This is the first of a six-part installment I'm going to throw out before the Holiday Bowl on the 27th.
I wanted to put out a GPA of each one of the criteria on the "Eye Test" from this regular season, from the Rice game to the first Stanford game. I have an "Eye Test" put together for the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford, but decided to withhold it because, in my opinion, the "Eye Test" is for the regular season. Any postseason games are a reward for performance in the games that you are guaranteed. Those twelve games are what Coach Mora and the UCLA players as a whole are evaluated on, going by the expectations put out by Bruins Nation before the season.
9 wins and a victory over Southern Cal.
They delivered, so I want to see how they did grade-wise in the "Eye Test".
Nestor did a great job on the Rice game on all accounts and had me take over for the rest of the season. It was a pleasure doing these all season, especially with the success the Bruins saw on the field and I hope to continue putting these together while UCLA gets a rebirth in the college football landscape.
So let's get to the grades.
As you all know if you've read my posts or comments, I'm a defense first guy. I grade defense hard because I am more aware of what is going on defensively than I am on the offensive side of the ball. When I watch the games back I see the fits in the running game, I see where the zone coverage failed or excelled.
That is why this category holds a special place to me, and I'm glad that the "Eye Test" format is structured with this question at the beginning.
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
Rice Owls: [B: 3.0]
"How will we ever survive Rice?"
Pretty easily apparently, with a decisive 49-24 victory at Houston. Rice ended up in a bowl game after this game, so a victory over a bowl game to start the season. The first thought I have looking back at this game is the question as to why UCLA is playing Home-and-Away series with a school like Rice, but that is an entirely different story.
In retrospect, Rice had a slightly above-average offense in 2012, averaging 421 yards per game (50th) and scoring 32 points per game (40th). So, their performance against the Bruins was one of their worst of the season, scoring 24 points and gaining 358 yards.
The highlight of the defensive performance here was the front-7 producing seven sacks. Anthony Barr (rocking the caveman club on his right hand), Datone Jones, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Keenan Graham, Damien Holmes and the debut of Ellis McCarthy were responsible for the seven sacks, which were half of the season total from the 2011 team. Also of note, both the fumble recovery for a TD by Holmes and an interception by Sheldon Price were big plays in the first half.
A mediocre first half and a good second half, lots of pressure and big plays. Issue containing a scrambling quarterback and giving up the occasional big play. This game was oddly representative of the way the defense played the entire season. Totally agree with Nestor's assessment of what went down against Rice.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: [B+: 3.3]
This was the first "real test" of Coach Mora's career and the defense showed up. The final score was a 36-30 victory, but the defense played far better than the stat sheet shows.
Nebraska had a damn good and dangerous offense in 2012, averaging 35 points per game (29th) and 462 yards per game (25th) on their way to a 10-3 record and a bowl game against Georgia. UCLA held the Cornhuskers below both of their totals, 30 points and 439 yards. Despite the uptick in yardage and points from the Rice game, this was a much better performance from the defense.
Some highlights: 8 more TFLS, 2 more sacks (Barr and Zumalt) another interception (big play by Andrew Abbott in the 4th quarter), another fumble recovery (big play by Jordan Zumalt to force the fumble and Tevin McDonald to recover it on the first drive of the second half), and a safety from Datone Jones. Also, Randall Goforth stepped in for an injured Sheldon Price and had 9 tackles in his first start as a Bruin.
Some lowlights: 92 yard run by Taylor Martinez on a zone read. I falsely attributed this to Eric Kendricks, but it was Ellis McCarthy playing like a freshman and chasing after Abdullah without the ball. The QB run was an issue this season. 24 points given up in the first half compared to just 6 in the second.
This grade still feels right. The Bruins put a physical beat down on Nebraska throughout and gave up some big plays along the way. There were more big hits in this game that I can tangibly remember than in any other game. It was a promising start to the season.
Houston Cougars: [A+: 4.0]
I was at the Rose Bowl for this 37-6 UCLA victory. It was a hell of a performance by the Bruins, but I partially attributed this to the caliber of opponent. As it turns out, Houston was a little bit of an offensive force in Conference USA, racking up 480 yards per game (18th) and scoring 33 points per game (only 39th). After starting 0-3, Houston played over .500 the rest of the way (5-4) falling just short of a bowl game despite finishing ahead of Rice in their conference).
Had the offense never stepped on the field, UCLA would have tied this game at 6-6, Eric Kendricks took a fumble recovery on a failed swing pass to the house on the second play of the game. This would have been a shutout if UCLA hadn't played their 2nd/3rd string defense in the fourth quarter. That group gave up another big run (86 yards) on a zone read by the QB. Aaron Wallace crashed without seeing the ball exchange hands, David Piland ran around the edge for the TD.
Going into the 4th quarter, UCLA had allowed 1 yard rushing. Just a single yard. If they were playing a Pop Warner team, that would still be mildly impressive. Aside from the physical dominance in this game, Sheldon Price came back from injury and had 3 interceptions. Very intelligent plays on all three. Anthony Barr had yet another sack (4th of the season) and Cassius Marsh chipped in his first of the year. Tevin McDonald and Randall Goforth (after dropping 3 the week before) also intercepted passes. It was a great performance against a decent offense. Grade still feels right.
Oregon State Beavers: [C: 2.0]
Ah, the first loss of 2012, 27-20 in favor of the Beavers. None of us were aware of how good Oregon State actually was. They ended up being a Top 15 team and this loss doesn't look nearly as bad now as it did at the time. The Beavers were a good offense, if not unspectacular. In 2012, they scored 33 points per game (38th) and averaged 442 yards per game (34th). They are 9-3 headed into the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
In the "Eye Test", I put a lot of blame on Sheldon Price for his performance. He got roasted by Brandin Cooks (for a 75 yard TD on a quick slant) and Markus Wheaton (42 yard TD on a streak, McDonald bit up on this play as well). Man coverage did not work in the Bruins favor in this one. Bad, bad performance in man coverage, albeit against a passing offense that ended up ranked 15th in the country.
The front-7's game looks worse in retrospect, but Anthony Barr had two more sacks and a forced fumble (recovered by McDonald) and Dalton Hilliard had a sack as well. Stan McKay chipped in an interception. The pressure was a step late all game, as Sean Mannion was on his back around 10 times. This grade feels about right still, maybe a touch too high.
Colorado Buffaloes: [B+: 3.3]
This grade is probably a little too high in retrospect. UCLA dominated Colorado, 42-14. Colorado had a very poor team and their offense was no exception, ranking 116th in total offense and 117th in scoring offense in 2012. UCLA would have allowed well under this total if not for an 80-yard drive against the backup defense in the 4th quarter. The Bruins forced 10(!) 3-and-outs in this game, which is just absurd.
It was a dominating effort, highlighted by 4 sacks from Damien Holmes and Anthony Barr, along with 11 TFLs by the defense. Kendricks recovered another fumble and McKay intercepted another pass. It was what it should have been against a bad Colorado team.
California Bears: [D-: 0.7]
This was ugly. This game brings down the score on every one of the 6 criteria for the "Eye Test". If the "Eye Test" was an actual course and I was an actual teacher, this grade would probably get dropped just because it was an anomaly for the season. No one is going to be able to explain how UCLA lost to Cal in 2012. It won't happen. Cal ranked 93rd in scoring offense at just 23 points per game, they scored 43. Cal ranked 73rd in total offense at just 391 yards per game, they gained 480.
Aaron Hester somehow committed 4 penalties (only 3 counted) in this game and the Cal WRs (who were hyped up all week and all season) burnt the Bruin secondary all game long. It was ugly, I don't want to think about it, let us move on.
Utah Utes: [B: 3.0]
Another grade that feels good still. Utah had a bad offense, gaining only 325 yards per game (105th) and scoring 27 points per game (76th). UCLA played well enough to shut down the Utes, winning 21-14. The defense didn't allow points until the end of the 4th quarter; this was the Steven Manfro punt-return-fumble-TD game (will be addressed again later).
This was a snoozer and nothing noteworthy really happened on defense. Andrew Abbott intercepted a pass. Cassius Marsh, Seali'I Epenesa and Datone Jones were too good at the line of scrimmage for Utah to do anything. Utah can't pass, so they didn't.
Arizona State Sun Devils: [D+: 1.3]
This was not a good game for the Bruins defense, but it was perhaps the most exciting win of the year, won on a last second FG. Arizona State had a good offense in 2012. They were 21st in scoring offense at 36 points per game and 30th in total offense at 450 yards per game. They exceeded both those totals in this game, scoring 43 and gaining 535 yards.
Rushing defense was deceptively okay. ASU rushed 59 times and gained under 4 yards per carry. The screen pass tore the Bruins to shreds in this one. The Arizona State RBs had around 200 yards receiving in this game. Just not going to cut it ever. UCLA was much better against the screen after this game, so that is a positive to take away from this one. Kendricks had 17 tackles in this game, worth noting along with the defense combining for 4 sacks, 8 TFLs and an interception.
Arizona Wildcats: [A+: 4.0]
In perhaps a literal polar opposite performance from the week before, UCLA played their best defensive game of the season against a scary Arizona offense. The Wildcats ended the 2012 season ranked 7th in total offense at 526 yards per game, they gained 257. They Wildcats finished 16th in scoring offense at 38 points per game, they scored 10. I don't think I can say it better than I did in the original "Eye Test".
"The scheme that was put together this week was nearly flawless, the secondary completely shut-down two above-average receivers for Arizona in Austin Hill and Dan Buckner. The two combined for 8 catches and 79 yards a week after combining for 17 catches, 316 yards and 2 TDs. Had Matt Scott repeated his performance from last week against UCLA, he would have started popping up in Heisman talk, instead he ended up going 15-25 for 124 yards and rushing for 4 yards a week after putting up 469 yards of total offense with 4 TDs.
This is probably the ceiling for a defensive performance. It cannot get much better than eliminating a top 5 offense in every way a defense can in the biggest game of the season thus far. There is nothing for me to criticize on the defensive side of the ball. Appreciate that, doesn't happen often."
Washington State Cougars: [C-: 1.7]
This was a bizarre game. It was about 20 degrees and UCLA went into the second half up 37-7. Somehow it ended up a one-possession game at the final whistle after a 4-hour game.
The defense scored two TDs (one on a blocked FG return by Price and one on a fumble recovery returned 40 yards by Kendricks) and another 2 points on a safety by Barr. They had monster statistical game by many players.
Barr had 3 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, a safety and a blocked punt.
Kendricks had 15 tackles and a TD.
Marsh had 2.5 sacks, a blocked FG and a forced fumble.
Holmes had 3 TFLs and a sack.
Abbott had an interception.
Datone was in the backfield perhaps too often.
Yet it was a bad performance. The secondary gave up 450 yards to a team that ended up 9th in the country in passing offense, but was without their best WR. The Bruins committed 9 defensive penalties and allowed 29 points in the second half against a team that averaged 20 per game. Odd game.
Southern California Trojans: [B: 3.0]
This was the big one and I caught some flack for this grade in the comments. I stand by it and still feel good about it. Getting a B mean you did above average. UCLA gave up 500 yards and 28 points to a very good passing game with one of the best WRs in college football history in Marqise Lee.
Anytime a defense allows only three touchdowns while intercepting two passes, blocking a punt, blocking a field goal, stopping a fourth down conversion and breaking up 11 passes; they had a damn impressive performance.
Aaron Hester played the game of his life, basically bottling up Lee until the last 8 minutes of the game where UCLA seemed to go soft in coverage for some reason. Up until the 8-minute mark, Lee had 4 catches for 61 yards and UCLA was up 31-20.
Anthony Barr had the sack to finish Matt Barkley's business. I have watched that play about 50 times so far and will probably watch it 50 more times by the start of next season.
Eric Kendricks had 8 tackles, forced a big fumble by Lee, blocked a punt, and had an interception. Datone Jones played a great game. It was my favorite game of the season, but it was not the best defensive game of the season.
Stanford Cardinal, Part I: [B-: 2.7]
I said this about the game and am still happy with my analysis and the grade.
"On the surface, I was and still am completely in favor of UCLA's gameplan on defense against Stanford. Cram the box with 8 defenders and try to minimize the impact Stepfan Taylor has on the game. Force Stanford into 2nd and long and 3rd and long to take away the running game. Make Kevin Hogan and, more importantly, the Cardinal wideouts beat you through the air. It worked well in the early going and the defensive scheme looked solid early, forcing 3-and-outs on 3 of the first 4 Stanford drives."
It didn't work, UCLA lost 35-17. Here is why it didn't work, according to my "Eye Test": "The key to this gameplan is eliminating big plays by creating long 2nd and 3rd down situation for the offense. If you do that, then you'll have the advantage through the whole game. A defense is susceptible to a big play constantly when stacking the box, and that only amplifies when the defense is tired and facing a running back as good as Stepfan Taylor and an offensive line as good as Stanford's. Two big plays by Stanford were the real difference in the defense having a great game or an average one.
The 49-yard TD run by Taylor to give Stanford a 21-7 lead was the first.
On that play, Cassius Marsh blows through the line and gets too far upfield instead of coming flat down the line.Tevin McDonald makes the wrong read and plugs the wrong gap, and Andrew Abbott misses a tackle on Taylor from the weak-side.
It's a well-blocked play by Stanford that gets 5 yards regardless of those 3 miscues.
But the miscues turn it into a touchdown.
Football is funny like that, Abbott has been one of UCLA's most consistent tacklers all season and McDonald has had a great nose for the ball throughout his career. Both of them mess up on the same play, it's a touchdown. The whole game isn't as simple as that but that play stood out to me after thinking about the game on Saturday. You can nitpick and "what if" plays like that one throughout the whole game and any game UCLA ever played. The details are what the coaching staff notice and correct on film.
On the other big play by Stanford (Taylor's 40-yard run) the situation was a typical big play opportunity. The defense gets off the field after 4 plays by Stanford and the offense proceeds to turn the ball over within a minute of having the ball and the defense is right back on the field. On the play, Andrew Abbott is blitzing off the edge, giving UCLA 9 in the box with a single safety. Like Marsh, he gets a step too far upfield before crashing down the line and is unable to get to Taylor before he hits the hole. Seali'I Epenesa is well blocked and only able to get a hand on Taylor as he runs by, Once Taylor gets to the second level, McDonald is faced with a lineman bearing down on him with Taylor right behind. He does the only thing he could and tries to create a pile by going low on the blocker. While this is going on, Cassius Marsh had done a great job avoiding a cut block and getting in pursuit but, right as he gets to Taylor, McDonald's pileup takes Marsh's angle away and Taylor pushes past, juking out Price on his way to a 40 yard gain.
Perfect storm of random miscues caused by Stanford winning the battle upfront."
This gameplan worked much better in the Pac-12 Championship game and nearly led UCLA to the Rose Bowl. Alas, the Bruins are headed to San Diego to take on Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
This is how the grades worked out for the whole season in conference play and overall.
Pac-12 Conference GPA: [C+: 2.4]
This Pac-12 GPA is weighted down the bad performance against Cal and the Arizona State game. The overall GPA gets the non-conference boost.
Overall GPA: [B-: 2.7]
This feels about right overall. There were a few let down games and a few great performances. This defense was probably the best one UCLA has had in quite some time, maybe since the Brian Price, Alterraun Verner, Reggie Carter, Akeem Ayers defense, maybe since longer than that.
The 2012 season will hopefully be a jumping off point for the UCLA defense to become a nationally recognized group. While I don't think Anthony Barr will return, I am crossing my fingers that the reports coming out are true and we get to see Barr develop in 2013. The losses of Datone Jones, Andrew Abbott, Damien Holmes, Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will hurt; but there are a number of young players that can step up and fill the holes left by those seniors.