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Pregame Guesses: Memphis Tigers Edition

Coming of a less-than-stellar performance in a road victory against Virginia, UCLA looks to make a statement against 1-0 Memphis.

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(This week’s video is Mike Watt with Il Sogno del Marinaio. Il Sogno del Marinaio is a trio featuring the legendary (at least to me) bass player from the Minutemen and a pair of Italian musicians. Their second album, Canto Secondo came out on August 26 on Watt's Clenchedwrench Records label. Watt and Company will be doing their thing at The Echo in a few weeks, if you care to see them. And if you’re looking for a UCLA connection, I once saw The Minutemen play a lunch time show on the Ackerman patio – which isn’t even there anymore.)

Writing on Thursday morning …

By now, the dust has just about settled on the nearly inexplicable performance by UCLA at Virginia last week. I really don’t think anyone anywhere predicted such a poor performance by UCLA’s offense and for sure no one predicted that the defense would score three touchdowns in the second quarter. The Bruins’ play against Virginia led to emotions running high among the fan base, based on the comments section in Bruins Nation’s game threads, BRO’s premium message board, my email inbox and the texts I received during the game. Things went from "we’re national title contenders" to "Fire Mora" or, at least "Fire Anyone Names Mazzone" in less than 30 minutes of game time.

The frustration was both palpable and deserved. I mean, let’s face it: If Virginia had started their backup quarterback, who sparked them late in the second quarter, we could have lost the game. If we only score two defense touchdowns, we could have been beaten.

But somewhere around mid-week, Saturday morning’s despair seemed to subside a bit, allowing for a bit more perspective. I recall a lesson from my psych classes that one shouldn’t generalize from the specific. That is to say, it was just one game and it’s possible that the poor offensive performance was an aberration. Let’s start with the time and place. We opened in the Eastern time zone at noon. There is no doubt that when teams travel east, it impacts their internal clocks. (If you’ve ever traveled to Asia, you know that the jet lag is eleventy-zillion times worse coming back to the States than it is going over. I was North Campus, so I can’t tell you why this is scientifically; I just know that it’s true. Okay, he’s an article that discusses the issue on NFL terms. Here is one from The Economist. Don’t say I never taught you anything.) We also opened against an unfamiliar opponent, which increases the odds of an unpredictable performance and that unpredictability was increased by a couple of key injuries. We also lost momentum on a missed field goal and had a bunch of easily-caught-but-somehow-dropped-passes by the backs and receivers.

But some things were predictable. It was feared that the offense lacked playmakers and nothing that happened in the Virginia game impacted that prognostication. It was feared that the offensive line was a question mark and the Virginia game confirmed that as well. It’s been speculated that our offensive coordinator is a middling talent and nothing that happened in Charlottesville shoo the beliefs of those in that camp. We worried that our field goal kicker was too inconsistent and that early missed field goal cemented that belief (and also took the winds out of our sales when we squandered that first play long pass completion and came away with no points on our opening drive.)

On the other hand, the defense did play well. I know, I know – we played a weak offensive team in Virginia. But when your offense spends the whole game going three-and-out and you actually tilt the time of possession in your opponents favor by scoring on defense (and as a result leaving the defense out on the field for more plays without a break) – you’re going to give up a couple of touchdowns on the road. Even the touchdown that Virginia scored at the end of the first half didn’t bother me that much. Fabian Moreau was right there, he didn’t "get beat" and let the receiver run free. He just timed his jump wrong by a fraction (and also jumped off the wrong foot) and a taller receiver went up and made the catch. Should Moreau have made the play? Yes, for sure, most definitely. But is that a play he’ll make later on when he works on his technique a bit more? Yes, I believe that’s true. Elsewhere on that side of the ball, Myles Jack, naturally, had a good game. Owa had a good game. Kenny Clark had a good game. The yards on third down and points the defense gave up contributed to the frustration, but if the offense had played well and we’d won 42-17, I think everyone would be satisfied with the defense’s performance.

Back to the offense …

It occurred to me during and after the Virginia game that we did have one game-breaking playmaker on our offense, but he wasn’t being used to the full extent of his abilities. This player’s name is Brett Hundley.

I’m sure everyone remembers the very first play of Hundley’s first game. He went yard against Rice, a long touchdown run. I’m sure you all know that Hundley was our leading rusher last season.

But it remains unclear – at least to me – how Hundley’s running plays into the game plan. It almost seems to me that last year, Hundley was told to run less than he did as a redshirt freshman. I haven’t checked the stats and it’s possible he actually had more carries last year, but that doesn’t change the point I’m making. I mean, it seems as if Hundley was instructed not to take off running unless absolutely necessary. But I’m not exactly sure why.

I sometimes get the feeling that it’s purely practical. Hundley is told not to just take off and run every time he sees a few open yards, because his job is to hang in, go through his receiver progressions and find someone to throw to downfield. That makes sense to me, on an abstract, that’s-how-you-play-quarterback sort of way. It also makes sense to me if Hundley is being coached in the proper way to play QB in the pros, where it’s really dangerous for quarterbacks to tuck it and run.

On the other hand, when teams have to account for Hundley running with the ball, our entire offense is better. Against the Cavaliers, he had 15 carries for 39 yards, but 17 of those yards came on one run. Do the math on the rest of the carries and yards. (Note: I think in college sacks count against the QB’s rushing stats, so that factors in, too). But watching the game I kept having the feeling that we could loosen Virginia up with a couple more Hundley scrambles and a few more read options. The threat of Hundley running, I feel, opens up both the passing game and the running game.

So, what to do about it? Nothing, really, because Mora/Mazzone aren’t going to change what they’re doing because I wrote, "Hundley should run more" or because a blog community advocated for a change. But, in theory, I feel like Hundley needs to run the ball more than he does, if for no other reason than we don’t have enough playmakers other than him.

Looking at tomorrow, it's safe to say that it would be nice to see some real progress from the offense, It would be great to see one of the running backs have a productive day, it would be great to see the play of the offensive line significantly improve and it would be great to see Hundley develop some chemistry with his wide receivers.

Final thought: I've written any number of times about a team's margin for error. I won't belabor the details again. I will say that maybe, just maybe, our margin for error has improved a bit. Maybe we were capable of playing poorly and still come away with an ugly win. Maybe, hopefully, we'll just get better week after week and a month from now, two months from now we won't even remember the details of the Virginia game.

And, with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Memphis Tigers edition:

  1. Will any UCLA receiver catch more than two passes and if so, who will it be?
  2. Will Brett Hundley rush for 60 yards or more?
  3. The over/under is 53. Do you like the over or under?