Well, that was a swift kick to the down under.
The UCLA Bruins may have been feeling good about life, suddenly riding a winning streak, but reality returned with a vengeance Friday night. Utah came into the Rose Bowl and showed UCLA what a good team actually looks like, as they proceeded to walk all over the Bruins for 60 minutes. Honestly, we should have seen it coming.
Really, if I just changed the dates and locations, that same exact sentence would accurately describe this year’s meeting. Looking back, that article may be some of my finest work — there’s a Dragonball Z reference and I linked to a clip from Anchorman in an attempt to dull the pain. But, to emphasize the point: for the second year in a row, UCLA walked into a game against Utah riding high off a win streak and, for the second year in a row, Utah completely outclassed the Bruins in every facet of the game. This was a brutal come-down, and now I get the pleasure of trying to grade it. Let’s try, shall we?
This is probably the nicest grade I can give Dorian Thompson-Robinson, because he was really left on an island for too much of this game. UCLA was only able to move the ball in this game because DTR was able to scramble and avoid constant pressure and was occasionally able to make a brilliant play. That he did this without any sort of support from the offensive line is, in many ways, admirable.
The problem is that DTR had to take a ton of risks to try and keep the Bruins in this game and, more often than not, they backfired. DTR had two interceptions, both of which killed promising drives. He also had two absolutely brutal fumbles that not only killed drives deep in Utah territory, but led to Utah scores. The first fumble late in the 1st half was a 14-point swing, instead of potentially heading into halftime down 14-6 at worst, it was suddenly 21-3 and Utah had all sorts of momentum. The constant pressure led to the return of some of DTR’s bad habits, like his first instinct being to run backwards to create more space. As I’ve said before, that can work in high school but, against a top-end defense like Utah, it’s just not going to lead to any real success.
Running Backs: B-
Honestly, of any unit on the field, the running backs have the least blame for this game and that mostly has to do with Joshua Kelley, who somehow managed 78 yards rushing and 4.1 YPC despite having absolutely zero help from the offensive line. It was truly yeoman work from Kelley, and you really wish the rest of the team had bothered to show up and support him.
Demetric Felton continued his slow trend towards irrelevance, though again it’s hard to blame him when the coaching staff continues to insist on running him inside zone. He had a bad fumble when UCLA was trying to get something positive from this game, and really did not factor much into the passing game.
The good news is that Kyle Philips has really turned into Mr. Reliable and something of a solid replacement for the departed Theo Howard in terms of being a sure-handed option. Devin Asiasi had a solid game statistically but got completely outworked on DTR’s first interception.
When we do a post-mortem on this season, we may need to make some room to discuss Jaylen Erwin, who has unfortunately managed to turn in one of the more disappointing performances on the season. He had a ton of hype prior to the start of the season based on his speed and pass-catching ability but, so far, neither has really shown up on a consistent basis. I think the lack of deep threat has been the biggest disappointment, as in this game when Erwin did not really attempt to make a catch on a ball that was just out of his reach. Utah was aggressive to the point where it was vulnerable to deep threats, but UCLA was never able to really hit on those attempts.
Offensive Line: F
I mean, on some level it’s not surprising that UCLA’s offensive line had this kind of performance. They’ve been playing a bit above their collective development and skill levels prior to this game. So, they were due for some regression, and Utah is an excellent defensive team, possibly one of the best in the nation on that end.
That said, woof.
Utah regularly lived in the UCLA backfield, picking up ten tackles for loss and five sacks, Poor DTR usually only had a second to receive the snap before he was under pressure and had to consistently try to make brilliant escapes just so UCLA could have a semblance of an offense. The true freshmen on the left side finally had a true freshmen type of game, as Utah’s veteran defensive line made them look silly repeatedly. But, then again, that was the case all over the line.
Now, let me start with a caveat: I don’t think the offensive coaching staff really did a great job of putting the Bruins in a position to succeed in this game. Too often, Utah sent extra defenders into the UCLA backfield and, too often, UCLA looked unprepared and called plays that essentially allowed a free defender to do whatever he wanted. I can’t blame the offense too much when they’re only able to run the plays that are called.
That said, there was way too much in the way of poor execution and mistakes from this unit to let them off the hook entirely. When you have five turnovers, that’s on you for not executing and, even considering that Utah’s defense is really good, the Bruins did themselves no favors with their play in this game.
Run Defense: D+
This is only this high because Zack Moss is, in fact, a very good running back, but giving up 127 yards on only 17 carries for a 7.5 YPC is not a great look. In general, Utah gained 220 sack-adjusted yards on the ground at 6.3 YPC and had seven different chunk runs, two of which went for touchdowns. The Bruins went back to the larger, less athletic defensive line in this game and, while they were able to generate some occasional pressure, it became clear that Utah recognized they could attack the outside on runs due to the switch and did the smart thing of actually doing that. Unfortunately, the UCLA defense in its current form just can’t afford to play Atonio Mafi and Otito Ogbonnia together at this point in their development and it’s not a great sign that the coaching staff reverted to what did not work early in the season rather than try sticking with what had been effective in the prior three games.
Pass Defense: F
I mean, Tyler Huntley is a perfectly fine quarterback but, when he’s throwing for 335 yards on only 14 completions, that’s a pretty easy sign that things were not good in the pass defense. Certainly part of the problem was the switch back to the bigger defensive line, as UCLA lacked the athleticism that had allowed them to send increased pressure in the backfield, but the secondary broke down way too often as well. Utah had seven chunk passing plays, including three that went for 50+ yards. That’s just not good. Stephan Blaylock looked completely lost at times, which is not a great sign considering how well he’d been playing in the previous few games, and his complete whiff of a tackle attempt on Brant Kuithe was perhaps the most egregious play on a day full of them.
Again, I don’t think the defensive coaching staff did this group any favors with the reversion they made during the bye week but, even considering that, this unit just kept giving up yards and points, even when Utah was clearly trying to kill time. Utah did not have to punt until midway through the 3rd quarter. The Utes gained 536 yards on the day and went 6-11 on third down. Coming out of halftime, UCLA play-by-play announcer Josh Lewin commented that UCLA couldn’t afford to let Utah get to third down, which was both the saddest thing I’ve ever heard about a football team and also completely accurate for how the game had gone to that point. Honestly, if Utah didn’t repeatedly call off the dogs, they probably could have put up a 60 spot easily. This was just a demoralizing performance from this unit, especially coming out of the bye week and after three weeks of excellent play. Things are going to need to swing in a hurry if UCLA is going to have any shot at beating Southern Cal.
Good: UCLA sniffed out a fake punt pretty well. Also, running a fake punt while up 35-3? Jerk move, but fair play, especially for a team that still has huge aspirations.
Bad: JJ Molson missed another field goal, which came at an early point when UCLA was still trying to hold on to any sort of positive momentum. His regression this year has been nothing short of baffling.
Offensive Gameplan: D-
Back during the Stanford Eye Test, I pointed out how UCLA has had a really bad trend of looking fairly good to start games on offense, only to get progressively worse once the opening script was completed. This isn’t the most surprising thing in the world; in general, the opening scripts are where teams tend to show off any new wrinkles they’ve added to the offense, and teams will either continue doing similar things if they see success with the opening script, or attempt to make changes if the script did not work. And, let’s be fair: UCLA’s opening script did, in a way, produce some solid drives.
But, if you dig a bit deeper into why UCLA was able to drive, the picture of this game starts to become more clear and helps explain why this grade is so low. UCLA added two new wrinkles this week: a speed option to the outside and a counter run. The option play worked really well to start, especially because Utah quickly learned it had to respect Dorian Thompson-Robinson as a runner. The counter play? Yeah, not so much. In fact, I would be perfectly ok if we never saw that particular counter play run again.
Focusing on the option play, Utah felt it had to respect DTR as a runner because his scrambling ability almost single-handedly carried UCLA’s early drives. On that first drive, DTR picked up 1st downs with his legs twice, including converting a 3rd and 12 with a 15 yard gain. On the following drive, DTR was able to repeatedly evade a horde of defenders in the backfield to somehow make plays.
At this point, Utah made a few defensive changes. First, they had a linebacker sit back and just spy on DTR, helping to contain him from dealing too much damage. Then, they paired that by throwing way more bodies at the UCLA backfield, guessing correctly that UCLA wouldn’t adjust to the pressure and that their secondary could limit any big plays. The metaphor says that football is a lot like chess, in that you are always adjusting to the moves your opponent is making and that’s exactly what Utah did here.
So, maybe the more disappointing part of this whole thing is that UCLA never had a counter adjustment. The offensive coaching staff continued to call the game as if that opening script was actually successful due to the play calls and not because DTR was extremely hot to start. There was never a real attempt made to alleviate pressure with quick passes or screens to take advantage of an aggressive Utah defense. If you’re Utah’s coaching staff, this was great news because it made your job easier for the rest of the game. If you’re a UCLA fan, you’re left wondering how this coaching staff can still have this level of hubris after starting out 7-15 so far.
Defensive Gameplan: D-
At a basic level, I can understand why the defensive coaching staff decided they should switch back to the bigger, beefier defensive line. Utah’s offense really likes to run, especially behind a veteran offensive line that has its way with opponents more often than not. Loading up on beef is, at the very least, a traditional answer for trying to compete in the trenches.
That said, again Utah was smart and adjusted, attacking the UCLA defense to the outside and abusing the UCLA secondary, which did not have the pass rush support it had gotten during the three wins. Similarly to the offensive gameplay, it is baffling why UCLA continued to stick with this defense instead of making the switch back to the more athletic defensive front that had worked well for UCLA during the win streak. I get the idea that UCLA may not have practiced this defense during game prep but, considering the Bruins had just utilized that defensive style for three straight wins, I don’t think you would be asking too much of the players to make the switch.
I want to start here by apologizing to all Utah fans who are reading this whole thing. I imagine up to this point you’ve been reading and, small acknowledgements aside, are thinking that I’m grading this thing and maybe being too harsh because UCLA looked bad against what is an extremely good Utah team on the road. First, I promise I mean your team no disrespect. If anything, I am trying to grade this UCLA performance without taking opponent into account too much. Also, it is possible for Utah to have played extremely well and UCLA to have played extremely poorly in the same game. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.
So, with that said, let’s get into the crux of the issue of this game: hubris. For some reason or another, the UCLA coaching staff has repeatedly showcased a level of hubris that does not match the results they’ve had up to this point and that was on display in this game. On offense, UCLA kept trying to run up the middle and utilize long-developing passing routes rather than quicker plays to the outside to take advantage of Utah’s aggressiveness. On defense, UCLA ran a beefier but slower defense that Utah was continually able to take advantage of rather than the smaller, faster defense that had keyed their win streak. It was a bizarre attempt to prove that the early season strategies that had proven to be so ineffective could actually work, which was an especially problematic stance to take against a College Football Playoff contender. I think that, had the coaching staff actually had a good gameplan, Utah still wins this game, but the coaches did the players absolutely no favors in this game, and it’s a shame.
Interestingly, the one thing UCLA really did that they would have had to do was play a relatively clean game from a penalties standpoint. With only two penalties for 10 yards, it was exactly the kind of performance UCLA had to have to give themselves a chance.
Unfortunately, every other aspect of this game was not great. Utah players were able to get extra yards and even touchdowns because UCLA defenders were missing tackles and assignments. The Bruins had five turnovers that gifted Utah 21 points, while the Bruins could not capitalize on the sole Ute turnover. Really, the lack of penalties is the only thing keeping this grade at this height.
Offense grade: D- (0.7)
Defensive grade: F (0.0)
Special Teams grade: C (2.0)
Coaching grade: D- (0.7)
Discipline grade: D+ (1.3)
Final grade for Utah Utes: D (0.94)
For reference, here are the grades UCLA has received this year:
Honestly, that feels right as a grade for what was UCLA’s most disappointing performance of the season. Again, Utah is an exceptionally good team, but the Bruins did not show up with a good plan, and repeatedly shot themselves in the foot en route to, well, a rout.
Next comes the most important game of the season: Southern Cal. Last year, the Bruins rolled into the game coming off a competitive road loss to Arizona State but with some level of momentum, while the Trojans were coming off a demoralizing home loss to UC Berkeley that signaled the start of a final downward spiral. This year, the Bruins are coming off a demoralizing road loss to Utah, while the Trojans are coming off a blowout victory over UC Berkeley. On top of that, Clay Helton desperately needs a big victory here to have any semblance of saving his job. There really are a lot of odds against the Bruins going into this game. So, UCLA will need to put together a major turnaround in a week’s time. They’ve shown the ability to do that this year, but this is still a huge mountain to climb.
Go Bruins. Beat SC!