Have the UCLA Bruins turned into a good football team?
That was my first thought, and I assume the thoughts of many, as I walked out of the Rose Bowl on Saturday because, while the game against Colorado was not necessarily up to the same level that the Bruins had shown in the prior two games, UCLA still came into the game at home and took care of business, something that good teams do all the time. It’s weird and bizarre and I’m not really sure how to process it considering how the entire past two years have gone.
But in any case, let’s dive into this.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was actually very good in this game. He was 21 of 28 passing for 226 yards, two touchdowns, and a 159.2 passer rating. He would have gone for more had his receivers not dropped more than a few passes and, if anything, that was one of the bigger issues that caused a stall in the offense in the 2nd quarter. The interception was essentially the final straw in that run of bad plays, as DTR, in particular, buckled down and showed improvement. Funnily enough, I actually pointed out to Joe during that 3rd quarter that DTR made the correct check-down read to Kazmeir Allen in the flats that he had missed the week prior, once again showing the continued growth that has become a hallmark of his play this year. With a bye week before the biggest test of the year, I’ll be interested to see how much growth he can showcase against Utah.
Running Back: A-
Another week of Joshua Kelley going for over 100 yards and multiple touchdowns. How boring!
Also, another week of Demetric Felton seeing sporadic usage. With only eight touches in the game, Felton was only able to gain 52 total yards, with only 20 of them coming on the ground. Felton has slowly become a player without a spot on the field; Kelley has once again assumed his mantle as UCLA’s lead back, while Kyle Philips has emerged as the go-to slot guy. Hopefully, the bye week will give the coaching staff better opportunity to reintegrate him into the offense.
With the early lead, we did get to see more of Martell Irby and Kazmeir Allen than we have, and results were, at the very least, encouraging. Allen did most of his damage in the passing game, while Irby showed some flash in the run game. While neither necessarily has the talent blend that Kelley or even Felton has shown to this point, together they have the potential to become a very solid pairing in the future.
Drops by Devin Asiasi, Greg Dulcich, and Jaylen Erwin stalled out some drives in the middle portion of the game. Erwin’s drop in particular hurt because a catch would have led to an easy walk-in touchdown, while Asiasi threw in a drive-killing and unnecessary holding penalty downfield in the 2nd quarter.
Other than that, the unit was fine!
Ethan Fernea had one hell of a catch on the deep pass for a touchdown. Hilariously enough, that one catch left him tied for the yardage lead in this game among the receivers, as UCLA did an excellent job of spreading the touches out to everyone. This was helpful to make sure everyone was kept relatively fresh, and protected someone like Kyle Philips who was injured last week and now has a full off-week to heal and get ready for the home stretch.
Offensive Line: B+
Once again, I think this was the offensive line’s best game of the year. Colorado may not have the best defensive line in the conference, but they have some solid players who can cause problems for opponents, and UCLA, for the most part, handled them well. The Bruins ran for 200 yards and only gave up two sacks and five tackles for loss. That’s an excellent day, especially as the game wore on and both teams knew that UCLA wanted to run the ball as much as possible to shorten the game.
In particular, I again want to highlight the left side of the line for excellent play. The two true freshmen, Sean Rhyan and Duke Clemens, have played above and beyond what was expected of them prior to the season, especially Clemens, who was widely considered to be a potential redshirt just to get bigger. Both players have been instrumental in the improvement of the line, and their blocking in particular sprang Kelley for his final touchdown run. Earlier in the season, UCLA seemed to run plays exclusively to the right side just to avoid putting much pressure on the weaker left side, but in recent weeks the left side has become something of a strength and that level of growth is impressive to see.
In general, I thought the offense played well when it had to. The opening quarter was one of the best starts UCLA has had all season, with the offense running into a solid rhythm and even hitting explosive plays at will. No really - of the 11 chunk plays UCLA had in this game, seven of them came in the 1st quarter. Things got noticeably sloppier once it became a bit more obvious that Colorado was not going to provide a sustained threat, and only clicked back on once the Buffaloes threatened enough that a UCLA drive was necessary just to help the defense out a bit.
In all honesty, that’s a surprisingly nice place to be. With this game never in doubt past the 1st quarter, the UCLA offense did not have to be on it’s A game the entire time. So, it was able to work on some stuff and essentially rest some players. Joshua Kelley, for example, saw 11 less rushing attempts in this game, which should combine with the bye week to help him refresh for the final stretch. While this grade is lower than it’s been in recent weeks, that’s not the worst thing in the world.
Run Defense: A-
One of the more fascinating aspects of the defensive shift has been that UCLA’s run defense, the relative strength of a bad unit in the early going, has remained steady despite the shift in personnel away from bigger players like Atonio Mafi and Otito Ogbonnia and utilizing faster lineman like Tyler Manoa and Odua Isibor. And we’ve seen a higher level of play from guys like Osa Odighizuwa and Krys Barnes, who may have had his best game in his UCLA career with an interception and 1.5 sacks to go with seven tackles, that has helped to ease the transition.
Colorado finished with only 109 sack-adjusted rush yards and, for an offense that would very much like to run the ball and control clock, that’s not a good result. That said, Utah is going to represent a greater challenge than the revamped defensive front has seen to this point. So, I’m interested to see if the bye week brings some new Utah-specific wrinkles.
Pass Defense: B
With Jay Shaw out for the first half of this game because the Pac-12 refs continue to set the bar for incompetence, Kenny Churchwell saw a ton of action and was mostly fine. The pass defense in particular was fine when it had to be, but reverted back into the more conservative, cushiony style that had plagued the defense earlier in the season.
Really, I just wanted to highlight Darnay Holmes, who had his best game of the year and looks to be rounding into form heading into the final set of games. Holmes was hampered with an injury in fall camp and it’s taken him a bit to get going, but he’s returning to the shutdown corner role that we know he can perform. In this game, Holmes essentially neutralized Laviska Shenault in this game. Yes, Shenault is a bit injured, but considering he had just lit up Southern Cal to the tune of nine catches for 172 yards and a touchdown the week prior, it’s still an impressive feat.
In many respects, this was the biggest test of the revamped defense, because the offense took a good half of the game off and, essentially, forced the defense to assert itself for as long as possible, which it essentially did. There were some issues in the middle where UCLA reverted to a more conservative defense and allowed Colorado to get some drives in, but that had more to do with strategy than anything the defense did. Really, the only thing keeping this grade from being perfect was some poor play in the middle section of the game. Otherwise, this was a fantastic outing against a good-not-great offense.
This grade is mostly just reflecting the fact that the special teams did not have much of an impact in this game. JJ Molson went one of two on his field goal attempts, though his miss came from 50 yards out. So, it is, at least, understandable. The Bruins had no returns in this game, but also gave up no returns as well. I also don’t know how much you can credit them for Colorado missing two field goals, as that just seemed to be the case of bad kicks than anything, though, hey, that miss from 27 yards out was at least entertaining. So, we’ll just go with a B here, play it safe, see how we do against Utah.
Offensive Gameplan: B
I gave the offense a B- for coming out on fire but going conservative with the lead. So, it’s only fair that I do something similar for the gameplan. There’s a bump up because, had the receivers not come down with a sudden case of the dropsies, UCLA might have overall looked better on offense with less issues in the middle portion, but UCLA really did go into a running shell in the 2nd and 3rd quarters that, realistically, they can’t afford to do against a top-end team. The UCLA run game, even with Joshua Kelley, needs a threatening passing attack to unlock its full potential. So, going conservative just isn’t going to be the winning play this year.
Defensive Gameplan: B+
Similarly to the offensive gameplan, the grade here is fairly close to the grade I gave the defense, but I knocked it down a peg only because the scheme returned to the bend-don’t-break conservatism that was at the root of the defense’s problems for a stretch in this game. That stretch happened to coincide with Colorado getting back into the game. So, I’m hoping this was the final data point this coaching staff needed to take that specific scheme out back and Old Yeller it. Otherwise, it was another solid gameplan that neutralized the opponent’s best weapon in Shenault and made senior quarterback Steven Montez look flustered for long stretches of time. I can’t ask for more than that.
We’ll go with a B+ here because, in many ways, the UCLA coaching staff did not have to do a ton of work compared to previous weeks. I don’t think Mel Tucker is a particularly great coach and Colorado is clearly at the beginning stages of a rebuild. So, this should have been a game UCLA should win handily. And it was! Credit is absolutely earned for never really letting the results of this game be in doubt. But this wasn’t some masterstroke of a coaching job and it should be recognized as such.
As a note: I really considered bumping this grade up just due to the rash of recruits that have announced for UCLA in the past week, but decided against it. Really, that’s a sign of smart program-building to host a big recruiting weekend during a game you think you should win handily and it was helpfully timed by UCLA putting together the best three-week stretch of the Chip Kelly era. But I couldn’t give them the grade inflation here because that’s a more macro thing, and the Eye Tests are focused on the micro of each game. Oh well.
Honestly, the first half of this game was rough to watch from a discipline standpoint. UCLA had seven penalties for 80 yards in the half and many of them were of the boneheaded, drive-killing/drive-extending variety that a better opponent would have really taken advantage of. The good news is that things looked much cleaner in the second half with the Bruins only picking up one penalty in the entire half on a pass interference with the game already decided. That’s going to be the type of focus UCLA will need against Utah. So, it was at least encouraging to see it show up here.
Drops from the receivers are also hurting this grade. They really did stall out too many drives in the middle portion of the game for it not to show up here. At least, there’s something big to clean up in the bye week.
Tackling was sound and really has been sound for a few weeks now. For as bad as the scheme was early in the year, it’s at least nice to see those fundamentals on display on a weekly basis, especially after the Mora years where it felt as though the team would collectively forget how tackling works at least twice a game.
Offense grade: B- (2.7)
Defensive grade: A- (3.7)
Special Teams grade: B (3.0)
Coaching grade: B+ (3.3)
Discipline grade: C- (1.7)
Final grade for Colorado Buffaloes: B (2.88)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
You know, that grade feels pretty right. This was easily the worst game UCLA has played during this win streak and, yet despite that, this was still a generally good game and the grade reflects that. The Bruins definitely need to be at a higher level if they want to have a chance at knocking off the Utes in Salt Lake City, but that’s what “Improvement Week” is for, right?