At the end of last week’s Eye Test, I wrote the following:
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.
I may, in fact, be a wizard or something.
Really, the victory in itself was one of the craziest viewing experiences of my life, as I sat with some Cougar friends and watched as the UCLA Bruins raced out to an early lead only to allow Washington State to score at will on them, leading to a 49-17 lead in the 3rd quarter. Then, things really got going when the Bruins decided it was their turn to become an offensive juggernaut. Helped by some timely turnovers, UCLA was able to get back into the game. Then, somehow, the game became a shootout that no one was expecting with UCLA coming out on top.
As enjoyable as this game was, especially on rewatch knowing everything turns out fine in the end, it makes it really hard to grade. Let me make an analogy: say you’re in a class, and for the first two-thirds of the year, you turn in middling work. Some of it is passable, but there is a huge chunk where you just decided not to do the assignments at all. But then you realize you actually need to do something to pass the class. So, you start nailing all of your assignments. Sure, you still have some spots where you get lazy but, in general, you really are putting in grade A work. But how does that affect your final grade? Shouldn’t that first two-thirds of the class count equally than the last third of it? That’s going to be a question I’ll at least attempt on answering, though, as always, you should know these grades are arbitrary.
For the first 40 minutes, Dorian Thompson-Robinson was ok. He was a bit better than he was against Oklahoma. So, there was some progression, but it wasn’t the huge amount that you’d hope for. Up until the turning point, DTR was 11 of 19 for 185 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Those yardage numbers were inflated by the 61 yard Hail Mary to end the first half. It was fine, but not great.
Then, the turn came.
DTR ended the game on a 14 for 19 run where he threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 54 yards on the ground in this stretch, compared to only had 9 yards prior, and was masterful throughout, moving in the pocket, evading pressure, and keeping his eyes downfield. The throws were on the money and usually found receivers who were not just open, but in a position to add more yards after catch. At one point, DTR made six straight throws and three of them went for touchdowns. It was ridiculous to watch, almost like he could see into the Matrix and knew every move he had to make.
Now, the question becomes whether this is a sustainable shift for DTR or not. Part of that may have to do with the offensive shift. UCLA really cut down on the power and presnap motions to go with more of a spread set that created a lot more room for UCLA’s excellent receivers to operate. DTR operated really well in this shifted offense and the Bruins, as a whole, seemed to click much better, especially as the offensive line seems better equipped at pass protection than run blocking at this point. But, even if UCLA reverts back to its base offense, the big focus will be on whether DTR can stay at this level. Even a bit of regression wouldn’t be out of the question, but if he reverts back to his non-conference form, UCLA is going to have a problem.
As a quick aside, it’d be great if Thompson-Robinson took less hits than he has at this point. He took a few big shots early when he fought for extra yards and was noticeably limping and in pain by the end of the game. The pure adrenaline got him through this game, but given his injury history so far in college, it’d be great if he started doing a better job of avoiding taking the hits he has been.
Running Backs: A
Demetric Felton is the other big hero of this game and rightly so. The converted wide receiver did not do much damage in the run game (four carries for 13 yards) but it wasn’t necessary, as he blew up catching passes out of the backfield. Seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns is a ridiculous output and then he threw in a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown to boot. His 263 all-purpose yards was the most in the game for either team, and his three touchdown total was only beaten by Easop Winston. The poor Washington State defenders will be having nightmares of Felton juking them for a long time.
Joshua Kelley was relatively quieter, but he did the majority of the damage on the ground, with 20 carries for 90 yards to go with two catches for 19 yards and a touchdown. Still, his 4.5 YPC highlight just how many hard yards he was able to get, and I honestly wish I had access to yards after contact numbers to illustrate this point.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A
Have a day Chase Cota! Cota’s coming out party went for four catches for 147 yards, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion. He almost added a second touchdown at the end of the first half, when he grabbed a batted Hail Mary attempt and was stopped just short of the Washington State goal line. Cota has a great mix of size and catching ability. So, this breakout was a long time coming, but it’s still great to see going forward.
Devin Asiasi was his usual dependable self, with four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown of his own. Kyle Phillips had three catches for 53 yards while Jaylen Erwin added three catches for 51 yards. Walk-on tight end Greg Dulcich added two catches for 37 yards as he continues to work in the rotation. I imagine this will be the case going forward and the staff may wait out Mike Martinez and redshirt him this year. Overall, when the offense switched to more spread concepts, the receiver group saw more space to operate in and took advantage, showing off their considerable talent.
Offensive Line: C+
On the one hand, this was probably the best game the offensive line has had to date this season. This is especially true late in the game, when the line needed to provide adequate protection for DTR to get through his reads and make some excellent throws, which makes it ironic that the only sack allowed in the game came in the 4th quarter. But they did struggle for a good amount of this game, allowing nine QB hurries, and were especially not great with the run blocking, as they allowed five tackles for loss. The problems in the run game are partly schematic, but it’s more than a bit alarming that UCLA’s offensive line could not generate consistent push against a smaller Cougar defensive front.
The first of several overall grades that I struggled over. For the entire game, this was probably closer to a B grade, with UCLA’s offense looking improved from prior weeks but nowhere close to the level it needed to be. But again, those final 20 minutes were so good that I couldn’t help but inflate this grade.
That, of course, leads to the big question that is going to hang over more than a few of these sections: how sustainable is this? A lot of this sustainability rests on Thompson-Robinson solidifying the gains he made in this game, but the offensive line can also build off their performance to help keep the progression going. The good news is Arizona’s defense is poor enough that UCLA should, theoretically, keep their momentum going, but so far the Chip Kelly era has taught me not to take anything for granted.
Rush Defense: D
Gonna keep these short and sweet, to talk about the bigger stuff at the end. Washington State, a team that runs the ball more out of spite than anything else, still managed to put up 150 yards of rushing in this game. The Bruins gave up three chunk plays, including a 56 yard run on a 3rd and 12 draw play deep in Cougar territory. It was not good, but only looks ok in relation to...
Pass Defense: F
On the one hand, yeah, of course Washington State is going to put up a ton of passing yards. That’s what they do. But, boy howdy, was UCLA’s passing defense doing a great job of imitating scarecrows just hoping the Cougar receivers would mess up (and, spoiler alert: they did a few times!). In particular, Darnay Holmes is going to want this entire game back, as the Cougars attacked him with reckless abandon and were repeatedly rewarded for it. It almost makes me wonder if he’s still not completely healthy but, due to the raging fire that is the rest of the UCLA secondary, now without Quentin Lake, he was rushed back a bit too early.
Oh, and Anthony Gordon threw for a school-record nine touchdowns. If you allow nine touchdown passes, you get an F. It’s pretty easy math there.
Alright, let’s talk turnovers.
UCLA created six turnovers in this game; four fumbles and two interceptions. Of the two interceptions, one was thanks to Holmes making a great play after a ball bounced right off a Cougar receiver’s hands, while the other was Josh Woods being in the right place at the right time. The fumbles are a bit more interesting. Keisean Lucier-South definitely knocked the ball out of Gordon’s hand to end the game, and the second and third fumbles were an equal part heady play by Jay Shaw and Krys Barnes, respectively, and poor ball protection by Washington State’s receivers. I’m still not sure how the first fumble wasn’t whistled dead, but once the Pac-12 refs did their usual routine and spun the Wheel of Random Officiating Outcomes, it came up in UCLA’s favor again.
All of which to say, six turnovers are great. Without them, UCLA would have had no shot at winning the game. But I fear that statement covers up the real fact that, without the six turnovers, UCLA would have had no shot at winning the game. Because, if you take away the turnovers, UCLA’s defense was almost refusing to offer any sort of resistance to what Washington State wanted to do.
No, seriously, Washington State did not have their first punt until the 1:34 mark of the 3rd quarter. That’s insane! Up until that point, seven of the Cougars’ eleven drives had gone for touchdowns. Three others ended in turnovers, while the last one ended with a turnover on downs deep in UCLA territory because Washington State rightly made the decision that the only thing that was going to stop their offense was, well, the Washington State offense. And that’s not indicative of a great defensive performance.
Then, once again, the question turns to the next week, specifically, UCLA’s defense was really bad and Arizona’s offense is really good. So, can the defense take the positives, little as they were, and build off them in the next game? It’s a question that I fear I already know the answer to, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
Easy grade. You get a 100-yard kick return and a nice 69-yard punt return, you get the A. But again, credit to the return teams on both kicks. Felton was really freed by a great comeback block by Kenny Churchwell that took out four(!) Cougar defenders. Kyle Phillips had a more spectacular individual effort on the punt return, as he saw the lanes open up and attacked them quickly.
J.J. Molson made all his kicks. If I could quibble, Wade Lees didn’t have the best night punting from an average standpoint, though he absolutely boomed a 59-yarder in the second quarter that ultimately didn’t matter because Washington State just drove for a touchdown anyway, but again: two return touchdowns makes this an easy A.
Offensive Gameplan: A-
Here’s the first thing on rewatch that I liked: UCLA did a much better job of passing earlier in the series. Too often in the first three games, UCLA would run on 1st and 2nd down and create a harder situation to convert on 3rd down. But UCLA really did throw the ball much more often on 1st down then they have in the past. Of the 39 1st downs UCLA had in this game, 21 of them saw a passing attempt, compared to 18 rushing attempts. In the previous game against Oklahoma, the Bruins ran on 17 of their 30 1st downs. The Bruins were extremely effective at passing on 1st down with Thompson-Robinson going 15 of 20 for 320 yards, though he also took his lone sack on a 1st down.
The bad: Chip Kelly really seemed to fall in love with having multiple tight ends on the field, which really seemed to telegraph that a run was coming. Washington State’s defense is bad but, if you scream at them that a run is about to happen, they’re good enough to stop it for a minimal game.
More importantly, as much as I wanted to pinpoint the shift in the offense on UCLA changing from power sets to more of a spread attack, the biggest shift was really UCLA just executing better, which is not to say the shift didn’t happen. But, UCLA was doing some really similar things early in the game that they were later. In both the first and second quarters, UCLA threw more than they ran. In fact, the only quarter where they ran more than they passed was, ironically, the 3rd quarter. The Bruins averaged 7.2 YPP in the first half, though it drops to 5.4 if you take away the 61-yard Hail Mary at the end of the half, and they jumped up to 9.9 in the second half. Better execution led to running 13 more plays in the second half and gaining almost 200 more yards. So that’s why the grade is so high: the gameplan was fine and, as the execution got better along with some small tweaks, the offense got rolling.
Defensive Gameplan: F
Again, 720 total yards and nine passing touchdowns. Whatever UCLA thought they were doing on defense, it clearly wasn’t working, and really didn’t work all game. Forcing some turnovers and getting lucky enough to fall on every single fumble doesn’t fix what was a bad plan to begin with. It would be fun to hear why Jerry Azzinaro thought bringing the safeties up against an Air Raid team was a good idea, except no coach except for Chip Kelly does interviews.
Kind of an average between the two grades with some bumps up because UCLA actually won and, on some level, you have to reward the coaching staff for keeping the players engaged when things got bleak.
I was a big fan of going for it on 4th down late in the 4th quarter. Despite the results, it was the right call because you really could not count on the Bruin defense to make a hold and a touchdown would at least put pressure on the Cougars to score a touchdown of their own rather than kick a game-winning field goal. Plus it sends a message to the team: screw the tie, we’re going to win the whole thing.
To put a bow on it, this week really felt like the first time the offensive staff began to pick up their end of the slack. On some level that should make sense considering the head coach is offensively-inclined. But at least that side of the ball looks like it is putting things together, whereas the defense looks just as lost as ever. Now to see if UCLA’s coaches can continue to build off this momentum.
Boy, if you were wondering which section, besides defense, was going to try and torpedo this game, it was the discipline and execution.
Ten penalties for 105 yards, with two more being declined or off-set, is never good, especially when you’re trying to complete an upset on the road. But combine that with the game-long missed tackles, especially highlighted by Max Borghi’s 56-yard scamper, and the general offensive inability to execute early and you get this grade. Honestly, it is amazing UCLA was able to win this game considering how poorly they did in two of the five main categories.
Offense grade: A- (3.7)
Defensive grade: D- (0.7)
Special Teams grade: A (4.0)
Coaching grade: B (3.0)
Discipline grade: D (1.0)
Final grade for Washington State Cougars: B-/C+ (2.48)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)
San Diego State Aztecs: D+ (1.42)
So, is it surprising that UCLA only got a B-/C+ total for a game in which they scored 67 points and completed a 32-point comeback to pull an upset on the road? Not really! This game was sloppy and a whole half of the team really didn’t show up for long stretches of this game, which doesn’t make the game less fun. This game was fun as all get-out to watch late. But it does accurately reflect how UCLA performed in the game.
To wrap all this up, now comes another road game to Arizona. Can UCLA continue the positive momentum they created at the end of this game? Or is something closer to the first half on the menu? As with everything going on in the Chip Kelly era, I’m not even going to bother with a prediction. I’ll just hope it works out.