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The “Eye Test”: UCLA Finds New Lows Against Utah

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Tactical blunders cost the Bruins on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Quarterback - Looking over the tape, Devon Modster didn’t have a bad game. Yes, he missed a few reads, a few throws, and probably should have kept the ball a few more times. But part of the problem for Modster was the offensive gameplan, which we’ll get to in a bit more detail later. It feels obvious from watching the game a few times that Jedd Fisch did not want to overburden Devon with too much responsibility in his first start, and tried to rely on the run game to ease the burden.

When Modster was allowed to throw, there were some encouraging signs. Devon’s biggest strength is that he throws a very good deep ball, and he hit a pass of 42 yards to Darren Andrews and a 26 yard strike to Theo Howard (that Howard made a ridiculous catch on, but it was also placed in a spot where only he could get it). He had more issues with the intermediate throws, but that’s something that can get better with time.

Matt Lynch is going to boost this grade a bit, because he looked fairly good when he took over late in the 2nd half. Surprisingly, the coaching staff was more willing to have him run with the ball, and that athleticism was a nice surprise, as was the confidence on display in driving down the field for one of UCLA’s two touchdowns. Utah’s starters were still in the game, so it was an impressive drive for the other redshirt freshman. Overall, going to give the quarterbacks a B-, because they did rather well in what they were asked to do.

Running Backs - Bolu Olorunfunmi had half of the UCLA carries in this game with 16, while Jalen Starks came in second in 6. Bolu was...ok in this game. An average of 3.9 YPC isn’t bad by any stretch, and he’s definitely a good grindy-type of back, but this wasn’t the game that was going to take advantage of his ability. Utah was pretty stout against the run, in part because UCLA’s offensive line is currently continuing their late-season slide, but it also didn’t help that Utah felt determined to stop the run and make a redshirt freshman in his first career start beat them through the air.

If there’s a knock on Bolu, it’s that he’s not the kind of running back that can win a game by himself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most running backs in college would fall in this category, and you need a true workhorse like a Saquon Barkley to try and win the way UCLA attempted on Friday. So for his performance, Bolu gets a B.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - I don’t have much to say about this group. Part of that has to do with losing Darren Andrews to a season-ending knee injury in the second half, and realizing that now UCLA has lost their top 3 receiving options (I’m just going to consider Jordan Lasley gone at this point, and if he shows up that’d be a nice surprise). Theo Howard had an amazing circus catch, as did Andrews in this game, but they weren’t called upon to do much otherwise, and their run blocking wasn’t stellar. So we’ll go C-.

Offensive Line - UCLA’s offensive line....wasn’t half bad at pass blocking. It was especially impressive since UCLA kept running some of the longer-developing route concepts that they had been running with Josh Rosen under center, and against a (still very good) Utah defensive line, the unit held up admirably in that regard.

The problem is that this group has now had a string of games where they perform well in one aspect only to struggle mightily in another. In this game, that was run blocking. Now, like I said, Utah really seemed to scheme against stopping the run in this game, so it’s hard to fully blame the offensive line. But more often than not, UCLA runners got hit behind the line of scrimmage, and that’s not a good look if you’re going to rely on your run game. This really hurt in the 3rd quarter, as Utah was able to hold UCLA to 17 rush yards on 7 carries, completely locking down the run game, and as a result stalling the offense entirely. It wasn’t good by any stretch, and for that, I’m going to have to go with a C-.

Overall - I’ve explained this a few times, but one of the things I like about this change in style for the Eye Test is that it allows me to break down and grade what the players are doing separate from what the coaches are doing, and right here is a prime example. The players themselves, at least on offense, played fine, especially when you consider what they were asked to do. Modster was purposefully limited in the passing game, while gameplan seemed designed to ask the running backs and offensive line to do more than they’ve shown, which is flawed from the start. So as far as the offensive players are concerned, they’re getting a B-. Not a lot of sustained, excellent play, but adequate play for what was asked.

Defense

Defensive Line - Another game, another opponent rushing for over 250 yards. Now, to be fair, Utah’s 272 rush yards actually dropped UCLA’s average rush yards allowed for the season, but that’s still 272 rush yards, and realistically could have been more had Utah not routinely shot itself in the foot in the first half.

The defensive line, as has been the case all season, struggled to generate any sort of push. At this point, you have to take a good, hard look at strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi, as UCLA really shouldn’t be getting pushed around to this degree on a weekly basis. The line, for lack of a better descriptor, just lacks meanness, which leads to opposing offensive lines bulldozing them repeatedly. They’re quick, maybe one of the quickest defensive lines in the conference, but quickness doesn’t matter when an opponent can just punch you in the teeth repeatedly.

The Bruin pass rush was decent, especially in the first half, and that’s what is going to keep this grade from being an F. So the defensive line gets a D-.

Linebackers - If there’s one thing that stuck with me from the Oregon game, it’s that the poor linebacker play this year has more to do with scheme and coaching than it does the actual players.

Why do I say that? I kind of talked around this idea in the Oregon Eye Test, but part of the reason the UCLA defense had success in that game was because they weren’t told to sit back and react to the play, but rather to attack the play and be disruptive. UCLA assumed Oregon would run more often than not, and instead of being passive, they were aggressive, and that paid off to the tune of 11 TFLs. The linebackers weren’t asked to diagnose the play in real time, but attack and fill a hole from the jump.

Turn to the Utah game, and you see a return of a linebacker group that is constantly on its heels. The reason UCLA’s run defenses in the past could hold up was because they had a super-smart, NFL-level middle linebacker in Eric Kendricks and Jayon Brown that could read what the offense was doing and make the correct play 9 times out of 10, and then surrounded them with athletic outside linebackers (Anthony Barr, Myles Jack, Kenny Young) who could provide a supporting role in run support while playing solid pass defense. Instead, this year Kenny Young is being asked to, realistically, do everything, and his supporting cast are too green and inexperienced to offer much help. No one in this current linebacker group has the ability to diagnose plays at the speed of Kendricks, and asking them to do that is just a recipe for disaster.

Take Kris Barnes in this game. More often than not, you could catch Barnes taking a second or two too long to read the play, which meant the opposing runner was, at best, already on top of him, but usually was in a position where Barnes was suddenly out of the play. And this kept happening! Kenny Young ended up leading the team in tackles again this week with 12, but he’s miscast in his current role, and the linebacker group as a whole has not been coached up to the level they need to be to make a bad scheme work. It’s madness. F.

Secondary - Once again, I have nicer things to say about the secondary compared to the other groups, but not as much this week. It was a bad defensive performance all over.

Nathan Meadors continues to be this big shining bright spot in the secondary, and I think opposing offenses have clued into that fact, as receivers he was covering were only targeted twice in this game (with 0 catches). Adarius Pickett as well has looked fairly good, especially since he’s being asked to try and help out an awful run defense from the safety position on almost every play.

Jaleel Wadood has become a liability, though, and this may have been his worst game as a Bruin. This isn’t a fun thing to write about, because Wadood has been a leader for this team since he was a recruit, even being the initial champion of 4’s Up, but he is absolutely regressing this year. There were missed tackles, blown assignments, and at one point Wadood even laid a sweet block on Darnay Holmes to allow Utah to throw a 75 yard touchdown pass on a wheel route (which, to be fair, are always open). Throw onto this pile his incessant need to celebrate every play, even in situations that should not be celebrated, which has seemingly filtered down throughout the defense. If you want to hold the defensive players accountable, you have to look at the leadership, and Wadood just hasn’t played well enough this season, and especially in this game.

Darnay Holmes was a little better, but his targeting ejection was warranted, and was the definition of a bad play, considering the play was going out of bounds anyway. Octavius Spencer saw a lot of run in this game, and as has become standard when he’s in, opposing defenses love to attack him, and end up seeing positive results. So we’re going to give the defensive backs a D+.

Overall - You know, if you only watched the first quarter, you would have thought that the UCLA defense had turned a new leaf, and realistically they had. The Bruins held the Utes to 39 total yards in that first quarter, and if not for an untimely turnover on special teams, would have kept Utah off the scoreboard entirely.

Unfortunately, football has 4 quarters, and from the second quarter on, the wheels really came off this defense. In 10 drives from the second quarter on, Utah scored on 7 of them, with 2 more drives ending in punts, and the 10th drive ending the game. That’s not good, and what was worse was the ease at which Utah scored. Utah’s offense ranked 49th in S&P - they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut, but they were able to score at will for much of the second half. And the players absolutely share some of that blame. F.

Special Teams

Overall - You should know up front that the grade special teams will get this week has nothing to do with the two specialists. Stefan Flintoft and J.J. Molson did their jobs admirably this week, with Flintoft averaging 45.5 yards on 8 punts, with 2 over 50 yards, while Molson made every kick he was asked to try.

No, this grade will be bad because UCLA’s coverage and return units are not good in the slightest. Let’s talk about the return unit first, because that is easier to describe. UCLA doesn’t have any clue how to block for a kick return. See? Easy to describe.

What I mean by that is that the blockers never try to form any lanes or tandem blocks, instead going out as 10 individuals, leaving the returners with nothing to work with. When UCLA does have a solid return, it has less to do with a smart blocking strategy, and more to do with an impressive individual effort from the return man. You should probably take Mossi Johnson off the impressive individual effort list, though, considering he came back and muffed a punt, giving Utah great field position early. Mo Osling took over main kickoff return duties in this game, and looked ok for the most part, but it’s hard to judge that when the blockers in front give so little to work with.

As for the coverage units, the problem here has more to do with technique. UCLA likes to use backups and younger players on special teams, and while it’s nice to get those players reps (and, coincidentally, burn some redshirts for no real reason), the downside is those players are usually more raw, and you end up with issues like poor tackling form and bad pursuit angles. A good special teams coach would find ways to mitigate these issues, or put better players on those units (for example, Alabama actually trots out more than a few of their star players on special teams. Damien Harris, who leads the Tide in rush yards this season, had a key punt block which turned momentum against Florida State). That’s not what happens at UCLA, and it’s not surprising that the same coach who is struggling with the linebackers (Scott White) also happens to be the guy struggling to figure out special teams. This unit gets a D for the week.

Coaching

Offensive gameplan - Remember where I said the offense was let down by the gameplan this week more than anything else? Well it’s time to talk about that.

Now, to be fair up front, Jedd Fisch did some creative things at times. UCLA continues to employ levels of misdirection in their play designs that we haven’t seen in a long time, and there is a sophistication at play in regards to the play design. And, if we’re being honest, the gameplan installed by Fisch was one you’d expect to see to ease a new starting QB into a game.

Unfortunately, it’s also a gameplan that was never going to win.

UCLA ended up with a 2:1 run:pass ratio in this game, which is the opposite of almost every other game the Bruins have played this year. It became apparent early that Fisch just wasn’t comfortable with having Devon Modster throw the ball even close to the number of times Josh Rosen does, instead hoping the run offense could carry the day, and to again be fair, the weakness of the Utah defense would be its run defense, which ranks 52nd in S&P. But UCLA has yet to show that its rushing attack could carry the team this season, and that’s with opposing teams focusing on stopping the passing attack. And the rush offense was further hampered by a seeming refusal to let Modster run, making the offense more one-dimensional in how it attacked.

Frankly, I’m disappointed in the effort shown this week from the offensive coaching staff in designing the gameplan. All season long, they’ve shown a willingness to think outside of the box and be creative with how they attack opposing defenses, and yet in this game they called a game that Jeff Fisher would be proud of. It just wasn’t ideal, and so we’re giving them a C-.

Defensive gameplan - On Utah’s first touchdown run, UCLA only had 10 players on the field. It honestly feels like the coaching staff wants to be fired at this point. F.

Overall - Sorry, I need to repeat this: ON THE FIRST TOUCHDOWN RUN, THE COACHING STAFF COULDN’T EVEN BE BOTHERED TO MAKE SURE THEY HAD 11 GUYS ON THE FIELD. That’s negligence, plain and simple.

The first half was one of the more unwatchable halves of football I’ve ever seen, with both teams looking completely uninterested in doing anything related to the concepts of actually playing football. And then in the second half, you saw the good coaches at Utah make adjustments while the bad coaches at UCLA decided to check out the local scenery or something, because they sure as hell weren’t coming up with new ideas. I hear Salt Lake City is beautiful this time of year.

It’s especially galling that this happened because, for all intents and purposes, UCLA needed a win in this game to not only help them possibly make a bowl game, but even to give the coaching staff a chance at being retained. Well, some of them anyway - even if Jim Mora comes back next year, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that more than a few members of the defensive coaching staff, including Tom Bradley and Scott White, would be out of a job. But with that said, the overall coaching job in this game was just bland, and felt like it lacked any fire or passion. And that’s about as damning a criticism as I can give. F.

Discipline

Penalty Breakdown - A look at each of the penalties committed by the Bruins (no time, just quarter):

1st Q - Holding on Alex Van Dyke. Penalty came on the kickoff, so instead of starting at the 20, the Bruins started at the 10. The Bruins actually managed to score a field goal on this drive, so you wonder what the extra 10 yards would have given them

2nd Q - Illegal participation. I still can’t figure out what happened here, beyond a UCLA player maybe coming on the field too early. The Utah offense finally started to figure things out this drive, so the 5 yards was just icing on the cake.

2nd Q - False start on Najee Toran. Toran was jumping early in part because he was getting beat often.

4th Q - Targeting on Darnay Holmes. Once again, another easy call.

4th Q - Offsides. Basically the entire line jumped a bit too early. Gave Utah a first down on 3rd down. This was Utah’s last touchdown drive of the game, but free first downs aren’t good no matter the situation.

General comments - I’ll say this, 5 penalties for 40 yards is one of the better outings UCLA has put on this year from a penalty perspective. In fact, these two teams were rather uncharacteristic in how the penalty game worked, as UCLA was rather clean, while Utah kept continually shooting itself in the foot. It was fun to live in Bizarro World for a bit.

As usual, inappropriate celebrations and missed tackles count this section, and as usual, UCLA had a lot of both in this game. I was particularly tickled (read: angered to the point of laughter) when Jaelan Phillips celebrated a tackle he made, because he tackled the runner forward and helped him get a first down to keep a drive alive (Utah would score like 3 plays later). At one point, I noted on Twitter that UCLA’s defense was celebrating tackles despite allowing 38 points in 38 minutes; it was farcical in how situationally-unaware this team can be. And that has to do with discipline, or rather the lack of it (unless you’re Jordan Lasley, I guess). So we’re going D+, only because it was pretty clean from a penalty standpoint.

FINAL COMPOSITE

Offense grade: B- (2.7)

Defensive grade: F (0.0)

Special Teams grade: D (1.0)

Coaching grade: F (0.0)

Discipline grade: D+ (1.3)

Final grade for Utah: D (1.0)

For reference, the last game against Washington ended up as a D- (0.8). UCLA’s last victory over Oregon scored as a B- (2.72). The 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).

Looking over the game, that grade feels right, and was buoyed by an offense that did try hard, but weren’t put into a position to succeed. Still, this was one of the worst outings from UCLA that they’ve had all season, and it was exactly at a moment they couldn’t afford to have it. Suddenly, the ASU game becomes a must-win if Mora wants a chance to keep his job.

Go Bruins.