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The Morning After, Part 9: Arizona

Some Sunday morning thoughts on UCLA football, some lingering concerns with the coaching staff, and a shout out to one incredible freshman.

Jordan Zumwalt's pass reception was one of the bright spots from our coaching staff, but they still have some flaws they need to clean up.
Jordan Zumwalt's pass reception was one of the bright spots from our coaching staff, but they still have some flaws they need to clean up.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning.

The sun did, in fact, come up today, just in case any of you in the Pacific NW are wondering. Of course, it's always sunny here in Colorado, but it's even sunnier than usual today. And that is fitting because I feel a huge sense of relief today.

For the first time since 2003, we can wake up on a Sunday after a victory in Tucson.

Where were you in 2003? I don't remmeber that game exactly. Of course, there was no Bruins Nation in those days, so I do know I wasn't up all night writing about it.

I wasn't sure how we'd fare this time. Going into the game, both teams were 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12. Both teams absolutely had to win to maintain a legit hope of playing for the Pac-12 title. Both teams had nearly idenitical offensive stats and rankings. The big difference between us and them is that we were playing on the road in a place where we hadn't won since Dan Guerrero's first full season as A.D. (Coincidence?)

So considering all that and what was riding on the game, I feel really good this morning about getting out of Tucson with a win. Now, if you aren't feeling really good about this win, too, please go back and read this piece that followed the last time we played at Arizona. That was pain. Rereading about that debacle makes me thrilled with the outcome of last night's game.

Now having said that, there are plenty of issues today that are still pretty troublesome. It's possible to be thrilled with the outcome of the game but still be worried about the path we took to get there. Right now, my biggest worry is our coaching staff.

CaptDan1 wrote this near the end of the second half thread and I think it says things very well

UCLA players with Tier 1 coaching 45 - UA 16

UCLA players with current coaching 31 - UA 26

The Bruins coaches last night did some good things to give our players some good opportunities. At the same time, we left a few things on the board and Arizona scored two touchdowns they probably shouldn't have.

The first of those touchdowns came after the fake punt call on our own 25 yard line. Now I and many others have been all for Mora and his coaches to be more aggressive on 4th downs rather than playing conservative and punting the ball away. So while I applaud the general principle that we faked a punt, I'm talking more about leaving the offense on the field and running a play, rather than trusting our punter to throw a good ball from deep in our own territiory in a game where we already had things really going our way and when the last thing we wanted to do was gift Arizona back into the game. Right idea, but wrong time and place, and that gave Arizona a short field and momentum and hope, and four plays later they were in the end zone.

The second touchdown came at the end of a drive where we stopped Arizona on 3rd down near their own 41 yard line, but then accepted a holding penalty on the play to give them 3rd and 13. That was still a long shot to convert, but I would have been really surprised if they hadn't punted on 4th down there, and I think most feel the correct call would have been to decline the penalty. All the discussion about that decision would be academic if we didn't have to consider the wild card on every single Pac-12 play, the SPTRs. And what looked to be a great defensive play resulting in an interception somehow unbelievably became their ball with a first down, which gve them a short field and momentum and hope, and five plays later they were in the end zone.

Now we need to give the coaching staff some credit for the things it did well last night, too.

We have talked about how the offense really needed a bigger downfield threat and the predictable first down runs up the middle that were slowing us down. Well, first play last night...long pass downfield, boom, touchdown. Really guys, that stuff does work

The staff should also get a lot of credit for implementing the "doffense" (HT to UCLAshley). That formation and personel package was truly innovative and surprising to the point that everyone of us was shocked by it, and its success was due in no small part to the fact that Arizona was equally shocked and unprepared to handle it. Big ups to Mora and Mazzone for coming up with that and trusting it enough to run it for a drive and specific big plays, rather than using it as a onetime gimmick.

Some other highlights were the direct snap to the motion back in a short yardage situation, and the quick pass off the read option play. There were more intermediate routes over the middle, too. We had zero penalties in the first half. Zero. I didn't think that was even an option.

But that praise has to be partially offset by the all to frequent fallback to the same old pitfalls which have slowed our offense this season.

Remember a couple weeks ago when Coach Mazzone made a comment to the effect that he doesn't get caught up in schemes very much as he really just favors executing the plays well and not necessarily tailoring his offense to the opponent? Well, certainly a team has to execute properly to win, but schemes do count a lot, too. It's one thing if you are so much bigger and stronger and faster than an opponent to the point where you can just mindlessly run dive right and dive left over and over and the opponent just simply cannot stop it. But it's another thing when you are facing players who have comparable skills and attributes to your own, and that includes the majority of pac-12 teams we face. Dive right may work a couple times, but then a smart defense figures it out and shuts it down. Those are the kind of teams that make creative schemes a necessary and critical part of the game plan, but we saw way too many of those ineffective read option handoffs to small backs into the interior of the line. We had some great wrinkles for Arizona, but we still had too many of the same things that have failed in the past.

Coach Mora talks about wanting this team to become elite and compete for championships. I think we'd all agree we've made great strides since our last visit to Tucson. But the games against Oregon and Stanford show we aren't elite yet, and while some if that is on the players and their poor execution those two weeks, a bigger component has to be shouldered by the coaching staff, and I think we still saw signs of that last night. Our coaches did well enough to win a tough game in a tough venue, so good on them for that. But elite coaching both does the right things and avoids the pitfalls. Our coaching staff still needs to work on that latter part, because if you keep all the right moves from last night and throw back the duds, this is a game we could have won around 41-13 (I'll give UofA that PAT back for when they went for two and missed. I'm kind like that). So the fact that AZ had the ball at the end with a chance to win and we needed an interception to seal the game is on those coaches because we didn't need to be in that postion. They will need to fix their own issues if they want to become part of an elite football program.

Finally, I don't know if anyone has ever noticed, but I think maybe twice in 3 years of writing this piece on Sunday mornings have I ever used one of our own players' name. Football is a team game and I'm not trying to break down the performance as much as I want to look at some big picture themes around a game or our program, and naming players individually isn't what this is about. But this morning, and at the risk of unfairly neglecting around 75 players who did a very good job last night...

Myles Jack.

The Heisman Trophy is awarded to the nation's top college football player. Jack has already proven himself to be an outstanding linebacker and last night he showed he can be a devastating offensive weapon. Believe me, I know his name won't be in any conversations this year, but I challenge anyone to name another student-athlete in the country who is better football player than this kid.