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The “Eye Test”: UCLA Reverts in Loss to Cincinnati

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The Bruins did not look to be on the same upward slope they were on at the end of last year.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Sigh.

Welcome, everyone, to the first “Eye Test” of the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season. For those of your reading this series for the first time, the “Eye Test” is a way for us to break down each football game played by the Bruins to determine how the team performed on an individual and team-wide level, and gauge how the team is progressing throughout the season.

The “Eye Test” is broken down into 5 categories: Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, and Discipline/Execution. This year will be a little different; in each section, while each individual section will get a grade, breakdowns will not appear for every single one. I’m doing this in part because I really want to focus on the big parts of each game and because there are times where I can’t add much to the conversation. For example, this week won’t feature wide receivers because it was impossible to grade their performance accurately.

Alright, let’s get into this.

Offense

Quarterback: F

Let’s just pull this band-aid off right at the jump.

There are a lot of factors for why UCLA lost this game, but if you had to choose the biggest, it would be the play of Dorian Thompson-Robinson. DTR was abysmal in this game. 8-of-26 for 156 yards, to go with 10 carries for -20 yards including sack yardage is not going to get it done. But then you add in the turnovers - four in total, with only one truly being the result of a good play by a Bearcats defender - and it becomes clear where the majority of blame on offense is rightfully going to go. It would be one thing if the two fumbles were the result of a Bearcat defender hitting the ball out, but dropping the ball twice was indicative of a player who was just never in the game mentally.

It goes beyond that though. DTR never truly had a good throw in this game. Even the completions, as few as they were, were poorly thrown, requiring the receivers to make an adjustment on the ball. DTR reverted to one of his poor traits from last year, when he would routinely throw the ball over his receiver’s head on short routes, instead of putting a little touch on the ball. Even the chunk yardage plays, of which there were not many, were more the result of the receivers making excellent efforts to adjust to a bad throw than anything DTR did.

Now, here’s the thing: I think Thompson-Robinson will be better going forward. Part of that, obviously, has to do with the fact that there really isn’t any further down to go after this performance. Beyond that, we saw flashes of great play last year and I have to assume that version of DTR still exists and did not just magically disappear in the offseason. But UCLA really cannot afford subpar quarterback play this year if it is going to remain on the right progression track for the program.

Running Backs: B

Hard to really grade this unit, honestly. Without Joshua Kelley available, the Bruins turned to Demetric Felton to do most of the heavy lifting in the running game, which is interesting. Felton is a converted wide receiver and something of a speedster. So, he made sense for the runs to the outside and for third down plays, such as his catch in the first half that he ran downfield for a 75-yard touchdown. But he’s not an every-down back and it was a bit bizarre that Felton continued to be utilized for runs to the inside. Martell Irby, who came on as a solid bowling ball that can do damage in between the tackles, saw minimal usage. It really feels like the coaching staff felt they could use Felton as a replacement for Kelley, which just wasn’t the case.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Incomplete

Offensive Line: D+

Obviously, this grade is going to be a bit unfair considering the last-minute announcement that Michael Alves was not going to play, pushing Jon Gaines into the starting lineup, probably before he was truly ready to play such a significant role. The same goes for Sean Rhyan playing at left tackle as a true freshman. But the line did truly struggle with blocking whatever looks Cincinnati threw at them, which did help contribute to the general malaise of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s play. Considering where this unit was last year, this was a massive step back, especially from the Boss Tagaloa/Christaphany Murray/Jake Burton trio who had looked like such a strength last year.

Overall - D+

The grade is definitely hurt by Thompson-Robinson’s performance, but that’s how this one goes. It doesn’t help that the offensive line struggled as much as it did (two sacks, six tackles for loss, and seven QB hurries speak to this), and personnel usage was weird with the running backs. But considering how this entire unit looked at the end of last year, the poor play absolutely came as a shock and is being graded as such.

Defense

Rush Defense: B

You may have noticed that I’m no longer breaking these sections down by the individual groups, but rather by passing and rushing defense. The reasoning here is that each of the units has important parts to play in both major facets of the defensive game, so it’s better to break down those parts on a more macro level. Make sense? Cool.

Anyway, the rush defense actually looked pretty good for a good amount of this game. The Bruins interior looked great in this game, especially Atonio Mafi who recorded nine tackles. The problems were two-fold. The defense got tired as they got left on the field for way too long as the game progressed and the run defense was beat to the outside repeatedly. The first part is pretty obvious. The Bearcats had the ball for over 38 minutes in this game, compared to a paltry 21 for the Bruins. The second one is a bit harder to break, but it mostly has to do with a lack of speed on the edge to contain those runs. I’m not sure if setting up the defense differently would fix this (i.e. start the linebackers further outside), but it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.

Pass Defense: C-

Meanwhile, we have some big problems with the pass defense. On the one hand, the secondary was generally fine. The group was without their top corner in Darnay Holmes, but, in general, they held up and didn’t allow much past the initial catch.

No, the bigger problems are schematic which also means we’ll have to talk about it more down in the coaching section. But at least here we can talk about UCLA still not having anything resembling a pass rush, which is a death knell for any team trying to play pass defense. The lone UCLA sack in this game was a coverage sack by Odua Isibor and not a showcase of an excellent pass rush getting to the quarterback. UCLA just does not have anyone particularly skilled at winning those kinds of battles up front, which just ends up creating issues for the secondary that has to sit in coverage for far too long.

Overall: C+

UCLA gave up 417 yards of offense in this game. In last year’s meeting, the Bruins only gave up 304 yards. So, with essentially the same personnel as last year, UCLA ended up allowing more yards but the same amount of points. Last year Cincinnati got a safety to give them 26 instead of 24 points due to an extra turnover. Realistically, this was a little better than I initially expected going into the game, especially due to the improvement on the defensive line and the tackling, in general, but this defense is what it is at this point. For the unit to get better, the scheme is going to have to improve by a good amount.

Special Teams

Overall: B

J.J. Molson made his kicks. Graduate transfer punter Wade Lees looked good in his first action. Kick and punt coverage looked better than last year, though giving up a 25-yard punt return isn’t ideal.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan: D

Honestly, this grade would be worse if that first drive didn’t happen.

Now, as I stated before, you can pin a good amount of the blame for this game on the shoulders of Dorian Thompson-Robinson and you can also point out that UCLA was missing a lot of key contributors on offense, including Joshua Kelley, Theo Howard, and Michael Alves. But it doesn’t excuse the fact that the coaching staff, for some reason or another, thought they could just plug in new players like Demetric Felton and Jon Gaines and assume they’d be a like for like replacement. That’s on the offensive coaching staff, who more than anyone would have, and really should have, known about the possible availability of these players and worked around it.

More than that, it was bizarre to see the UCLA offense look worse than they did during last year’s season opener. Again, DTR was real bad here, but last year the offense started humming in part because the system was slimmed down into more understandable chunks and a handful of formations that made it harder to guess at what UCLA wanted to do. Instead, we saw the return of the bloated system from the first few games of last season. One of the other things that helped last year was the constant sideline checks that allowed Chip Kelly to see the opposing defensive formation and use his offensive genius to call a play to counter it in the moment. That whole system seemed to go out the window.

On top of all this, the worst part has to be the lack of adjustments. In last year’s Cincinnati game, the Bearcats’ defensive coaches all realized that the easiest way to beat UCLA was to stack the box and make Dorian Thompson-Robinson beat them through the air, which he wasn’t able to do. After one quarter of this most recent meeting, Cincinnati again decided to utilize the same strategy, loading up on the box to neutralize the Bruins’ run game and it worked! Kelly never deviated from his gameplan to account for this, instead leaving his struggling quarterback on an island. It was, in every sense, a huge step backwards for the offense.

Defensive Gameplan: C-

On the other end, I don’t necessarily believe the defensive plan took a step back from last year, as it was essentially the same one we saw last year. It’s still a defense that struggles to generate a pass rush, in part, because it lacks the personnel that can line up in one-on-one situations and win those battles and, in part, because the scheme doesn’t do a great job of hiding its blitzes. It’s still a scheme that makes the secondary look worse than it actually is, by having the corners give 10-yard cushions on obvious passing downs, allowing for easy completions.

UCLA fans are going to hate me for saying this, but the Bruins are essentially back to playing a bend-don’t-break defense, except without the personnel to make that a worthwhile endeavor. There’s definitely room for more aggression, either by playing more press coverage or selling out on the pass rush, but the general plan appears to be for the Bruins not to give up the big play. In general, they succeeded at doing so, but they gave up so many smaller plays that it didn’t matter. It was death by 1000 cuts on the football field.

Overall: D

I just hated so much of this game, even on rewatch. Both opening series looked so promising from the Bruins with the defense forcing a quick stop and the offense using a lot of pre-snap motion to march the ball downfield.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson may have been the one to drop the football on the field, but the coaching staff metaphorically dropped the football from that moment on.

The offense reverted to some supremely-uninspiring play, while the defense went more conservative and got burned for it. Worse, the Cincinnati coaching staff made adjustments to what UCLA was doing and the Bruins never adjusted back. Football is, in many ways, a boxing match with two teams repeatedly trying to counter whatever their opponent is trying to do. Cincinnati’s staff did a great job of countering the UCLA strategy, while the Bruins just kept grinding away at a strategy that never felt like it would result in a victory.

Two last things before I move on. First, the fact that UCLA was missing so many contributors does fall on deaf ears with me. Of all the people involved, the UCLA coaching staff should have absolutely known whether or not specific players were available or not, despite Coach Kelly’s “healthiest fall camp ever” proclamations. It’s not like these were all freak injuries that occurred during warm-ups; all of the guys who were held out were known to have injury issues for at least the past week. If you want to rebut and say “the loss of those top guys meant that less talented players had to step in,” that is again the fault of the coaching staff, but more for their lackluster recruiting efforts creating a situation where the team really does lack depth in many spots.

Second, I’m on the fence on whether Dorian Thompson-Robinson should have been pulled or not. So, I’m not punishing the coaching staff in this grade for not doing so. I probably lean more towards pulling him, especially after the second interception which was just a terrible decision, but I can see the argument for both sides.

Discipline/Execution

Overall: D+

Nine penalties for 60 yards is not great. Especially not great was the fact that a few of the penalties absolutely killed UCLA scoring chances. The big highlight, well, maybe lowlight is a better term, was when Jay Shaw picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after his long interception return, immediately taking the Bruins out of field goal position and a chance to go into halftime tied. Boss Tagaloa picking up an unsportsmanlike conduct on the very next play was the very definition of “just go to the half and regroup.”

The thing saving this grade from complete failure is that, defensively, the tackling was some of the best it’s looked in awhile. For all the faults, that sure tackling lets me believe that going full bend-don’t-break wouldn’t be the worst strategy in the world, especially if the offense can figure itself out.

Final Composite

Offense grade: D+ (1.3)

Defensive grade: C+ (2.3)

Special Teams grade: B (3.0)

Coaching grade: D (1.0)

Discipline grade: D+ (1.3)

Final grade for Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)

Well, that’s a thoroughly depressing first outing. It is a good reminder that progress is not a linear thing and, as good as the Bruins looked towards the end of last year, you still end up going backwards just due to the nature of college football. Hopefully, the Bruins regroup and come out looking better in their first home game against a San Diego State team that looks mighty vulnerable.

Anyway, see you next week, when Fancy Graphs return.


Go Bruins.