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The “Eye Test”: The Second-Half Surge Returns in UCLA’s Victory over Arizona State

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The Bruins looked strong on offense and revitalized on defense, and suddenly a lost season has reason for optimism again.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

“May you live in interesting times.” - UCLA Bruins fans, probably.

The Chip Kelly era has been a roller coaster in so many respects. The high of his initial hire gave way to the first drop when everyone realized the state the program had been left in, only to again climb with a late season surge punctuated by the win over Southern Cal. Then poor recruiting and the start to this season created a downward spiral helix with a brief shot up thanks to a wild comeback against Washington State, only to hit a near vertical drop with back-to-back losses to Arizona and Oregon State.

And yet.

Suddenly the Bruins appear to be climbing back up the hill. The victory over Stanford, sweet as it was, could have been seen as a false positive considering the state the Cardinal were in heading into that game. This victory over Arizona State, and the way it occurred, is another matter. The Sun Devils are a good team, and for 45 minutes they did not look like they belonged on the same field as UCLA. Even the final score, the Herm Edwards NFL special of making a final score look respectable to people who did not watch the game, hides just how dominant the Bruins looked when this game was still up in the air.

That’s the craziest part of all this, that after looking dead to rights as recently as a few weeks ago, UCLA football has suddenly tied its win total from last season and has a conceivable path to bowl eligibility, let alone the Pac-12 South title. There have been adjustments, especially on defense, while other improvements have to do with players playing better or getting healthier. There are still pain points on this team, but it’s been an almost complete turnaround from the state they were in at the start of October, and seemingly mirrors UCLA’s turnaround last season.

In a funny bit of coincidence, last year I went to a wedding in Chicago the same weekend as UCLA’s game against Washington that people point to as the beginning of the swing in UCLA’s season. This past weekend I was in New York City (surrounded by the millions of invisible Rutgers fans that inhabit the city) while UCLA put on a performance that may very well signal the start of this year’s turnaround. I was also not in LA during the Washington State game, so this is basically a public attempt to try and expense trips throughout the country each weekend that UCLA plays. I’m sure Vox Media has the budget to allow this to happen.

Anyway, let’s get to the grading, where I won’t be too harsh on UCLA giving up a bunch of garbage time points, I promise.

Offense

Quarterback: B-

Oddly enough, I think Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s game was fine, but not up to the same level he’s been at in other games this year. Once again, his confidence as a runner has completely changed the dynamics of the offense, even though his non-sack rushing yardage of 42 feels low for him in this recent run. He’s also become more aggressive in the downfield passing attack, which is a good sign of his growing confidence in the offense. That said, I can see DTR grimacing throughout film session this week, because he left a lot of yardage on the field by locking into plays downfield and ignoring his check down options. At one point, Kazmeir Allen did not have a defender within 20 yards of him, but DTR continued to look downfield and eventually took a sack. But it’s hard to penalize him too much for wanting to be aggressive, especially when the offense is rolling in the way it is.

The bigger punishment is, obviously, the fumbles. Both fumbles were a result of DTR getting careless with the ball, the first coming when he tried to make something happen and lost the ball In the pocket, leading to Arizona State’s only touchdown of the first three quarters. The second fumble came after a 12-yard run while up 32 which was just a bad situation play on his part. But at least he had some teachable moments in a game where the end result stopped being in doubt. Positive steps.

Austin Burton came into the game in the 4th quarter when DTR went down with injury, and did not throw a single pass as UCLA went into time-killing mode, choosing to run the ball and kill clock while up multiple scores. Not a bad strategy, but considering DTR was only out because of injury (he apparently is practicing and moving fine this week), I’d have liked to see him get some reps in throwing the ball on the chance he has to come in and attempt to win the game a’la the Arizona outing.

Running Backs: A

A fully-healthy Joshua Kelley is a terrifying nightmare for opposing defenses. Four touchdowns, 164 yards on 34 carries. This was the Joshua Kelley that terrorized opposing teams down the stretch last year, the bell cow on which the UCLA offense ran, and it’s not a coincidence that the offense has improved along the same path as Kelley’s health.

Meanwhile, Demetric Felton continues to see a diminished role after his early-season breakout. With only 13 yards on four carries to go with two catches for 19 yards, Felton has seemed to shift to something of a decoy role, since he’s always a threat to break a big play. That’s not bad by any stretch, but a UCLA offense that can fully weaponize both Felton and Kelley could prove extremely effective down the stretch.

And hey, we saw Kazmeir Allen and Martell Irby again! The duo who looked like the future of the running back position last year have been noticeably absent this year, so seeing them get some run here is an encouraging sign. Especially so for Irby, who had three catches for 29 yards and showed some improvement in pass catching from where he was a year ago.

Receivers: B

Just like last week, fine for what it was. UCLA had a pretty run-heavy attack plan (57 runs compared to only 23 passes), and with running backs seeing five of those targets, there wasn’t much opportunity to stand out. Kyle Philips again had a touchdown grab on a solid catch, and led the team with six targets, which speaks to the trust level the quarterbacks have with him. Chase Cota only had one catch on one target, but it was a huge one for 21 yards and kept UCLA’s second scoring drive alive, and essentially allowed the Bruins to swing momentum to their side for the majority of the game. If there is a problem, it’s that I wish this group had a more reliable burner to stretch opposing defenses vertically; Jaylen Erwin is fast but has seemed to fall out of favor on deep passes, and with Theo Howard gone there’s no one who has been able to consistently step into that role.

Offensive Line: A-

While they probably deserve a lower grade if we are being absolutely honest, I wanted to give them something higher here as recognition for the huge improvement they’ve made over the past few weeks. This unit was a sieve to start the year but has improved steadily, to the point where they’ve been downright good the past few weeks. Impressively enough, this has occurred even with having to add a second true freshman to the starting offensive line, but Duke Clemens has played well and formed a fantastic tandem on the left side with Sean Rhyan. Between the two of them and Christophany Murray, the sophomore who had his best game of the season, and some backups who are getting experience like Jon Gaines, the offensive line looks set up to grow real well in the coming years.

As for this game in particular, the coaching staff recognized that the relative weakness of the ASU defense was their rush defense, but that attack doesn’t work if the offensive line can successfully block downfield. So UCLA went out on its first drive following an ASU turnover and just ran the ball right down the Sun Devils’ throats. And that would be the case for the rest of the competitive portions of the game, as the UCLA offensive line mostly had its way and generated push. There were the usual small struggles in pass protection, but even that is was partially the fault of DTR holding on to the ball too long. So good grades, good job offensive line, keep up the good work!

Overall: A-

Through three quarters, the UCLA offense had put up 42 points, 355 yards, and had held the ball for 29:39, which essentially iced the game. Given that they entered the fourth quarter with a 32 point lead and were then without their starting QB for the quarter, I can’t hold it against them too much for only gaining 38 yards in the final quarter. There were still some flaws in play, but for the most part this unit again looked great, so the grade reflects that.

Defense

Run Defense: A

On the one hand, Arizona State was able to run for 116 yards. But the main goal was to limit ASU running back Eno Benjamin from impacting the game too much, and on that front the Bruins succeeded in spades. Benjamin was held to 46 yards on 13 carries for a poor 3.5 YPC. That’s a win any way you look at it. And really, UCLA did an excellent job containing the Arizona State rushing attack that they seemed to desperately want to establish, but had to abandon as the game wore on and UCLA’s lead stretched. Most of the damage was done by ASU QB Jayden Daniels scrambling for yardage, but even that was limited thanks to UCLA employing a spy on Daniels for the vast majority of the game. So, excellent job.

Pass Defense: B+

Again, UCLA did an excellent job of keeping the Arizona State passing attack in check while the game was in doubt, holding the Sun Devils to 150 yards passing through three quarters. Part of this has to do with an improved pass rush which kept Jayden Daniels from getting comfortable in the pocket, and locking down the ASU rushing attack, which put more pressure on Daniels to deliver. The stat sheet does not show a productive day on this front like it did against Stanford, with the Bruins only registering one sack and two QB hurries, but the amount of Daniels scrambles speaks to how often he was forced to tuck the ball and run for it.

But it also helped that the back end played well. Stephen Blaylock seems to have fully slid into the space occupied by Adarius Pickett in recent years, as he again led the Bruins in tackles with seven and played well in run support as well. Darnay Holmes, as he’s gotten healthier, has had improved play as well, starting to more resemble the shutdown corner he was last year rather than the guy who was repeatedly torched by Washington State earlier in the year.

Overall: A-

I want to hold off on discussing the shifts in personnel on the defense for the coaching section, but I will say here that these shifts in style wouldn’t work if the defense doesn’t buy in and up their level of play, and we’re seeing that to some level here. The shift is allowing some different guys like Tyler Manoa, Datona Jones, and Rayshad Williams have more run of play, and they are responding well to the shift and have seemingly reenergized the defense. This is the type of performance we’ve been hoping for years to see, and it’s a great sign for the general health of the team for the defense to see this level of improvement.

Special Teams

Overall: B+

Oh hey, something to complain about! Honestly, special teams play was fine for the most part. J.J. Molson didn’t have a field goal attempt but nailed all of his extra point attempts and was great on kickoffs, Wade Lees only had to punt twice and averaged a respectable 44 yards on his punts, and Kyle Philips again had an excellent punt return of 38 yards. That said, the big issue was in coverage, where Brandon Aiyuk routinely punished the Bruins for poor coverages, taking one punt for 31 yards and a kickoff for 30. With so little special teams play in this game, something going less-than-ideal is going to stand out, so here we are.

Coaching

Offensive Gameplan: B

This grade is not for the actual gameplan, per se. The coaching staff rightly recognized that attacking the Sun Devil defensive line was the smarter strategy; ASU’s secondary is very good while the defensive line just spent the past week getting manhandled by Utah’s maulers. Plus, the run game is the stronger of UCLA’s attacks, so overloading on running was just a good use of strength matching up against weakness. And I do appreciate the continued shift away from the multi-tight end sets that telegraphed run so poorly that opposing defenses always knew what was coming. I’d have liked to see more aggression on offense in the 4th quarter with Austin Burton in the game, if only to give him more experience against a quality team that was still playing hard despite the game being out of reach.

No, I’m giving this grade because personnel usage continues to be baffling. Again, at this point I can begin to understand Felton’s decreased output being in part due to opposing defenses keying in on him, but take the usage of Kazmeir Allen in this game. Allen is a similar type of player to Felton, a speedster who thrives in space and shouldn’t really be used in between the tackles all that often. So of course he spent his time running inside zone. I still think, on some level, this coaching staff is still having their personnel do different things just to give them a test, but we’re reaching the point of the Chip Kelly era where this coaching staff really should know what their players can do and put them in the best position to succeed. Honestly, I’d just like to reach a point where I can stop being puzzled by these things.

Defensive Gameplan: A

You know what? Maybe my opinion of the defensive coaching staff is just so low at this point, but the defensive staff continuing their smart gameplan from the Stanford game is the best thing I’ve seen from this group all season. I didn’t really get into the nuts and bolts of the defensive adjustments last week, mostly because I did not want to waste that much effort on a game that was such an anomaly from an opponent quality perspective. But UCLA utilized much of the same strategies in this game, so now I get to talk about it.

There have been two major shifts in philosophy that we’ve seen from the defense since the bye week. The first has been a shift up front from utilizing the bigger bodies to neutralize interior runs to a faster, more athletic front that can send more bodies into the opposing backfield. Which is not to say the bigger bodies haven’t seen the field - Atonio Mafi in particular still sees a ton of play. But the staff recognized that the run defense was fairly solid even without loading up on giant guys up front, so getting faster guys on the field ended up helping the defense generate more pressure. We’ve been seeing this in an increased roll for guys like Tyler Manoa and Datona Jones, but it’s also led to creative ideas like Odua Isibor lining up as a defacto nose tackle on some plays. The outside linebackers as well have been lining up along the line as well, creating a situation where opposing quarterback have no idea where pressure is going to be coming from, and in recent weeks that pressure has come from all along the line, with extra defenders being sent into the box more often.

The other major development has been in the secondary, where UCLA has seemingly switched out Elijah Gates for Rayshad Williams at one of the corner spots and has switched to more press coverage. Williams, at 6’ 2”, is much more suited for press coverage than the smaller Gates, and combined with a resurgent Darnay Holmes and an improved pass rush has made things more difficult for opposing passing attacks. It’s a simple concept, really: if you generate pressure while disrupting opposing wide receivers at the start of their routes, you can disrupt timing plays and get opposing offenses out of rhythm.

Combined, this has led to a much more aggressive defense than the one we saw through the first six games. Is it a perfect defense by any stretch? Well, no - the Bruins are by nature going to give up more chunk plays now as the secondary is in single coverage more often, and ASU did hit their fair share of chunk plays in this game. But the aggressiveness of the defense is helping the defense get off the field faster and create more havoc plays, and is the correct complement to the ball-control offense UCLA has showcased in recent weeks.

Overall: A-

Splitting the difference on this grade, but I will say just how much I’m enjoying watching a team that suddenly looks competent on both sides of the ball. There are still problems here and there, especially with personnel usage on offense and some technique issues that have come up with guys playing in different spots/style on defense, but in general this has been a welcome reversal from the first six games.

I think the question going forward is: why did those poor performances happen in the first place? I think you can definitely point to some injuries affecting things; Joshua Kelley and Darnay Holmes started the year hurt, while various injuries led to situations where, for example, there are now two true freshman starting on the offensive line. And sure, you can also point to some general growth by key players like Dorian Thompson-Robinson helping out as well. But by year two there should have been a better understanding of the personnel in the program and how to best help them succeed, and that just wasn’t the case for a good majority of this year. It took until Game 19 of the Chip Kelly era for the defensive staff to finally shift strategies and adopt more aggressive tactics. It wasn’t until the Washington State game this year that the offensive coaching staff truly utilized DTR in the run game and began abandoning multi-tight end looks. I’ve essentially made my peace with this season and am looking forward to continued growth, but this is a question that is going to linger into next year, especially if the Bruins miss out on a bowl game. So I’ll leave it at that for now and maybe look at this again during the offseason.

Discipline/Execution

Overall: C+

Jay Shaw’s hit was not targeting. Change my mind.

Ok, that out of the way, UCLA was very clean through three quarters of this game, with only one penalty for five yards. Unfortunately, that 4th quarter happened, where the Bruins racked up eight penalties for 42 yards and helped Arizona State....well, not really get back into the game, but at least make the final score look respectable. The defense got a high grade because they played exceptional while the game was still up in the air, but the discipline grade is going to be hurt by this, especially when you give up 22 points in a quarter.

Also hurting this grade: three turnovers, including two by DTR. The second one in particular was the result of not understanding the situation and taking an unnecessary risk to extend a play rather than play it safe while up 32 points. Plus, the play resulted in DTR getting injured and taken out of the game. The good news is that the game was already over by this point, and DTR appears to be ok, so we can chalk it up as a learning experience. Still, not a good look, and the grade in general is going to reflect that.

Final Composite

Offense grade: A- (3.7)

Defensive grade: A- (3.7)

Special Teams grade: B+ (3.3)

Coaching grade: A- (3.7)

Discipline grade: C+ (2.3)

Final grade for Arizona State Sun Devils: B+ (3.34)

For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:

Cincinnati Bearcats: C- (1.78)

San Diego State Aztecs: D+ (1.42)

Oklahoma Sooners: D (1.16)

Washington State Cougars: B-/C+ (2.48)

Arizona Wildcats: C-/D+ (1.54)

Oregon State Beavers: D+ (1.34)

Stanford Cardinal: B (3.06)

So after that grade, I went back and checked the grades for all four years that I’ve been doing the Eye Test since taking over from the fantastic IEAngel, and this is the second-highest grade I’ve ever given, following last year’s UC Berkeley game. I’m not sure how I feel about that, to be honest; I’m not necessarily satisfied with how the game ended, and Arizona State made their share of mistakes and backbreaking penalties throughout the game, but at the end of the day I can only judge UCLA’s performance, and as a team they played very well.

Now come the hard part: sustaining that level of play. Last year, UCLA’s surge showed some shakiness at home against an outmatched Arizona at home before completely falling apart against a disciplined Utah. This year, UCLA is going to have to try to keep up this level of play against what looks like it may be an outmatched Colorado at home before going on the road to face a disciplined Utah. If the UCLA program truly is ready to take the next step forward under Chip Kelly, history won’t repeat itself. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

Go Bruins!