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The Eye Test: UCLA Offense Let the Defense Down Against Stanford

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Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 22-13 loss to the Stanford Cardinal to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

I’m still angry.

I’m writing this introduction on a Wednesday. The intro is the last part of the article I write, so this is written after having to rewatch a game I sat through surrounded by 70000+ compatriots in the Rose Bowl. This intro is written after having to again watch UCLA lose a game because of poor coaching decisions. This intro is written because I again have to watch these poor players give everything, only to have victory taken from them.

I’m still angry, and I don’t think this anger is going to go away.

This is the type of game that is going to color every grade here going forward, because on the one hand we saw the defense at its best, so now every performance, fairly or unfairly, will be graded against this game. On the other hand, we saw an offense that has the tools to succeed, but are being wielded by an inexperienced craftsman. Any growth the rest of the season will be met by the question of "well where was that against Stanford?", and it will be a perfectly fair question.

I’m still angry, because this column is supposed to attempt to be as neutral as possible, but there are things that occurred in this game that flew in the face of basic common sense.

It’s hard to say that a loss to a top 10 team at home, in a game you led for the vast majority, should prompt major rethinking of whether the people in charge deserve to be in that position, but that’s where I ended up. Because the talent is present; no school outside of USC in the conference can match up on a talent level with UCLA. The funny thing is so many UCLA fans are quick to point out that USC’s Clay Helton is a below-average coach, but will endure whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to justify Jim Mora and his coaching staff’s inability to win when it matters.

In the immediate aftermath of that game, I sat amongst 70,000+ people who were all suddenly wondering whether UCLA could ever win something meaningful under Jim Mora, and that’s the most dangerous position to be in. The people who come to the Rose Bowl, who endured the price increases, are the lifeblood of the program, and if you lose them, you lose everything. And UCLA under Jim Mora is coming dangerously close to losing a group who has routinely watched UCLA find a way to lose at home over the past few years.

I’m still angry. Here’s the Eye Test.

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?

Raw stats: 350 total yards allowed, 207 on the ground (5.6 YPC). Only 143 yards through the air, a majority of which came on the final drive, with an average YPP of 5.1.

The more impressive raw stats: Christian McCaffrey: 26 carries, 138 yards (5.3 YPC) with a long of 13. 2 catches for 13 yards total.

Last year, Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley was (rightly) criticized for fielding a poor defense for most of 2015. In particular, people pointed to the failure of the defense against Stanford, during which Christian McCaffrey was able to amass almost 250 yards on offense by himself (to go along with 122 yards on kick returns). UCLA had no ability to stop the run, which became a theme for the rest of the season.

So what did Tom Bradley, actual good football coach, do? He retooled. The scheme changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which allowed the defense to put more big bodies on the line consistently. He trusted the secondary more, moving the linebackers up to apply pressure and defend the run. The loss of big playmakers last year allowed for younger players to get important experience, paying off this year.

The result? One of the best defensive efforts of the Jim Mora era.

Bradley and the defense obviously knew Christian McCaffrey would be the focus of the Stanford offense, and he was, touching the ball on 43% of Stanford’s plays (this number doesn’t include incompletions thrown towards McCaffrey). Thus, UCLA’s goal was stopping Christian McCaffrey from beating them, which they did in overwhelming fashion. Maybe more impressively, where last year’s defense would have rolled over once the opposing team got past the UCLA 40, this team doubled-down on the defensive effort, holding Stanford to 3 field goals once the Cardinal got inside the UCLA 30. Stanford had 5 scoring opportunities on the game, and came away with 3.2 points per opportunity.

Now, obviously one of the big issues at the end of the game was the sudden switch to a more passive defense. Mora and Bradley have publicly stated none of the defensive calls changed in that last 5 minutes, but at this point it’s hard to take Mora at his word regarding anything on the football field, and it’s especially hard when the film showed UCLA dropping the linebackers back into coverage and playing more of a zone in the secondary. UCLA was able to generate success on passing downs in this game by leveraging extra pressure and forcing throws early, while they have had issues this year generating consistent pressure rushing only 4. It’s a poor decision, but only poor when taken outside of how the offense played in this game.

Overall, a really strong effort from the defense against a team that has had their number over the past 5 years. The last drive was bad, but considering all else, giving an A- (3.7) feels right.

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?

Bad.

Bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad

This was a bad offensive gameplan compounded by a lack of adjustments.

Let’s start at the top: UCLA does not have the personnel to run power-sets, whether they be ace-power, 2-tight-end, or I-formation. The offensive line is full of guys recruited to play in a faster spread-style offense, full of quick pass plays and zone-blocking schemes for the run. It’s not a big line by any stretch of the imagination, and continually going back to that set against bigger defenses is the direct cause of the poor running game performances of the past few games.

Or, to put it another way, this isn’t a "players need to play better" problem. This is a "coaches need to get better" problem.

Just as egregious was the lack of pass plays. Josh Rosen easily had his best game of the year here, looking much more like the Rosen of 2015 who could make great throws that NFL scouts dream about. Yes, Rosen still is missing on deep balls (including a poor decision to throw deep into double coverage that luckily was batted down) but for the most part he made the correct decision with the ball. On top of that, by halftime Stanford had lost both of their starting corners, putting players with lesser experience in a position to play increased minutes.

SO WHY WERE THERE ONLY 27 PASS ATTEMPTS COMPARED TO 33 RUSHING ATTEMPTS?!?

This is stupid. No, this is beyond stupid. It’s grossly incompetent. It’s admitting, straight up, that winning the game isn’t as important as proving a point. UCLA, Jim Mora, and Offensive Coordinator Kennedy Polamalu wanted to prove the point that they could beat Stanford using their style of play.

And they lost.

The only reason UCLA is even in this game is the defense, which created 2 turnovers that led to 10 points (the first interception gave UCLA a starting field position at Stanford’s 26). UCLA only created 4 scoring opportunities. The offense averaged 5.16 YPP, again thanks to a passing game that should have gotten more opportunities.

The worst part, the absolute worst part, is that near the end of the game Polamalu entrusted a non-functioning run game with icing the game instead of his best player. That 3rd and 2 call from the Stanford 18 should be bronzed and placed in the Bad Coaching Decision Hall of Fame, because it was the play call of a coordinator that hadn’t been watching UCLA either in this game or this season in general, and just assumed last year’s run game would translate over. UCLA obviously has a passing call for situations just like this; we saw it on the 2-point conversion against Texas A&M, for instance. But either pride or stupidity kept UCLA from doing something similar in this game.

We all assumed that offensive play calling would get better once Noel Mazzone left, but at this point it’s becoming painfully obvious why Kennedy Polamalu was never trusted with play calling duties while at USC. He’s a brilliant football mind, but an incredibly-poor driver of the offense.

D- (0.7). UCLA lost this game because running into a wall repeatedly was preferable to any adjustments whatsoever.

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute?

Normally I’d have a whole section here with some more detailed notes, but I got sick after the game (the two-hour drive back did not help) and didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to do this section properly. Sorry about that.

That said, it’s not hard to go back after one rewatch and say that, for the most part, the players executed what the coaching staff wanted to do. Yes, there were a couple drops, but I’ll get to that a bit later because we need to have a serious discussion about Eric Yarber.

The defense executed definitively on what they wanted to do. In particular, I wanted to point out the linebacker play in this game, specifically Jayon Brown and Kenny Young. Brown was again sensational, leading the team with 10 tackles, 6 of them solo. Kenny Young, meanwhile, had an impressive interception to go along with 6 tackles. In last year’s game, Kenny Young was repeatedly picked on, so it was especially exciting to see him play this well against a top-level opponent.

And again, this section has pointed out Josh Rosen’s poor play through 3 games, so it seems only fitting to highlight his good play in this game. Rosen was more willing to throw the underneath routes, didn’t hold on to the ball too long (the two sacks before the final play were just exceptional efforts by Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips), and in general looked in control. Despite the deficiencies of the offensive playcalling, having Josh look much better is a good sign going forward.

This also seems like the best place to put this, but Ishmael Adams has had a rough go of it as returner since the Texas A&M game. Again in this game he had a fumble on a punt that he (luckily) recovered, and averaged 18 yards on his two kick returns, immediately starting UCLA off in poor field position. If Adams is going to continue as the primary returner, he has to play better, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t another person on the team who can at least manage the same results that Adams is currently putting out.

Effort was not the issue in this game. B+ (3.3) specifically because of the continual drop issue, and Adams poor game in general.

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense?

A look at the penalties on an individual basis:

6:20, 1st Q - Defensive holding by Kenny Young. Negated a sack by Deon Hollins, though likely Hollins doesn’t get the sack if Young isn’t holding the receiver. Not a great penalty to take, but Young would make it up by intercepting Ryan Burns later in the same drive.

8:39, 2nd Q - Pass interference called on Jayon Brown. In real time, this was a bad call, as Stanford tried running a trick play with a WR pass downfield to the QB Burns. On replay, the call is even worse, as Burns is actively playing defense on Brown to try and prevent him from catching the poorly-thrown ball.

8:37, 3rd Q - False Start by Nate Iese. False starts at home are never good. That said, if you’re going to take one, doing it on first and 10 from your own 1 yard line isn’t a bad spot, as UCLA only lost a few inches on the penalty.

8:10, 4th Q - False Start on Najee Toran. Turned a 2nd and 6 into a 2nd and 11 deep in Stanford territory. A bad, bad penalty to take with Stanford on its heels, and the Cardinal were able to regroup enough to force a field goal.

2:05, 4th Q - Kick-catch interference called on Marcus Rios. In slow motion, it becomes obvious that McCaffrey leans into Rios and draws the contact, but either way Rios has to be smarter about getting out of the way on a fair catch. Gave Stanford good field position on their game-ending drive.

5 penalties for 45 yards. Just compare that to last year against Stanford, where UCLA committed 10 penalties for 94 yards. It’s a startling shift (and yes, you can attribute part of that to the departures of guys like Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond, who were good for 2 penalties a game, or Myles Jack and his almost-regular personal foul call). Yes it’s only 4 games, but this UCLA team has shown a level of discipline unseen in the Mora era.

And now to address the elephant in the room. Yes, late in the second quarter Tahaan Goodman hit Francis Owusu with his helmet, causing Owusu to leave the game with a concussion. Yes, Stanford fans have a right to feel upset that targeting was not called, but not because what Goodman did was illegal. Stanford fans should be upset that the definitions of targeting set by the NCAA and PAC 12 are so poor. By definition, and repeated by the Pac 12 officiating office after the fact, Goodman’s hit came when Owusu was no longer a defenseless player. At that point, Owusu was treated like a running back or even a lineman who routinely knock helmets against each other. Is this a problem for football? Absolutely, but casting aspersions on Goodman or UCLA and calling them dirty is going to cause me to side-eye you so hard that you might burst into flames.

Discipline, again, was not the problem in this game, so a B+ (3.3) feels right here as well.

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed?

I can’t believe I get to use that, but here we are.

The defensive coaching staff absolutely gave the Bruins a chance to succeed, but again, go back and reread that second section. I’ll wait.

.....

.....

You back? Ok good. Because again, it was bad. Real bad.

And at this point, we need to have a serious conversation about some of the offensive coaching staff. It’s hard to grade Marques Tuiasosopo so far, because with him Rosen has seemed to get progressively better as the game goes on, but at other times I start to wish for Taylor Mazzone to come back. And Rip Scherer built a tight end group in a cave with a box of scraps, which is the last thing I expected from him. But boy those other three.

I feel that the BN staff’s opinion on Adrian Klemm is rather well-known at this point, but I feel I need to make things a bit clearer. Klemm is already under a show-cause penalty, meaning keeping him is already a bad decision, but beyond that, the offensive line looks bleak going forward. Connor McDermott is gone after this year, and there’s a chance Kolton Miller joins him. The inside line doesn’t look like it will improve going forward, and for the people hoping Tevita Halalilo will come back and fix those issues, placing your trust in a lineman that has now missed two years of development due to two separate leg injuries is a bad decision. Which is to say nothing that apparent talent deficiencies would mean nothing if the players developed better skills, but after 4 years and change it has become obvious that Klemm lacks on the development side of coaching. Combine all this with his price tag of $760,000 a year, and you have to think that UCLA would come ahead by moving in a different direction.

Let’s move on to Eric Yarber. Eric Yarber is not a good recruiter. He is, in fact, rather bad at it. Which would be ok if he were an exceptional position coach, but we’re now in week 4 and the drops from receivers keep coming. On top of that, Yarber seems to have an issue getting his receivers with talent on the field. Theo Howard has the most raw talent in the group, yet he’s only seen the field sparingly because his "blocking needs work". Jordan Lasley has a reduced usage rate because it has become important to get touches for a converted DB. The only reason I can think that Yarber remains on this staff is because he got Theo Howard last year, but one elite recruit in 5 years in one of the talent hotbeds of the country shouldn’t cut it.

Finally, Kennedy Polamalu. Yes, it’s only 4 games, but I’m willing to call the OC Polamalu experiment a dud. Now, don’t get me wrong - the offensive system itself is pretty good, and the ability to provide multiple looks is something UCLA absolutely should be doing considering the talent level available. But this is also the second time Jim Mora has gotten burned by promoting a position coach from within to their first coordinator position. If Jim Mora wants to run more of a pro-style offense, then go hire a pro-style coordinator like a Greg Roman, instead of lazily hiring from within and hoping for the best. It rarely works.

D (1.0) here. The defensive coaching staff tried their best, but the offensive staff was determined to fail.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

The players played their hearts out. Josh Rosen rose to the occasion against a marquee opponent. Nate Iese finally showed up and reminded everyone what a weapon he can be. Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes both shrugged off lingering injuries to continue being forces on the line. Jayon Brown continued his level of play that draws comparisons to Eric Kendricks. The secondary was again outstanding.

It’s too bad they were let down so spectacularly by the coaching staff. A (4.0)

Grade Card for the Stanford Cardinal:

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? A- (3.7)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? D- (0.7)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute? B+ (3.3)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? B+ (3.3)

5.) Did the coaches put the team in the best possible situation to succeed? D (1.0)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? A (4.0)

Stanford GPA: B- (2.7)

For reference, last week’s victory over the BYU Cougars graded out to a B+ (3.3). The win over the UNLV Rebels graded out to a C (1.9). The opening loss to Texas A&M graded a bit better at a C+ (2.6), and probably would be higher on review.

You’ll notice in the specific grades for this week that, when the section related to the players (or the defensive coaches in particular), the grade was rather high, and when the grade focused more on the offensive staff or the staff in general, the grade tanked. That’s where UCLA is at in year 5 under Jim Mora. The players are playing at a rather high level. They just aren’t being put in a position to maximize their ability with any regularity.

Arizona comes to town this weekend, and the game is suddenly a must-win, not just for this season, but potentially for Jim Mora going forward.