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The “Eye Test”: Bruins Look “Improved” Against Oregon

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The question after this week: is it progress, or fools gold?

NCAA Football: Oregon at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Quarterback - This was definitely Josh Rosen’s best game in a few weeks, though he’s still not back to the lofty highs he saw at the beginning of the year. 21-36 for 266 yards, 2 touchdowns, and critically 0 interceptions is a fine day, especially compared to his past few games.

But there were obvious misses for Rosen in this game. Part of it might have been missing Jordan Lasley for what feels like his 20th team disciplinary action, meaning Rosen was without his most consistent big play threat, but Josh definitely missed on a few deep shots in this game. If anything, this felt like a game from last year for Rosen - good, if unspectacular, and with the feeling that he didn’t necessarily trust his receivers. Without Lasley and Caleb Wilson, that’s understandable, but there are still more than a few capable receivers on the roster beyond those two (hey Theo Howard!). But it was a solid performance, so we’ll go with a B.

Running Backs - The UCLA running backs (aka Bolu Olorunfunmi, Soso Jamabo, Brandon Stephens, and fullback Giovanni Gentosi) ran for 4.72 YPC on the day, and I bring up that stat because it’s so indicative of the good job this unit did when called upon. They’re not flashy (well, we’ll get to the flashy play), but they’ve been much more productive this year, and have become enough of a threat that teams can’t just ignore the UCLA run game on defense. That’s a huge boon for Jedd Fisch and the offense.

I’m going to focus on Soso Jamabo and Brandon Stephens first just so I don’t forget about them. Jamabo was workmanlike on the day, getting 15 carries for 66 yards (average of 4.4 YPC) while throwing in an 8 yard catch, but the run I really wanted to highlight was his run on UCLA’s first touchdown. For lack of a better descriptor, it was the kind of run you see from Bolu or Jalen Starks; just a big, bruising run where he moved the pile forward for the score. In fact, let me let Bolu take over commentary real fast:

Brandon Stephens saw a little play in this game, and he continues to have the roughest go of things in the RB group, but you can see the potential in his runs. This is the kind of game where I would have loved to see him get increased play later in the game once UCLA was able to pull away.

Alright, let’s talk about Bolu. Again, from the man of the hour:

Somehow Soso and Bolu were able to engineer a Freaky Friday situation on their two touchdown runs, with Soso doing the tough pile-moving dirty work for his score, while Bolu showed off more of the athleticism we usually associate with Soso. I cannot stress enough that Bolu got UP on that hurdle attempt, to the point that he was able to stand on the defender’s shoulders. That’s insane. I was in the Rose Bowl for the game, and my biggest memory from what was, in general, a very mundane game won’t even be Bolu’s leap itself, but the reaction from everyone in the stands. The entire crowd remained standing from the moment Bolu jumped to Oregon snapping the ball to start their drive because we couldn’t believe what we had just seen. That’s how ridiculous and insane it was.

A tangent: I’m a huge wrestling fan, and those who follow wrestling know that the big event of the weekend (outside of PWG putting on another set of amazing shows) was the return of Kurt Angle to a WWE ring for the first time in 11 years. I’ve watched Angle wrestle matches for a long time, and seen him take some absolutely ridiculous bumps that left his body broken. All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have no idea how Bolu did not end up with, to quote Kurt Angle, a “broken freakin’ neck” at the end of that play. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug.

With the absence of Jalen Starks for an unknown amount of time, Bolu has another chance to reestablish himself in the running back pecking order, and having strong games like he has the past two weeks are an excellent way to accomplish that task. Bolu ran with purpose, finding the hole quickly and attacking, which is a far cry from the tentative runner he was at the start of the season. Credit to Bolu and the coaching staff for turning things around here.

In general, the rushing attack continued its upward momentum against a defense that has been surprisingly strong against the run (Oregon exited the game as the 27th best run defense according to S&P), and that just adds another dimension to an already-strong Bruin offense. We’ll give them an A-, and a hope that things don’t take a huge step back against the strong Washington defense.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - Definitely an interesting game from this unit, for a couple reasons.

First, with Caleb Wilson out with injury and Jordan Lasley out with disciplinary issues, the Oregon defense REALLY keyed in on stopping Darren Andrews. Andrews ended with 5 catches for 44 yards, but he was targeted 12 times, and asked to do a wide variety of roles, including being the main deep threat with Lasley out. I would have preferred seeing Howard used in that role, or someone like Demetric Felton, who’s a known speedster, than putting more on Andrews plate. Let Andrews remain the steady, hard to tackle slot receiver rather than try to make him an all-around weapon. Andrews did end up with the dagger touchdown at the end of the game, and you could see the look of relief that he was able to get free enough for the grab.

Theo Howard was finally able to exit the dog house with Lasley out, and had a productive day, catching 5 of his 8 targets for 60 yards. Hopefully, this performance gets Howard back into the good graces of the coaching staff, because he gives the passing attack a different look compared to Andrews and Lasley, and that’s a huge positive.

There were two positive developments, and that was the games of Christian Pabico and Jordan Wilson. Pabico finally showed off the production that made him such a hot name during fall camp, tallying 4 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, and looking incredibly sure-handed in the process, with his one non-catch on a target coming on a pass thrown out of his reach. This is the kind of production you have to expect if you’re going to play a walk-on for any significant amount of time, and again it appears the loss of both Lasley and Wilson for this game gave Pabico an opportunity to break out, which he absolutely took. The upcoming Washington game might be a strong indicator of whether this is the new Pabico or a one-time aberration, but for now, I’m just happy that Pabico was able to record his first career touchdown.

The other positive development was Jordan Wilson’s breakout. Well, maybe breakout is a strong word - this wasn’t like Caleb Wilson’s huge performance against Texas A&M. But with Austin Roberts leaving the game early with what looked to be an ankle injury, Jordan Wilson was able to provide a solid presence over the middle for the Bruins, catching 4 passes for 43 yards. J. Wilson is being asked to play a big role now that the two tight-ends in front of him are both out with injuries, and he performed admirably in this game. Hopefully he continues to grow as the season progresses, and I’m already drooling over the possibility of UCLA trotting out two tight-end sets next year with Caleb and Jordan Wilson on either sides of the line.

Much like Josh Rosen, this was a solid, if unspectacular, day from the unit. You’d like to see the trust between this group and Rosen get better, but without two of the more productive members, the unit did an admirable job. Let’s give them a B.

Offensive Line - For as much as Jedd Fisch has gotten praise as the architect of the Bruin offensive turnaround, maybe no coach has done a singularly better job than Hank Fraley for how much better the offensive line has played this year. The most positive trend has been the noticeable growth from this unit over the season, something Bruin fans just aren’t used to seeing in decades. Consider the left side of the line, which was a sieve to start the year, but Kolton Miller and Najee Toran have turned things around, and UCLA has become much more confident running to that side of the line. That’s huge for the running game, as a line that can run to both sides is much, much harder to defend.

Those rushing totals I mentioned during the RB section also should go down here, because the UCLA offensive line did a great job of getting out of their stances and moving around what has been a stout Oregon run defense in this game. Seriously, for all of Oregon’s flaws, new DC Jim Leavitt has improved the Oregon defense, especially the run defense, so it’s an incredibly-positive sign that UCLA was able to find success on the ground in this game.

In the passing game, the offensive line was adequate to good. In a change of pace, the weakest section in this regard was the right side and center, as Mike Alves, Andre James, and Scott Quessenberry each had at least one issue in pass protection. Rosen took a few hits, but there wasn’t any sustained pressure from Oregon like we’ve seen in some other games this year, or really all of last year. Again, progress.

Finally, I wanted to give a shoutout to Sunny Odogwu, who saw his first action of the year in this game. The Miami grad transfer came in as a blocking tight end of all things, and looked good in his limited role. The reports coming out of fall camp indicated that he’d probably be limited in the amount of snaps he’d see on a per-game basis, but this is a solid use for him, taking advantage of his road-grading ability.

In general, this game continued the upward trend for the unit, and it’s a great sign for Bruin fans. I’m going to give this unit an A- for the game, but the big test comes this week against Washington. Good luck, boys.

Overall - On the one hand, this wasn’t as crisp an effort as we’ve seen from the UCLA offense this year, but that’s understandable. The offense is still figuring out life without Caleb Wilson, and the subsequent loss of Jordan Lasley for this game couldn’t have helped. What is important is that the running game and offensive line showed progress, and Josh Rosen had a much-cleaner game. If the Bruins can keep up the momentum, that could give them a shot against Washington. So for this game, we’ll give the offense a B+.

Defense

Defensive Line - So, here’s a fun puzzler: UCLA was without Rick Wade in this game, and lost Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson at various points in the game. On the other side, Jaelan Phillips returned to the lineup, while younger players like Osa Odighizuwa, Marcus Moore, and Greg Rodgers saw increased playing time.

The result? One of the better performances for the UCLA defensive line all season.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious just how special Jaelan Phillips is, as the true freshman phenom returned from injury and logged 4 tackles, including 1 sack and a separate TFL. Even as a true freshman, Phillips has shown an advanced ability to create pressure and get around opposing offensive lineman, and his time away thanks to injury helped underscore how important he is to the UCLA pass rush. Simply put, Phillips is a special player, and he’ll be a joy to watch over these three years (because, let’s face it, he’s so talented that he absolutely needs to declare for the NFL draft when eligible, barring some unforeseen accident).

The combination of Osa Odighizuwa and Chigozie Nnoruka has, realistically, been UCLA’s best set of interior linemen this year, give or take a healthy Rick Wade, who probably should be on the outside as-is. Odighizuwa in particular had to bring back memories of older brother Owa, as he had 5 tackles, 3 of which were TFLs. Nnoruka’s emergence has led to diminished playing time for Boss Tagaloa, who was injured early in the season but is nearing 100%, and if he can get back up to top-end form, that’d give the Bruins 3 solid interior linemen to build around going forward.

Marcus Moore came in for the injured Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and had himself a breakout game. With 5 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 TFLs, Moore was a constant presence in the Oregon backfield, but the best thing he did all game, and maybe the best defensive thing I’ve seen all year, was his ability to set the edge on any and all option plays. He stayed home rather than run in to try and make a play, which is an incredibly unselfish play but an absolutely necessary one for any team that even wants a hope of defending the run.

Now, if you want downsides, it has to start and end with this number: 246. That’s the number of rushing yards UCLA allowed in this game. To be fair, it’s a far cry from the 457 yards UCLA allowed last week, but it’s still extremely high. But let’s take a glass half-full look at this: Royce Freeman ended the game with 160 yards on the ground, and for a running back who broke the 5,000 yard mark in his career during this game (a career that definitely has spanned a decade because I swear Freeman has always been at Oregon), it’s fair to say that Freeman is going to get his one way or another. Thus, the positive is that they were able to limit the damage on the ground. I believe, even with a backup quarterback, that Oregon’s ground attack can still be pretty potent, but it’s hard not to feel like that could be fools gold after the Arizona game. So we’re going to give the defensive line an (optimistic) B for this game, and just calmly remind everyone that the Eye Test tries to give grades based on the current game and the current game only. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

Linebackers - Kenny Young has quietly put together a solid 4-game stretch where’s he’s led or tied for the lead in tackles. It’s been easy to overlook that considering two of those games were defensive debacles against Stanford and Arizona, but since returning from injury Young has looked much-improved.

Josh Woods left the game near the start of the second half with an injury, and with Krys Barnes and (apparently) Lokeni Toailoa also out with injuries, we ended up seeing a lot more of Dechaun Holiday and Keisean Lucier-South at the linebacker position, and both guys did fine. I’ll give KLS a bigger shoutout here since he stepped in admirably at a position that he normally doesn’t play, but the rash of injuries forced him into the switch for the time being.

Before Woods left, though, he was a mess, as has tended to happen for him. Woods has all of the athletic talent in the world, but far too often makes the wrong reads on run plays. I think, in another scheme and with different personnel, Woods’s flaws as a run stopper could be masked and his athleticism allowed to shine, but in this current environment he just ends up lost. It also doesn’t help that it feels like he’s averaging at least one personal foul a game.

Generally, the linebackers were ok. They weren’t exceptional, but ok is a huge improvement from the trash pile they had previously been, so I’ll go with a C+ here because, again, it’s hard to gauge how much of this improvement was due to the defense and how much was due to Oregon being very one-dimensional with Justin Herbert out, and I lean more towards the latter for this group.

Secondary - Personnel shifts were the name of the game across the board for the defense, and the secondary was no different. For this game, the shift involved moving Nathan Meadors to the nickel and bringing in Colin Samuel at the corner spot, while Denzel Fisher and Octavius Spencer were kept off the field as much as possible. After the Colorado game, I wrote this about Samuel:

Colin Samuel looked ok, in particular having a decent pass breakup, and maybe you hope he translates that into better practice performances and an increased role.

Sometimes I get lucky in writing smart things in previous articles that allow me to point them out and yell “SEE! I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT”, and this is one of those moments, because boy howdy did Samuel step up big in this game. Now, again to be fair, Oregon with Burmeister at quarterback really isn’t a threat to air it out, but Samuel looked very good in pass coverage, including getting his first career interception after some great coverage on a deep pass. Samuel’s great play also freed up the secondary a bit, as Meadors and Darnay Holmes looked looser and played better, and Adarius Pickett and Jaleel Wadood were freed up to come into the box and help out on run plays far more often. If this is the direction the secondary moves in, I’m all for it.

If you want negatives, UCLA employed more press coverage in this game, which I’ll get into in the coaching section, and the UCLA defenders looked to be having some issues getting the hang of it, but that’s to be expected when you rarely practice such a big skill. I’m gonna go with an A- for this group.

Overall - The title of this piece states that UCLA looked “improved” against Oregon, and there’s a reason for that: it’s hard to say how good Oregon is considering their backup quarterback isn’t good at passing the football. It makes playing defense easier because you can reasonably assume that most plays are going to be runs, which is what happened, as Oregon ran the ball 62 times while attempting only 15 passing attempts. So while holding an opponent to 14 points is nice, Oregon was already at a disadvantage before this game even started.

The main point I want to get across here is that it is probably fools gold to believe UCLA’s defense will perform at or above this level with any consistency going forward. There are signs that some adjustments were made after the Arizona game, which I’ll get to down below, but there’s also signs that some big issues remain. Perhaps being embarrassed in that fashion by Arizona turned a collective light on for the defense; it’s hard to say. So we’ll go with a conservative C+ for the defense this week, because they did play better than last week, but it would have been hard not to do.

Special Teams

Overall - J.J. Molson nailed his 1 FG attempt, which was important because it came in the dreaded 40-49 yard range. Coming into this game, Molson was 3/9 from this distance in his career, so nailing this kick (and nailing it in a “never a doubt” way) has to be a great confidence boost for the sophomore kicker who is having a nice bounceback season.

Stefan Flintoft has been the clear MVP of the special teams unit so far this year, and that trend continued in this game. With how strong the UCLA offense has been this year (and their increased belief in going for it on 4th down), Flintoft has had less to do, but he’s made the most of his appearances. In this game, he had 4 punts for an average of 44.5 yards, including 1 50 yarder, and 2 that were parked inside the 20 yard line. Actually, at this point, you can make a great comparison to last year, when he split duties with Austin Kent. Look at these splits:

Flintoft Punting Stats Comparison

Year Punts Yards Average Long
Year Punts Yards Average Long
2016 23 928 40.3 53
2017 23 974 42.3 63

Flintoft has been able to increase his average by 2 yards, which has led to almost 50 extra yards on the same number of punts. I wish I had access to a bigger database of stats, but I’d also hazard an educated guess that Flintoft’s rate of fair catches has increased this year, as his hang time feels as though it has noticeably improved since last year.

But the most important stat? Flintoft didn’t play until the Utah game last year, where he split time with Austin Kent, and put up those 23 punts in a 5 (really 4 1/2) game stretch. He’s at 23 punts through 7 games this year. That’s a pretty sizeable difference, and a sign of how much better the UCLA offense has been.

Adarius Pickett committed one of those sins that you can never commit as a punt returner, when he attempted to field and return a punt from inside the UCLA 5. The old rule is that the punt returner should plant his feet at the 10, but Pickett has had a bad habit of trying to do things with deeper kicks, and it has yet to work out. Picket has been a fine punt returner, in the sense that he’s been incredibly sure-handed, but he really needs to start making better decisions.

In general, special teams did well, but Pickett’s miscue is going to cost the grade, because it was such a huge, potentially costly mistake.. Going with a B- here.

Coaching

Offensive gameplan - I hope you’ll excuse me for not turning every one of these sections into a complete fawning over Jedd Fisch and his offensive gameplans, but again we saw a very smart game called by the UCLA offensive coordinator. There was a solid mix of run to pass plays (a near 50:50 ratio), a solid mix of tempo, and it really feels like Fisch is at the top of his game. So I’m just going to point out a few things that stood out in particular before handing out this A-.

First, I want to talk about the end of the game. Oregon called a timeout when UCLA attempted to knee out the game, and the tv cameras caught the look of disgust on Jedd Fisch’s face. In the stands, everyone hoped that UCLA would decide to try and go deep as a result of that timeout, so it was great to see that Fisch was as ticked off as we were that this game couldn’t just end in a simple way.

Let’s also talk about UCLA’s first touchdown drive, which was a clinic in efficient, methodical play. UCLA ran 11 plays to go 45 yards, and in doing so took up 5:31 of game time. The Bruins converted 2 4th downs on the drive, and had 6 run plays to 5 pass plays. And it absolutely worked. The Bruins gained 4.1 YPP on the drive, which is some real goofy efficiency that Oregon was never going to find an answer for. Yes, the Ducks were able to get some stops in this game, but UCLA averaged 5.6 YPP for the game; that’s going to be tough to stop no matter the opponent.

Defensive gameplan - So, there are some reasons to be a bit optimistic about the Bruin defense after this game.

The biggest would be that UCLA actually changed up some schematic things in this game, with positive results. I’ve long mentioned that, with the apparent lack of top-end NFL talent UCLA currently has on the field, the Bruins needed to switch their defensive scheme away from the passive, gap-control focused style they’d played for the past 3 years to a more aggressive approach, and this game finally saw that switch. The UCLA defensive line has talent, and in this game they were told to make their way into the backfield and be as disruptive as possible. The result? 11 TFLs, with 4 sacks, which is the best showing for the Bruins in that regard all season. Does it help that Oregon was so one-dimensional that the Bruins should have known what was happening on almost every play? Absolutely, and we’ll get to that.

The secondary as well got more aggressive, with more press coverage from the corners than we’ve seen in the past. The corners got burned on a few of these plays, but I’m more willing to place the blame on the fact that it seemed unnatural for that group, as if they hadn’t really practiced press coverage all that much. UCLA has a cadre of big, physical corners, and playing press coverage finally allows them to be big and physical, so again, a step in the right direction.

Finally, there were some solid personnel switches in this game, either due to injury or lack-of production, that you’d like to see continue going forward. Colin Samuel should be the 5th defensive back going forward. Osa Odighizuwa and Marcus Moore almost demand more playing time. Dechaun Holiday and Keisean Lucier-South, who haven’t been a part of the regular linebacker rotation for most of the season, helped the linebackers have their best game of the season.

And now for the but....

But........like I mentioned during the Defense section, it’s hard to get too excited about any improvement that was made in this game, because Oregon isn’t very good without their starting quarterback. The Ducks are extremely one-dimensional at this moment in time, as evidenced by the over 4:1 run:pass ratio they ran in this game. Frankly, the biggest sign of improvement is that UCLA finally did the obvious change to stop a team like this. And there were still breakdowns in the run defense - Oregon was able to get 11 chunk plays running the ball, and the team in general is still rather raw at diagnosing where the ball goes on option plays.

So like I said earlier, my impressions during the game and on rewatch are that this could be fools gold. I think there are definitely some things from this game that should be adopted moving forward, but I’m not confident this coaching staff won’t just revert to form next week against Washington, even though Arizona State showed how an aggressive defense can beat the Huskies. But, for this game at least, we’ll go with a B-.

Overall - I thought this was one of the better-coached games this season for UCLA. The Bruins played with a sense of urgency, as evidenced by that first touchdown drive where the Bruins went for a conversion on 4th down twice. There were finally smart changes to the defense, while the offense continued to show growth in some key areas.

If there was a misstep, it would be the timeout at the end of the first half. It really just felt like an odd spot in general, trying to save time, especially when it was immediately followed by a touchdown, and then the offense not being aggressive with some time left at the half and timeouts. It was just odd, all around.

But like I said, this was a pretty well-coached game. Penalties remain a thing, the defense still has its issues, but in-game management was fairly solid. So, overall, we’ll give coaching a B this week.

Discipline

Penalty Breakdown - A look at each of the penalties committed by the Bruins:

6:16, 1st Q - Personal Foul, Late Hit Out of Bounds on Josh Woods. This was one of those “aggressive” penalties that UCLA always seems to commit, where Woods tried to get a hit in before Braxton Burmeister got out of bounds. The good news is that UCLA really played Oregon well for the next three plays and forced a punt, so the penalty didn’t “hurt” the Bruins in any traditional sense of the word.

11:31, 2nd Q - Holding against Jaleel Wadood. This is a rough penalty for a few reasons. For one, Wadood actually did his job on the play - he covered his man well. But Burmeister was able to extend the play with his legs, and when that happened Wadood got caught tugging on the jersey. It’s the kind of play that can tend to happen when a play gets extended, essentially the opposite of a coverage sack. Unfortunately, the Ducks were able to keep the drive alive and score a touchdown a few plays later.

7:08, 2nd Q - False Start on Andre James. UCLA punted 4 plays later, so you can draw a direct line between this penalty and the drive stalling, especially since they’d begun the drive with an 11 yard pass play.

4:43, 2nd Q - Pass Interference on Nathan Meadors. Meadors was actually doing a smart coverage play by riding the Oregon receiver along the sideline, the official just felt he was too physical in doing so. This was on a 3rd down, so it extended a drive that the Ducks would eventually score on.

0:47, 2nd Q - Facemask on Jaelan Phillips. Actually tackled Burmeister for a loss on second and goal, but grabbed the facemask in doing so. On replay, it didn’t look like he grabbed the facemask but rather the side of the helmet, but it appeared he was hurt by his giant hands making it seem like he grabbed more than he did.

14:56, 4th Q - False Start on Andre James. Took a 3rd and 9 and made it a 3rd and 14, essentially killing the drive.

0:41, 4th Q - Personal Foul (Horsecollar Tackle) on Marcus Moore. Not the best form on the tackle, but the good news is the game was obviously over at this point.

General comments - 7 penalties for 67 yards. Technically, this was under UCLA’s season average, so that’s a plus, and I hope everyone reading this can detect my sarcasm.

But on a more serious, analytic note, notice the grouping of those penalties. 4 of those 7 penalties occurred during UCLA’s mini-meltdown in the 2nd quarter, and UCLA really cleaned things up in the second half, not accumulating another penalty until Andre James’s false start early in the 4th quarter. The defense, which has easily been the more-penalized of the two UCLA units, played a nearly flawless second half from a penalty standpoint, and that had a direct effect on the Bruins’ ability to pull away.

Also, for those who keep track at home, this game featured much less celebration from the defense for every little play, as the Bruins started to let their play do the talking for them. There were still pockets of overhype (Jaleel Wadood will forever remain the biggest culprit in this regard), but it was much improved. So we’re going to go with a C+ this week. There are still too many penalty yards, but you can see a shift from the first and second half.

FINAL COMPOSITE

Offense grade: B+ (3.3)

Defensive grade: C+ (2.3)

Special Teams grade: B- (2.7)

Coaching grade: B (3.0)

Discipline grade: C+ (2.3)

Final grade for Oregon: B- (2.72)

For reference, the last game against Arizona graded out to a D (1.08). The home game against Colorado graded out to a C+ (2.19). We gave the Stanford game an Incomplete because it was so bad. The game against Memphis graded out to a C (2.18), while the game versus Hawai’i graded out to a B (3.0). The opener against Texas A&M graded out to a C+ (2.26).

This grade, much like the game, feels like fools gold. You really do see the issues with the Eye Test when measuring on a game-by-game basis, and not on a general trend basis, because this team can fluctuate wildly from extremes. UCLA faced a bad opponent, and did what they had to do. Now, comes the big challenge, with the road trip to Washington.

Go Bruins!