It probably says a lot about how this UCLA Bruins football season has gone that I’m just waiting for it to be over. That was definitely not how I saw this season going, but the Chip Kelly era has just been one surprise after another in seeing how far down he can take a team.
Anyway, let’s get started.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was, generally, fine in this game. It’s the first time this season where his numbers were really hurt by drops from the receivers, but there were the typical moments of shaky throws. One thing he did particularly well in this game early was recognize when the defense was clearing out and he was able to gash the Wildcat defense with his feet repeatedly. It was his best sign of progress in this game and something that he can build on going forward.
Of course, he also took a ton of hits in this game and, eventually, he took one that he wasn’t able to come back from, as an ankle injury kept him out for the entire fourth quarter. That meant that we finally saw Austin Burton in actual game action and he looked fine. He definitely looks like a quarterback with plenty of experience at playing the position. He seemed more comfortable in the pocket and threw some solid passes. It’s hard to really get a great read on him considering it was only one quarter, but I’d at least be curious to see how he would perform this coming week.
Running Back: B+
Joshua Kelley is starting to look fully healthy and he had his first 100+ yard rushing game of the season. He especially came alive late in the game when Arizona’s defense started to tire out and essentially took over on UCLA’s last touchdown drive immediately after DTR got injured, ripping off two consecutive runs to give the Bruins the lead. He’s also getting hurt by some poor play calling, but we’ll get to that.
It’s really hard to grade the other running back, because Demetric Felton barely played in this game. A week after putting up video game numbers against Washington State, Felton only saw eight total touches, which is a hilarious misuse of his talent.
Oh hey, we finally saw the return of the dropsies with the wide receivers. This really hadn’t been much of an issue over the past few years. So, it was a bit like seeing an old friend return into your life. To continue this metaphor, a few minutes was all it took to remember that the old friend really loved to break things and steal from me and generally make my life miserable.
Jaylen Erwin saw 11 targets and dropped a few of them as did Devin Asiasi with his eight targets, catching just two of them. Surprisingly, Chase Cota, who also went off for video game numbers last week and looked like a difference maker, struggled to even see the field, and only saw three targets total, all of which came in the second half.
Offensive Line: D-
I don’t know how many more times I can truly talk about how much of a step back this line has taken in one offseason. The latest sign is that another true freshman, Duke Clemens, has taken over at the left guard spot, making the whole left side of the line composed of true freshmen. On some level this is an indictment of Jim Mora, as 3/5 of the offensive line is composed of players brought into the program after he left, with a 4th being a converted defensive lineman. But it also isn’t a coincidence that the offensive line’s backwards slide has coincided with the promotion of Justin Frye to offensive coordinator. I still understand why he was promoted. Frye was a hot commodity after last season’s miracle turnaround of the UCLA offensive line and the promotion was necessary to keep him around, but it seems to have come at the expense of the actual production of the line. And you’d think that an offensive coordinator who also works as the offensive line coach would at least understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of the line and would stop calling inside zone every other play.
Honestly, I was surprised Arizona only ended up with two sacks and five tackles for loss. Credit to DTR and Kelley on getting at least back to the line of scrimmage and limiting those stats, but 13 of Kelley’s 27 rushing attempts went for three or less yards, in part because he was getting hit pretty quickly.
Honestly, the offensive issues weren’t so much on the players in this game. Quarterback was fine, running back was better than it had any right to be, the wide receivers had some struggles, and the offensive line had the most struggles. But the issues offensively in this game had less to do with the players and more with the scheme and play calling. So they get a not-great game, but know they weren’t the main culprits here.
Run Defense: B+
The run defense was generally fine. The Wildcats ran for only 111 yards (sack-adjusted) but were without both starting quarterback Khalil Tate and starting running back J.J. Taylor. Those two make up a huge amount of the Arizona running game and the Wildcats don’t really have a 1:1 replacement for what either brings to the offense. Same basic issues where Arizona’s best run plays came to the outside and away from UCLA’s big defensive line, but that’s just to be expected at this point.
Pass Defense: F
Honestly, if you went back through all the previous Eye Tests for this year, you could find things in those that would fit in this game. No real pass rush though to be fair, it’s getting better by degrees! That mixed with amazingly soft cushions made for a fantastic game from true freshman Grant Gunnell, who continued the fine tradition of backup quarterbacks looking great against UCLA. But the enduring moment of this game came in the 3rd quarter:
Coverage could be better, tbh pic.twitter.com/IPghqGJaUp— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) September 29, 2019
There’s not a defender within 20 yards. It was simply an amazing job.
When I graded the defense after the first game of the year against Cincinnati, I wrote the following:
This defense is what it is at this point. For the unit to get better, the scheme is going to have to improve by a good amount.
Here’s the thing: the defense has gotten actively worse since then! And this isn’t due to a ton of injuries; the defense has lost Quentin Lake for the past few weeks but gained Darnay Holmes since then. The scheme has not improved, but neither have the players and the ones that see the field are not developing the way they should be. The only thing keeping these grades from being a full F is the run defense, which is exceptional at stopping runs up the middle but middling on runs to the outside. Even then, the pass defense is so bad it continually threatens to drag this grade down with it.
After last week, Arizona did a good job of making sure UCLA wasn’t going to get anything in the return game. Wade Lees did fine on punts and Arizona did not have a single return in the game.
Of course, this grade is low because JJ Molson went 1-2 on field goals in this game, missing a 39-yarder at the end of the game to clinch the Arizona victory. He’s been brutal to start the year and has clearly taken a step back from where he was last year, when he was automatic on anything under 40 yards. The coaching staff changed his holder this offseason, which may have something to do with it from a mental standpoint but, right now, Molson has reached the point where UCLA should consider becoming more aggressive on offense inside the 40 rather than settle for field goals.
Offensive Gameplan: D-
It’s hard to see UCLA’s offensive game plan in this game as anything less than a disappointment, especially considering UCLA scored 67 points just a week prior. Arizona’s defense is better by degrees than Washington State, but the Bruins could only put together four drives of 50 yards or more. A lot of that has to do with the game plan, which barely utilized breakout offensive performers like Felton and Cota and, instead, tried to establish an inside zone run that had minimal success at best. Arizona very clearly scouted the play well and continually had linebackers up on the line to snuff it out. Kelly has also fallen in love with multiple tight end sets, which isn’t a problem in the abstract as it is a huge tell regarding what UCLA wants to do on offense, which is hurting execution.
It is absolutely bizarre that UCLA would get away from what worked last week. UCLA shifted to more of an open set, which created space in the run game, while also making it difficult for the opposing defense to stack the box thanks to the amount of talented receivers running around. Plus, it used tempo to wear down the opponent and keep them guessing. Some of that was obviously due to the situation demanding it, but the general success is hard to argue with. So, instead of keeping that momentum, UCLA went back to the offense that put them in a hole to begin with. That’s just bad coaching, plain and simple.
Defensive Gameplan: F
I’m done writing this section. Maybe I’ll discuss it if UCLA chooses to do literally anything else with its defensive gameplan instead of just giving up extremely dumb cushions and easy passes.
We’re now at game five in the season and any improvements UCLA has seen have been incremental at best. Worse, the individual gameplans on both sides of the ball have been lackluster, at best, with the offense trying to develop different failing concepts while the defense continues to roll out the same failed scheme each week.
Here is where we run into the biggest issue: UCLA is 1-4 on the season. Really, they should be 0-5, but a conflux of factors all came together in a fever dream up in the Palouse. One would think that, in year two, a combined 4-13 record would lead to some sort of changes to turn the ship around, but the coaching staff is instead stubbornly chugging along. It is enough to absolutely kill enthusiasm in the product and create a situation that was unthinkable less than two years ago: that Chip Kelly would be on the hot seat at UCLA so quickly. But, with a new AD poised to come in next year, that’s exactly where he finds himself and, if Kelly wants to continue as a head coach anywhere, he’s going to need to prove he can actually win games. That’s not happening now.
Maybe the saddest part of this game is that, in general, UCLA actually did a good job of staying disciplined and executing in this game. Five penalties for 40 yards is manageable and didn’t impact the game all that much. In fact, you could make an accurate argument that poor referee spots had a bigger impact. Tackling was fairly good for most of the game with UCLA really limiting the damage their giant cushions were causing by making tackles quickly and limiting yards after catch. The tackling got bad in the 4th quarter, which maybe speaks to UCLA’s conditioning not being as good as the investment in sports science would lead one to believe, but it wasn’t the culprit for Arizona’s offensive success. Dropped passes actually did hurt, however, and they’re causing a dip in this grade as a result.
Offense grade: C (2.0)
Defensive grade: D+ (1.3)
Special Teams grade: D (1.0)
Coaching grade: D- (0.7)
Discipline grade: B- (2.7)
Final grade for Arizona Wildcats: C-/D+ (1.54)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)
San Diego State Aztecs: D+ (1.42)
Washington State Cougars: B-/C+ (2.48)
So yeah, UCLA returned closer to its season-long form in this game, which isn’t a good sign. Hopefully, a return trip home against a (theoretically) outmatched opponent can right some of the issues, but this is looking like another lost season, which is not a good sign for the future health of the program under Kelly.