we probably should have seen this coming. Fresno State is a veteran team with a coaching staff that is smart enough to probe a team for weaknesses and, then, take advantage of those weaknesses repeatedly. For UCLA, that meant picking on the inside linebackers, then taking advantage of poor scheme and play from the corners to get efficient gains down the field.

Just to compound this issue and because I haven’t brought it up yet, UCLA just could not get itself off the field in this game. Fresno State went 12-18 on third down conversions and, when that wasn’t happening, the Bruin defense was committing major penalties to gift Fresno State free yards and 1st downs.

If you want some mitigating circumstances, boy, the UCLA offense did not provide this team anything even remotely resembling help. The longest UCLA drive on the day lasted all of 2:27 of game time; the average length of a UCLA drive was 1:31. None of that is helpful. It also didn’t help that the offense kept gifting the Bulldogs the ball and solid field position, including a stretch in the second half where UCLA turned the ball over on three straight possessions. But even that doesn’t excuse how poorly the defense played to start this game.

It just wasn’t the level of performance that UCLA needed in this game to win. D+.

Special Teams

Overall - The positives: JJ Molson made every kick that was asked of him in this game. Stefan Flintoft kicked a 70-yard punt at the exact moment when UCLA needed it to kill any chance of Fresno State trying anything before the half and he averaged 48.5 yards on his 6 punts. UCLA also did much, much better in coverage, probably aided by the solid punting from Flintoft, and the Bruins actually recovered a muffed punt which was a big momentum swing.

The negatives: it may be time to just take Darnay Holmes completely off of return duty, because he again made a poor choice to run the ball out of the end zone. Kyle Phillips seems to have replaced him on punt returns and Demetric Felton at least got his short kickoff to the 25-yard line. The return unit can’t block effectively as is, so attempting to run the ball back in these situations is just a recipe for disaster. Oh yeah, and there were a few penalties on this unit from a hold that made Holmes’ return even worse in retrospect to the inability to line up correctly for a punt.

It was a mixed bag, so a C average grade feels right.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - Ok, I know it’s three games in and, caveat caveat caveat, but I have a hot take to throw out.

This offensive system and its implementation is deeply, deeply flawed.

On the one hand, it has become increasingly obvious that, for this offense to hum, it requires an elevated mix of talent and experience. That’s because it’s a multiple look offense, which wants to go under center and run up the middle, but also go with five wide receivers and stretch the field. It requires a quarterback that can make quick reads and deliver an accurate football repeatedly, running backs that can find and hit a hole hard, receivers who can stretch the field while possessing the speed to create separation in short yardage situations, and an offensive line that can create push up front and provide time in the passing game.

Essentially, it requires all of the pieces missing from last year’s offense.

All of the responsibilities being asked of the quarterbacks were replicated by Josh Rosen last year and no quarterback on the roster is even close to his talent level. The wide receiver group misses Darren Andrews’ ability to get dirty yards underneath and Jordan Lasley’s ability to stretch the field and make big catches. The offensive line lost two players who were drafted by the NFL. The running back group might be the only that has actually improved from last year. So, that’s something, but the point is that, without the required pieces, this offense looks awful.

Now you have UCLA trying to cobble a line together with two redshirt freshmen, a true freshman, a sophomore, and a senior, all outside of the senior really lacking in game experience.

Wait, sorry. That was the 2012 line for a team that went 9-3.

Which actually brings me to my next point that, given the offense requires a high level of talent and experience, you should probably have ways to account for any position that is lacking. For the first two games, it was the offensive line that really struggled. Then, in this game, a lot of the issues can be boiled down to poor QB play. And what’s crazy is there are actual fixes to these issues!

Let’s consider the offensive line, and all the issues that go along with it like pass protection, lack of running game, etc. I’m going to, and I can’t believe I’m going to do this, point out that Noel Mazzone actually had some really good concepts for covering up an inexperienced line. The splits on the line would widen, while the offense would utilize more quick swing routes to the side or sweeps to get the defense moving left to right. Mazzone wouldn’t attack the middle unless he felt he had a favorable matchup in the box, such as when the defense spread out more to account for the multiple avenues of attack.

Instead, Chip Kelly seems determined to run the offense his way, results be damned which is his right, but, at some point, we’re gonna reach the definition of insanity and I can’t imagine it will be an easy sell to go into the house of a talented recruit and tell him this offense will make him better. And that creates a feedback loop where the offense needs talent to run properly, but talent doesn’t want to come because the offense looks awful and, if you were looking for actual, factual reasons to panic about Chip Kelly, his recruiting efforts so far would be reason #1.

My other problem right now is that so many of the issues seem to focus on poor talent deployment. Let’s take Thompson-Robinson out of the equation for a moment, though, again, continuing to play him when a backup who ran an almost similiar system to this last year with some level of success definitely isn’t a bright spot for Kelly, and consider the other offensive positions. The line, despite losing multiple pieces, actually returned what had been an above-average right side from last year. Except now they’re on the left side and struggling. And, as I mentioned in the offensive line section, having a true freshman, who primarily played guard in HS, doing under-center snaps to a QB who ran out of the shotgun in high school is an almost criminal level of not understanding the skillset of the talent you possess.

Moving outside the line and QB, one of the problems we’re seeing is the constant rotations at the skill positions. This would almost make some level of sense if UCLA was running an actual tempo offense, but all it does at the moment is prevent the offensive players from developing any sort of rhythm. The simple fix would be to limit the skill positions to a smaller rotation or spend entire drives with minimal rotations and let guys get into a rhythm. The hope here is that the games before the bye week were being used as a long tryout and those rotations will shorten once conference play starts, but we’ll see.

I saw some places mentioning that the passing game concepts are rather pedestrian. I don’t have a deep knowledge of play design, but what I’ve seen so far seems to be utilizing some West Coast Offense concept in the passing game, which puts a few receivers in a general area and has the QB look at a particular spot between them, then deciding where to get the ball (best diagram I saw showed that a virtual triangle formed from this setup). That’s all fine in theory, but, at the moment, it leads to situations where a single linebacker can successfully cover two receivers at the same time. So you’d like to see the passing game spread out a bit more to make the secondary have more to cover, along with more vertical routes to stretch the defense.

And, again, focusing on this specific game, if you were looking for a huge culprit for the issues, check out some of the third down stats. UCLA went 1-for-10 on third down, with an average distance-to-go of 7.1. That’s not good, no matter how you slice it, but, even worse is that on third and shorts (aka 1-4 yards), UCLA went 1-4. That absolutely has to get better. And UCLA’s two touchdowns were keyed by turnovers (a fumble forced by the defense and a muffed punt). UCLA was absolutely terrible at sustaining any sort of drive. The longest drive of the day was 43 yards, and 45 of those yards came on the Theo Howard TD pass. And, yes, you read that right UCLA actually lost yards despite gaining a 1st down on the drive thanks to a dead ball personal foul.

Here’s where I sprinkle in some good news before I move on from this F. There is a bye week now, and the idea is that a coach of Chip Kelly’s caliber will be able to recognize the weaknesses present and use the bye week to scheme around them. I’m also still a fan of going for it on fourth down. None of the decisions to go for it have been questionable to me and it sets a tone for the kind of culture Kelly wants around this team. And, hey, maybe we finally see Devon Modster against Colorado! I’m doubtful it happens, but it’s still nice to think about.

Ok, I’m done with this, time to move on.

Defensive Gameplan - Unlike the offense, it’s a lot easier for me to focus on the here and now with the defense because it’s a bit easier to see what the endgame is. Even in this game, UCLA is putting young guys in a position to contribute early and often and is usually running an attacking defense to try and force havoc plays and get off the field.

I say usually, because UCLA came out in this game with an ultra-conservative scheme that Fresno State absolutely took advantage of.

I get why they did this against Oklahoma. The Sooners had a plethora of talent at the skill positions and the goal was to keep things as close as possible, but the scheme at the beginning here was just crazy to me. It felt like a misjudgment of the talent on this team, like UCLA didn’t need to bring extra guys to create pressure and could play off the line against the wide receivers. Fresno State saw that and abused it to jump out to an early 16-0 lead.

To the coaching staff’s credit, and why this grade is going to be a C-, they were at least able to recognize this fact and adjust in the second quarter by sending more pressure and playing more off the ball and that held until the wheels came off midway through the 3rd quarter (and we’ll actually get to that in a second). That’s a positive sign. Now, hopefully, the defensive staff moves into the bye week with a better understanding of what their success criteria on defense needs to be and designs scheme to achieve that.

Overall - I mean, you all read how much I wrote about the offense, right?

But beyond that, this grade is going to be a D for a simple fact that neither the offense nor defense came out to start the game with anything resembling a successful scheme. The offense failed to move the ball all game, which was made worse by the fact that the offensive line actually looked good for once. Thus, removing that excuse for at least this game. The defense meanwhile completely miscalculated what their success criteria needed to be for the entire first quarter. Neither side looked prepared, while Fresno State was looked exceedingly prepared. Even considering the continuity on the Bulldogs side, it’s not a good sign.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - I mean....y’all saw this game, right?

11 penalties for 96 yards, and that doesn’t even begin to highlight the breadth of this game. We had:

Procedure and illegal formation penalties!

Drive-killing holding penalties!

Drive-continuing defensive penalties!

Pass Interference penalties because the defender couldn’t turn around!

Just a smorgasbord of undisciplined play all around from this team. The most disciplined this team looked was during the mid-game stretching on the sidelines. F.

Final Composite

Offense grade: D- (0.7)

Defensive grade: D+ (1.3)

Special Teams grade: C (2.0)

Coaching grade: D (1.0)

Discipline grade: F (0.0)

Final grade for Fresno State: D (1.0)

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)

I don’t feel bad about this grade at all. Even taking into account that Fresno State is, at worst, a decent team, this game represented a huge step back from even the Cincinnati game. I wrote at the time that the Cincinnati game would probably represent a baseline for this team. It turns out it can get much worse.

Good news? There’s a bye week now to fix things. Time to earn that paycheck, Chip.


Go Bruins!