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The Eye Test: Sloppy Bruins Out-Talent UNLV

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Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 42-21 victory over the UNLV Rebels to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

NCAA Football: UNLV at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let me give you a brief run-down of how I write this article, if only to give you some insight on how the grades end up the way they do.

Sunday: Watch NFL. This helps to detach from the raw emotions of the game. As an added bonus, my Chargers fandom has helped desensitize me to all manner of sadness, so really nothing can hurt me emotionally anymore.

Monday: First rewatch. I don’t really take notes during this one, but rather try and get a feel for the game, since I know how it ends. Sometimes plays can seem important in the moment, or other plays seem unimportant but can have a major effect down the line (think the TD against Virginia last year that lost Vanderdoes for the season). Most of my notes here are more general, usually going into formation decisions.

Tuesday: Second rewatch. This is the nitty-gritty watch, and usually takes about 4 hours if I’m lucky (and thank god UCLA’s new offense is willing to utilize clock because good lord I think I’d die if I had to do this with the offense from last year). Individual play gets more focus here.

Wednesday: This is when everything gets put together. Some sections get put together rather quickly (for example, a lot of section 3 is just copy and pasted directly from my notes, and just made readable), while others take me a while to really articulate the viewpoint. Turns out writing is hard! Really wish someone had warned me about that.

Am I putting this out to garner sympathy? Not really. If anything, I just wanted you all to know why the Eye Tests are coming out later than they were last year, because I think you deserve that level of honesty. IE Angel had a true eye for this whole thing.

Anyway, let’s get into this.

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

Well.....

Some of the raw stats, if you looked at it without context, would make it seem like UCLA was above-average. UNLV only gained 328 total yards on the day. Passing defense in particular looked good, only surrendering 153 passing yards at a robust 5.5 YPP. And, whenever you can force 2 turnovers, that’s usually a good thing.

But go deeper in those stats. UNLV was able to run for 175 yards, and probably would have broken 200 had they not tried to pass as often against UCLA’s strong secondary. While last week’s run defense was mostly solid, only giving up a few long runs, this week saw UNLV average 5.0 YPC against a team that completely out-talented them. In addition, UNLV was able to get into manageable 3rd down situations rather often, ending up 8-15 on 3rd down conversions and 2-2 on 4th down conversions. That’s not good.

Here’s the thing on rewatch: of the three touchdown drives by UNLV, only one was a result of good execution by the Rebels, and even that drive was aided by Jayon Brown dropping an easy interception. Two of the three touchdown drives featured UCLA getting victimized by a QB draw in situations where a draw was expected. The third touchdown drive in particular featured the worst play on defense in the game, where UCLA allowed a 3rd and 25 to get converted via a speed-option to the outside.

The problem in this game was consistency. There were UNLV drives where UCLA looked like the more-talented team. This was especially true in the fourth quarter, where again UCLA pitched a real dominant quarter (UNLV’s fourth quarter numbers? 9 plays, 18 yards). But then you had those three touchdown drives, and even on the two drives that ended in interceptions, UNLV was moving the ball.

It’s hard to lay specific blame for the defensive performance, because it was a combination of things. UCLA was obviously missing some key playmakers, forcing backups into significant time where they underperformed. The scheme didn’t account for this lesser ability at all and remained in a passive state. D+ (1.3) seems right here, because UNLV’s ability to repeatedly drive on a much-more talented defense is just not a good sign going forward no matter how you try and defend it.

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

Boy what a difference a week makes.

This is the kind of positive change I was hoping for when Kennedy Polamalu took over as offensive coordinator, specifically because I assumed he’d be less stubborn and set in his ways, and through two games that seems to be the case. The offensive coaching staff had to have recognized that they just don’t have the horses yet to really run a power/pro-style offense consistently, so this week saw Rosen work more often out of the shotgun formation. Yes there were some under-center plays, but moving Rosen back seemed to settle him down more, as Rosen played much better in this game. Yes he still had some issues, especially on deep balls that he didn’t really throw well in the slightest despite having plenty of time to step into the throw, but this was definitely a more consistent performance from the star QB.

In the running game, the coaching staff recognized that trying to force the run game inside repeatedly wasn’t going to work, just because the inside line isn’t super-great right now. Instead there were more runs to the outside, which particularly benefited Soso Jamabo, who is a great RB when he gets in space. Also credit to the staff for getting Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks meaningful snaps while conserving Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi for the rest of the season when they’ll have a larger workload (also Mora stated this week that Nate Starks would be back for BYU, making the RB stable even stronger). Stephens in particular was a revelation in this game, showing off some of the shiftiness and elusiveness that made Paul Perkins such a great runner. I really have no doubt that he’ll be a future feature-back here.

Also, since I kept picking on them last week, I have to give a shout out to the RB group in general for doing a MUCH better job in blitz pickup here.

Perhaps the best sign of the game was that Polamalu didn’t overthink things. He knew what would work against the UNLV front, and continually ran those plays (and variations of them), daring the Rebels to stop him. Take the 4th down play-call on the first touchdown drive. From my notes:

8:51, 1st Q – First play I get to see is this 4th down conversion. Sends a message offensively that UCLA believes in its ability to move the ball against UNLV, and the play design is very good. Rosen gets a rollout with protection (including from the running back rolling with the line). Adams gets a short little 3-step flat route, which isn’t run particularly well but the UNLV defender gives him room to get past the first-down marker before the catch is even made, then uses his athleticism to break the play for more yards. If UCLA had a few more play calls like this they win at A&M.

I went back and kept watching this play because the design was so simple, yet so effective. If Polamalu can continue this level of growth as a play-caller throughout the season, the offense can look really, really good.

If there’s one nitpick I have with the gameplan this week, it was the tight end usage. I thought that the tight ends really emerged during the Texas A&M game, so it was a bit disappointing to see them not really get much play this week. If anything UCLA did seem a bit focused on getting Nate Iese more engaged and involved, yet at this point I’m about ready to cut losses. Iese is a great athlete but he always seems to disappear when the lights get bright, with last week’s Texas A&M game being exhibit A. Austin Roberts and Caleb Wilson, who together helped carry UCLA in the 4th quarter, didn’t see much offense coming their way, with the only target between the two of them that I remember was a poorly-thrown ball from Rosen to Caleb on a broken play.

Still, this was a promising game from the offense, and something positive to build on. I’m giving them a B+ (3.3) if only because the execution could have been tighter.

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

Quarter Breakdowns:

First quarter

7:45 – I have no idea what Kenny Young is doing on this run. He doesn’t even bother reading he play just runs inside and gets immediately blocked, leaving his side in the process. Gives up a 9 yard gain because he refuses to stay in his gap. Also not a good sign when the line just gets walked backwards in a few spots.

6:41 – Blitz by Jayon Brown leads to a poorly-thrown incompletion by the UNLV quarterback. Weird how that works.

6:37 – Brown gets swallowed up inside, and Young gets taken out by a wide receiver somehow. This is just bad tape all-around for Young.

3:33 – Hey this is new: UCLA loses contain and allows a QB to get a 10+ gain on a draw play. In this case, the blitz comes from Brown on the outside for some reason, and the middle of the field is left wide open as Goodman is stuck covering the RB. I can’t figure out why UCLA refuses to use a spying linebacker in the middle on situations like this. It feels very obvious.

2:23 – Not a good sign when your d-line gets parted like the Red Sea. Also, as much I love Goforth, it’s downfield plays like this that illustrate just how poor of a defender he can be at times. Just completely mistimes his tackle and ends up only hitting Kenny Young and a different UNLV player.

2:01 – UCLA operating out of a shotgun set. Bolu gets touched in the backfield somehow turns it into an 8 yard gain. Offensive line is just all over the place on this one, play only worked thanks to Olorunfunmi’s skill.

Second quarter

14:25 – This is Brandon Stephens first bit of meaningful action, and he shows off some flashes of Paul Perkins. Really patient run, lets the blocking develop, finds a hole and hits it for 15 yards.

14:00 – Boy, Rosen makes a pretty throw where only Walker has a shot, and to his credit Walker only misses this by a toe. Still, that’s a catch elite receivers make.

13:55 – Another well-placed ball, thrown low to protect from the defender, and Massington misses a ball that should be caught.

12:59 – Talk about bad idea, good result. Student Body left, Jamabo sees no opening, and then attempts to reverse the field, breaking a tackle and getting a good edge block from Rosen of all people (and credit to Rosen for staying in the play). From here, Jamabo’s athleticism again wins him the edge and the foot race, but good lord this won’t work against a good defense like a Stanford (although to be fair to Jamabo, Stanford probably would have stopped him before he got to go the other way).

12:40 – Dickerson diagnoses the play beautifully, sheds his block and stops Stanton before he can really get going.

12:00 – Savaiinaea makes a good play in coverage, and again we’re back to wondering how Young keeps getting more playtime.

9:37 – Rosen misses Adams on the deep ball. Has enough time to really plant and let it fly, and just misses the throw.

9:15 – Another great run from Stephens, this time a bit different than his first big run. Stretch play with a blocking tight end. Stephens hits the hole almost as soon as it appears, and uses some shiftiness 10 yards downfield to help gain even more yards.

8:04 – This time Rosen hits his streaking receiver in stride downfield, for an easy touchdown pass to Mossi Johnson. Play-action absolutely throws UNLV off here, as the safeties and linebackers are caught coming in and are forced to scramble to recover.

8:00 – Devonte Boyd gains 20 yards on a quick slant route, aided by a complete whiff of a tackle attempt by Goforth. Seriously, dude just can’t stop missing these kinds of tackles.

6:54 – Goforth’s interception is the direct result of Jacob Tuioti-Mariner turning the left guard into a turnstile with a swim move. All Goforth has to do at this point is sit on the route and get the easy interception.

1:00 – Brown lets an interception go right through his hands. Ironically that qualifies him to be a receiver on this team.

Third quarter

14:04 – Coverage downfield causes this throwaway, because Rosen is given a solid 4 seconds by the line to run through progressions.

13:50 – McDermott just gets worked on a speed rush by a linebacker, not great.

13:00 – UCLA manages to Keystone Cops on a 2nd down run attempt. It’s actually funny how often this happened, as if they were so much more athletic than their opponents that they kept misjudging the speed they needed to go at, and would instead barrel into each other than the ballcarrier.

11:36 – Much like the first Goforth interception, this one is set up by pressure. Adarius Pickett comes on a safety blitz but is picked up by the tackle. Fortunately, that gives Keisean Lucier-South a one-on-one with a much slower guard which he easily wins. JTM also combines with some pressure, and all Goforth has to do is play center field on the floated deep ball.

11:19 – Pressure on Rosen forced the incomplete. McDermott is just getting beat at times by UNLV’s rusher, this time with a bull rush.

10:37 – Real good blocking by the line here, with Quessenberry and Lacy making a huge hole that Jamabo is able to utilize for a 31 yard run.

10:11 – Just a real unfortunate fumble from a true freshman to kill a promising drive. Starks doesn’t protect the ball, and Nate Iese completely misses a fumble recovery attempt.

9:09 – I don’t know what is going on here, but this play is just the worst team effort of the game from the defense. 3 missed tackles, 2 other defensive backs unable to get off blocks downfield. There’s a lot of second-string on the field right now, which explains things a bit, but this is just inexcusable on a 3rd and long. Gives UNLV new life.

8:09 – Meadors gets off his block quickly and shuts down an outside run. Really, he and Moreau were the only defensive players to play consistently well.

5:13 – Another QB draw, another touchdown. Brown doesn’t even bother doing anything fancy on his blitz, just runs right into a left guard. Savaiinaea gets taken out by the running back, and Goforth is again late to the party in diagnosing the run. Stanton went untouched.

4:35 – Jamabo drops a wheel route pass. UCLA just squandering good field position on Adams return.

4:31 – Adams drops a pass. Pass might have been tipped, but it still hits both of Adams’s hands and stomach. Needs to be pulled in.

1:52 – Stanton keeps on an option. Kenny Young doesn’t even bother reading the play and just sprints after the running back, essentially taking himself out of the play without even needing to be blocked.

Fourth quarter

13:57 – Again, underthrown deep ball by Rosen, who again gets to step into the throw. Massington gets held a bit on the right arm but again should be able to catch that ball.

13:03 – Two bad throws from Rosen in a row, given plenty of times and he just puts too much behind this second little flat route to Caleb Wilson.

12:26 – Back shoulder throws are a difficult throw to make, and almost undefendable when executed properly, so it was really nice to see Rosen and Lasley connect on that here. Also, Bolu provides the extra time necessary by picking up the blitzing defender beautifully.

11:43 – This touchdown run by Bolu is just a mean play design. Tight end plus a fullback plus Van Dyke, who’s a bigger receiver, and UNLV just has no chance when the play is run right at them.

10:55 – Good lord Moreau plays this slant route beautifully. Just reaches his hand in and slaps the ball away before it can reach the receiver. Moreau completely shuts out Boyd in the second half.

5:46 – UCLA ran the ball so well that a quick 5-step drop from Rosen catches the UNLV defense on its heels, and opens up the deeper slant to Lasley. Just great playcalling against a tired and outmanned UNLV defense.

General observations:

Again, dropped passes were an issue with the receivers. I counted at least 6, and you could talk me into a few more. Massington in particular made some drops that you’d expect a top receiver to make.

Rosen had a much-improved day, and a lot of that can be attributed to better pass protection from the line. If you want to be optimistic, you can hope that this is how the line will play going forward now that they’re not facing two first-round talents at defensive end, and if you want to be pessimistic you can just point at UNLV’s relative lack of talent. Either way, Rosen was given plenty of time to make his reads and make the correct decisions on where to go with the football.

There were a good amount of missed tackles in this game from the defense. One of the biggest culprits was, ironically, the guy who got all the interceptions in Goforth. My theory on this is that, due to Goforth being undersized, he feels he has to get some speed to really take out the offensive player, but it just leads to him getting run through as his arms just can’t wrap up properly. Either way, it’s not great.

Kenny Young was just a disaster in this game, making poor reads and continually getting engaged rather than shedding blocks. For the defensive scheme to work, Young as the MLB has to play well, and when he has this kind of day, the defense suffers. Isaako Savaiinaea had a better day when he was in, but he still had his own issues, like getting taken out of the play by a blocking RB on the third UNLV touchdown. Savaiinaea should be getting the majority of playtime at this point, but the bigger issue is that whoever is playing at the MLB position has to play better than we got in this game.

This was a C (2.0) for me. The offense, outside the receivers, did a good job of executing all game, and the defense, outside the secondary, did a poor job. Average play gets an average grade.

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:

UCLA Unsportmanlike Conduct – Pac 12 Network was still covering the Washington game, so I didn’t get to see this, but an Unsportsmanlike is a bad penalty to take regardless of the situation.

1:25, 1st Q – Big gain to Kenny Walker (20+ yard play) negated because Scott Quessenberry is literally 8 yards downfield for some reason.

0:32, 1st Q – Rosen goes for a hard count before the snap, and he gets Toran to jump somehow. Bad penalty that makes a 3rd and 1 into a 3rd and 6.

13:15, 2nd Q – False start by Kolton Miller. Not going to matter because Soso scores on the next play, but still.

9:00, 2nd Q – Illegal substitution penalty on the Bruins. Won’t matter in the grand scheme as UCLA scores 2 plays later, but have to clean these kinds of things up.

0:30, 2nd Q – Holding on the return by Alex Van Dyke. Negates big return by Adams and likely stops any ideas UCLA has of doing anything before the half ends. 30 yard swing.

13:57, 3rd Q – Kolton Miller gets his second false start penalty. Hopefully he’s just getting them all out now, but this sets the offense into catch-up mode.

13:57, 3rd Q – Walker just straight drops a ball thrown in his breadbasket. Not good. Darren Andrews then compounds the problem by committing an unsportsmanlike while in the UNLV bench area. Just bad.

10:51, 4th Q – Holding on the kick return. Hold is away from the play entirely, and just a bad penalty to take.

9 penalties for 74 yards. Good to see that last week’s relatively-disciplined performance might actually be an aberration. From a optimistic outlook, there weren’t any personal fouls during play, and a lack of penalties from the defense is a good sign. But still, 7 penalties on the offense, including two false starts from our veteran right tackle. Not great, and can’t happen going forward. The two unsportsmanlikes are just inexcusable in this type of game as well.

Just a general effort level did not seem to be present from the team, especially on defense. UCLA should have out-talented UNLV easily, and instead seemed to keep things in neutral. The offense at least utilized the game to work out the new concepts, just a lack of focus from the line penalty-wise. Going with a C- (1.7) just due to the general sloppiness that a better team would take advantage of.

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

I’m going to focus mostly on the defensive scheme here, because we need to have a talk about this scheme. Now, from a fundamental schematic-level, the scheme UCLA runs is solid. Getting pressure solely from your front four allows for extremely good coverage downfield, and for the linebackers to act as floaters, doing things such as coverage and spying on the backfield. It also means that blitzes have more of an impact because they can be called in a more unpredictable matter.

Here’s the thing most social science professionals will tell you, though: most theories work under perfect conditions, and need to be adjusted to account for real-world variables. So the same applies to the UCLA defense, and it’s where the biggest issues fall.

See, the scheme that UCLA employs only works if everything can not only do their job, but succeed at it. On the NFL level, it works because you’re dealing with professionals that represent the cream-of-the-crop. In college, it is usually much less successful, partly due to personnel not being nearly as good, and partly due to the different offensive styles present in the college game. Like, an Alabama is able to get away with this style of defense because they’re trotting out the best college talent year-in and year-out, but UCLA in this game is a different story. The team was already down their best edge-defender in Takkarist McKinley (along with a second pass-rush specialist in Deon Hollins), were without the services of their best safety for the game (Jaleel Wadood), and were without their best defensive tackle after halftime (Vanderdoes). On top of that, the linebackers really reverted to 2015 form, and as good as Jayon Brown is, he’s not near the level of an Eric Kendricks or a Myles Jack. Point being, the talent and ability to run this scheme is extremely lacking.

What Coach Bradley, and by extension Coach Mora, have yet to realize is that to run a successful college defense in 2016, you need to be able to generate pressure consistently. This especially means getting after the quarterback on passing downs, because even the best college quarterback will struggle in the face of pressure. As for the run defense, yes UCLA is missing some playmakers, but considering how strong UCLA’s secondary is, there’s absolutely no reason that Bradley shouldn’t be throwing 7 or 8 in the box to shore up the defense. Allowing the defense to get spread by UNLV on all teams and give up 175 rush yards is inexcusable at this point in Mora’s tenure.

To bounce off of this point, the rotations among the wide receivers is beginning to go down as one of the all-time bizarre decisions of the Mora era. I love Eldridge Massington as a player, but at this point he is what he is, and trying to force him to be a top receiver instead of a contributing rotation piece is hurting the team. This is never more obvious than when Jordan Lasley came into the game for the injured Massington and proceeded to take over, leading UCLA with 61 yards on 3 receptions, all in the 4th quarter to put the game away. Theo Howard, the most obvious playmaker amongst the UCLA receivers, now has 1 catch on the season, which is inexcusable at this point. If Coach Yarber is ever wondering why he has such a difficult time bringing in elite wide receivers to UCLA, all he has to look at is his issues in playing his best players.

Coaching staff gets a D (1.0), only saved because the offense did improve from last week.

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

I know that the common refrain when it comes to flat performances is that the blame should primarily fall on the coaches, but I don’t believe that. Even the best coaches have games where their teams come out flat. Hell, Nick Saban spent his post-game remarks this past week getting after his team for poor play in a game they eventually won by 28.

You can blame a coaching staff for schematic failings, but a good percentage of blame for any poor play HAS to fall on the players, and considering some of the post-game comments from the team (especially the defense) they recognize that fact.

On offense, mentioning that Rosen is a leader seems too easy, so instead I’ll call out Soso Jamabo, and Jordan Lasley. Jamabo was just a force all day, going 90 yards on 11 carries for an average of 8.2 YPC, and would have broken 100 yards easily if the coaching staff hadn’t (rightfully) chosen to keep his usage low to save him for the rest of the season. Jordan Lasley absolutely stepped up in the 4th quarter when he came in for the injured Massington and dominated the poor UNLV secondary, going 61 yards on 3 catches, all in the 4th. These two absolutely stepped up in this game when it was needed.

On defense, it’s hard to pick a real leader. Yes you can mention Goforth with his two interceptions, but those were less "outstanding individual play" and more "making the right play in the moment". If I had to choose anyone, it’d be Fabian Moreau, who switched onto UNLV’s star receiver Devonte Boyd for the second half and completely shut him down. It was an impressive performance for Moreau, who is really beginning to justify that NFL-level cornerback talk we’ve heard for a few years.

UCLA gets a C (2.0) here. Just too flat to actually be higher.

Grade Card for the UNLV Rebels:

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? D+ (1.3)

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? B+ (3.3)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times, and do they execute? C (2.0)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? C- (1.7)

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? C (2.0)

UNLV GPA: C (1.9)

For reference, last week’s game against Texas A&M graded out to a C+ (2.6), and honestly at this point I feel this grade could be higher.

Tracy Pierson at BRO wrote an article about some general takeaways from the game this week (I think it’s behind paywall, but check it out because it offers some good points that made me rethink and rewrite a couple sections). The general gist of the article, though, was that, in general, this was a game that is going to be a net positive going forward for the team, and that the problems shown weren’t a big issue, and on a micro level, I agree with him. Yes, there are problems, but the good majority of them are correctable mistakes, and getting healthy on defense should help.

But, that said, on a macro level this game is alarming. In year 5 of the Jim Mora era, UCLA shouldn’t be having these kinds of issues against an inferior opponent. The same issues that were present in this game were present last year, and in years prior. Things are correctable, but recent history has shown an inability to correct the problems. If UCLA is to have any hope of a successful season going forward, it’s going to have to buck those trends, and there’s no better time than against a vulnerable BYU team this Saturday.

Go Bruins!