I spent most of the last two days watching football from my personal favorite perspective: the sideline or field level.
I have a mildly analytical mindset when it comes to sports, so I love going over film more than anyone not currently on a roster should. That said, there is simply no comparison to experiencing football at field level. The physicality shines through, energy builds and dissipates quicker. I cannot remember a period of time where I used my cell phone less in a 36-hour period than early Friday night through early Sunday morning.
Friday night, I went to my currently undefeated high school alma mater for the first time in three years, got to catch up with old coaches and teammates and watch them beat our cross-town rival for the first time in 11 years and clinch their first winning season since my senior year.
Saturday afternoon, I went to my old college team's homecoming game to watch them improve to 2-0 in conference play. Still a few guys on that team that I played with and that is the only team that I root for harder than the Bruins. I had to leave in the fourth quarter because I was headed to the Rose Bowl.
Only the second time I've made it to Pasadena since 2005 (went to the Houston game last year) and it was a predictably awesome experience. 84000 plus in the Rose Bowl made for a great atmosphere, but my father and I were in hostile territory. Outstanding seats (you can actually see a blurry me in the background of the UCLA Athletics highlight video when Thomas Duarte catches his first TD) but right next to the UC Berkeley band and student section. Didn't stop us from making noise, but it was a weird experience.
You see things differently from field level as opposed to on television. It isn't always easy to get a read on finer details, because angles are severely limited and there aren't pause/rewind/slow motion features (although I'm sure Google is getting close to that). Not to mention the ever present creepiness of Oski (Cal's mascot). That bear is genuinely frightening for some reason up close.
Why does that mascot have osteoporosis, that creepy drawn on smile and beady eyes? Why are his hands constantly clenched behind his back and feet kicking behind him? Just unsettling. Made having the cheerleaders and band atmosphere significantly less appealing.
Regardless of Oski's creeper gaze, the field level angle is more visceral. Which I feel made for a much better Eye Test. This is a rarity for me because I have not rewatched the game, as I am going for a more raw, emotional Eye Test for this 37-10 victory over UC Berkeley. Of the three games I watched almost back-to-back-to-back, the disparity of talent between the two teams was greatest in this one. It showed early and often, but not enough on the offensive side of the ball.
Without getting into too much more detail, let's get to the grades.
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
By just looking at the box score, which I always hesitate to do on the Eye Test, most of the story from this game can be told. The defense balled out essentially the entire game against an offense that had moved the ball against good defenses.
Raw data. Holding an offense that was averaging over 500 yards per game to 320 yards is worth a damn good grade by itself. Freshman Jared Goff was shut down for the entire game, throwing for just 5 yards per attempt, completing and only 215 yards and also threw an interception.
Rushing defense has had better afternoons, but 105 yards on 37 attempts is still a brutal 2.8 average per carry and creating 5 TFLs besides the 4 sacks.
The pass rush created 4 sacks. One by Cassius Marsh, Anthony Barr, Keenan Graham (keeps that team lead on Barr) and Ishmael Adams and Eddie Vanderdoes split another. Lots of other pressures on Goff throughout the night.
These numbers are all great to look at, but the measure that took this game from just being an above average day and a great day was the redzone and third down defense. I'll touch on the third down defense later in the test, but the stops in the redzone in the 4th quarter took it over the top. UCLA had very little to play for on those drives. The game was over, Cal was not going to mount a realistic comeback. But instead of giving up the garbage time TD, both drives ended without points for Cal. While that ruined the day for anyone who bet against UCLA covering the spread, it got the Bruins an A (4.0) on the Eye Test.
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Does anyone know how to type out a scoff? Because I feel like that is the most appropriate response to this question. As good as the defense was last night, the offense was equally as dissappointing. That's a tragedy because it takes focus off of how much the defense has improved this season.
Raw data tells a lot of the story again. The Bruins had their second worst game of the year on offense against perhaps the worst defense they've played (NMSU at least had their entire starting unit healthy and on the field all game). Overall, 488 yards and 37 points looks good to almost any school in the country. But UCLA is not any school, this is a team that should be in position for a BCS game. With a defensive performance as dominant as the one this week, a 27-point win isn't enough.
The rushing game was pathetic. Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro. It didn't matter who was getting the touches, they were getting hit in the backfield almost every carry. Outside a 10+ yard run from each Damien Thigpen (great to see him on the field), Perkins and Jones on the last carry of the game, UCLA's rushing game was 2 yards or less every carry. The end result was a season low (perhaps an all-time low under Mora, stat check?) 78 yards on 34 attempts (2.3 YPC, a half yard worse than Cal).
That just won't cut it in the Pac-12 where, despite public opinion to the contrary, every good team builds there success from. 8 teams from the Pac-12 average over 190 yards on the ground per game.
The rushing game's ineffectiveness was cast to the forefront by the conservative playcalling that UCLA dealt with for a third straight week. I understand that there is no need to open up the playbook to beat teams like New Mexico State and California. Pure talent and execution of basic concepts wins those games handily 99% of the time.
Brett Hundley had his best statistical game of his career, but he said himself that he could have played much better. I agree. 31-41 for 400+ yards and 3 TDs are All-Pac-12 numbers without question and he was brilliant about 85% of the time. But there were enough missed opportunities for this to have been a 500+ yards, 5 touchdown day.
Overall, the combination of losing ground across the board statistically (outside of the passing game) against the worst defense in the conference is a huge downer heading into the toughest challenge of the year for the Bruin offense. The grade reflects what I saw here, C- (1.7).
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
I loved the scheme on defense and have for most of the season, outside of some softer coverage in the secondary later in games that are decided (always been of the opinion that the prevent defense only prevents you from succeeding). Run fits were great by the secondary, linebackers and defensive line. Defensive line gets some bonus points for being without two starters (Ellis McCarthy for all of the game and Cassius Marsh for most of it). Eddie Vanderdoes, Keenan Graham, Kenneth Clark and Seali'i Epenesa stepped up huge.
Another thing that was nice to see, if only for 5 or so plays, was a base 3-4 defense. With the teams that the Bruins have played so far, it has not gotten a ton of work in games, but when Cal went to some bigger sets the Bruins brought it in and performed well. Having 3 down lineman instead of two and the stand-up LBs will be a frequent look on Saturday unless Stanford brings out a crazy gameplan.
The scheme on offense was really vanilla for most of the game and they will get dinged for that again, but the story in this part of the Eye Test was once again the penalties.
The first half was riddled with them on both sides of the ball, so apparently those refs at practice weren't much of a help. The vast majority once again were pre-snap violations or easily avoidable penalties. I'll go through each one-by-one like I do every week.
1. False start by Caleb Benenoch on the first offensive drive of the game. Turned a 2nd and 10 into 2nd and 15. Was a big reason why UCLA had to settle for a FG instead of scoring a TD. Created a needless difficult distance for a first inside the redzone.
2. Offsides by Epenesa on a 3rd and 11. Barr got his sack on the next play, so this one didn't hurt. Still unbelievably easy to avoid. Especially as a nose guard.
3. Hold by Alex Redmond took away a positive gain (don't remember exactly what it was) on 2nd and 7 to create another tough 2nd and 17. Drive ended in a punt two plays later.
4. Illegal formation on the offense. Had only 5 guys on the line of scrimmage, should not ever be an issue. This was the first play of the Bruins third scoring drive, so it didn't hurt long term, but starting with a 1st and 15 should not happen.
5, 6, 7. Cassius Marsh. Back-to-back offsides penalties. One to make a tough 3rd and 7 and easy 3rd and 2. Following that play, Marsh got drawn off again and then, after the free play, got into it with the Cal offensive line and got ejected from the game. Exactly what he did is up for debate, I certainly didn't see it from my angle and apparently it wasn't replayed on ESPN. But the second guy always gets the flag in football altercations, and anyone who has played or followed football knows that.
Regardless, no player should have 25 (technically 24) penalty yards on one drive. That is just crazy.
8. Ineligible player downfield because Thomas Duarte (who had his best game as a Bruin) was covered up on the line of scrimmage and still ran a route. Again, easily avoidable and just a lazy penalty by the WR on that side. Made a 3rd and 7 a much tougher 3rd and 12.
9. Block in the back by Ishmael Adams on a short punt return by Shaq Evans. Took UCLA from the 29-yard line to the 19-yard line to start their drive. They went 3-and-out.
So of those 9 penalties, 7 before or after the whistle. I can deal with Adams and Redmond making those mistakes. It happens. But 7 unforced mental errors after a week of practice with officials is ridiculous. UCLA gets dinged huge here in the grades and I have to agree with last week's C (2.0)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
There is not too much room to criticize here.
The defense unquestionably played full bore all game, as evidenced by the two meaningless 4th quarter redzone stops.
The special teams play was again outstanding and I expect Coach Ulbrich to either get a big raise next season or a promotion at another school. The job he has done coaching, albeit with some of the best talent in the country, is incredible.
The offense was sloppy and bland. But they didn't seem to be putting out a sub-standard effort at any point. The offensive line struggled in the run game, but excelled in pass protection (which was nice to see after the Utah game).
This was a lot like last game to be honest and I can't see much of a reason to move the grade much. B (3.0)
5.) Do our players execute?
The down that demonstrates execution more than any other on both sides of the ball is 3rd down. It is a down that UCLA has excelled at this season and I think it is a massive part of why UCLA has always felt in control of games this season, even when the score has been tight. It hasn't been a huge concern for the defense to get off the field or for the offense to keep drives going.
For reference, after this game UCLA ranks 2nd in the nation in 3rd down defense at an unreal 24%.
9 of the remaining undefeated teams rank in the top 20 in this category, so this is a hugely important stat. Probably more important than total defense. If you can get off the field without giving up touchdowns, you did your job as a defense. If you do that without giving up many yards, then you did a great job as a defense.
That's what UCLA has done this entire season, and this game was no different as they held the Bears to 4 conversions out of 17 attempts and forced 8 drives of five plays or less (five 3-and-outs and one interception on the 2nd play of a drive). They also forced two turnovers, missed very few tackles and the secondary excelled in man coverage against the best group of threats in the passing game they will face outside of a healthy Marqise Lee and Southern Cal's TEs (no disrespect to Oregon's or Arizona State's WR talent). Fabian Moreau especially has looked the part of a lockdown-ish corner at a level that it took Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price 4 years to reach and at a level of consistency those two never could.
Cal's limited success offensively was largely a product of well-run plays. If any team runs a play well, they'll get yardage. True on any level of football.
The special teams was outstanding. Punt coverage was great before (just 27 return yards all year) and got a big boost from the return of Damien Thigpen at gunner. The kickoff coverage team had a mishap on one return on missed tackles by Eric Zumwalt and another Bruin, allowing a 35 yard return, but forced a fumble on another (where fumbles end up is purely luck) and tackled the return at or inside the 25-yard line on 5 out of 7 returns. Ryan Hofmeister, Jayon Brown, Taylor Lagace and Stan McKay headline a great unit there.
The kicking game was great by Ka'imi Fairbairn as he further established himself as near-automatic from inside of 40-yards, making 3 FGs and booting another 4 XPs. He looks much more confident this year.
Having to write about how well our kicker did on field goals against Cal is an enditment of the offense by itself, but the unit did plenty of damage to their cause worth noting.
The run blocking. I could go for 1000 words on specific instances, but I'll leave it alone here. It was bad. Both sides of the line, not just the freshman. XSF had his worst game of the year, still good but not elite like before. Jacob Brendel's snapping issues seemed to go away, but the penetration from the interior is on him and the two guards. And there was a lot of penetration in the middle of the line.
The read option was a non-factor in this game. Hundley's reads seemed off the whole evening. Kept it a couple times with clear edge contain, gave it with an end or backer crashing down the line. Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller both had what appeared to be drops in the redzone, Fuller's was a great playcall (rollout by Hundley with a flat route) for a sure thing TD. Maybe too much gas on it, but D1 wideouts should make that play.
Something I noticed from my seat was the lack of separation by UCLA's WRs downfield. Cal did a great job in man coverage, but that shouldn't happen with the talent and speed UCLA has on the perimeter. Other times, there was separation, but Hundley couldn't see it in time. For as successful as the passing game was, it should not have been as hard as it was to move the ball or convert on third downs. Seems like a nice time for the third down conversion percentage talk on the offensive side.
UCLA has again been outstanding this year on offense in these situations. UCLA was at over 58% going into this game, and went 7-15 to drop from 2nd in the country to 5th. Of the top 15 offenses in the nation on third down there are 9 teams also in the top 15 in the polls (plus Washington). Being able to keep drives going is a huge component to the success of an offense and UCLA did not do a great job on Saturday night.
No turnovers by UCLA, which is always a key to winning a game. The 2 sacks given up by the offensive line both seemed to be more about coverage downfield than pass protection flaws, though Hundley got hit by the noseguard twice on one drive in the 2nd quarter (couldn't see if those were stunts or the interior getting beat from my angle).
Overall, the execution end of things were great defensively and average to below average on offense. The execution last week was a B- and that feels pretty close. The defense was more sound though, so I'll bump it up to a B (3.0) this week.
6.) Do we have leaders on the field?
Defensively, some points are lost for Cassius Marsh's penalty spree in the second quarter. I don't know that I have ever seen someone commit three penalties in two plays before, but I hope I don't have to again. I don't have a doubt that he was not acting without some prompting by the Bears offensive line, but the fire he plays with has to be tempered between the whistles.
On the bright side, the linebacking core continues to be one of the bright spots of the country. Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack. I genuinely think UCLA has an outside shot of placing 4 players on the All-Pac-12 team from one position (obviously including Honorable Mentions). Also don't see anyway that Jack is not the leader for Defensive Freshman of the Year in the conference.
Also, Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth deserve some love in the secondary. Goforth brings an edge to that unit in the running game that reminds me of Chris Horton. Physicality of a much bigger player than he is. Moreau has played great all season and did an especially nice job on Saturday, taking two big plays away from Bryce Treggs with great positioning and instincts.
Offensively, Brett Hundley had an above average game, borderline great. But did anyone expect less than great against a Cal secondary that was practicing WRs at corner during the week?
I can't shout out the offensive line here, which is a downer. But the nonexistent running game eliminates consideration here.
This would be an A+ for the defense and a C for the offense. I'm cool with this being a B+ (3.3) for that reason.
Final Grade Card for the California Golden Bears
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? A (4.0)
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? C- (1.7)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? C (2.0)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? B (3.0)
5.) Do our players execute? B (3.0)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field? B+ (3.3)
UC Berkeley Golden Bears GPA: B- (2.8)
For reference, last week's game against Utah came out to a 2.9 GPA and the victories over Nebraska, Nevada and New Mexico State were a 3.7, a 3.6 and a 2.8 respectively.
Not a great trend headed into the toughest slate of games UCLA will face this year. This week on the road against Stanford and then up to Eugene to square off with the favorite to take on Alabama in the BCS Title game. If UCLA sweeps that stretch, they would take over Oregon's spot as the favorite to play in the title game. Lose both and UCLA likely ends up as Pac-12 South Champion in the Alamo Bowl. Split and the Rose Bowl is in play.
Regradless of the possible scenarios, Coach Mora needs to put up a signature win as a head coach. I get that beat Southern Cal was a huge deal, it always is. But taking on a top flight program on the road and walking away with a win is a signature win. Beating Stanford and Oregon on the road in consecutive weeks. That is what will end the plague of BBS for a fanbase that went through the worst decade in school history.
Can the Bruins pull it off? Yes. Unquestionably the talent is on this roster to pull that off.
Will the Bruins pull it off? We will see on Saturday.
Until next time, Go Bruins!