Not a fan of crow. Little gamey for my taste. But I'll gladly take it for a 4-0 (1-0) start.
I did not think this game was going to be worrying. I'd seen Utah play Oregon State and BYU, I'd rewatched the 21-14 win from last season. To me, it added up to a two or three score victory.
Strangely, I still never felt worried during the game. The onside kick recovery at the end got the blood pumping a little faster; but it felt like a different version of the same story from last year's game against Utah.
Defense bailing a struggling offense with big play after big play, along with a needlessly scary ending. Brett Hundley having a great game with a few holes in it. Offensive line having some issues with an exotic defense.
Travis Wilson and the Utes are much better than I had seen. That team could easily finish second in the Pac-12 South. They'll probably end up somewhere between 7 and 8 wins; but that is a team to watch the rest of the year and moving forward.
With all that said (and I apologize for not having a real narrative opening to this one), let's get to the grades.
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
After the first quarter, UCLA's defense was a force. That first quarter happened, but after allowing 14 points and 145 yards on just 15 plays (almost 10 yards per play) in 15 minutes, the defense preceded to allow just 242 yards on 62 plays (under 4 yards per play) and 9 points the next 45.
The second half was even more impressive than that. 168 yards on 46 plays (3.6 yards per play) and intercepting 5 passes.
The "second half adjustments" act is getting difficult to deal with, but is still weirdly consistent.
UCLA still hasn't allowed a point in the 3rd quarter through 4 games and have now outscored opponents 65-0.
I'll touch on the turnovers later on, but they were impressive. Only one was lucky (the dropped pass tipped into the air and picked by Eric Kendricks). The other 5 were well played defensive snaps capitalized on by an aggressive defense.
Anthony Barr faced the best pair of tackles UCLA has faced so far and looked unbelievably explosive. Outside of his two sacks and three tackles for loss, I counted 3 other quarterback pressures by Barr alone. That might not seem like a huge number, but each individual hit on a QB creates a huge mental advantage. Like the two holding penalties created by him being a force on the edge. His pass rushing moves are nothing special, he gets away with a lot because he is just so much better physically than any tackle or guard trying to block him. His burst off the ball to the edge is elite as elite can be. He scrapes underneath tackles as well as any college LB. But in plain 1-on-1's, Barr doesn't seem to have much of a bull rush or any other pass rush techniques. Scary how someone can be that good and still be as raw technique-wise.
The secondary impressed me after that first quarter also. Man coverage against big wideouts. Dres Anderson had 61 yards on the first drive and then got shutdown the rest of the game.
The pass rush looked much better throughout. The defensive line played well in the second half after an up-and-down first half. The first 4 games have seen a lot more 2-man front in nickel to keep all the linebackers in the game. This is probably UCLA's most commonly used defense so far. It's worked well also.
Overall, I'm happy with the defense. They held the #16 offense in the country to under 400 yards, got 3 sacks, forced 6 turnovers and allowed 9 points in the final 45 minutes. It's crazy that this was a 7-point game with how well the defense did. The first quarter cannot be sloppy against the upcoming Oregon-Stanford gauntlet. Maybe you can get away with it against Stanford's offense; but not Oregon. Start slow and you'll never catch up.
The slow start drops an A+ to an A- (3.7).
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Clearly this was UCLA's least productive game by far this season. Held to 404 yards (I remember when I'd be pleased with that total. I love being able to have higher standards.). Only converted 7 of 19 third downs. Gifted the Utes 7-points on an interception return for a touchdown. Ran the ball 53 times for only 186 yards (3.5 yards per carry) and that is accounting for Hundley's 36-yard run and the 28-yard loss on a horrific snap.
The production side of this, obviously disappointing. How can a team run 81 plays, force 6 turnovers and not win by more than one score? It's absurd.
Playcalling was an issue tonight. I'll get to the running game in a couple paragraphs, but here I'm addressing a point that several people have already made (and that my baseball-oriented father made in the second quarter).
Utah blitzed a crazy amount last night. I echo what Hundley said after the game about that coming as a huge surprise because they almost never brought more than 4 rushers against BYU or Oregon State. They were regularly bring 5 or more rushers for about 90% of the snaps.
That's tough to adjust to off the bat, but you know how you stop teams from blitzing linebackers? You throw quick passes over the middle of the field where those LBs are disappearing. They did it a few times, notably a 3rd and 11 drag to Jordan Payton. But there needed to be more of that. Throw a quick slant to Payton or Devin Fuller. Use Nate Iese or Thomas Duarte's size to create some mismatches. I saw Iese line up as a traditional tight end for three plays on one drive, then he false started and never saw the field again.
Mazzone has to do something other than stretch plays to Jordon James and read options. The read option is not going to work against 7-man rushes. It just won't. The spacing disappears.
I don't think the 10-15 stretch runs by Jordon James and Steven Manfro caught Utah off guard at any point, but they continued being run into the 4th quarter. I might as well start this critique right now.
The running back rotation last night before the James injury was baffling to me.
These are what James' first half touches broke down to: 4, 0 (goal-line stuff), 1 (TD), -5 (screen), 4, -2, 3, 6, 3, 2, 4, 19 (holding penalty sprung it), 4, 10 (injured).
Before James got hurt and Perkins had to take over, this is what Perkins did: 44, 5, 6, 2, 13.
I understand that James has been one of the most productive runners in the Pac-12 so far this season. But Nevada, Nebraska and New Mexico State had no size up front and were not loading the box in running situations. James has proven over the entirety of his career that between the tackles and physical running are not his forte. That is where Perkins has excelled in his short career. Coach Broussard is in charge of the running back rotation and has to be held accountable. With James doubtful for the Cal game, UCLA might be forced to provide a more balanced workload to the running backs and I think that is the best option moving forward.
Damien Thigpen was on the field for one or two snaps after watching the game a second time, a welcome sight after his injury. I assume he'll get touches against Cal and they'll be welcome. He along with Steven Manfro, Malcolm Jones (tweeting issues or not) and Perkins can more than carry the load against the sieve (260+ rushing yards per game allowed) they'll face in the Bears.
But this game was a close game because the offense couldn't score, capitalize on turnovers or sustain any drives. No one should have any problems with the C (2.0) grade given out here.
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
Some positives, some huge negatives.
Everybody's favorite part of the Eye Test is the penalty breakdown section. This week 13 for 100 yards. I hope Glasses got some ice for his shoulder after the game, because the 19 combined flags must have been rough.
1. False Start on a 3rd and 8 by Torian White. Turns a longer manageable 3rd down into a tough one. Costly.
2. Personal Foul Facemask on 2nd and 4 by Kenny Orjioke, negating a tackle for a 2-yard loss. Aggressive penalty that doesn't happen if Orjioke breaks down instead of flying by the RB. Put Utah in the redzone and they scored to go up 10-7.
3. Block in the back by Myles Jack on a pick-6 by Randall Goforth, bringing it back to the UCLA 37-yard line (effectively a 63-yard, -6 point penalty). UCLA still scored and that illegal block sprung Goforth to a degree. Still costly.
4. False start by Nate Iese. Turned a 2nd and 1 into a 2nd and 6. Still scored, but dumb and easily avoidable. Iese's last offensive snap of the game.
5. Offsides by Ellis McCarthy turns a 3rd and 8 into a 3rd and 3. Utah gets 30 yards on the next play, would have been a different scenario and playcall if that penalty doesn't happen.
6. Holding on a kickoff return by Jordan Zumwalt. Steven Manfro got big yardage on this return and it looked like a phantom call to me. Still, turns great field position around midfield into a drive that start at the 10-yard line. UCLA goes 3-and-out and gives the Utes great field position.
7. Upsportsmanlike conduct on Steven Manfro. He's blocking on a punt return, Evans does a fake out fair catch when the ball is behind him, he pancakes one guy and then does the same to another Utah player as the ball is bouncing in the endzone. To my biased eye, it looked like the ball was still in play when he pushes the second Ute and the whistle 100% hadn't blown yet. But, it again makes UCLA start inside their own 20-yard line at the end of the half. Probably kept UCLA from trying to create something with three timeouts and some time left.
8. A hold by Alex Redmond that is absolute BS. Redmond pancakes the backside tackle as he is reaching out to touch James with his free arm. A great block called a hold. Negates Jordon James' biggest run of the game (19 yards) and gives UCLA a 1st and 15 at their own 5-yard line. If this hold doesn't happen, I can almost guarantee that James doesn't get hurt in this game because Hundley would have been throwing the ball with three timeout and time on the clock.
(End of the first half penalties)
9. UCLA's second offensive play of the 2nd half. A false start turns a 2nd and 7 into 2nd and 12. This was probably on Jerry Neuheisel, as this was his first play relieving Hundley after the weird eye injury deal. Next play is the snap that costs UCLA 28 yards. Tough outing for Jerry, even if it wasn't his fault.
10. Brett Hundley gets called for intentional grounding. It was on a sack that lost 14 yards, so it just turned a 2nd and 20 into a 3rd and 20. Probably not getting a TD on that drive regardless, Fairbairn had to make a much tougher 47-yard FG though.
11. A hold on Jacob Brendel turns a 2nd and 5 into a 1st and 20 after a 5-yard run by Perkins. Drive ends in a punt.
12. Roughing the passer by Eddie Vanderdoes. The right call, had 1 and a half steps to stop himself from hitting Wilson. Gave Utah additional yardage on their FG drive in the 4th quarter. The way they'd been not moving the ball, this play might have been the only reason this game got scary at the end. A 45+ yard FG is not an automatic, maybe Utah goes for it on 4th instead of kicking the FG. Then there's no onside kick, no worries.
13. The last one is an offsides by Anthony Barr on a 4th and 11. He just moved too soon when he didn't need to. Gave Utah a free play that resulted in what would have been Eddie Vanderdoes' first sack. But Eddie will have to wait for that. Turned it into a 4th and 6 that Utah converted.
That's a lot of not smart football plays in one game.
I haven't even touched on the pick-six by Brett Hundley that tied the game. Just a bad decision that he owned up to. Not a situation where a sack is devastating. The old saying goes, "Only three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad." Sometimes it is better just to eat it.
On defense, this wasn't a bad area. Schematically, the gameplan was solid. Utah's scoring drives were mostly sprung by missed tackles and that is on the execution of the players post-snap.
Overall, the penalties are tough to deal with here. They aren't even kind of cancelled out by the win or the tough environment. Perform better early in the game. UCLA has been outscored in the first quarter 31-24. The other 3 quarters are slaughters, but the slow starts are just tough to deal with. Because of that, this grade drops to C (2.0).
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
I don't think the level of intensity was ever in question. I enjoy going through this part of the grading process now because I don't feel like the team is ever at risk to quit when a game gets difficult. Coasting? Sure, but the best teams at every level have issues with that on occasion. But there was no point where I saw the team look anything but confident, even when Jerry Neuheisel had to chase down a botched snap 30 yards away or after an interception tied the game at 24 or when an onside kick gets recovered or after the huge TD play and missed tackles on Utah's first drive.
It's a winning mentality when you can rebound from adversity and perform at a high level. I see it when I watch this team play and it is so much more rewarding than watching the snowball effect that happened to teams in the mid-to-late 2000's. For that, I give this grade an B+ (3.3) because of the seemingly slow start on defense in the first two drives and the second half play of the offense.
5.) Do our players execute?
I'll start positive on all sides of the ball.
Six interceptions. Great. Especially, Ishmael Adams' play which was one of the best plays I've seen all season. The closing speed to tip the ball, the physicality to knock the WR down while doing so, the presence of mind to keep his hand under the ball. Outstanding play.
The secondary's performance in man coverage was very solid against a good group of wideouts. Even though he didn't get an interception, I think Fabian Moreau had the best game of any DB, have to shout him out.
The pass rush was strong. 3 sacks, lots of pressure and hits on Travis Wilson. Run defense was great. Gap responsibility, stretching plays wide, turning plays back inside. Good all around.
On offense, Xavier Su'a-Filo was solid as always. Not his best, but a good game. The lineman actually did a good job picking up blitzes, especially considering that Utah had shown no blitzing in their previous games. There is no way that was gameplanned for, so picking those up on the fly was nice to see. I thought Caleb Benenoch performed very well considering the circumstances. A lot of Paul Perkins' bigger gains came running behind Redmond and him.
Jordan Payton was a monster in the first half, but oddly disappeared in the 2nd. Brett Hundley was an absolute machine in the first half, with great numbers that would have been even better if not for a terrible drop by Devin Lucien on a perfectly thrown deep ball.
The special teams were strong again. Ka'imi Fairbairn was money on two important and not easy FGs.
Now the bad.
First Utah TD, Ishmael Adams is three yards inside the hash and two WRs are 5 yards outside the hash. It basically a 2-on-1 situation for Fabian Moreau, who actually does a great job forcing Dres Anderson inside instead of giving him the sideline. That is a good playcall by Dennis Erickson and an easy first down. The problem is what Adams does while recovering from his misalignment and the dreadful angle Anthony Jefferson takes to get to the play. Both miss and Utah is up 7-3. Poor execution leads to points.
The snaps by Jacob Brendel were so worrisome. Hundley had to pick at least 15 snaps up from below his knees. I understand that Brendel had to handle a lot of additional responsibility with Torian White injured, but the snap is the first thing. Have to do that before worrying about blocking. His snaps were a big reason why the offense looked so disjointed. On average, a QB has between 2 and 4 seconds to make a decision and get rid of the ball. If a half second is taken away by the snap, it cuts down that window by a ton. Takes away reads, eliminates early decisions. Basically every play is a disadvantage before it really starts.
Some other execution issues: Randall Goforth dropped a sure thing interception that turned into a touchdown. Went right through his hands on a perfectly jumped route and terrible decision by WIlson. Devin Lucien dropped a sure thing 50+ yard gain and probably TD. Brett Hundley threw an inexcusable pick-6.
There are some good things from this game, a lot of good things actually. But the bad things nearly cost UCLA a game they had no excuse not winning by multiple TDs. For that, a B- (2.7) feels about right.
6.) Do we have leaders on the field?
On defense, the linebacking core was once again the heart of the team. Anthony Barr looked like Anthony Barr for 4 quarters. Eric Kendricks had his best game of the season, Jordan Zumwalt did a nice job turning plays back inside while not having a huge stat day. And Myles Jack continued his quest to Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
In addition, Cassius Marsh is quietly the identity of the defense personified. Overaggressive, athletic as hell, mean and underrated due to their own transgressions. Just a thought, but Marsh balled out as well and has been the only consistent threat on the defensive line through 4 games.
The offense did not play well, as I noted throughout this test. But I also noted the play of Brett Hundley throughout. He is the leader of this entire team and had to put the struggling offense on his back. He called the QB Draw that put the game out of reach for the Utes. He recovered from his own huge mistake on the pick-six. He handled at least 10 snaps at or below his ankles, while still balling out. And he became only the second FBS player since 2000 to score a touchdown passing, receiving and rushing and record a punt in the same game. Statistical anamoly or no, that is damn impressive.
This team will go as far as Hundley and those 5 defensive players can take them. For this game, the leadership end was there unquestionably. Winning a conference game on the road against an above average team when one side of the ball is struggling a bit is always tough. Go higher here than I thought I would A- (3.7).
Final Grade Card for the Utah Utes
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? C (2.0)
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+ (3.3)
5.) Do our players execute? B- (2.7)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field? A- (3.7)
Utah Utes GPA: B- (2.9)
For reference, last week's game against New Mexico State came out to a 2.8 GPA and the victories over Nebraska and Nevada were a 3.7 and 3.6 respectively.
I feel like this is about what I felt like when watching the game. UCLA did really well in some areas and came away with a big win. But there are some concerns that need to be addressed moving forward.
Next week's game against the Cal Bears will shed some light on how well the secondary can hold up against another good passing attack. The Bears can't play a lick of defense, but they have athletes everywhere. The wideouts are as good as any group in the conference in my opinion, led by an emerging star in Bryce Treggs. This is another game that shouldn't be close on paper, but I have no urge to eat crow more than once a month.
Until next week, Go Bruins!