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The “Eye Test”: An Epic Bruin Comeback Hides Serious Flaws

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UCLA pulled off an improbable comeback, but it was only necessary because of a terrible first half.

Texas A&M v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Hello everyone, and welcome back to The “Eye Test”: 2017 Edition! It feels good to be back in the saddle, taking a deep dive into this roller-coaster of a team.

With that said, I need to take care of some housekeeping up front. At the end of last year, I started to think of ways to revamp the article, because I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the previous setup. Over the course of the year, some of the sections became rather repetitive, and there was a weird level of overlap between the content of the sections, in that I was trying to split things up to provide content for each area.

So I decided to revamp the entire thing.

What you’ll find is 5 main sections: Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching, and Discipline. These 5 main sections represent the 5 main components that any team needs to find success. Inside each of those sections you’ll find a rotating set of sub-sections based on things I want to highlight or that stood out to me. At the end of each section will be an overall grade for that section, and at the end of the entire article those grades will be tallied for a final grade. Those overall grades may not necessarily reflect the individual grades in each section.

Seems simple enough.

I’m doing this in part because I did not feel I was able to focus on the players nearly as much as I could, so the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams sections will mostly focus on them, with exceptions when I see fit. Coaching feels pretty self-explanatory, and Discipline will focus on things like penalties and how the team carries themselves.

Alright, enough talk. Let’s get into this!

Offense

Quarterback - Great, I revamp this entire column, and end up starting with a section that is going to get me in a lot of trouble.

Look, Rosen was unconscious in those final 20 minutes. Sitting in that stadium, it began to feel like every single throw he made was going to go for a big play, and even on a 6th rewatch (yeah, I’ve been through this footage a ton the past few days) he goes for some throws that absolutely took my breath away. But he absolutely got lucky on a few of those throws, and Josh will be the first to tell you that fact. In fact, he did exactly that in his postgame presser (h/t Matt Joye at BruinReportOnline for the presser video):

Yeah, we were an inch away from losing that game probably 10 times. I mean, from almost throwing a pick to a D-lineman, to two tipped balls. I fully was trying to throw that ball away – the touchdown to Theo. I was not throwing that to anyone. He just hit my hand, I just got lucky. It just is what it is. I missed a read on that play, actually, going to D.A. Jordan Lasley was pretty wide open on his vertical, or on his go ball, and I came back late to D.A. Sometimes you just need luck.

I mention all of this because in the first half, Rosen was not all that good. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances that explain part of that, but Josh does deserve some of the blame. He was holding on to the ball too long, not going through his reads quick enough, and ended up with 2 fumbles. If I were to play armchair-psychologist for a second here, I think part of the reason for this bad 40 minutes was that he just didn’t trust his receivers, a fact that was exacerbated by a few early drops from Christian Pabico. But as soon as he started targeting his new best friend Caleb Wilson, things really began to change. Rosen targeted Wilson 18 times, and connected on 15 of those. That’s insane, and Texas A&M had no answer for it. Josh literally collapsed a few different times from sheer exhaustion after the last touchdown pass, and I can’t say I blame him.

We’ve known that Rosen has all kinds of talent, and finally in the second half, once UCLA began giving him a consistently-clean pocket, he picked apart the Aggie defense with a precision that, honestly, reminded me of Tom Brady. In order to win the game, Rosen had to go on 5 straight 2-minute drills, and he succeeded. It was a masterful performance. But it came 40 minutes into the game, so I have to give him a B for the game.

Tight Ends - Good performance. A-.

Ok, I guess I could explain.

If this grade was for Caleb Wilson alone, this would have been an A easily. Wilson was just on another level throughout the game, as Jedd Fisch noted at halftime that Wilson provided a schematic advantage that Texas A&M had no answer for. He was only targeted 5 times in the first half, which gives you an idea of just how many passes he saw come his way in the second half. Of his 15 catches, 5 of them were chunk plays of over 15 yards, and he even had some solid blocks when he needed to.

The reason this grade isn’t perfect is because Wilson wasn’t the only tight end on the field, as Austin Roberts had a bit of a nightmare game. He only caught 1 of 2 passes thrown his way for -1 yards, and happened to completely miss a block that led to one of Josh Rosen’s fumbles. It’s not surprising that, once UCLA began its comeback, Roberts was nowhere near the field. Roberts was one of the best players during last year’s nightmare of a campaign, so you’d hope he bounces back going forward.

Still, Wilson’s performance was so good that I couldn’t ding the overall grade too much.

Running Backs - I feel for Bolu Olorunfunmi. He’s a fun guy to watch bowl over guys, and he’s a fellow Central Valley kid so I’ll always root for him. But he did not have a great game by any stretch of the imagination. 10 carries for 31 yards (with a long of only 7) just isn’t going to get it done. Misreading pass protection and allowing a few big hits on Josh Rosen doesn’t help. Adding a fumble on this whole pile is just the cherry on top. Bolu is a great change-of-pace back, but this game really proved that he’s just not ready to be the lead back.

Surprisingly enough for me, Soso Jamabo played a hell of a game, and probably should be the starting back going forward. 7 carries for 46 yards isn’t an amazing output, but I’ll give him a bit of a pass there because he didn’t enter the game until the last drive of the first half, at which point UCLA began to abandon the run game almost-entirely. Jamabo actually rattled off 2 chunk play runs, and was only denied a third because the end zone prevented him from gaining more yards. His catch and run on 4th down during that final drive was a rather difficult play to pull off, but was a huge conversion. He even looked good in pass protection, which was a big issue for him last year (especially in the season opener against A&M). So combined, I’m going to give the RBs a C-, because Olorunfunmi had a nightmare game and the production overall just wasn’t there.

Wide Receivers - Overall, this was a pretty solid performance from this group. Definitely a better performance than anything we saw from the position group last year, so credit to new WR coach Jimmie Dougherty for the turnaround. Part of what helped was shortening the WR rotation - gone seem to be the days of playing 8-9 wide receivers, as it seems the rotation was shortened down to 4 receivers total (plus 2 tight-ends). Of those 4, 3 had good to great games. Darren Andrews also went double-digits on catches to go along with 2 touchdowns. Jordan Lasley remained a big-play threat, as 3 of his 4 catches were chunk plays, and the 4th happened to be that touchdown catch to take the lead 2 plays after a crucial drop on a 3rd down. Theo Howard was a bit more quiet, but both of his catches were 15+ yards downfield, and he made a great play on his touchdown grab, coming back to the ball and beating the Aggie defenders.

The only receiver who had a rough game was Christian Pabico. Pabico ended up with 0 catches on 4 targets, and struggled to create any separation. I also feel he deserves a partial credit on Bolu’s fumble, as he missed a block on the run so badly that Bolu didn’t see the hit that knocked the ball out coming. On the final drives of the game, Pabico did not see the field, which was maybe the smartest decision Dougherty made, choosing to roll with his 3 most talented receivers. I think Pabico’s fall camp performance will give him another shot, but if he underperforms against Hawaii next week, I’d expect to see more of Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke, or Damian Alloway (although I also wouldn’t sleep on Audie Omotosho seeing some time as well).

But overall, the drops were kept to a minimum, which was a huge sticking point last year, and the group performed reasonably well, so I feel ok giving a B here.

Offensive Line - The line did not play well. This is not surprising, as they did not play well last year, and many of these players were on last year’s line. Run blocking in general was subpar, as the line just couldn’t create any holes. Pass protection was a bit better, but I’m only grading on a curve because Texas A&M sent a ton of pressure in the first half that the Bruin offense just couldn’t account for, and they did better in the second half when A&M stopped sending extra attackers (one of many inexplicable coaching decisions by the A&M staff in the second half).

If there’s anyone to single out for particularly poor play, then it has to be Kolton Miller. Poor Miller just got beaten like a rented mule repeatedly by the Aggie defensive ends, including on Rosen’s first fumble, where the Aggie DE used a simple spin move to slip right past Miller. Kolton Miller, along with Scott Quessenberry, were supposed to be the veteran leaders of the line, but while Quessenberry had one of his better outings considering the talent across from him, Miller had a performance to forget.

Overall, this game did nothing to make me believe that the run game issues had been fixed, or that pass protection won’t get Rosen killed again at some point. Hopefully OC Jedd Fisch recognizes this and schemes appropriately. Something like that 4th quarter might be a good place to start. D+ grade for the line, let’s try to do better this week.

Overall - If this were a first half grade, this would probably be a D. If this were a second half grade, this would probably be an A. I’m gonna split the difference (and give a bump up for how well they played in those final 20 minutes) and go with a B grade overall.

Defense

Gameplan - Normally, this would go in the coaching section, but I’m going to put this here because it’s going to go a long way to explaining why the overall grade is so low while some of the individual groups got decent to good grades.

The gameplan Tom Bradley came out with for the majority of this game was absolute trash, to the point where I have to start questioning Bradley’s competence.

That might be hyperbole, but let me explain. Common sense says that when designing a defense against an unproven quarterback in a system that loves to run, you stack the box and make that unproven quarterback beat you. This is an even easier decision when you have a strong secondary going up against an unproven wide receiver group, while the only returning starters on the opposing offense are the offensive line and the running backs who combined for over 1700 yards on the ground.

This really shouldn’t have been that difficult. Except Tom Bradley, in his infinite wisdom, decided to sit in a nickel package for the entirety of the first half, and didn’t abandon it until the second drive in the 3rd quarter.

Seriously, this was coaching malpractice. UCLA spent the vast majority of this game unable to stop the run, in part because they were missing an extra linebacker to fill in gaps. Texas A&M was routinely running against 5-6 man boxes, which makes having a running game incredibly easy since you just need to put a hat on a hat. Adarius Pickett ended up as the leading tackler in this game in part because the Aggie running backs were consistently able to get to the second level. Now, to be fair, the run defense still wasn’t great once the Bruins switched to their base 4-3 defense and brought Lokeni Toailoa in, but it was a hell of a lot better than what it had been in the first half (because they only gave up 5 chunk runs instead of 7, and none longer than 20 yards this time).

I really want to emphasize that the defensive “adjustment” did not help get UCLA back into this game. UCLA was allowed to get back into this game because starting QB Nick Starkel broke his ankle, and Noel Mazzone decided to start passing the ball rather than just continuing to run once that occurred. Seriously; after kicking a field goal to go up 44-10, Texas A&M ran only 13 run plays for 59 yards (4.5 YPC) (also if you’re trying to check me and notice that my numbers are off compared to what Statbroadcast says, know that they count sack yardage in their total rushing amount, which is stupid. If you weren’t trying to run, I’m not taking those yards from you) while 10 pass attempts (2/10) for 20 yards and 2 sacks. Our friends at Good Bull Hunting noted in their recap podcast that the Aggies could have protected the lead had they just taken a knee on every down rather than pass the ball and continually stop the clock, and they probably would have come away with the win. Really, it makes me wonder how that UCLA team with both Tom Bradley and Noel Mazzone as coordinators managed to win 8 games, considering how much both guys tried to lose this game.

Bradley gets an F for this game. Try to actually earn a paycheck next week.

Defensive Line - You know, the defensive line didn’t actually have that bad of a game. They got put into an impossible situation regarding the run game, but they generally occupied blockers pretty well. The problem was the lack of linebackers to fill in the gaps.

Even better, in pass rush the defensive line actually improved over the course of the game. Normally you’d expect a defensive line that got abused that badly in the first half to get weaker as the game progresses, but they did improve. Part of that has to do with Jaelan Phillips, who looked like a true freshman in the first half but showed that he can be a disruptive force in the second half, ending the game with 1.5 sacks. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner had a decent start to what could be a very good year, also picking up 1.5 sacks. Keisean Lucier-South had maybe the most impressive day for the line, looking like a much-improved player, ending up with 1 sack. Also Phillips and KLS were both credited with 2 pass breakups each, showing off their active hands.

One last guy I want to highlight was junior-college transfer Chigozie Nnoruka. Nnoruka made an amazing play on the final A&M drive, chasing Kellen Mond down from the nose tackle position to make the game-ending tackle. Nnoruka highlights the depth that was on display on the line, so credit goes to everyone for improving through the game. Gonna go with a B here.

Linebackers - Poor Josh Woods and Kenny Young. UCLA’s constant use of the nickel package left him as the linebacker trying to fill in on run stopping, as Kenny Young was forced to be something of a do-everything linebacker, having to diagnose the plays almost immediately and react to either a run or a pass. It wasn’t good for either player. Woods constantly made the wrong read on which gap to fill, leading to big runs, while Young just isn’t cut out for the Eric Kendricks/Jayon Brown role. He’s much better as something of a Myles Jack, able to hang with wide receivers and tight ends with his athleticism. This was something of a square-peg, round-hole problem.

Lokeni Toailoa, however, had a very good game in limited action. He really is the successor to that Kendricks/Brown role, as he’s a natural middle linebacker, strong in run defense and a sure tackler. He’s not great in pass coverage yet, but that should come with time. At this point, Toailoa really should be on the field as much as possible, and if we have to go nickel, rolling with Young and Toailoa feels like the best option.

Overall, not a great game for the linebacker unit in general, so we’ll go with a C- here.

Defensive Backs - You want another reason why staying in the nickel for so long was a bad decision? Just go back and watch the play of the secondary.

Darnay Holmes was the real deal in his first game, getting 2 pass breakups to go with 5 tackles (and one bad penalty, but we’ll get to that). Nathan Meadors was almost an island out there, only allowing 1-3 passes towards him to be completed, and the one that was only went for 4 yards. Jaleel Wadood led the way with 3 pass breakups. Adarius Pickett was, in many aspects, the MVP of the defense, leading the way in tackles, providing one of the only presences in the run game, and just being a force all over the field.

The Aggie quarterbacks combined to go 9-30, and only 5 of those completed passes went for longer than 10 yards. I know that the Texas A&M quarterbacks were untested, but this unit is really good, and Tom Bradley should probably allow them to showcase their talents more often instead of trying to protect them with the nickel package. The unit gets an A.

Overall - Here’s the biggest thing: there is so much talent on this defense that giving up 44 points, regardless of the situation, is unacceptable. UCLA got put in a hole in part because Tom Bradley was either too stubborn or too stupid to recognize what Noel Mazzone wanted to do in the first half. The reports after the game that the team hadn’t practiced the base 4-3 defense for almost 2 weeks prior to the game is leading me towards the former, but either way this was not a good look. Defense gets a D+ this week, and hopefully they perform better going forward.

Special Teams

Place kicking - JJ Molson went 1/1 on field goal attempts, and 6/6 on PATs. Molson did a very good job, and I give him extra credit for not being phased by that last extra point, even going so far as to calm his teammates down after the kick to remind them that they still had the kickoff. This unit gets an A.

Punting - Stefan Flintoft won the punting battle during fall camp, and rewarded the coaching staff by averaging 46.8 yards on his 5 punts, including pinning 2 of them inside the 20. We’ll give him an A and consider this a baseline for the rest of the year.

Return unit - Pickett only returned 1 punt, and lost a yard on it. There was one punt that was allowed to roll into the end zone, while another 2 were allowed to be downed inside the 20. Darnay Holmes averaged 20.8 yards on his 5 returns, while Octavius Spencer only got 11 yards on his lone return. So not a great performance here. Gonna go with a C.

Coverage unit - Officially, Texas A&M did not get a punt return because a holding call negated a long return from Christian Kirk. On kickoffs, Kirk averaged 28 yards on his 4 returns, with a long of 37. This unit also did get a block on a field goal thanks to the fingertips of Adarius Pickett. Again, things could have been better here, but it didn’t lose the game, so I’ll go with a B-.

Overall - The key to any special teams grade is whether it manages to win or lose you the game. In the end, the Bruins made all of their kicks, and the unit in general looked better than last year, so I’ll go with a B. Definite room for improvement in the return and coverage units.

Coaching

I’m not going to break this one into sections, especially since I already covered the defense in that section (that will also affect this grade, just FYI).

On offense, credit should go to Jedd Fisch for finding a way to adapt his offense to take advantage of what John Chavis was trying to do. Ian Boyd over at the SBNation mothership did an amazing job of breaking down the offensive changes Fisch made, so I urge you to go read that, because it also has moving pictures and is way better than I could ever hope to do. It’s also not shocking to me that the offense had issues at the beginning of the game. It’s a new system against an established defense - flaws and kinks were bound to exist. So again, credit goes to the entire offensive coaching staff for adjusting, and let’s see how the offense progresses going forward, because they seem to have a really fantastic combination on their hands.

I’m going to do a compliment sandwich for how Jim Mora did in this game. Good thing: UCLA did very good managing the clock near the end of their comeback. Obviously they were helped by some bad decisions to pass, but the timeouts were used effectively, and the offense moved with an urgency to get those scores in quickly.

Bad thing: Jesus Christ Jim, this was one of the biggest games in your tenure here at UCLA, and you let the team come out that flat and look that unprepared? The team got booed off the field at halftime for a reason, and had things continued, we might be looking at a scenario where Jim Mora doesn’t last into October. I mentioned it earlier, but the defensive performance against an offense the Bruins were intimately familiar with was particularly egregious.

Good thing: This team could have easily quit at halftime, so credit to the coaching staff for refocusing them and getting a complete buy-in from the team. One of the best signs going forward is that this team never gave up, and that the halftime adjustments worked. If UCLA can avoid putting themselves in such a big hole going forward, you have to like their chances against almost-anyone going forward.

Overall, the first half performance was so bad that it’s going to lead to a C- grade for the game. This coaching staff has to be better going forward, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Hawaii is going to provide a unique opportunity to show growth from the coaches.

Discipline

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

6:51, 1st Q - Late hit out of bounds on Darnay Holmes. Bit too aggressive trying to stop a run play that had broken into the secondary. I’m willing to chalk it up to inexperience at this level, but this wasn’t a great penalty to take.

8:05, 4th Q - Taunting penalty on Adarius Pickett. Good lord what a dumb penalty, starting with the fact that Pickett was taunting WHILE UCLA WAS DOWN 2 TOUCHDOWNS WHAT THE HELL. This kickstarted a Texas A&M drive that almost lost the team the game. The Bruin defense just had a rough game from multiple angles.

6:59, 4th Q - Offsides on Nick Terry. Just jumped the snap too early. Gave the Aggies a free first down.

3:15, 4th Q - False Start. The offense hadn’t fully reset after a first down, and Rosen snapped the ball a bit too early because he saw a mismatch in coverage (he would have had an easy touchdown throw to Caleb Wilson had the play actually gone on). UCLA would score on the next play, so it didn’t hurt the Bruins in the long run. Just need to tighten up the execution a bit on the 2 minute drill.

1:30, 4th Q - Delay of Game. Not sure how the team managed to get a delay of game penalty here, but I’m guessing they took the luxury of a stopped clock a bit too far. This was the first of 2 penalties that almost derailed the final drive.

1:07, 4th Q - False Start. Again, the offense was rushing and never got set. Rosen just needs to take his time here. Second of 2 penalties that almost derailed the final drive.

0:20, 4th Q - Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty. This one was officially given to Kenny Young for removing his helmet while on the field, though this was essentially a penalty on the entire team. If there was a time to be ok with getting a celebration penalty, doing so after getting a final defensive stop to cap off a 34 point comeback is probably one of those times.

Total: 7 penalties for 56 yards

We have to split these penalties into two piles. In one pile are the small execution penalties, like the false starts, that were caused mostly because the team was in too much of a hurry. Those presumably don’t happen going forward. The other pile has the bad, undisciplined penalties, especially the taunting penalty in the 4th quarter. Those can’t happen, and did almost cost the Bruins before they could mount a comeback.

One other aspect of discipline is how the team looks and competes. I can’t question the effort level in the first half, as the problems were more related to scheme than anything else, and I definitely can’t question it in the second half, when the team continued to compete despite a 34 point deficit. So we’ll take that into account for the overall grade.

This week for discipline, I’m going to go with a C+. We still got a few boneheaded penalties that almost cost the Bruins the game, and in year 6 of the Mora era, that just can’t happen anymore. But the effort shown by the team does bump the grade up a bit. We’ll consider this a baseline for the team as well going forward.

FINAL COMPOSITE

Offense grade: B (3.0)

Defensive grade: D+ (1.3)

Special Teams grade: B (3.0)

Coaching grade: C- (1.7)

Discipline grade: C+ (2.3)

Final grade for Texas A&M: C+ (2.26)

You know what, that feels right. If you had to give a grade based on each half, the team would have gotten an F for the first half, and close to an A for the second half. That would average out to a C, and gets bumped up for the execution shown in that final 20 minutes. If you’re in a classroom, you can’t be purposefully absent for the first half of the semester and expect a brilliant ending to get you a great grade. The fact that the Bruins earned a passing grade here reflects just how lucky they got.

This should also give us a good baseline for the season going forward. We managed to see UCLA at both its absolute worst and absolute best, all in one game, so those are the standards I’ll be measuring against going forward.

Go Bruins!