I’ll be honest. This job is getting less fun by the day.
Covering UCLA Bruins sports can be a blast. It can also be a nightmare from which there is no escape, but I’ve never felt this level of despondence. Even during the Steve Alford years, I never had this level of despair because, at the very least, Alford was bringing in talent that a better coach could put in a better situation to succeed. Through two games of the second year, that doesn’t appear to be the case for Chip Kelly and UCLA football. I know I try to stay out of macro commentary here, and focus more on the week to week micro issues, but it should again be pointed out that all of the problems on this team are problems created by the current coaching staff. So hope you’re ready for that section!
Sitting in the Rose Bowl last Saturday was a miserable experience. Even the casual fans still in attendance on the shady side, because, let’s be honest, no one was really paying to sit in the sun to watch this mess, began to turn against the product on the field. It’s a recipe for a total cratering of fan support for the program and it’s going to be morbidly fascinating to see the results.
But, for now, let’s get into this game.
Credit where credit is due: Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked “better” this week.
Part of that obviously has to do with the extremely low bar he set against Cincinnati. DTR did not fumble the ball twice without being hit. He didn’t throw a ridiculously bad interception. He didn’t look like someone who had never played football before.
But this is not to say that DTR was particularly good in this game. Going 24 of 35 for 199 yards is a sign that he threw a lot of passes, but a 5.69 YPA and having his longest completion of 24 yards are not the best signs in the world, especially when the opposing quarterback, not known for his throwing ability, puts up a 9.45 YPA in the game. It was, again, a case that DTR was just not very accurate, forcing his receivers to re-adjust for the ball and taking away the chance for yards after catch. Worse still, it was another game where DTR continually missed open receivers, especially grating on plays where he was given clean pockets from which to scan the field. It’d also be great if he learned to put some touch on the ball on shorter throws, instead of trying to throw the ball through his receiver’s head at every opportunity.
We also have to talk about DTR running the ball, because he did that a good amount in this game and it did not look great! I have a feeling that any time DTR kept at the mesh point was a designed keep because he had plenty of opportunities to keep on other plays and break off big gains and, instead, seemed to keep on plays that had no chance at success. His longest run was three yards, indicative of a rushing attack that just had no chance.
Really, this is two weeks in a row that an opposing defense dared UCLA to beat them through the air and two weeks in a row that that bet has paid off. Considering the talent level of the opposing defenses, that’s not great!
Running Backs: C
Joshua Kelley was back but is clearly not 100%, considering he had the same amount of touches as Demetric Felton. Honestly, the running backs did as well as they could considering other factors which we’ll get to, but it wasn’t their best performance.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
Unlike last week when the receivers had no chance of really impacting the game, the football was thrown into their general area this week, which means I get to finally talk about this group!
On the one hand, it’s pretty clear how much this unit misses Theo Howard. He possesses the surest hands on the team, is a great route runner, and is a good safety valve for the offense. With him gone, it means everyone else is being forced into larger roles they are not necessarily ready for. Consider Jaylen Erwin, who is essentially the new #1 receiver with Howard out. He was probably already the top deep threat even if Howard was back. San Diego State knew what he could do and tried to bracket him all game and it ended up containing the damage he was able to do, even on deep passes where DTR tried to hit him with a pass and ended up throwing into triple coverage. Just having Howard on the field opens up the rest of the receivers for more single coverage, though again, that also relies on DTR actually recognizing that and throwing accurate passes.
On the other hand, with Howard out, and the departure of Caleb Wilson, the offense was going to need to find new guys to step up anyway. It’s probably not a good sign that Demetric Felton got the most receptions coming out of the backfield, but Devin Asiasi looked solid, Greg Dulcich looked like he’s going to get a scholarship soon, and Kyle Phillips flashed some. Mike Martinez saw some action and the true freshman made a solid grab that he immediately fumbled although you could make an argument that the pass was incomplete to begin with. Again, this unit could have done more damage had the guy throwing the ball actually seen the open receivers, but they did what they could.
Offensive Line: D
This is one of the more baffling trends early in the season, just how out of sorts the offensive line looks compared to last season. Yes, last year, the line started rough, but that could be attributed to the suspension of Boss Tagaloa, as his return signaled a huge shift in quality from this unit. But this is a reversion back to those non-conference games from last year, and especially worrying is the struggles of guys who were solid last year.
I’ll cut Sean Rhyan a break since he’s a true freshman being thrown in at one of the most important positions at left tackle, but he completely whiffed on a block that directly led to the DTR sack-fumble. More worrying has been the play of Christophany Murray, who has looked out of sorts early. This is especially worrying since the offense loves to run to the right side, trusting the Tagaloa-Murray-Jake Burton trio to lead the run game. The results so far have been mixed at best, especially from Murray, who seems to have reverted to his play from the non-conference slate last year.
The play so far from a unit that looked like it could be a relative strength is worrying and it makes you wonder if promoting Justin Frye to OC is hurting his offensive line coaching duties. Because you are your record and the record of the offensive line so far is concerning at best.
UCLA’s first drive was such a nice throwback to last year. There were chunk plays in the passing game mixed in with a solid run game that produced a touchdown in quick fashion. The rest of the game was a throwback to last year as well, but to the offense we saw early in the year. There were flashes of brilliance mixed in with poor play from multiple positions, and it just created a snowball of problems. I honestly don’t know what the solution here is beyond “the quarterback position has to get better” and “the offensive system needs to simplify, and in a hurry”, but right now it’s worrying for the future of the program.
FANCY GRAPHS ARE BACK!
Run Defense: B+
Take away the three kneel-downs at the end of the half/game, and the Bruin run defense held the Aztecs run game to 83 yards on 44 attempts, at a fantastic 1.8 YPC. More than any other group, the UCLA defensive line has taken a clear step forward and is one of the best units in the conference when it comes to generating push and stuffing runs up the middle.
The biggest problem, as it was last week, is that the run defense, in general, lacks speed, which causes issues when teams run any plays to the outside or if the pass rush loses contain. The Aztecs had three chunk run plays, all to the outside, and that’s where teams will look to do most of their damage. The linebackers had a rough day, in general, but they missed way too many tackles on those outside run plays.
Pass Defense: F
Haha! What a nightmare game!
First problem: the pass rush is still not there. UCLA did get two sacks in this game, bringing their season total to three but, more often than not, San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew had plenty of time to find open receivers.
And, boy, were there open receivers! UCLA’s corners played with a cushion. It was by design, so I won’t hold that against them, but they still managed to let receivers run free all over the middle of the field. When they did stay with the receivers, they couldn't help but commit pass interference penalties. These weren’t even ticky-tack or poor calls; all three pass interference penalties were clear and obvious penalties that were the result of poor technique and decisions.
Hilariously enough, the pass defense never could figure out how to defend against play action. It became almost a running gag. Every time Agnew faked a handoff, the entire defense bit and just let a receiver streak down for at least a 15-yard gain. No, seriously: San Diego State had 10 passing “chunk plays” of 15+ yards. That’s just unconsciously bad from this unit, and it’s bad to the point that the return of Darnay Holmes won’t necessarily fix the problems.
Yes, the run defense was really good, but, at the end of the day, San Diego State didn’t really need to run beyond a small amount to keep the Bruin defense honest, which is insane considering the personnel the Aztecs have. Ryan Agnew had a career day throwing the ball, which is not what anyone coming into this game believed would happen.
Now, obviously part of this collapse is the defensive strategy employed, but that didn’t stop the pass defense from playing poorly or stop the linebackers from missing tackles. That stuff was all in the control of the players and it will be pointed out as such.
It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great. J.J. Molson missed a makeable field goal from 45 yards, which is not something you’d like to see from a senior. Kyle Phillips actually looked good on punt returns. This grade is hurt, in part, by the missed kick and, in part, by two penalties in coverage/return, especially the coverage penalty, which was an illegal formation that negated a great open field tackle.
Offensive Gameplan: C-
On the one hand, this week was certainly “better”. Things seemed to simplify a bit with the pre-snap movement getting cut down a bit while we saw a greater return to the pre-snap sideline checks that defined the offense near the end of last season. For as bad as Thompson-Robinson has looked, making things as simple as possible and cutting down on the amount of decisions he has to make seems like a sound strategy.
But that also shifts more blame for the pedestrian performance to the coaching staff. Particularly, San Diego State seemed to figure out UCLA’s tendencies as the game went on. Hell, at one point I called this the Zoolander offense, because UCLA almost refused to run the ball to the left.
Gonna start calling this the Zoolander offense, because UCLA refuses to run to the left.— Bruins Nation (@BruinNation) September 7, 2019
If anything, this game should finally help Chip Kelly finally get over his obsession with the complicated offense he keeps trying to roll out to start each year. Last year’s offense really took off once he simplified the formations and mixed up run/pass play calling from those sets, so going back to the dense playbook that already proved to be a mistake last year was a baffling move.
I’m also still confused by some personnel usage, especially at running back. I get wanting to get Demetric Felton involved because he’s so dynamic, but he specifically is dynamic in space. Running him up the middle is a gross misuse of his ability. And even with Joshua Kelley not at 100%, Martell Irby proved last year he could do a good job of banging in the middle of the line for those tough yards, so his inability to get in games is bizarre.
Defensive Gameplan: F
Seriously, this was such a disaster of a game plan that it really should cause some soul searching regarding the defensive coaching staff’s continued employment.
While you could blame some of the pass defense’s issues on poor play, especially from the cornerbacks, it didn’t help that UCLA ran an ultra-conservative scheme that gave San Diego State’s receivers a large cushion to work with on every play, The Aztec coaching staff recognized that and happily took advantage of it, picking apart the UCLA pass defense at will. UCLA also seemed completely unable to deal with any sort of misdirection, repeatedly struggling with play action and downfield pick/rub routes. Honestly, if San Diego State had just run play action with a mesh concept across the middle on each route, they’d have probably scored a touchdown every 3rd play against this unit,
The sad fact is, at least, the offense can realistically blame some of their issues on injuries. Joshua Kelley is clearly not at 100%, Theo Howard is still out, Michael Alves has been out as well, and Alec Anderson has been in and out of the lineup while dealing with his own injuries. That’s a solid amount of production missing! Meanwhile, on defense the only major contributor out is Darnay Holmes. Holmes is a singularly-great talent, but he is also just one corner and his return wouldn't necessarily solve the schematic and fundamental issues at play here. Which naturally leads us to...
It’s probably time to have a serious conversation about Chip Kelly’s coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This is clearly not a solid recruiting staff by any definition of the word, but the common defense was that it was a staff full of teachers that could develop players extremely well.
Through 14 games, it’s hard to see the case for that.
Yes, there have been glimpses of development, but only the defensive line truly seems to have gotten better since last season. The linebackers are no better than they were, even with the return of Josh Woods. The secondary has taken a major step back. The pass rush is still nonexistent. The offensive line has regressed. DTR has not taken a step forward.
Ben Bolch at the LA Times had a solid interview with long-time Chip Kelly reporter/observer Mark Saltveit. It’s a quick, sobering read from someone who has followed Kelly since his early Oregon days, but one quote stood out to me.
“I hate to criticize someone for loyalty to their friends,” Saltveit said, “but [Kelly’s] getting millions of dollars a year, so you’ve got to get the job done first.”
Honestly, this is a solid explanation for what’s happening, especially on defense. It’s hard to look at the results on the field and say that Jerry Azzinaro, Don Pellum, and Paul Rhoads have made the defense better, and let’s throw Dana Bible as QB coach in here for good measure, and if the development is not happening, or great talent is not being brought in, then it’s hard to justify their continued employment. But, at this point, I’m resigned to this staff staying the same till the end of the season, at which point Chip Kelly will need to take a long look at the general effectiveness.
As for this particular grade, the defensive gameplan was so bad that I can’t in good conscious bump the overall grade any higher. This coaching staff needs to start pulling its weight and in a hurry.
Seven penalties for 52 yards isn’t bad, but the three pass interference penalties were killer and the illegal formation on a punt was inexcusable. Also, it doesn't help that the defense struggled with tackles as the game went on.
I don’t know. I’m tired of writing about this game. Let’s just get to the end.
Offense grade: C- (1.7)
Defensive grade: D- (0.7)
Special Teams grade: C+ (2.3)
Coaching grade: D- (0.7)
Discipline grade: C- (1.7)
Final grade for San Diego State Aztecs: D+ (1.42)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)
Honestly, I do not expect UCLA to be competitive this Saturday against Oklahoma. But, if UCLA could at least look like it knows what it’s doing for the vast majority of the game, that’d go a long way towards mollifying my fears for a week. I’m not optimistic, though.