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The “Eye Test”: Bruins Play Their Best Game in Loss to Washington

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The big question going forward: is this fools gold again, or something to build on?

Washington v UCLA Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

I kinda mentioned this in the Roundtable from last week, but I spent this past weekend in Chicago at a wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony, the reception was very elegant, and I spent the entire evening pretending UCLA football didn’t exist.

Almost.

Ok so I definitely snuck a few looks at the score in-between courses, and a healthy contingent of LA-based folks did crowd around a phone to watch the end of the 4th quarter, but by and large, I did not watch this game live. And it was nice! I got to enjoy myself, and it was a pleasant surprise that the Bruins not only covered the 21-point spread, but kept things close to the final whistle. That hasn’t happened since the Cincinnati game, and while the Bearcats are undefeated and ranked in the top 25 now (fun fact, UCLA’s opponents have lost a combined total of 3 games this year. An already-tough schedule appears to have been even-tougher than previously thought), they’re still not at the same level of the Washington Huskies.

But this also left me with a bit of a conundrum. First-off, I didn’t get back to California until late on Sunday. And we’re all trying to take over a bit more responsibility with the site so that Joe can go take care of his family, but that also meant less time to really dive into this game like you’d all expect.

Fortunately, I think I found a solution.

One of the big, totally-not-dumb trends in the world right now is unpaid internships, and I happened to find a gullible sucker eager up-and-coming current UCLA student to cover whole sections of the Eye Test this week! I’ll still be chiming in for each section and taking over fully a few times, but a good chunk of what you’re reading this week is from him, so be nice. And, with that said, I’m going to hand it over to him real quick:

I really didn’t expect much at all this week. Nobody expected much from a winless Bruins team against a CFP contender who just beat the brakes off of BYU. My hopes for this game were actually so grim that I advised several friends to put money on Washington covering the 21 point spread.

Yet in the aftermath of this game, I felt pleasantly surprised. Not surprised by a win of course; we’re still 0-5. But in this day and age of UCLA football, I’ll take the moral victory for now.

Despite three straight blowout losses and our worst start to a season since 1943, we actually didn’t look that bad. In fact, we played our best football of the season last Saturday. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still glaring issues, because there are. But this week’s report card is going to be a little forgiving of shortcomings.

Offense

Quarterback - It goes without saying that DTR got off to a pretty rough start this season. As soon as he showed improvement against Oklahoma, he took two steps back against Fresno State and Colorado. And with Modster’s departure, the quarterback position was set to be the catalyst of disaster this season.

But last Saturday, he didn’t look terrible. He actually looked decent. Dare I say he looked pretty good? He completed over 70% of his passes and for his first time ever was able to find receivers in stride. He fit the ball through tight windows and used his legs to pick up crucial yards on third down situations. With a yards per attempt of 7.1, he looked like he could be the real deal.

It also goes without saying that DTR’s performance also hit some speed bumps. After Adarius Pickett intercepted Jake Browning, Thompson-Robinson came right back on the field to return the favor. Trying to fit the ball through a tight hole, his poorly thought out pass was also picked off. When that happened, I couldn’t help but think that we were in store for another blowout, going into the half down 24-7.

But to my surprise, Dorian Thompson-Robinson came out in the second half and put on a show. It was a show highlighted with typical true-freshman mistakes, but a show nonetheless. In the fourth quarter, Thompson-Robinson seemed to have no problem finding receivers when it mattered, and was able to sustain drives unlike previous performances.

Should he be benched? If Modster was still on the team, I’d probably still say yes. But with Modster gone and Thompson-Robinson losing his redshirt eligibility, it only makes sense that he remain the starter at least for the short term. GRADE: B

Dimitri - Ok, I swear I didn’t tell him to push for Modster over DTR. Still, I do agree with the general assessment here. DTR definitely had his best game of the year here, though there was still the usual smattering of mistakes, such as the interception that had no chance at being complete, and that was before it was tipped. But it was encouraging to see DTR be more protective of the ball for most of the game, including multiple instances where he threw the ball out of bounds rather than try to force a throw across his body as he had in the past. The big thing to watch is whether this improvement sticks when the Bruins go on the road.

Running Backs - I would have never thought that a UCLA football team would run the ball with more efficiency than a CFP contender. But they did. Much of this has to do with the offensive line actually showing up to play, but the Bruin backfield certainly put on quite the performance (in more ways than one).

In every aspect of the game, our running backs did more than their fair share. Joshua Kelley in particular did a great job of finding the holes and breaking into the second level as soon as he could.

In the passing game, some of our most important and productive offensive plays came from passing to one of our backs in the flats. And let’s not forget another very important job of running backs, picking up the blitz. They showed up in that aspect of the game and helped the line protect DTR.

Football is a team game, so this position group in large part relies on the play of the offensive line, but they put up a stellar performance. Another plus from all this, is that we seem to have found our premier back in Kelley. Although UCLA will certainly continue to be a backfield by committee, Kelley establishing himself as the workhorse back could prove to be very important moving forward. GRADE: A

Dimitri - It definitely helped that the running back rotation tightened up in this game. Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi were relegated to special teams (more on them in a bit) while Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby were limited to 6 and 3 touches respectively. Kelley really has taken over the feature back role in recent weeks, and ended up with an average of 6.3 YPC to go along with 3 catches for 39 yards is nothing to sneeze at (just for comparison, Washington’s dynamic running back Myles Gaskin ended up with 116 yards on 27 attempts for a more-robust 4.3 YPC).

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends - One of the biggest problems this season has been getting the ball in to Caleb Wilson’s hands. He’s clearly one of the most talented tight ends in college football, and when he doesn’t get the ball, a lethargic Bruins offense becomes even more anemic. That wasn’t the case Saturday. Wilson racked up eight receptions and a team high 102 yards. In the fourth quarter, Wilson caught a pass, put on a few moves, and made his way into the endzone to bring the game within a possession. Things might not have turned out how we wanted, but if we want any chance at getting that elusive first win, the ball will need to be in Wilson’s hands.

Theo Howard seems to be shaping into the receiver we expected him to be when he was originally recruited. With a team high 9 receptions, Howard was a reliable target for a true-freshman quarterback that needs all the help he can get.

Lots of receiving actually came from the backfield on Saturday, so the rest of the unit was relatively quiet, with Demetric Felton being the only other receiver with more than 1 catch. GRADE: A-

Dimitri - It clearly looked like UCLA had scouted something in Washington’s defense, because they routinely attacked the middle of the field with Wilson and Howard. Wilson remains a matchup nightmare for most teams, so it was good to see a concerted effort to get him the ball. I actually thought Demetric Felton looked the best he has in this game, and Michael Ezeike seems to have taken most of the reps from Chase Cota (the other culprit for that, Kyle Phillips, was out this game with an injury). Christian Pabico saw one target, but really did not play all that much. Again, shorter rotations led to increased productivity from this group. Weird how that works out.

Offensive Line - Seriously, when was the last time our offensive line came anywhere close to a B? Their performance was so unexpected that I had to continually rub my eyes to make sure I was seeing things clearly; because the Huskies defensive line is nothing to scoff at.

So I certainly did not expect a makeshift UCLA offensive line consisting of a true freshman and a graduate transfer who here’s for the real estate market to outplay the Huskies. But contrary to my expectations, they did!

The interior line did a great job of double teaming the defensive tackle and breaking into the second level to apply a second wave of blocks for Joshua Kelley. They even looked alert in pass protection! After DTR has been pummeled repeatedly all season, he came out of Saturday’s game without taking a single sack. Linemen usually take the blame when things go bad, and are the unsung heroes when things go well. And considering our rush game averaged 5.6 yards per carry, I’d say this unit did pretty well. Finally. GRADE: A-

Dimitri - Before I get very effusive with my praise, I do want to point out that Washington seems to be having an issue converting pressure into sacks this year. Their 8 sacks through 6 games has them tied for 106th in the nation in that category, so UCLA holding them to 0 sacks on 5 QB hurries maybe isn’t as big of a deal as we’d like to believe.

On the other hand, UCLA has had a running back run for over 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time since Paul Perkins in 2015, which speaks to both how inept this unit has been over the past few years and just how good UCLA’s offensive line has been since the bye week. To wit, UCLA’s team average of 5.6 YPC is almost 2 yards higher than Washington has allowed all year (3.9). In fact, UCLA’s performance in this game caused Washington’s season average to jump by 0.5 YPC, which is insane and speaks to how effective UCLA was against a stout Washington defense. And despite the relatively-high QB hurry numbers, the offensive line was able to give DTR a relatively-clean pocket for the second consecutive week, which seems to finally be helping him click. So yeah, I agree with this grade.

Overall - Unlike previous weeks where the offense came out playing well in the first half only to spoil it in the second half, this week’s offense played a much better second half, which shows us that the players actually cared. Down 24-7, not much can be going well for your team, so the fact the offense kept at it and actually made a close game out of things, was impressive to me.

If we had Rosen or Hundley, we probably would have won this game. Obviously that’s not the case. But what that does mean, is if the offensive line maintains its level of play, any improvement from DTR could spell a win, maybe even a string of wins. So surely I’m hoping the peak of his season comes against USC.

Dimitri - Oh, he left the overall grade for me? Well then.

Considering the opponent, you have to like that the UCLA offense did not play like they were outmatched. They rose to the challenge, which is something that I can’t say a Jim Mora team did all that often. The offensive line and Joshua Kelley continue to be revelations since the bye week, while DTR took an important step forward, and I agree with the assessment that, should the offense continue this positive momentum, a win should be in the future.

But grading is sometimes harsh, and in a game where points were at a premium, there were a few drives where UCLA stalled out when it needed to move. In particular, UCLA got the ball back in the middle of the fourth quarter, down 7 and with Washington on the ropes. Instead of a long, game-tying drive, UCLA went three-and-out, and that was all she wrote; Washington got the ball back, regrouped, and had a solid drive that ended in a touchdown and essentially sealed the victory. So with all the positives, the negatives need to be considered as well, so we’ll go with a B+ in this game.

Defense

Defensive Line - Something about the defensive line was different on Saturday. They were still their same old selves when it came to rushing the passer, but they showed a passion to stop the run and make tackles for loss. Notice how I said passion. Their execution wasn’t stellar, but they looked ready to play.

This position group has been a huge work-in-progress all season, especially since the depth chart is flooded with true freshmen. With a lot of moving pieces, I wasn’t sure what to expect against a physical Washington offensive line blocking for a top round prospect in Myles Gaskin. When it was all said and done, the Huskies running back still managed 4.3 yards per carry, which doesn’t sound too great for the Bruins rush defense. But in reality, we all know this could have been one of those 300 yard rushing games where the defense is on the field for 40 minutes. Thankfully it wasn’t one of those.

This might be a generous grade for a performance that wasn’t THAT good, but if we’re grading based on expectations, I’d say it’s a fair judgement. This unit came to play a far more talented offensive front, and held their own. GRADE: B+

Dimitri - Yeah, he wasn’t kidding about this being a generous grade, but I can at least understand it. Fact is, without a playmaker like Jaelan Phillips, this unit is just going to struggle at generating pressure due to their inexperience. That goes double against a strong offensive line like Washington has. The big thing you’d like to see them work on going forward is keeping up contain on the pass rush - too often, Jake Browning, who can move but isn’t the most gifted athlete, was able to break contain rather easily and scamper upfield for a significant gain. You can bet UCLA will play more athletic quarterbacks this year (hell, they’ll play one this weekend), so that’s something to watch moving forward. Quick shout out to Osa Odighizuwa, who got the start in this game and looked very good, picking up 5 tackles and a sack.

Linebackers - Oh hey, just Dimitri this time. So, funny thing, but the linebackers were....actually ok this game? Specifically, Krys Barnes looked like a legitimate Pac-12 level linebacker, with 9 tackles (7 solo), a sack to go with 3 TFLs and a QB hurry, and even broke up a pass. Tyree Thompson also wasn’t noticeable for any bad plays, which is a pretty big win at this point.

Surprisingly, it was the outside linebackers and not the inside ones that struggled in this game. Clearly the loss of Jaelan Phillips has hurt this unit, but outside of Keisean Lucier-South providing steady-ish play at one spot, there hasn’t been any real plays that have stood out. Ok, Marcus Moore had a play that stood out, but it was more in the “what on earth were you thinking?” kind of standing out than for anything positive. I honestly have to imagine he’s still hurt in some capacity, because he looks nothing like the breakout player he was last year. So while the inside linebackers played much better, this C+ is, surprisingly, because the outside linebackers have mostly disappeared, and that’s a problem.

Secondary - If I could grade individual players, there would be a lot of parity in the grades for this unit. On one hand, Adarius Pickett would receive an A+. On the other hand, Nate Meadors would receive somewhere in the ballpark of a C.

I’ll start with Adarius Pickett. He is, to be quite blunt, an absolute monster on that defense. Whether it’s coming into the box to defend the run or covering a slot receiver and making an open field tackle, Adarius Pickett is your do-it-all strong safety.

He also leads the team in tackles. That sounds great right? The problem with that statistic is that you rarely want your defensive back leading the team in tackles. Generally the inside linebacker should be the holder of that title, so Pickett’s stats are certainly seeing a boost from a linebacking corps that continues to struggle filling up the holes on run plays. Nevertheless, I see a future NFL prospect in Adarius, and hopefully he can get one of those “pick sixes” that he makes a big deal about.

And now for Nate Meadors. For someone who has been touted as a top cornerback prospect in the NFL draft, I’m still questioning whether I’m watching the same games as Mel Kiper. Nate is, in his own respect, a good player. But time and time again he continues to give up separation, leading to big plays for the other team.

It might only be one or two blown coverages per game, but when a quarterback throws up a desperation shot and completes it for 35 yards to keep his team on the field, it takes all the air out of the defense. Without being too harsh, I think Nate needs to play more like the draft prospect he’s been touted to be.

The rest of the secondary didn’t play poorly enough to be criticized, but not well enough to be praised. Tackling seemed to improve (barely), but there was also much more separation than there should have been. Adarius really kept this unit’s grade afloat. GRADE: C+

Dimitri - Yeah, Nathan Meadors has taken a huge step back this year, which is bizarre, because he’s missing on plays that he continually made the past few years. I wish I knew what the answer is beyond some kind of mental block, because it honestly looks like he forgot how to cover at times. Washington just picked on him in this game, beating him deep multiple times. It reached so-bad-its-good territory a few times when Jake Browning, who doesn’t have the best arm in the world, underthrew receivers multiple times, only for those receivers to beat Meadors for the ball easily (because Meadors never turned around to locate the ball).

Surprisingly, the best corner on the team through 5 games has been Elijah Gates, who has gotten increasingly better each game. Luckily his injury late doesn’t seem like it will prevent him from playing on Saturday.

Adarius Pickett led the team in tackles. Also water is wet.

Overall - It’s a weird situation, because I felt the defense actually played well, yet by the statistics this wasn’t the best performance. Jake Browning was able to do what he wanted against the UCLA defense, beating them with his arm and his legs, and while he’s a good quarterback, the Bruins have the talent at a few levels of the defense to limit him.

But I don’t think it was the defensive players who are at fault here, but rather the scheme employed. 5 games in, and it should be obvious that UCLA needs to be creative in creating pressure on the quarterback, and that the corners aren’t at the level they need to be to be left on islands for large chunks of the game, yet that’s what was called against a hyper-efficient Huskies offense. So this B- is less reflective of the results than it is of the effort level of the defense, and against a solid, experienced Washington offense, they held their own, which is all you can really ask for.

Special Teams

Overall - JJ Molson might have spoiled us just a little bit in the previous game, but a third-year kicker should be able to put up a 42 yard field goal, especially with little wind. On the other side of things, it was somewhat refreshing to not see huge returns being given up on every punt and kickoff.

For a winless team like UCLA, it’s the little things that count. So when our kickoff unit makes a big hit to pin the opponent on their own 15 yard line, the defense feeds off of it. And with the way things have been going, everybody on this team is going to need something to feed off of. GRADE: B

Dimitri - The unpaid intern is a cruel, cruel grader sometimes. I feel like there was a bad snap on the J.J. Molson miss, but either way that was a kick that this team needed early to help keep momentum from getting away from them.

Beyond that, the special teams unit seems to be coalescing, especially the coverage units. Washington averaged 7 yards on punt returns and 19 yards on kick returns, and kept some dangerous Washington return specialists contained. In particular, I want to shout out Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi for taking their loss of touches in the run game in stride by positively contributing on the special teams unit - these are two guys who could have sulked or been bad influences, but instead are making the best of the situation and providing great leadership to the team.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan - Ok, it’s me the rest of the way. Thank you, unpaid intern, whoever you may be!

So, usual caveats about the offense aside, this was a pretty solid game from an offensive standpoint. It made things a bit more clear that execution, especially from the QB position, has hurt the offensive output in recent weeks, but with everyone on the same page against a top-level defense, things ran mostly smoothly. There’s still some kinks that need to be ironed out, DTR still needs to develop consistency in his reads, and you’d like to see more QB keeps to keep defenses honest (which, according to Chip Kelly, are not designed reads for DTR but rather specific playcalls, which, alright). But I don’t have it in me to really get into a battle on whether this offense can ever be consistent over an entire season of college football, so we’ll leave it at that.

What I think did help the offense more than anything this week was the tightening of rotations. UCLA only used 3 running backs in this game, and of those 3, 1 had the lions share of touches. Similarly, only 5 UCLA receivers really saw the field in this game, and 2 of them saw the most passes thrown their way (along with an increase in swing passes to the running backs). Shortening the rotations allowed the offense to get into a rhythm, while it also allowed the tempo to increase, which payed off in the second half. All that considered, I feel good about giving this section a B+. Still things that could be improved, but definitely a step in the right direction.

Defensive Gameplan - Meanwhile, it may be time to have a longer conversation about the defensive gameplan.

I’ve been harping on Chip Kelly trying to run an offense despite not having optimal personnel for it, but the same thing appears to be happening on the defensive side. Coach Azzinaro’s defense seems predicated on strong defensive line play, linebackers that can fill gaps, and a secondary that can shut down receivers with minimal aid. You can see the problems here, right? The defensive line is young and inexperienced, the linebackers are....well, they’re the UCLA linebackers, and the secondary has regressed from last year to the point where they can’t realistically defend for long periods of time. There are schematic fixes to this, and the second half of this game showed that Coach Azzinaro at least understood that, as he called way more blitzes and threw addtional pressure at the Washington defense, but at some point those problems need to be recognized from the beginning of the game.

3rd down was also a huge problem for UCLA in this game. Washington was able to go 11-18 on third down, and that was with an average 3rd down distance of 6.8 yards. Part of that is, again, inexperience; Washington went 8-9 on third and short, and converted a 3rd down on 6 of their 8 rushing attempts (which averaged 6 yards per attempt), which is the sign of a young line. But Washington averaged 14.8 yards per pass attempt on 3rd down, a sign that they were able to exploit UCLA’s weak pass rush to get receivers downfield. A UCLA defense that fails to get off the field routinely is going to tire itself out regardless of what the offense does, so this is something UCLA really needs to clean up going forward. C grade for this week.

Overall - Like I said, I thought the offense mostly did fine, while I’m starting to get worried about the defense. It’s almost like UCLA was cursed by some ancient Egyptian mummy to never have solid play on both sides of the ball at the same time or something.

But the overall grade is going to be bumped to a B+ because, at the end of the day, UCLA actually looked ready to compete. Sure there were issues in the first half, but the Bruins didn’t crack, and they were able to rally and make this a one-score game late into the 4th quarter. That’s impressive, no matter if you want to undercut the result by pointing out that this was a trap game for Washington (they play Oregon on the road this week). UCLA still came to play, and didn’t quit, and that’s as big a takeaway as anything you can have from this game.

Discipline/Execution

Overall - Real short and sweet here, but UCLA had to play a clean game to pull off the upset, and they (mostly) did. Only 4 penalties in the game is a solid sign.

Downside is those penalties were all major to one extent or the other. The smallest, an illegal receiver downfield penalty, negated a large Michael Ezeike catch on a scramble play (though I’m also convinced the referee just called this wrong and meant that Ezeike had stepped out of bounds and was actually just an ineligible receiver). The offense’s other penalty, a hold by Boss Tagaloa, negated a 15 yard pass to Theo Howard (that UCLA would eventually score at the end of the 17 play, 6:05 long drive is beside the point).

The defense also had 2 penalties, but they both extended drives. The first, an inadvertent face mask by Tyler Manoa on a sack attempt, gifted the Huskies 15 yards on an eventual TD drive, while the second, a roughing the passer penalty on Marcus Moore, moved Washington into prime position to score a touchdown before the half to go up 24-7, and was worse because it negated a second pass breakup by Krys Barnes. So a bit of a mixed bag here on the penalty front.

I’ll keep this as a B-. Those all weren’t great penalties to take, but this is also by far the best performance in this category this year.

Final Composite

Offense grade: B+ (3.3)

Defensive grade: B- (2.7)

Special Teams grade: B (3.0)

Coaching grade: B+ (3.3)

Discipline grade: B- (2.7)

Final grade for Washington: B (3.0)

And, to recap, here are UCLA’s grades so far this season (along with handy links to the Eye Test for those games):

Cincinnati: C (2.12)

Oklahoma: C+ (2.2)

Fresno State: D (1.0)

Colorado: C (2.02)

Its weird to say that, in a loss, UCLA played well enough to earn a B grade, but consider just how excited that game left most of us feeling. The Bruins finally looked like a team that belonged on the football field, and against a top-tier opponent. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it hopefully bodes well for the future.

I say that because this isn’t the first time we’ve been in this position this year. UCLA made improvements in their game against Oklahoma, then immediately backslid the following week against Fresno State. UC Berkeley is a very beatable opponent, and if UCLA continues to show improvement, or at the very least continues the level of play they exhibited in this game, they should be able to win. But another backslide on the road could be in store. It’s anyone’s guess at this point.

Go Bruins!