This is where we thought the UCLA Bruins would be. 4-0 through September after Thursday night's 62-27 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe.
Has it been a flashy 4-0? Definitely not.
Has UCLA looked like a team that can win a national championship? No, to be honest. The team that played for 3 quarters in this game looked like it could beat anyone in the country, but the Bruins played 13 other quarters this season where they looked like a top 25 team at times and like a top 50 team at times. Can't overreact to small sample sizes.
Virginia looks like a much better win every week (the Cavaliers blew out Kent State this week, almost matching their season total in wins from 2012 before the end of September), the victory over Memphis looks better every week (the Tigers were within a touchdown of a top 10 team in the 4th quarter again this week against #10 Ole Miss). I think that the Texas Longhorns might actually be the worst team that the Bruins have played thus far.
Let's get to the grades.
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
You don't need to look much further than the numbers to know that this game wasn't one for the UCLA defense to hang their hat on moving forward.
626 yards. 105 plays. 27 points allowed. 488 passing yards allowed.
Creating 4 turnovers (and they did create all four, don't get it twisted) with three of those ending up either in the end-zone or deep in ASU territory, scoring a defensive touchdown, keeping DJ Foster under 100 total yards of offense and doing a pretty solid job in the rush defense. Those things show that the game wasn't devoid of positives on the defensive side of the ball.
orlandobruin touches on a lot of good stuff in this Fan Post as well, very much worth a read if you can handle this massive post along with another.
Two things I'd like to address here:
- I noticed a lot of grief being caught by Fabian Moreau in the game thread and thought to address that specifically here in case people are concerned about the hype surrounding Fabian Moreau not matching his performance. If you trust my opinion, know that he looks much better on tape then he does live if you know what you're looking for. The completions that often look like they are on him are usually zone coverage that he is actually recovering on to make up for other mistakes in the coverage. Examples, 3rd and 4 completion where he's in Cover 3 and has to break up because the flats were left uncovered. The long TD pass to Cameron Smith where Moreau is seen leaping to try and swat it away was actually on Jaleel Wadood blowing the middle 3rd of a Cover 3 and Moreau nearly making up for the mistake by covering a ton of ground. He hasn't been the "future 1st round pick" that Jim Mora insinuated he'd be, but he's been playing at around the same level as last season.
- Jaelen Strong is the best offensive player that UCLA has played so far by a significant margin. He might be the best WR in college football and will be extremely successful at the next level because he's such a mismatch in man coverage. He's a giant, but fast enough where a defense can't get away with playing off of him. On back-to-back plays at the end of the first half, Priest Willis has Strong absolutely blanketed on back shoulder throws. Willis defended both plays perfectly, but Strong made two catches for 30 yards (might have gotten away with a little OPI). There's no way to defend the ability to make that catch in man coverage. Strong was targeted somewhere around 20 times in this game. Luckily, UCLA isn't likely to face another player on Strong's level as a WR unless they run into Amari Cooper in a playoff game against Alabama.
Those things being said, no WR should go for 12 and 146 against this group of defensive backs. I understand that Randall Goforth being out is a huge blow, as the safety play was the weakest it has been all season in this game.
- First play of ASU's 3rd drive. Eric Kendricks blitzes off the edge (really odd to see him outside) and deflects a quick pass by Mike Bercovici. A positive result on a blitz has been a rarity for the Bruins this season, I'll take it.
- Flip-side of the coin, on a 3rd and 4 on the same drive. Ishmael Adams shows blitz off the edge way too early, giving Bercovici time to motion the TE/FB to the other side to pick up the pressure with ease. UCLA doesn't adjust, sends the pressure anyway, and Bercovici throws to the player left uncovered by the blitz for an easy 11 yards.
- Eddie Vanderdoes at the end of the 1st quarter steamrolls the LG, pancaking him, and lays a huge hit on Bercovici, forcing an incompletion.
- After being beaten up by screens last season against ASU, the Bruins shut down the screens for the most part.
- Deon Hollins had a great pass rush on the forced fumble and sack. Worked his ass off to get around an ASU TE.
- Not sure what Tahaan Goodman was doing on ASU's last TD, which was just a 5 yard TD on a rollout. Very odd technique. Effectively sets a pick on Moreau by standing flat-footed while the WR runs past.
- Great effort by Adams on a 1st down pass breakup where ASU was throwing out of their own endzone. Got way up to nearly intercept a 2nd pass.
- Matt Dickerson does an outstanding job ripping the LT inside to get pressure right in Bercovici's face, but he loses his balance before he's able to get a sack and the ASU QB completes a pass for 27 yards because DBs can't be expected to cover anyone for 6 seconds downfield. Not a great pass drop by Kenny Young either.
I'll touch on the defense more throughout the rest of the post, but the grade here is reflective of the yardage given up, even if it happened on an absurd number of total plays and against a very good offense. But also rewarding the fact that the defense directly created a TD and had a massive role in creating 10 other points. A C+ (2.3) feels fair and maybe even a little high but we won by more than 30 points against a team ranked #12 in the country, we're entitled to boast a little bit.
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
This was one of the better offensive games of the Noel Mazzone era at UCLA. I've been critical of Mazzone because I don't much care for the offense that he runs and sells on the internet, but it would be short sighted to not praise him for this performance against a good but unexperienced Arizona State defense.
The numbers are obviously great. 580 yards of total offense on just 58 plays. Close to 10 plays of more than 20 yards. Balance in the running and passing game (355 passing and 225 rushing).
Even during the first quarter where the offense looked a bit stagnant, the offense was clicking if not for penalties and drops that halted drives.
Brett Hundley had a terrifying game on paper and it was equally terrifying on film. 4 passing touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown (probably a 2nd TD that was not reviewed, but led to Nate Starks getting a TD the next play). Completed 18 out of 23 passes. Passed 355 yards on just 23 passes. He was phenomenal and actually was allowed to unleash his arm talent more than he had in the past.
The decision to go under center after the defense had a goal line stand in the 4th quarter caught ASU totally off guard. They were baffled as Paul Perkins took advantage for an 81-yard run. Following that up with a QB sneak from under center was exciting for me as well. The QB sneak is effective about 90% of the time in 1-yard of less situations. Keeping it simple in those spots is a virtue in my mind.
I liked the game plan a ton in this game. Scoring 62 points against a top 15 team (even if ASU was probably a little overrated) warrants almost exclusively praise. A (4.0)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
I just want to start by saying how happy I was that UCLA's offense actually ran quick hitting routes over the middle against pressure from the linebackers.
A 3rd and 9 to Devin Fuller for 11 yards. The 80-yard TD to Massington was going to be praised even if it hadn't been a TD. Quick inside route on a 3rd and 2 to a vacated area, happens to be sprung by ASU's friendly fire for a huge TD. These are big steps forward.
The offensive line looked solid for most of the day. I'll especially shout out Malcolm Bunche for having by far his best game as a Bruin. Looked like a fifth year senior against an inexperienced defensive line. Kenny Lacy also looked as good as any guard that's been on the field for the Bruins this year when he filled in for an injured Alex Redmond. Brett Hundley was only pressured a few times, and sacked just once. The times that Brett Hundley escaped the pocket and scrambled were out of opportunity in this game, not desperation.
One note on the offensive line: I think that Alex Redmond and Scott Quessenberry should switch sides at guard. Or perhaps move Kenny Lacy into the starting lineup at LG and move Redmond back to RG. The chemistry between Benenoch and Quessenberry just seems off to me every week, they got into it a couple of times after plays trying to explain themselves to one another. Alex Redmond looked like a much better player last year at RG then he has a LG.
What would really help is having Simon Goines healthy enough to play a tackle spot so that Benenoch could move inside, where I feel he is a significantly better player. Not crazy about him as a tackle still, gets beaten around the edge far too often.
One play I was mad about live that I'm not after rewatching the game was ASU's first TD. It was 100% because of a creative play call by their OC Mike Norvell (who I am a big fan of, hope he gets a head coaching gig somewhere so he isn't in the Pac-12 anymore).
2nd and goal from about the 5, the TE on the right side lunges out at the snap like he's cut blocking. Eric Kendricks sees this, disregards him as a receiving threat and moves to help outside. The TE gets up, runs to the left side of the field and is wide open for a short TD reception. Can't fault EK a ton there since generally players laying on their stomachs don't make TD catches.
On the defensive side, I understand the game plan and am not that concerned about the huge yardage total that the Sun Devils put up. Forcing a first time starter at QB to beat your defense with short passes all the way down the field is smart. Bercovici proved to be capable of completing those passes (actually has much more arm talent than Taylor Kelly), but did not do a very good job of limiting mistakes as he threw two interceptions and fumbled once trying to extend a play instead of recognizing he was going to be sacked.
I admire the confidence that the defensive coaching staff has in the secondary and defensive line. They let Moreau, Willis, Adams and any other player who plays in man coverage play 5-8 yards off of receivers so much more often than most college teams do. That is much more difficult than playing press coverage because a defender has no control of how the WR releases off the line. They also trust that Kenny Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Deon Hollins can get pressure without needing help from blitzes. The quick passes have limited the chances of those players, but they do need to produce more tangible results like TFLs and sacks instead of just pressures.
The problem has been a lack of consistent pressure by the line and opposing offenses have been taking advantage of UCLA when the Bruins do send more than 4 in the pass rush. It is easy to say that they need to blitz more and assume that will lead to more sacks, but I don't like what I've seen when the Bruins do blitz.
I'm curious to see the defensive schemes against more experienced QB play in the next two games against Utah and Oregon. Travis Wilson made a lot of mistakes last season against UCLA (throwing 4 interceptions), but he's looked much better this year. Marcus Mariota is the best QB in college football, so that is a challenge all by itself, though the Ducks are ravaged on the offensive line, playing walk-ons at tackle.
As always, the penalties are taken on a play-by-play basis (Note: UCLA has had 259 penalties for 2446 yards since 2012 before this contest where UCLA put up another 8 penalties for 78 yards. This is a huge indictment on the coaching staff for not rectifying this situation.):
1. An offsides that was declined after Jaelen Strong came down with a 14-yard reception. Opening drive of the game saw an early flag.
2. On the very next play, Myles Jack makes a costly mistake by doing a fly-by grab and twist of the facemask on DJ Foster after Owamagbe blew up the 1st down for a zero yard gain. Instead of a 2nd and 10 around midfield, the Sun Devils get gifted a first down around the 30-yard line. ASU would kick a FG on this drive.
3. Caleb Benenoch gets his weekly penalty on UCLA's first possession. A 2nd and 7 where he goes straight to the face on a pass rusher and then actually pushes further instead of getting his hands off the defender right away. He wasn't beat on the snap or anything, this is just an error in execution. No need to have the initial punch be to the face. Costs UCLA a 1st down after Hundley picked up 8 yards on 2nd and 7. Drive would not end with points.
4. Same drive on 3rd and 7. Thomas Duarte gets called for offensive pass interference, canceling out a converted 3rd down by Devin Fuller. It could have gone either way, but he did pretty clearly push off the defensive back covering him. This wasn't a pick play, Duarte just ran directly at the corner (which you should do) and used his arms to create separation instead of using his skills to do so.
5. Deon Hollins is offsides turning a 3rd and 13 into a 2nd and 8. Pre-snap penalties should never happen.
6. Caleb Benenoch with a false start creating a 1st and 15. Kills the momentum of the entire drive by forcing 2nd and 3rd and long.
7. Offsides by Odighizuwa on the first play of a drive.. Gives ASU and 1st and 5.
8. Ishmael Adams extends an ASU drive by getting called for defensive holding on an incompletion on 3rd down. Was a poor decision, but Adams made up for it shortly after with his 95-yard interception return for a touchdown.
9. Final penalty of the game was the worst, in my opinion. A real cheap, late hit on Bercovici by Matt Dickerson drew a roughing the passer call. First time I recall a hit like that this season from a Bruin, hope that it is the last.
All in all, there were a lot of good things after the first quarter in this game. More on offense than on defense, but still a lot of good. If last week's game was a C- then this week needs to be around a B+ (3.3). Lots to feel good about.
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
Outside of a penalty-plagued beginning to the first quarter, the Bruins played at a visibly high energy level throughout this game. UCLA actually managed to finish off a defeated team instead of allowing the Sun Devils to close the deficit the Bruins created in the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
I was happy with the energy level on both sides of the ball. Not crazy about the defensive play at times and the offense certainly was not without their own flaws, but this was a pretty flawless game in terms of effort. Give a slight demerit for the sluggish start in the 1st quarter, so an A- (3.7) looks good here.
5.) Do our players execute?
- UCLA's offensive line looked really solid in this game in pass protection, as did the running backs for the most part. Extremely encouraging signs moving forward.
- Mossi Johnson hasn't made a huge impact this season in the passing game, but he's been a sneaky standout on special teams. He sprung Adams on the first long kickoff return with a hell of a block as the up-back and made big blocks on two other returns as well (pancaked one player in the open field).
- 42-yard reception by Duarte was created by a NFL-level play-fake by Brett Hundley. I originally thought it was a slant against a blitz, but it was on the fake. Froze the ILB in his tracks and gave Duarte an easy reception for a big play. Having a QB like Brett allows for so many options that I'm excited to see more of this year.
- Ka'imi Fairbairn was crushing the ball in this game. Almost every kickoff was 9 yards deep in the endzone or out of the endzone. One of his better games, made two FGs easily as well.
- Great blitz recognition by Hundley on the play right before the long TD to Massington, slot CB blitzes, Hundley pulls the trigger to Fuller right away. If Fuller goes outside instead of straight ahead, he probably gets 15-ish yards instead of 6.
- Only bad throw that Hundley had in this game was the pass that skipped to Perkins. I just want to know why the check down throw has to be a 25 yard throw across the field from the opposite hashmark. Weird thing to have as a part of the offense.
- Backup defensive line gets suckered into a screen. Foster gets 20 yards and only Jaleel Wadood's exceptional open field tackle stops an explosive play from occurring.
- Great blocks by Mossi Johnson, Jayon Brown and Logan Sweet on Ishmael Adams' KR TD. Adams deserves a ton of credit for making guys miss, but those guys gave him lanes and created the space he needed to make the Sun Devils coverage team look terrible.
- Nate Iese looks more comfortable in the offense every week. Going to be more of a factor as the season progresses. Still not really a high-level blocker, but there's reason to be hopeful.
Some observations about the dropped passes, sacks, fumbles, interceptions and missed tackles:
- Kenny Walker drops a tough pass on a drag route on 3rd and 22. This play wasn't going to get the first. I actually would have liked to see Hundley swing it out to Perkins on the checkdown away from the other routes here. He had one defender to beat to get the first down and a ton of space to make something happen. Better odds than the drag to Walker.
- The turnover that was caused by an Eddie Vanderdoes forced fumble and an Eric Kendricks fumble recovery was an exceptional individual effort by both. EDV is actually lined up exactly where ASU needs him to be for a seal block on a stretch to the left side. Vanderdoes absorbs the contact, uses his power to extend his arms and creates separation between the blocker and him, he then goes flat down the line and has great form on the tackle of DJ Foster. Even if he hadn't forced the fumble, I would have noted this play somewhere. A flash of how great EDV can be at times. Kendricks is actually on the opposite side of the formation and is in pursuit when he sees the ball pop out rolling to the sideline. He accelerates to the ball, dives, manages to corral the football while keeping his body in bounds and gets UCLA possession after a disappointing offensive series. Instant momentum shift.
- Kenny Walker gets credit for a drop that would have been a conversion on 2nd and 8. Goes right through his hands. Just a pass that needs to be caught at this level.
- On a play that I kind of overlooked live, I realized that a poor attempt to down block by Alex Redmond probably kept UCLA out of the endzone on their 2nd drive. The play is actually a look that UCLA hasn't shown before. It was effectively a tunnel screen shovel pass to Nate Iese inside. Iese starts with his hand on the ground at a traditional TE spot, takes a step back at the snap and moves inside to be flipped the ball by Hundley. Jake Brendel is actually pulling around Redmond to get to the linebacker on the next level, which he does. The DT covering Brendel is in perfect position for Redmond to down block and gives Iese a lane where a safety is going to be the only man between him and the endzone, while the 250 pound Iese is gaining a full head of steam moving downhill. Redmond gets driven into the backfield and Iese is tackled for a loss.
- The 1st sack of the game is actually a coverage sack rather than anything that Hundley or the offensive line did. 4 routes are all blanketed by ASU's defensive backs on a 3rd and 6. OL and Paul Perkins do a nice job picking up a 6-man rush but there isn't anywhere for Hundley to go with the ball and he can't flush out of the pocket or up the middle.
- Not any specific play here, but UCLA had so many short yardage runs that turned into 5+ yard gains because the edge players were only able to get hands on the Sun Devil running backs while squeezing plays. Happened to Owa multiple times, Vanderdoes a couple of times. This difference between forcing a 2nd and 8 or a 2nd and 2 is crucial for a defense to be successful.
- Adams whiff on an open field tackle on a WR screen to DJ Foster, which is understandable because Foster is extremely talented. Gave ASU a 1st and goal though, where it should have been a 2nd and 5 or so.
- As good as he played in this game, Jordan Payton had a brutal drop on a jump ball in the endzone. Gets both hands on the ball at the high point with no defender's hands/arms near him. A team that wins the national championship has players that make those catches. Period.
- Ellis McCarthy got driven back about 6 yards by a single ASU lineman on the first play of the drive that saw ASU go up 17-6. 330 pound players shouldn't have that happen. McCarthy has shown a few flashes of his talent this year, but has been disappointing for the most part. UCLA needs him to step it up in a big way moving forward.
- Whoever the LE was on the last play of the 1st quarter turned a run that should have been no gain or a yard into a 9-yard gain by lunging at DJ Foster instead of trying to tackle him.
- Jaleel Wadood's blown coverage on Cameron Smith's long TD reception. Cover 3 and he gets beat deep. Fabian Moreau almost bails him out, coming from the outside 3rd all the way to the middle to nearly get a hand on the ball.
- Eric Kendricks misses a tackle for a short gain, possibly a TFL on a 4th and 7 on ASU's first drive of the 2nd half. They'd score on that drive and it delayed UCLA's moment of putting the game out of reach. EK makes that tackle 9 times out of 10, just a flukey deal.
There was a lot of improvement in this section as well. Last week was a C- here as well, but I feel as though the execution was a little sloppier than the game-plan. The defense missed more tackles than usual, the offense was solid but there is still room to improve. A B (3.0) feels about right. One of the better points of the season on execution.
6.) Do we have leaders on the field?
Jordan Payton looks like a different player at times this season, going for 151 yards on 5 catches with two touchdown receptions. His route running has always been polished, even when he was a freshman. He's always had good hands and puts in work blocking in the run game. What he's started doing this year consistently is breaking tackles. Payton plays bigger than his listed 6'1", 213 (which is about how big Cameron Judge is, for reference). He's been a favorite of mine ever since his freshman year where he flashed during practices in San Bernardino, glad to see him delivering in his junior year in a big way.
Brett Hundley was phenomenal in this game. From start to finish, he was on point and looked like a player that did not belong still playing at this level. The embodiment of this can be seen on a 30-yard pass to Thomas Duarte where Hundley shows his athleticism, footwork, steps up through the pocket, delivers an absolute rocket with touch over the linebacker to Duarte. The announcer said it perfectly, he looked like a giant version of Russell Wilson on that play. If that is the Hundley UCLA gets the rest of the season, there is no reason why UCLA should lose a game.
Ishmael Adams is the most electric player that UCLA has had since Maurice Drew. Every time that Adams touches the ball, there is a chance of your breath being taken away. Is he Charles Woodson or Deion Sanders? Probably not. Definitely not in their league as a cover corner, but better as a returner than Woodson ever was. The confidence that Adams plays with is emblematic of the UCLA defense as a whole. Not always going to be smooth sailing, but the athleticism, speed and fearlessness shines through in moments where it needs to.
Easy to throw out an A (4.0) here.
Final Grade Card for the Arizona State Sun Devils
1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? C+ (2.3)
2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? A (4.0)
3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? B+ (3.3)
4.) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? A- (3.7)
5.) Do our players execute? B (3.0)
6.) Do we have leaders on the field? A (4.0)
Arizona State GPA: B+ (3.4)
For reference, the GPA in UCLA's previous victory over Texas was a C (2.2), which was pretty closely correlated with the wins over Memphis C (2.2) and Virginia C+ (2.5). Big improvement in this game, which was opportune because the Bruins were playing their most difficult opponent thus far.
Next week the Bruins get their 2nd home game of the year against a Utah Utes team coming off a loss to Washington State, losing 28-27 despite being up 24-7 in the middle of the 3rd quarter. The Utes are still a good football team, they'll be physical on defense and test the offensive line of the Bruins. I'm not overly sold on their offense, but they've put up points this season. Not a game that the Bruins can afford to overlook with the potential national game of the year looming against Oregon in two weeks.
Until next time, Go Bruins!