This....is going to be a weird game to grade.
On the one hand, am I pumped that the UCLA Bruins finally ended their 11-game losing streak to Stanford? Absolutely! I am beyond pumped! Not to date myself, but I was in still in high school the last time UCLA beat Stanford. That’s a depressing amount of time to think about. So, of course, I couldn’t be happier to be able to spend at least one year without having to hear Stanford fans yell “SCOREBOARD!”
But, on the other hand, I’m just sitting here dumbfounded that this UCLA team was the one to break the streak. Not the Brett Hundley teams, not the Josh Rosen teams. This one. It’s hard to reconcile the team I watched against Stanford with the team I’ve seen for the majority of the year. I can’t even reconcile this game with the second half of the Washington State game. Both games were almost completely different in styles.
So, I’m going to try to be fair about the whole thing. It might mean the grade is lower than expected after a victory, but considering Stanford was rolling into this game with a third-string quarterback and three true freshman on the offensive line, maybe that makes a bit more sense.
Let’s start with some negatives because Dorian Thompson-Robinson was not the sharpest in this game. That was highlighted the most by his interception throw late in the second quarter where he threw a pass that ended up right between two receivers, almost as if he couldn’t decide on which target to throw to. And the low yardage totals (192 yards, 5.6 yards per attempt) highlighted the fact that UCLA really didn’t get any explosive plays in the passing attack.
But it’s hard to focus on the negatives when so much of this game was positive for DTR. Coming off of an injury and facing a Stanford team that is at its weakest point in years, DTR needed to have a good game to show he was making progress on his development, and he absolutely passed that test with flying colors. He was confident in the pocket, moving up when he needed en route to two touchdown passes and he was equally assertive in the run game, where he carried the ball 13 times for 66 yards and another score. It’s even more impressive how he was able to do so despite another subpar performance from the offensive line.
After the Oregon State game, I said that Austin Burton showed he was a capable quarterback and that if Dorian Thompson-Robinson is healthy that he should remain the starter. This game was a good example why just because DTR’s ceiling is that much higher than Burton’s, and he’s been steadily improving in each game this year.
Running Back: A
Another week, another A for the running backs. This week, however, the main honors go to Joshua Kelley. Kelley was limited last year against the Cardinal, but made his presence felt this year with 18 carries for 176 yards and a touchdown. I think we can finally say that he’s back and fully healthy.
I’m not going to hold Demetric Felton’s poor performance (seven carries for negative nine yards) against him, because he was more the victim of poor personnel usage and a Stanford gameplan that seemed to key in on him whenever he saw the field.
Welcome to the Kyle Philips show, everyone! The freshman has turned into a reliable target for DTR and that was evident in this game, as Philips went off for ten catches, 100 yards, and two touchdowns in the game. He probably could have gone for much more if DTR hadn’t made an effort to try throwing to other receivers. Philips seemed to have a knack in this game for finding an opening in the Stanford secondary and it was something of a running joke in the second half that the Cardinal repeatedly left open the one guy DTR was trying to throw to.
The rest of the receiver corps was quiet. Devin Asiasi had a quiet four catches for 41 yards, Jaylen Erwin had a couple catches for 15 yards, and Chase Cota saw a few targets, though I think one was a throw-away where Cota just happened to be the closest receiver. But when Philips is having that kind of day, it’s hard to punish the rest of the group.
Offensive Line: C-
For as good as UCLA’s overall offensive performance looks, it’s hard not to ignore that those numbers were put up in spite of another middling performance from the offensive line. Stanford was able to generate a lot of push along the line en route to three sacks and nine tackles for loss. That number would have been higher had DTR, Kelley, and others not made great individual plays to evade tackles.
Now, this is not to say the unit was bad; honestly, if you want to compare them to what Stanford put on in this game, the play of UCLA’s two true freshman Sean Rhyan and Duke Clemens was downright excellent. But the Bruins should see tougher defensive fronts going forward, so I’d love to see some improvement before the year ends.
I think, generally, the offense performed well. They scored touchdowns on their first two drives and when Stanford attempted to get back into the game, they punched back and extended the lead to a point that a Cardinal comeback was nothing but a fever dream. That’s not to say this was a perfect performance; a late touchdown by Joshua Kelley masked the fact that the offense stalled out for much of the second half as Stanford made adjustments and dialed up the intensity. But, crucially, the offense never provided Stanford with a game-swinging turnover like they have in past matchups with the only UCLA turnover occurring deep in Stanford territory as the Bruins were looking to add to their lead before the half. In this game, staying safe and conservative in the second half was enough to secure the win, which is fine, but points were definitely left on the table by the offense. So. I can’t get them to an A here. But I also want to reward improvement shown against a better defense than they saw from Oregon State. So, we’ll split the difference on the grade.
Run Defense: A
When your opponent is starting a third-string quarterback, they’re going to want to establish the run to take some kind of pressure off of him. So, to hold Stanford’s rushing attack, including Cameron Scarlett who came into the game with over 550 rushing yards on 4.4 YPC, to only 55 rushing yards total is impressive. Even the sack-adjusted yardage which was 89 yard was still under 100 yards for the game. It was a clear A performance, even adjusting to the opponent.
Pass Defense (defensive front): A
Even taking into account Stanford’s issues on the line, this was an impressive performance from UCLA’s defensive front, which racked up seven sacks combined in this game, almost doubling their season total. Eight different players registered a credit on a sack, with Josh Woods and Odua Isibor leading the way with 1.5 sacks each. Even when they didn’t get a sack, the defensive front was able to generate pressure so that Jack West could never get comfortable in the pocket. Again, an absolutely fantastic performance from this group.
Pass Defense (secondary): Incomplete
If you ever wondered why quarterback is the highest-paid position in the NFL and why college programs live and die by their QB recruiting, just watch this game again. Stanford made it abundantly clear to everyone that you need competent quarterback play in order to have a chance to win. Jack West is the third-string quarterback for a reason and he looked out of his depth in his first major action after entering the game late against Washington and not throwing a single pass. It also did not help that Stanford’s offensive line was so inexperienced that UCLA’s front was able to have their way up front.
But that leads into the conundrum of trying to grade the entirety of the pass defense, which is why I ended up splitting them in two, because I couldn’t really judge the secondary all that well. They did some things that were definitely better, like playing more press coverage and using their athleticism. But, against a passer as inaccurate as West was, it’s hard to say they really had a major impact in this game as all they really had to do was stick in the general vicinity of the Stanford receivers and they’d be in position to make a play.
Though I almost wanted to give them an A just for successfully defending Stanford’s stupid “we’re at the 2 yard line. Time to throw a jump ball, which will either result in a touchdown or a pass interference” play that they always run.
Time to break out the pitchforks!
As much as I wanted to give the defense an A, I had to take the opponent into consideration and, folks, Stanford is bad. They are especially bad with a third-string quarterback who should rightfully be nowhere near the field right now and with three true freshman on the offensive line who also probably should not be on the field together. Those are two hugely-crippling things for any offense to have and it completely negated any positives that Stanford’s talented running backs and receivers could have created.
Now, all that said, UCLA still played well and, for maybe the first time all season, the defense lived up to the preseason hype about being better up front and having a suffocating secondary. The defense did not let anyone get behind them, made sure tackles all over the field, and generally dictated the terms of engagement. Those aren’t small things. While it’s hard for me to take away anything from this game going forward, one could hope this game could become a huge confidence boost for the team going forward.
The special teams unit was generally good. JJ Molson had his best game kicking all year, making both of his field goal attempts from 43 and 49 yards, respectively. The coverage units did a great job of bottling up Stanford’s returners immediately and. as the game dragged on, UCLA really made sure that Stanford wasn’t going to get back into the game due to some random special teams play.
That said, the grade is lower than you’d like it to be because UCLA let Stanford back into the game early due to a random special teams play. The Cardinal broke right through a subpar protection effort to block Wade Lees punt and jumped on it in the end zone, which cut the lead to 14-10. That was the closest Stanford would get the rest of the game but, against a team with a functional offense, those kinds of plays can be the difference between winning and losing. So, at least, the special teams unit has a new thing they can practice this week.
Offensive Game Plan: C
When I come up with grades for these games, I usually rewatch the game a day later to make sure emotion isn’t completely at the wheel of these grades and figure out generally where I believe the grades are, and then finalize them on a third rewatch when I'm focusing on smaller details. Sometimes, this can help certain grades. For example, most of the offensive grades were initially much lower but steadily rose after a few rewatches once I got a grasp on the issues. But that also meant this grade got lower as my rewatching progressed.
First off, the opening two drives were very good, but it became clear just how scripted they were, because, for a good chunk of the rest of the first half, UCLA looked out of sorts on offense. After those opening drives, UCLA reverted to an offense that more closely resembled their attacks in the non-conference with a heavy dose of inside zone and ball control to try and shorten the game, which, on some level, makes a bit of sense, considering UCLA actually had a lead and Stanford hadn’t proven they could consistently move the ball, but it was not what you’d like to see from a team that is supposed to be developing a killer instinct. It just seemed so at odds with the Chip Kelly that has repeatedly gone for fourth down conversions even if it was deep in his own territory. Even in the first half, the last touchdown drive was keyed by Joshua Kelley finding a gap and running 53 yards to take the Bruins to the doorstep. It wasn’t a methodical drive by any stretch of the imagination.
The second half was more of the same, except it really became obvious that Stanford was not going to get back into the game offensively. So, the UCLA defense essentially tried to limit any mistakes they could commit. Again, it’s not a strategy I can truly knock since it did result in a victory, but it makes it hard to see this kind of strategy working against any opponent left on UCLA’s schedule.
Then, as I alluded to way up there in the running back section, the personnel usage did Demetric Felton no favors in this game. I know Kelly has said that Deshaun Foster is in charge of the running back rotation, but if that’s the case then the entire offensive coaching staff needs to get on the same page regarding personnel and play calling because he is exactly the wrong running back to be running inside zone on short-yardage plays. Felton is a playmaker who excels in space. So, if you put him on the field and want him to get the ball, do it with a play call that actually plays to his strengths.
Defensive Game Plan: B+
Again, it’s hard to really say how much of this game was due to the UCLA coaching staff since Stanford seemed more than capable of imploding on their own, thank you. There were no major shifts in defensive philosophy since the Oregon State game beyond UCLA remaining in a base defense far more often than they did in most other games, but that seemed like a single-game shift considering Stanford’s personnel issues. I guess I’m so beaten down by this side of the ball that I consider doing the actual smart thing a major improvement.
I’m not a fan of David Shaw as a coach. I think he’s excessively conservative and not the best in-game tactician in the world. But I’ll start by giving credit to this coaching staff for doing what Jim Mora and Rick Neuheisel couldn’t, which is beat Stanford and David Shaw.
That said, just like some of the other sections, I don’t know how much credit you can give for beating a team that’s fighting with one hand tied behind their back. If anything, it was like the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the Black Knight was down to only his legs. Yeah, all that kicking was really annoying, but, by the second quarter, it should have become obvious that they weren’t going to be a threat to anyone in their current state, let alone a UCLA team that, despite all of the departures and recruiting mishaps in the past few years, still sits in the top half of the conference in terms of talent. So I’ll give credit to the coaching staff for getting the win and for getting the team to play hard coming out of the bye week and a 1-5 start to the season, but not much further than that.
As shocking as it may sound, UCLA was the more penalized team in this matchup! But it should be noted that half of UCLA’s eight penalties came in the fourth quarter when the Bruins were clearly trying some things. So, unlike other matchups between these two, the penalty game didn’t have a major impact.
More impressively, UCLA looked like the more disciplined team on the field especially on tackles. Joshua Kelley routinely got extra yards by breaking through Cardinal arm tackles, while UCLA’s defenders looked like sure tacklers. That’s not something we’ve really been able to say has been the case in this game in a long time. So, that was great to see and is being rewarded in the grading.
Offense grade: B+ (3.3)
Defensive grade: B+ (3.3)
Special Teams grade: C+ (2.3)
Coaching grade: B- (2.7)
Discipline grade: A- (3.7)
Final grade for Stanford Cardinal: B (3.06)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Again, this was a weird game! A lot of these grades are high because UCLA did do an excellent job in so many facets of the game, but it’s hard to really take anything of note from this game. Stanford is just not a good football team at the moment. So, I don’t know how much of the good that the Bruins did will carry over into the next game against a much better Arizona State team.
But, then again, UCLA has not been a good team this year either. So, maybe there is some light to be found here.