I don’t really know what to say anymore.
This game was winnable. UCLA, despite all kinds of issues (and I’ll get to them in a bit) still managed to have the ball with 1:31 left, and yet a cavalcade of mistakes led to Wilton Speight attempting to heave the ball to midfield and hope for a prayer as the clock ran out, securing another loss for the Bruins (now 2-8 on the season).
There was a lot of good things that happened in this game! Wilton Speight was given the start, and had a fantastic performance, showing poise in the pocket and making correct reads all game. His final stat line of 26-35 for 335 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception (which was tipped at the line and caught downfield, so more unlucky than anything) represented easily the best performance from a UCLA QB on the year, and made me rethink something I’ve been saying about Speight. Specifically, Speight showed that he was more than a game manager, and if given the opportunity he can absolutely win the game for you.
It certainly helped that Speight was repeatedly able to get it to UCLA’s best receiver, as Caleb Wilson had himself a day. 11 catches for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on the day are season-highs, and Wilson managed to be the best receiver on a football field that also included N’Keal Harry, who is considered a top wide receiver prospect for this upcoming NFL draft. In fact, the entire UCLA receiving core had a much-needed bounceback game, limiting their mistakes and looking more sure-handed then they had been in recent weeks. Christian Pabico came in late and had easily his best game of the season, getting 3 catches, while Chase Cota saw increased play and responded with 3 catches on 3 targets as well. The interesting case was Theo Howard, who only saw 2 targets on the day (and caught both of them) and was used mostly as a decoy.
Speight and the receivers had to be on their game because the running game was just nonexistent today. Joshua Kelley broke his streak of 100+ yard all-purpose yardage games, as he ended up with 96 total yards, 79 of them on the ground. UCLA never truly abandoned the run game - their were 29 rushing attempts (about 24 of them designed runs) versus 35 passing attempts - but the ineffectiveness of the run game was certainly a factor, as UCLA was forced into picking up a boatload of 3rd and mediums (about 5-8 yards).
On the defensive side, the run defense was, clearly, the biggest problem for the Bruins. The Sun Devils had a field day on the ground, racking up 281 total yards on the ground. Running back Eno Benjamin didn’t really have a breakout game, since he’s already a known weapon, but his 182 yards on 34 attempts were nonetheless backbreaking, especially his ability to get a host of yards after contact. Manny Wilkins threw in a handful of smart keeps in the run game, including on one touchdown run, and the Bruins never could figure things out, as the Sun Devils were able to drain clock at an impressive rate.
UCLA’s pass defense wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly serviceable, especially considering they were going up against N’Keal Harry. In fact, the secondary did their part when Darnay Holmes jumped a route intended for Harry and intercepted the ball, returning it all the way for a touchdown. Harry still got his (7 catches for 100 yards) but the Bruins did a decent-enough job of limiting his impact.
Overall, UCLA played fine. They weren’t exceptional outside of a couple spots, but a host of mistakes ultimately crippled the Bruins. Execution prevented the Bruins from converting an early 4th down in the red zone, while JJ Molson missed a 44 yard attempt. And again, missed tackles by a young defensive line and depleted linebacker core (by the end of the game, UCLA was down to only a few scholarship linebackers healthy) allowed Arizona State to extend drives and effectively kill the game.
- I saw some people making note of whether Dorian Thompson-Robinson was on the sidelines or cheering on his teammates. I’m not going to get into that, but Speight did more than enough in this game to show he should be given the starting job to end the year. The offense has seemed to move much better with him in recently, and I’m of the opinion that you can’t prioritize the development of one person over the development of an entire offense.
- Lokeni Toailoa’s sack to end the 3rd quarter was the first sack since the Utah game. Overall, the Bruins again failed to generate much in the way of pressure.
- Steven Flintoft averaged 50 yards on his punts, including a 68 yarder (!) at the end of the first half. The fact that that punt went into the end zone is inconsequential, as it prevented N’Keal Harry from getting a chance at a punt return, which he is very good at. Instead, the Sun Devils were forced to sit on the ball and go into the half.
- 9 receivers caught passes, but one of the more interesting facts is that Chase Cota and Michael Ezeike saw increased play while Demetric Felton saw his snap count decreased. Perhaps we’re finally seeing a shift to play more of the young talent at receiver?
- UCLA had 8 chunk plays in the passing game, with 3 of them going for 30+ yards (and Caleb Wilson accounting for half of those chunk plays). Again, it was an impressive job by the UCLA receivers, who repeatedly found ways to attack Arizona State’s secondary, where they had been strongest this year.
- On the flip side, the Bruins gave up 9(!) chunk plays on the ground to the Sun Devils. Just...not good, no matter how you slice it.
- The 4th down call in the 2nd quarter was still the correct call, UCLA just failed to execute. It happens, you just move on from it.
- At least special teams wasn’t a complete disaster today? No punt returns, one kick return to the 22 yard line, good punting are all positives. There were still some mistakes (beyond the missed FG, there was also the kick-catch interference) but it was definite improvement. With the practice reports of the coaching staff taking a more active interest in special teams this week, it leads me to believe that the coaching staff had been slacking on that aspect of the team in prior weeks.
Anyway, it’s officially Hate Week. Beat the Trojans!