In an attempt to find any sort of meaning in this season so far, I decided to take a look at last year’s Eye Test against Oklahoma to see if I could find reason for optimism. Instead, I was struck by something I wrote right at the beginning:
Because of that short turn-around time, rebuilding at the college level tends to look like a 3-step process:
1. Culture change, scheme change, buckets full of youth.
2. Noticeable improvement and development, increased competitiveness
3. Increased winning, profit
Obviously, this rebuilding plan doesn’t fit everyone, and many rebuilds stall out at stage 2, but this is what UCLA is looking at going forward and, right now, we are squarely in stage 1. That means a lot less playable depth and a lot of growing pains as the young guys figure things out.
What struck me was that, in Year 2, the UCLA Bruins football team does not seem to have progressed into stage 2 of the college rebuilding process. Instead of noticeable improvement, there are whole facets of the team that have gotten noticeably worse than they were last year. I came away from last year’s Oklahoma game optimistic about the future. This year? Not even close.
Also, as a heads up, I’m not going to be writing a ton of analysis in many of the spots. Mostly because there’s not much to talk about, but also because I’m saving myself for a specific section.
Boy, what a year makes for Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Last year felt like a sign of things to come with DTR making a lot of good throws and seeming to grow during the course of the game. This year felt like a quarterback who is completely out of his depth.
Let’s start with the positives. I thought DTR did real well in the run game. He was decisive on the speed options to the outside and showed off the athleticism that makes one say “you know, he played wide receiver in high school and maybe that’s where he should ultimately end up.” And his accuracy in this game was definitely improved.
But the decision-making is just killing DTR, and the entire offense, at this point. Two interceptions on poor reads is bad enough, but the four sacks he took were the definition of bad habits that have yet to be broken. Whenever any sort of pressure appears in the backfield, DTR’s first instinct is to run backwards, which can work at the high school level, but absolutely does not work at the college level, especially at the Power 5 level against a team with speed like Oklahoma. UCLA lost a combined 54 yards on those sacks, which hindered an offense that already needs to operate flawlessly to be successful (more on that in a bit!). DTR is showing “improvements” so far this season, but he’s behind where he was at this time last year, which is all kinds of worrying.
Running Back: B-?
Hard to grade them, especially as their success was tied in parts to the relative failures of the offensive line. Oklahoma clearly keyed in on Joshua Kelley, as he carried 18 times for a meager 51 yards on 2.8 yards a carry, and he’s clearly still not 100%. Demetric Felton broke off a long run, but I’m still waiting to see why Martell Irby seems to have fallen out of favor with the staff.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+?
Another one that’s hard to grade but, when they got the opportunity, the receivers did a solid job. Theo Howard was back for this game, but seemed to be used more as a decoy than anything else, perhaps indicating that he wasn’t truly at 100%. Devin Asiasi had his best game as a Bruin, catching three passes and leading the team with 71 yards. Kyle Phillips and Jaylen Erwin each added a touchdown catch on solid routes. There were definitely opportunities for this unit to have a bigger impact, but DTR struggled at finding the open receivers at times.
Offensive Line: D
The sad fact is the offensive line has completely regressed and it starts with the interior. Boss Tagaloa and Christaphany Murray were both bright spots last year once Murray shifted over to guard to make way for a debuting Tagaloa, but both have been rough to start the year. Throw in Michael Alves’ injury which is causing a rotating cast to play at left guard (this week’s lucky winner was Alec Anderson, fresh off returning from his own injury), and it’s a recipe for disaster, as Oklahoma was essentially able to live in the UCLA backfield. Oklahoma had six tackles for loss to go with their four sacks and, honestly, I wish I had the patience to go back and watch this game a third time to count how many times the running backs were hit in the backfield. I would guess above 10.
Sean Rhyan and Jake Burton were surprisingly good on the outside. I don’t know if that’s just thanks to a comparison to the interior or what, but both tackles held up well.
This grade might seem a bit high considering, well, everything, but I feel it’s important to differentiate between the players and the scheme. The players played ok. Yes, there were issues (DTR, interior line) but there was solid play also and, at this point, it should be obvious to everyone, let alone an offensive genius, what the strengths and weaknesses of this unit are. Now, it’s on the scheme to adjust and help this unit play better. Color me less than optimistic on that front.
Run Defense: D-
I mean, they gave up 309 rush yards, what did you think this was going to be?
The reason this is a D+ is that the defense gave up 99 rush yards to Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts on the opening drive, meaning the defense only gave up an average of 21.9 rushing yards on the other Oklahoma drives. Now, that said, not all drives are made equal and, in fact, Oklahoma did most of its damage in the first half, where it racked up 228 of its rush yards. But I want to at least give some credit for a better second half, especially by the defensive line against runs up the middle.
The same problems that have appeared in recent weeks really came to the forefront here. UCLA had no speed to the outside, repeatedly lost contain, and, for some reason, did not realize Hurts, who is Oklahoma’s leading rusher, was going to attack them with his legs. Part of that is due to Hurts being an excellent player, but you have to place a good amount of the problems on the staff as well.
Pass Defense: D-
Darnay Holmes came back for this game, and I think we now have a decent idea of what his return brings to the defense. For the most part, he was able to shut down Oklahoma’s star receiver CeeDee Lamb, limiting him to one big catch for 39 yards. In general, Oklahoma just shied away from throwing in his general direction, which is a positive in a sense that it makes the rest of the field smaller.
The problem, of course, is that the rest of the pass defense was just awful. As usual, UCLA lacked a true pass rush (though, hey, they got another sack in this game!) while the non-Holmes secondary acted as traffic cones for the Oklahoma receivers to run around en route to big gains. On the day, the Oklahoma receivers averaged 18.9 yards per catch; three players averaged over 20 yards. So the only reason this isn’t an F is because Darnay Holmes exists.
On the one hand, Saturday’s result was pretty easy to see coming. Oklahoma is an offensive juggernaut helmed by one of the brightest offensive minds in college football in Lincoln Riley. They brought in Jalen Hurts, who looks like an early Heisman candidate. Meanwhile, UCLA’s defense has looked suspect through two games and would have had to show a marked improvement to keep up with the Sooners.
But that still doesn’t excuse just how bad the Bruins looked here. The defense looked lost any time Oklahoma utilized any misdirection, had plenty of missed tackles, and really just looked like they did not belong on the same field. Which they really don’t at this point of the Chip Kelly era, but it was such a stark contrast that it had to be shocking to any neutral observer. Oklahoma was not even forced to punt until the second half. That’s not great.
The only reason this isn’t a full F is because the defensive effort did pick up in the second half. Of course, by that point, Oklahoma was up by 27 points, but that’s neither here nor there.
Alright, I finally get to story time. So, readers of the column are familiar with the Unpaid Intern, my friend who currently attends UCLA and occasionally contributes things to this whole article. Anyway, the Unpaid Intern was selected this past week to be the student kicking a field goal during halftime of this game to try and win $1000. Thanks to the free tickets given out for this game (hilariously, the Den students who were at the San Diego State game were also given 4 tickets), we were able to get a ton of people together to watch him attempt the kick.
The rest, as they say, is history.
So basically, the Unpaid Intern made more field goals this weekend than J.J. Molson. Just wanted to point that out for anyone who is really wondering why this grade is where it is.
Offensive Gameplan: D-
I don’t think we talk enough about how good of a pitcher Mariano Rivera was.
I swear this is going somewhere.
Rivera’s best pitch, and his signature pitch, was his cutter. The cutter had the lateral movement of a slider, but with a fastball velocity. The late movement made it almost impossible for hitters to make solid contact and, in fact, Rivera broke more than his share of bats with the pitch. The cutter was a ridiculously good pitch; everyone knew it, and everyone knew it was coming. In fact, from 2008 on, Rivera threw the cutter for over 80% of his pitches. It was a dominant pitch, so why change a good thing?
Chip Kelly was, in the same way, a Mariano Rivera. He had a dominant pitch (the Blur offense) that made mince meat of opposing defense and, despite the occasional misfire (Auburn in the 2011 NCG), it was still a pitch that would easily play in 2019. But, unlike Rivera, Chip Kelly decided that he didn’t want to throw the cutter anymore; he wanted to try throwing a knuckleball, and despite increasing evidence that the knuckleball was not a good pitch and that the cutter would still work, Kelly stubbornly refuses to throw anything but the knuckleball.
This is where UCLA is at in 2019 on offense. As became clear over the course of last year, Chip Kelly’s offense can theoretically work. It certainly worked near the end of last year, but it also became obvious that the scheme required a high level of player talent and understanding to work effectively. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the system worked better with graduate transfer Wilton Speight at the controls than it did with true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But it did highlight a fatal flaw in the scheme: if your scheme requires high-level play from veterans to be effective, then it will never truly be effective on a yearly basis just due to the turnover that a college program goes through. This is further hurt by the current recruiting strategy of taking “under the radar” prospects who need multiple years of development before they can be considered for regular contributions.
The craziest part is, of course, that Chip Kelly has abandoned the Blur offense despite the fact that it is still an effective offense.
Chip Kelly, when I asked about the success he had with the blur at Oregon: “They had a lot of success with the single-wing in the 1930s too.”— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) September 16, 2019
Thing is, the single-wing didn’t just die out in the 1930s. UCLA fans would know this - Red Sanders utilized the system en route to UCLA’s only football national championship in 1954. The formation is still used at high schools all across the country, and the NFL even broke it out in the past decade at the beginning of the “wildcat” era of offense. Point is, good offensive systems have a way of surviving long past their sell-by date, but to prematurely pull the plug on a system that hadn’t yet proven to be defective is hubris to the highest degree. Last year, I theorized that Kelly was determined to prove that the system he took to the NFL could work. Unfortunately, that theory is looking more and more correct by the day.
This is all a pretty macro look at the problems, but the Eye Test is supposed to be about single-game specifics. So why the D-? Well, when you average 4.9 YPP, and run the ball 11 times more than you pass despite only averaging 3.0 YPC, you tend to have issues. More often than not, UCLA found itself repeatedly behind the chains and in obvious passing downs that Oklahoma was more than happy to sniff out. No, seriously, of the 13 third down attempts the Bruins saw in this game, six of them were of a distance of nine or more yards. Only twice did the Bruins see a third down of four yards or less and the Bruins failed to convert on either attempt. The Bruins were forced to pass on nine of the attempts, averaged only 5.5 yards per attempt, and only picked up a first down via the pass twice.
Another thing that I'm growing tired of is UCLA’s seeming hatred of using any sort of play fakes or play action. On the one hand, it does make the defense’s inability to defend play action a little more understandable, because they clearly never see it in practice. But play fakes are demonstrably good; NFL usage has gone up more and more in recent years, and successful play action does not even require a good running game to work. So, it’s extremely fun (read: frustrating) to see Chip Kelly zag while everyone else zigs again by refusing to use any meaningful amount of play action. The only reason this grade was not a complete F was because there were two drives where UCLA looked like a competent football team on offense.
Speaking of competent football teams...
Defensive Gameplan: F
I’m done even pretending this defensive coaching staff is even worth the cost of the paper their contracts were printed on. They can’t recruit, the players have regressed, and the scheme is...how do I put it? Absolute garbage. On the BN twitter, I pointed out that everyone in the stadium except the UCLA coaching staff knew Jaylen Hurts was going to keep the ball on the opening drive and he was able to just walk unimpeded through the middle of the UCLA defense for a touchdown.
This defense, and its seeming love with giving huge cushions despite a lack of any pass rush, remains baffling, and is a bigger sign that Chip Kelly may be in over his head at UCLA than anything going on with the offense. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Moving on.
Oklahoma clearly out-talented UCLA in this game, no question. But when Chip Kelly and this staff was hired, one of the big selling points was that UCLA would be able to stay competitive with teams that had a higher talent level just thanks to superior coaching. If anything, this game should have laid that lie completely to bed. This was, to put it kindly, a Mora-esque performance, where UCLA’s faults were laid bare for the entire world to see.
UCLA was actually pretty good from a penalty standpoint. Six penalties for 38 yards is pretty manageable, and of those, only three of them were major. The illegal helmet penalty by Murray was bad, the intentional grounding by DTR was obvious, and the defensive holding by Holmes stopped a touchdown. UCLA gave a touchdown up a few plays later anyway, but still.
What hurts this grade is just how undisciplined the defense looked. Missed tackles, missed assignments, a general lack of understanding on how to defend a play fake; you name it, the defense probably did it. The offense had some execution issues as well, especially on the offensive line, but the defense really did the bulk of the damage here.
Offense grade: C- (1.7)
Defensive grade: D- (0.7)
Special Teams grade: C- (1.7)
Coaching grade: F (0.0)
Discipline grade: C- (1.7)
Final grade for Oklahoma Sooners: D (1.16)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)
San Diego State Aztecs: D+ (1.42)
Yup. That happened.
At least, we’re now in conference play, the point where UCLA got better last year. Maybe the same thing will happen in 2019? I’m hoping it does, because covering this disaster on a weekly basis is becoming a slog.