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The “Eye Test”: A Complete Defensive Failure Sinks the Bruins Against Memphis

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UCLA looked good on offense, but good wasn’t good enough.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Quarterback - The beauty of the Eye Test in this form is that it tries not to assign blame; it is as close to an objective look at every aspect of the game, and assessing the level of success and failure. So please remember that when you read a few of these sections, because they’re going to be rough.

As always, we start with Josh Rosen, who more than ever appears to be the engine that drives this team’s success and failure. That’s an unfair burden to put on anyone, especially a 20 year old quarterback coming off of a major shoulder injury. But that’s the situation UCLA finds itself in at this point.

In general, Rosen played well in this game. No, he wasn’t as brilliant as he was in the Hawai’i game, but he played well enough to win this game. 463 yards, 4 touchdown passes, and a separate touchdown run is a really good stat line, and also shows just how pivotal Rosen is to the offense (he threw the ball 56 times which, boy that is a lot of pass attempts).

Of course, I also didn’t list his two interceptions, and they did highlight the fact that Rosen has gotten a bit lucky on more than a few throws. The first interception was just a poor decision - Rosen was given all sorts of time in the pocket, and was even able to roll to the side and generate more time. Instead of living to fight another down, Rosen forced a pass, trying to get the first down (how much the sack on the previous play played into this decision, I’ll never know), but it was a poor decision, and Memphis took it all the way back for a touchdown.

The second interception was a little more understandable - Jordan Lasley wasn’t on the same page, and cut upfield rather than back, which led to an easy interception for the defense. Still, not a great decision.

Rosen wasn’t perfect, so his grade is going to end up as a B, but that speaks to the ridiculous level he has shown he can reach. But again, don’t blame him for this loss; he’s pretty far down on the list of reasons.

Running Backs - This was...an interesting game for the running backs. They were again without Soso Jamabo, and Nate Starks exited the game early after hurting his knee (an injury that is apparently season-ending, which sucks for Nate), but we actually did learn a bit more about the players we did see.

The biggest takeaway? None of the RBs we saw in this game (Bolu Olorunfunmi, Brandon Stephens, and Jalen Starks) are particularly good on long stretch runs. Part of that is the offensive line just isn’t good enough to block those with any level of sustained success, but the other is that these guys just aren’t fast enough or make decisions quick enough to make those work. The backs did much better when they were given simple dive plays, and they were able to find the hole quickly and hit it hard. The team ended with 170 yards rushing, an impressive amount considering how many horizontal run plays ended up being negative yards. The unit even held up in pass protection, or at the very least wasn’t as poor as they’ve been in the past. Credit to DeShaun Foster for getting this group looking much better.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Jalen Starks’s ridiculous catch on a wheel route, because he went up and got that ball. And I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Brandon Stephens fumble immediately after the Bruins got a great interception from Adarius Pickett.

In general, this was another solid day for a running back group that was a horror show last year. No one has really stepped up and become the bellcow back yet, but as of now they look like a group of complementary parts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. B.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - Here’s a fun game! I’m going to list two stat lines, and you guess which receiver this was:

10 catches (13 targets), 175 yards, 1 touchdown

4 catches (11 targets), 62 yards, 1 touchdown

The first stat line belongs to Darren Andrews, who continues to be UCLA’s most consistent receiver, and looks more well-rounded than he did last year, which is crazy to think about. The other belongs to Jordan Lasley, who really had a nightmare of a game in a lot of respects. He struggled to break out on a few routes, had some miscommunication on the second interception, and saw a return of the drops that plagued him last year. Not a great day from a receiver that UCLA relies on to break out.

Theo Howard and Caleb Wilson, two of the other major pass-game components, had more complementary games, which isn’t surprising. After his breakout game against Texas A&M, defenses have focused on taking Caleb away, which suits UCLA fine as they have a host of weapons to take advantage of. It just sucks for Caleb. Howard similarly saw a bit more attention paid his way after a dominant performance against Hawai’i last week, but UCLA tried a deep pass to Howard this game that was unfortunately overthrown.

I will say it might be time to end the Christian Pabico experiment. He’s a great story, but it’s becoming painfully-obvious that the bright lights are getting to him. He had a nice catch for 22 yards, but he also whiffed so badly on a block attempt during a bubble screen that a tackling dummy would have done a better job.

Generally though, this was a solid performance, but missing the brilliance of the previous two games. So another B.

Offensive Line - We need to have a talk about Kolton Miller.

Miller was, in a lot of respects, the best offensive lineman on the Bruins last year by a wide margin, making the right side of the line something of a strength, or at the very least the only non-bad part of a really weak unit. But the switch to the left side to take over for the departed Conor McDermott has been rough sledding so far. Miller looks to be steps slower, and is getting beat rather consistently, usually drawing running back help on pass plays. That’s not great, especially when paired up with Najee Toran, who still struggles at times. At some point, either Miller gets better, or some tweaks are made to better protect Rosen.

The right side of the line, meanwhile, has looked surprisingly great, especially considering the personnel. Scott Quessenberry is living up to that preseason hype by taking a big leap forward, while Andre James has looked like the position group MVP after handling the switch from right guard to right tackle. The surprise has been the solid play of Michael Alves, who entered the starting 5 late into fall camp and has more-than held his own through 3 games. That’s a welcome development, especially if he continues to grow going forward, because a combination of James and Alves could shore up one whole side of the line for a few years.

Against Memphis, the unit in general looked fine. There were moments where they did a good job of picking up Memphis’s pressure, and others where the left side of the line just collapsed. I’m excited in how the run game looked competent for the second game in a row, especially on inside dives to the right side, and that’s something I’d really like to see continue going forward. So I’ll go with a B again here.

Overall - There were a lot of B’s throughout this section, which speaks to a few things. For one, the offense wasn’t perfect, and yet they still managed to put up 45 points on the road. But it also speaks to the new normal that the offense is going to have to deal with, which is that they might have to be perfect going forward if UCLA is going to have a truly successful season. Is that unfair? Absolutely, but that’s just how things have shaped up. But I’ll give them a slight bump up here and give the offense a B+ overall.

Defense

Defensive Line - This is also going to be a fun section in general, and we’ll get to the overall defensive scheme later, so let’s look at how the individual position groups did.

The defensive line actually performed pretty well. Of course, they also spent a good portion of the game with 5 linemen, which is going to help, but this was a better performance than we saw against Hawai’i. Chigozie Nnoruka looks like the unit MVP so far, being a disruptive force in the middle, and looking stout in the run game and in the pass rush. Osa Odighizuwa is also looking fairly good, which is making me happy that I learned how to spell his last name when brother Owa was dominating offensive lines for the Bruins a few years ago. Those were your two real standouts.

Other defensive linemen had more up-and-down games. Jaelan Phillips still looks like a true freshman in a lot of respects, alternating plays of brilliance with moments where he’s in the right place but makes the wrong play. That’s just something you have to deal with when playing a talent like Phillips. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who looked like he would be a real leader for this line, continues his quiet 2017, which isn’t a great sign if it continues; the Bruins desperately need him to step up in a huge way. The Bruins gave up 162 rushing yards on the game, but take away that opening 80 yard run, and the Bruins held Memphis to 82 yards on the day. That’s pretty good.

The downside was the lack of pressure generated in pass defense, and that the Bruin defenders just aren’t winning one-on-one battles against opposing offensive linemen with any sort of consistency. But they did the best out of any defensive unit, so I feel ok giving them a B.

Linebackers - Oh boy, where to begin with this group.

Hopefully you all saw the Tweet I put up in my Sunday post-mortem, but just in case:

You couldn’t have picked a more emblematic play for this linebacker group if you tried. This group just struggled all game, and you have to start wondering what, if anything, linebacker coach Scott White does all day, because this unit just looked completely unprepared. Bad fundamentals, poor recognition, and a lack of hustle were the name of the game for the unit in general.

If you want to blame the loss of Kenny Young for this game, I wouldn’t. Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes are both former 4-star prospects, and had shown they could handle the game in previous outings. This was just a nightmare that never ended. Josh Woods came back in the second half, and he continued his season of lackluster play, not really standing out in any meaningful way (though I’m pretty sure he’s now averaging 1 personal foul a game at this point, don’t quote me on that). If you’re looking at the problems for the UCLA defense from a personnel standpoint, the general struggles of the linebacker unit is the biggest culprit. F on the game, and they have to get better in a hurry with Stanford coming up.

Secondary - This one is a bit more rough, because the unit was without Jaleel Wadood, who is in many respects the heart of the unit, and main replacement Octavius Spencer really struggled for large portions of the game (which is a big worry with both Pickett and Wadood leaving after this season).

Darnay Holmes had a true Welcome-to-College game, matching up with Memphis’s fantastic wide receiver Anthony Miller for most of the game, and getting burned more than a few times. I’m still high on Holmes in general, but this game really highlighted the fact that he’s a true freshman, and that expecting him to be a true lockdown corner this early is probably asking a bit too much.

Nathan Meadors had an interesting game in general. He was easily UCLA’s best secondary player, consistently making plays, but he also had a few poor penalties (I’m not counting the pass interference in the 1st quarter, because Meadors got jobbed on that call). Adarius Pickett, coming off the knee injury scare last week, looked ok, though it was a bit clear on rewatch that he wasn’t 100% (that said, a sub-100% Pickett is still better than most of our other safeties). Overall, this wasn’t a great performance for the group, but part of that blame is the scheme (which we’ll get to), so we’ll go with a C. Half good, half bad.

Overall - The scheme didn’t do the defense any favors, but there was a ton of poor play that wasn’t related to the scheme to cause issues. There was a ton of poor execution on all levels of the defense, especially a missed tackles/arm tackle issue that has plagued Bruin teams in the past. That usually points to poor fundamentals being taught in practice, or at the very least a lack-of attention to detail. This unit isn’t good enough to take shortcuts, plain and simple.

More distressing was the lack of effort that was apparent at times. The Barnes play up there was but one example, but there were too many plays where the players would hang back or take their time getting to the opponent. That’s just unacceptable, and the D they’re getting right here is going to reflect that. The only reason that’s not an F is because the defensive line was not that bad.

Special Teams

Overall - Another game where special teams did their part in trying to win the game. J.J. Molson remains perfect on the season, hitting his lone field goal attempt from 33 yards and nailing all of his PATs. The kick return game got helped by Memphis deciding to stop kicking to Darnay Holmes, giving the Bruins decent field position to start every drive. There might be a question if Holmes continues to do kick returns, if only to save him from the extra hits, but he seems to be just on the verge of breaking one for a touchdown.

Special attention this week goes to Stefan Flintoft, who has really come into his own now that he’s won the punter job. Flintoft averaged 40.8 yards on his 5 punts, with 4 of them landing inside the 20. Some of those punts were absolute beauties, especially a few that had that pitching wedge action where the ball just dies upon hitting the ground. Really good punting, and a really good job overall from the special teams units. Going with an A again this week.

Coaching

Offensive gameplan - This is, again, where the new reality of the 2017 UCLA football team is going to hurt a grade. By all respects, Jedd Fisch called a fine game, and in general has been a revelation as the new offensive coordinator. I really don’t think any neutral observer of UCLA football expected this level of offensive output this quickly from the Bruins, especially considering last year.

But it’s starting to look likely that the offense is going to have to be near-perfect if UCLA hopes to win against stronger opponents, and in this game there were some ideas that just didn’t work, but the UCLA offense kept coming back to it. Specifically, UCLA kept running stretch plays to the outside with their running backs, which never seemed to work. They also ran a screen attempt a few times, which wasn’t a bad play call, except for the fact that UCLA looked like they had never run a screen play before (this would also explain why the defense looked like they’d never seen a screen play before).

One other thing I’d like to see Fisch attempt is to mix up tempo a bit more often. UCLA’s up-tempo is deadly specifically because they have such great offensive weapons and a quarterback that can make most, if not all, throws, which keeps the defense back on their heels and unable to substitute without calling a timeout. But they’re not as good when it comes to killing clock, or even taking their time on a few drives. There are times, especially with this defense, where you’ll want to limit the amount of times your opponent will have the ball, and the easiest way to do that is to hold on to the ball for a long time. UCLA doesn’t even have to change up what they’re trying to do offensively - this just requires waiting a bit longer to snap the ball. Too often UCLA will get some early success on the drive and immediately go up-tempo, only to stay up-tempo and not switch things up. That could hurt the team going forward.

But, in general, it was another successful day for the offense, and Fisch and the offensive coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for the turn-around. These are just some smaller nitpicks to consider going forward. A- on the day.

Defensive gameplan - Sigh.

Here’s the long-and-short of it: Tom Bradley is increasingly looking like a dud as a defensive coach.

When he was at Penn State, Bradley had all kinds of talent at his disposal against offenses that were incredibly-conservative in nature. It’s not that difficult to end up with solid defensive numbers in these circumstances. At UCLA, he’s had an up-and-down tenure, with some impressive numbers last year bookending a subpar performance in 2015 and a disaster in 2017.

The thing is, the overall scheme and theory behind the defense hasn’t changed for Tom Bradley in these 3 years. This is a defense that doesn’t bring a ton of extra pressure by design. The goal is to limit mistakes on your end, and assume that college players will not consistently sustain drives against you. And that idea might have worked in the 1980s to 1990s, but it works less so in 2017, where the players are, in general, much smarter and more talented than ever before. You can’t rely on the opponent to make mistakes as a defensive strategy anymore; you have to be aggressive and force those mistakes.

What has changed since last year? Well, UCLA lost 3 NFL-ready defensive linemen, an NFL-ready middle linebacker, and an NFL-ready cornerback. To be fair, there is absolutely talent that is filling those spots, but that talent isn’t NFL-ready at this time. And yet Tom Bradley is sticking with the same gameplans as last year, where any pressure in the passing game has to be generated via individual play from the defensive line, where the run game defense involves the line taking up blockers and hoping the linebackers can plug the gaps, and leaving big cushions on the outside. It’s not a recipe for success unless you’re trotting out NFL-ready players at every level of the defense, and even the teams that do consistently have that level of talent (Clemson, Alabama, etc.) also do a lot of things to generate pressure.

Here’s an example of how scheme killed this defense: after the early long run (helped by a few missed tackles by the weak linebacker unit), Bradley switched to a 5-2 set to try and stop the run. Which, to be fair, worked fairly well. But it also highlighted some of the personnel deficiencies. Despite now having 5 down linemen, UCLA still kept with the cushions from the defensive backs. This gave Memphis plenty of room for quick passes to the outside. On top of that, UCLA’s secondary had some new pieces thanks to injury, which meant UCLA was now hoping these players could make a ton of open-field tackles while allowing Memphis QB Riley Ferguson to get into a rhythm. Throw in a linebacker group that could not handle any play recognition, and it was a recipe for disaster.

At one point in the second quarter, Memphis finally figured out the strategy to beat the 5-2: screen passes. And hilariously enough, it worked twice! Memphis recognized that UCLA’s linebackers were a clear weakness, so they ran a few plays to get behind the defensive line and attack those linebackers. It’s simple offense, and something Jedd Fisch does pretty regularly as well. The problem is that UCLA had no answer for this, no plan to adjust for the Memphis adjustment. They just went back to their base 4-3 defense and let the game play.

At this point, UCLA and Tom Bradley need to have a “Coming to Jesus” moment regarding this defense and the core concepts behind the scheme. UCLA does not have the personnel to run a true bend-don’t-break defense. Right now it’s a bend-and-break defense. This defense can’t sit back any more. It has to be aggressive and force mistakes from the opposing offense if it wants any level of success. It makes even more sense considering how good the offense has been. If you give up a big touchdown, so what? Your offense gets the ball back. But you’re also creating more opportunities for making turnovers, and sacks, and negative-yardage plays.

But doing that may require teaching an old dog new tricks, and that might be the biggest issue for the defense going forward. The question will be: can the UCLA defensive coaching staff figure things out in time, or even be willing enough to admit their strategies were wrong and evolve? Because after this game, where they got an F, it has become evident what the problems will be.

Overall - There is one credit that I will give, in that UCLA actually looked somewhat-prepared for a 9 AM PST road kickoff. That has been a bit of a problem for UCLA in the past, so credit to the coaching staff for getting the team ready.

Less credit goes to some odd game-time decisions. Of particular note would be the timeout UCLA called with a bit over a minute left in the half. UCLA had just gotten a sack on first down, and appeared to be looking to steal a possession before the half. Except the coaching staff apparently forgot that this was the 2017 UCLA defense on the field and not the 2016 version, so the chance of a quick 3-and-out was rather low. The defense has only gotten 9 3-and-outs on 45 opponent possessions on the season. In comparison, the defense has allowed 14 touchdowns on the year. So what was more likely to occur? The best-case scenario here was that a 3-and-out happens, and Josh Rosen is given about 55 seconds and no timeouts to drive about 70 yards. It’s doable, but the success rate is rather low. And the worst-case? You let Memphis regroup, and get a quick strike touchdown. Just poor recognition.

There’s a common refrain whenever people start pointing fingers at the coaching staff that “the coaches aren’t the ones missing tackles,” which misses the point entirely, because the coaching staff is in charge of making sure players know the fundamentals, are held accountable, and put into the best position to succeed. None of that was evident on the defensive side of the ball, and if you don’t believe me, go back and watch the second half of that game, and continue to watch linebackers jog around the field with 0 sense of urgency. Those are the kind of problems that tend to get coaches, and coaching staffs, fired.

The general grade is going to get dinged because of the defense pretty hard, especially how unprepared so many members of this team looked on that side of the ball. So we’re going with a D+. Sorry offensive coaching staff.

Discipline

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

11:43, 1st Q - Pass interference on Nate Meadors. This is an awful call - Memphis ran a run-pass option, and the receiver was downfield blocking. If anything, it should have been a penalty on the offense.

6:38, 1st Q - False start on like the entire right side of the line (officially Michael Alves). This was a situation of being too jumpy after a big play, as the team knew what it wanted to do (and ended up doing it on the next play anyway for a touchdown).

8:40, 2nd Q - Offsides on Rick Wade. Wade tried to claim there was a false start on the offensive linemen, but couldn’t sell it. Not a great start to a drive where Memphis really started to get going.

5:19, 2nd Q - Face Mask on Nate Meadors. For some reason this was credited to Pickett by the referees (and subsequently, the stat sheet) but Meadors is the one that made the tackle with his hand pulling the face mask down. Just poor fundamentals.

14:26, 3rd Q - Face Mask on Matt Dickerson. Got his hands up in the face of the Memphis offensive lineman right at the start, and dragged him down by his face mask. Completely unnecessary, and killed what looked like a quick defensive stop, as the penalty occurred on a 2nd and 17 that the Bruins stopped for a minimal gain.

13:40, 3rd Q - Pass Interference on Nate Meadors. Didn’t get his hands off the shoulder pads of the receiver. Gave Memphis a first down on a 3rd and 8.

11:08, 4th Q - Targeting on Osa Odighizuwa. This was clear targeting - led with the head and hit Riley Ferguson right underneath the chin. It’s frustrating that Odighizuwa would do a good job of creating a pass rush on his own, only to turn around and immediately do this.

11:03, 4th Q - Unnecessary Roughness on Josh Woods. Just like the penalty says, this was completely unnecessary. Woods was getting blocked and decided to throw his dude into the ground out of bounds.

1:53, 4th Q - Offensive Pass Interference on Theo Howard. If you’re wondering what penalty I’m ok with, it was this one. Yes, Theo Howard commits a penalty, but he committed that penalty to prevent a game-ending interception. That’s one of the smartest plays you can ever make as a receiver in that situation.

0:56, 4th Q - Substitution infraction. Just the cherry on top of the trash sundae that was this game.

Total: 10 penalties for 99 yards.

There was one penalty that was an actual, good penalty to take, and that was Theo Howard’s OPI. There was a second penalty, Nate Meadors first PI, that was a poor call. But that’s it.

General comments - So much for the discipline streak.

UCLA fell back on a lot of their bad habits in this game. There was undisciplined play on both sides of the ball, but the defense especially could not get out of its own way. That’s a pretty big issue when your defense is already a sieve. And as the game wore on and Memphis showed they weren’t going to go away, those types of aggressive, undisciplined plays actually increased, which is a worrisome sign.

The overall grade for this section is also going to be dinged for the lack-of-effort shown by the defense at times. The new Eye Test format divides that category into a few of these new categories, but on some level allowing that kind of play to continue into the second half is a discipline issue that needs to be addressed. So we’re going with a D+ here.

FINAL COMPOSITE

Offense grade: B+ (3.3)

Defensive grade: D (1.0)

Special Teams grade: A (4.0)

Coaching grade: D+ (1.3)

Discipline grade: D+ (1.3)

Final grade for Memphis: C (2.18)

For reference, last week’s game versus Hawai’i graded out to a B (3.0), while the game against Texas A&M graded out to a C+ (2.26).

This is where the new style can lead to a bit of a deceptive grade. I don’t give added or less weight to any categories, so you end up with situations like this one, where a strong special teams and offensive showing end up buoying a nightmare of a defensive showing on the final grade (and if you’re wondering why the 2.18 didn’t round up and give them a C+, any teacher will tell you they reserve the right to round up or down based on performance, and the Bruins did not deserve to get that grade rounded up). But it also acts as a reminder that 2/3rds of the team performed well; this was a failure from the defense in almost every facet of the word.

Next game is this Saturday against Stanford, which is already causing my PTSD to flare up.

Go Bruins!