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The "Eye Test": UCLA Bruins Bend And Nearly Break

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Grading out the finer details of UCLA's 35-31 win over Colorado in the Bruins' 6th win of 2015 to see if UCLA football is meeting expectations.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get to the grades.

1.) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?

The defense had a clear gameplan in this contest that has been rehashed multiple times over the last couple of days, but I'll detail it again here.

UCLA's defense is injury riddled right now and suffered through more of them over the course of this game. Despite this the talent gap is massively in favor of the Bruins, all the way down the depth chart.

Colorado has a mediocre to poor offense, with a quarterback in Sefo Liufau who is definitely getting the most out of his talent but has a definite ceiling on what he is able to do.

After watching all 114 official offensive plays by Colorado, I cannot say that I was upset by the defense's performance.

The game plan was clear right away and was a strategy that Jim Mora's teams have employed many times against less talented opponents, usually in these games that end up much closer than they should.

Do not allow Colorado to make any explosive plays, keep everything in front of you as a defense, trust natural talent to win 1-on-1s up front and not blitz or stunt too much up front.

The idea is that Colorado will not be able to put together long drives without making mistakes or having someone on the Bruins step up and make a huge play with their natural ability.

For the most part, this was what happened.

Colorado missed a FG, UCLA scored a defensive touchdown on a 96-yard interception return.

But, that conservative mentality put Colorado in far too many manageable 3rd and 4th down situations.

On 3rd and 4th down and short (2 or fewer yards), teams are going to convert a ton. That is true at any level despite talent gap. It is not hard to get 2 yards on a football play.

Colorado went 7-8 in the game on these types of plays. All runs, no passes.

On every other type of 3rd down, Colorado went 3-18 and threw an interception.

See the issue there with the "bend but don't break" defense?

The first drive of the 2nd half had a weird look for the defense. Colorado ran the ball for 5, 5, 3, 11, 20, 23 and then scored on short runs. The Bruin linebackers (now including true freshman Josh Woods) were playing so far off the line of scrimmage against the 6-man lines of Colorado. Just looked wrong to have 6-on-6 with the two LBs 5 yards away on obvious running downs. I understand wanting to come downhill to stop the run and 5 yard depth isn't that unusual at all, but going Nickel against a team with a true tight end in the game was unusual to me.

Weirder still was having the chance to substitute and still not doing so. I trust UCLA's DBs in man coverage against Colorado's WRs, Tom Bradley should as well. Go 4-3 even if you are down LBs and make Colorado throw the ball to beat you on the drive. Aaron Wallace has played some standup linebacker before, that is probably who I would have bounced off the line of scrimmage.

I think the defense was passable in this contest. The players deserved a better game plan, but they executed what was put in front of them.

C+ (2.3).

2.) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?

UCLA could not run the ball in this game. 23 carries for 155 yards doesn't look bad in the box score (taking out the two kneel downs and the 15-yard sack of Rosen). That's 6.7 yards per carry, basically on par with the season average per carry.

Paul Perkins had an 82-yard TD run on a break down by the Colorado defense sprung by a great block. Aside from that carry, UCLA went 22 carries for 73 yards. That is a terrible 3.32 yards per carry.

Considering that the Colorado defense was somewhere in the 110-120 range nationally in rushing defense, that is an unacceptable performance.

Josh Rosen did not look particularly sharp in the passing game either. Not bad by any stretch, but average against a fairly mediocre Colorado pass defense.

Overall, the offense got the benefit of some big plays and exceptional moments and otherwise looked disjointed and erratic.

The scoring drive to take the lead was so simple that it is infuriating it was necessary at all.

  1. Back shoulder throw down the sideline to Payton that is caught and also drew a flag for pass interference. 26-yard gain.
  2. Colorado blitzes their slot DB and Rosen throws a quick strike to the man that DB was covering, 38 yards and around the goal line.
  3. An inside run to Soso Jamabo for a TD to take the lead.

It really was that simple, nothing crazy or gimmicky. Just plays that are smart and high percentage using the best players on the field to make plays.

Why wasn't that happening on those drives where UCLA was going 3-and-out after the defense desperately needed the time off the field? If you are struggling to put together drives, why did it take until the 4th quarter to go with this sort of adjustment.

On UCLA's final drive, with 2 minutes left on a 3rd and 11 where Colorado had one timeout left, the Bruins threw the ball instead of running the ball and getting that timeout out of the equation. Just not smart football time management.

Sefo Liufau got to come back in the game after being injured on the ensuing drive because that Colorado timeout was still on the board for Colorado. Would probably have been advantageous to have a backup QB forced into a game rep on 3rd and 15 pressed up against the end zone with no prep or warm up time there instead of getting Liufau. But, again, who am I to question the genius of the lovable self-deprecating Walter White look alike that is Noel Mazzone.

C+ (2.3)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?

General Observations:

  • UCLA's first 3rd down of the game on offense, Josh Rosen goes to a staple of Noel Mazzone's offense on 3rd down with the curl to the single WR side against man coverage. Colorado has a DL get an arm up to deflect the pass. In this type of a situation, an offensive lineman has to know the situation and keep the defenders arms down by punching out. I'm also not a huge fan that the route was run with an 8-yard stem on 3rd and 4, but Payton was jammed a bit.
  • 11:20 in the first quarter. Clearly a pre-determined decision by Rosen on a wheel route to Darren Andrews. Like the play call though, especially with the motion across the formation making a pick by Devin Fuller seem like he was actually trying to run a route (pretty blatant OPI, but it worked out alright for UCLA). Ball is under thrown by Rosen but still gets UCLA a chunk play on 3rd and 7.
  • 5:44 on defense, this whole 16 play, 6 minute drive was not poorly defended at any point. On this play, it is more of a tempo issue because the left side on the defensive line is not set at the snap and Colorado runs right there to get a big gain. Luckily a Colorado lineman held unnecessarily and takes this gain away, but UCLA has no excuse to be unprepared for an up tempo offense since that is what UCLA's offense pertains to emphasize.
  • 4:10, Kene Orjioke does an outstanding job defending the edge on a zone read. Would like to have seen more of this from him.
  • 3:35, Jayon Brown diagnoses a flare to sideline flawlessly to get another TFL. Got Colorado in a 3rd and 20.
  • 1:42 on offense, Colorado is showing blitz right at where UCLA ends up running, is going to be 4 defenders on 3 offensive players. Can't win with those numbers. Have clear man coverage with 3 WRs. Josh Rosen needs to be able to and actually audible to a quick route here. You can't run where they run on this play and expect to succeed. Won't happen.
  • 1:10 on a 3rd and 10. Why on earth is the route choice a 5-yard in? That's a give up play that I cannot understand.
  • 12:25, Colorado runs a great mesh play for a conversion on 3rd down. Nothing the Bruins could have done to stop this well executed of a pick by the outside WR. Props.
  • 6:55 in the 2nd, Colorado takes advantage of UCLA in a Cover 3 by sending a deep threat down the middle and having a TE run about a 20-yard crossing route with a free release off the line of scrimmage behind the linebackers. Adarius Pickett goes to help with the deep route instead of checking the crosser and trusting his teammate to take care of the deep ball. This is a well designed play that gets 31-yards, not a huge error, but a more experienced safety probably makes the right decision here.
  • 4:38, Ishmael Adams with an inexcusable miscue of fair catching a punt at the 5-yard line. Plant your feet at the 10, do not catch anything that isn't in front of you. Costs UCLA 15 yards of field position. Basically a personal foul penalty.
  • 3:45, Takkarist McKinley and Cameron Judge both display great discipline on a 4th and 4 with Colorado driving to take the lead. McKinley keep Liufau in front of him on an unblocked pass rush and Judge stays with his man in coverage and makes a sound tackle instead of going for a huge play.
  • 2:24 in the 4th quarter. Not that this is surprising at this point, but Josh Rosen leaves a potential game ending 1st down on the table by making the incorrect decision on a zone read. Read man crashes down hard to get to Nathan Starks, Rosen gives anyway despite nothing but green grass being in front of him. At minimum, this is a 8-10 yard gain with an easy slide to avoid any contact. This is an issue that is not going away. I would not be shocked if it eventually is much more costly in a game than it has been. Not picking up the first down here gave Colorado another chance to win the game.

This area of performance was surprisingly not an issue that I saw a ton of during the rewatch or initial viewing. Players generally looked like they were doing what they were supposed to do. Even down to the 3rd string players that ended up getting reps on defense, there were rarely players out of position.

The Bruins were put at disadvantages by their schemes on offense and defense, but performed appropriately in those situations. C+ (2.3)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense?

As always, the penalties are taken on a play-by-play basis with context:

  1. Illegal wedge on the opening kickoff. Basic stuff, you can't link arms as a group of 3 blockers. This is not a new rule either. It has been the case for a while. Negates about a 35-yard return by Ishmael Adams that would've given the Bruins great field position to start the game.
  2. Illegal hands to the face on Conor McDermott. Turns what would've been a 3rd and 5 into a 2nd and 20. Could've been a drive killer, but UCLA picked up 27 yards on the next play.
  3. Defensive holding by Ishmael Adams to give Colorado a conversion on 4th and 3. Good call.
  4. Unsportsmanlike conduct on Ishmael Adams, but really on him, Randall Goforth and another defender for a group celebration. Not going to get upset at a guy for celebrating with his teammates after a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown. By far the least frustrating of the penalties in this game.
  5. Holding on a big kickoff return by Stephen Johnson by Carl Hulick (I believe). Pretty blatant and unnecessary. He is in the initial wall of blockers and straight up hugs the player who gets there. Not needed because Johnson goes outside nowhere near the block, but it was such an egregious hug that the official couldn't keep the flag in his pocket. Cost UCLA about 30 yards of field position. That field position wasn't needed much because Perkins housed a TD on the first play, but still a poor decision.
  6. A combination of offsides and 12-men on the field to give Colorado a free play around the goal line. Substitution coming about 4 plays too late for the Bruins on their opening drive on defense.
  7. False start by Conor McDermott puts UCLA in a 1st and 15 to start the 4th quarter. Not really an excuse to be had here.
  8. Illegal block on another big kickoff return by Stephen Johnson. Not shown on the replay, but there is no reason to doubt that it happened.
  9. Deon Hollins is offsides on the 62-yard completion to Devin Ross. Free plays are not good.
  10. An inexcusable roughing the passer penalty on Aaron Wallace on Colorado's final drive of the game. Colorado was going to be facing a 4th and 15 inside of their own 20-yard line, instead they get 15 yards and a first down while driving for the win.
  11. Personal foul for hands to the face on a 3rd and 11 on Caleb Benenoch. Pretty clear.
  12. Nathan Meadors flagged for celebrating his win-clinching interception. Not going to even entertain the idea of a criticism here. Appropriate moment to be penalized for celebrating.

Offense:

  • TD pass to Paul Perkins at 8:13 in the first. I actively and openly hate the screen pass UCLA ran on this play. And even this one should not have worked because there was an unblocked play in position to tackle Perkins behind the line of scrimmage. However, Paul Perkins is other worldly and breaks this unblocked defender out of his cleat and gets two fantastic blocks on over pursuing defenders by Jake Brendel and Stephen Johnson. Better to be lucky than good sometimes.

The offense didn't really play enough in this game for their effort to be an issue. Running 59 plays isn't going to be that monumental of a task.

The discipline also wasn't a huge problem. Pass protection was passable considering the looks Colorado threw out their to get pressure. Run blocking was not as big an issue as the sub-par rushing totals would lead you to believe. Mostly it was Colorado having more players at the point of attack than UCLA had blockers. There was not a ton of whiffs on blocks or players pulling to the wrong hole or getting blown up by defenders. It is just not a sustainable model to count on your running backs to break two tackles on every run for positive yards.

Case in point, the screen pass I so vocally decry here in the Eye Test. It resulted in a TD today because Paul Perkins broke a TFL and Colorado over pursued. The other times it was run, UCLA had a pass batted down, a TFL and another incompletion. The play should not ever be called and is only ever successful because of amazing individual performances that are not sustainable.

Defense:

After the offense scored to go up 7-0 in the first quarter, UCLA had possession for 2 minutes and 23 seconds until the 9:11 mark in the 3rd quarter. They went 3-and-out, 3-and-out, 82-yard TD run, halftime break, fumbled kickoff return.

The defense was on the field from the 8 minute mark in the 1st quarter until the 9 minute mark in the 3rd quarter, that's basically half of the game, for almost 27 of those 29 minutes of play.

I have never seen anything like that in the entire time I have been following, playing, watching and writing about football. The fact that the defense did not implode completely is only attributed to the heart of the players on the field.

After suffering through that stretch, UCLA's offense goes down and scores to make it a 28-13 game. The defense gets off the field with a weird 9 play, 22 yard drive that never went anywhere but still lasted 3 minutes.

That is a spot where the offense has to go out and pick up the defense who had been playing well considering how much they'd been on the field. Not even a scoring drive, but a couple of first downs, run the ball and milk the clock to get the defense some rest.

Instead, run, pass, pass for a three and out that last 1 minute and 7 seconds. I knew after that 3-and-out that the defense was going to struggle to stop Colorado from scoring. That was the breaking point.

Special Teams:

  • Matt Mengel with a booming 64-yard punt was a good rebound. I disagreed with the switch last game, and it was good to see Mengel perform well.

The return game cost UCLA a ton in this game. A turnover, probably over 100 yards of returns lost due to easily avoidable penalties, a fair catch inside the 5-yard line.

Stephen Johnson looked impressive with the ball in his hands, but that doesn't matter if the penalties happen or he fumbles when caught from behind.

Overall, mostly fine here with a demerit for special teams. B (3.0)

5.) Do our players execute?

General Observations:

  • 12:40 in the first quarter, John Johnson with perfect technique on a deep route down the sideline. Dude is not giving that spot up.
  • 12:30, Deon Hollins gets a QB hit partially because of a crazy deep drop back by Liufau but also gets his arms extended on the RT with good hand position to narrow the edge he needed to get around. If the tackle gets his shoulders turned, the defender is almost always going to win the rep and at minimum affect the pocket for the QB.
  • 10:53, Caleb Benenoch with a pancake on a 5-yard run by Perkins. Caught this during the game and was excited it wasn't anything fluky, just a big, strong guy driving another big, strong guy into the grass.
  • 10:20, Fantastic pass protection on a 27-yard completion to Payton.
  • 9:35, There isn't a "mistake" on this play, but it is a great illustration of how football really is a game of inches. Boxscore it is a rush for no gain, but this was about 8 inches from being another highlight reel run by Paul Perkins. Well blocked stretch play to the right side. The hole is there with a pulling lineman getting through cleanly. Caleb Benenoch did a nice job sealing, but gets pushed back just a few steps in the process and bumps Perkins as he is cutting through the hole. Healthy Perkins gets through there and has one man to beat for a big gain down the sideline, but banged up Perkins gets bumped backwards and tackled at the line of scrimmage.
  • 8:00 in the 2nd. A baffling play call by Colorado around the goal line. Aaron Wallace stays disciplined and gets a TFL on a fly sweep by the Buffaloes
  • 6:05, John Johnson with a near interception with flawless defense on a deep sideline route. Ran a better route than the WR.
  • 3:22, 82-yard TD runs do not get much easier than the one Perkins had. UCLA motions across the formation, turning a basic 4-WR set into a trips to the far side. Pre-snap, Colorado has two deep safeties, one cheated over to the far side and one as more of a center fielder. The safety in the center follows the motion and ends up near the far hash with all of his focus on that side of the field. UCLA runs the ball to the short side of the field and all they need is one block from Brendel to spring Perkins and Brendel seals the linebacker with ease. Untouched for 82 yards. That easy.
  • 8 minute mark in the 3rd quarter, beautiful throw by Josh Rosen and an outstanding route by Jordan Payton downfield for a 51-yard gain.
  • 4:45 in the 3rd, Aaron Wallace with a great edge rush on a 3rd and 10 to get the Bruins defense off the field when they needed it most.
  • 12:28 in the 4th quarter, looked like Denzel Fisher got beat deep on a double move. Not sure what the safety was doing, but Fisher was the man who got beat. It is a play action. Goforth doesn't bite on the fake and keeps backpedaling but suddenly looks like he's trying to break up instead of staying deeper than the deepest (the most important rule for any deep safety)
  • 4:40, I have to give the most massive of props to Donovan Lee for throwing Kenny Clark off of him on a 3-yard run that should have been a TFL on a 2nd and 10. Probably the most impressive singular display of power I saw all weekend in any athletic competition. Essentially hip tossed a behemoth of a man and went to get some more yardage.

Some observations about the dropped passes, sacks, fumbles, interceptions and missed tackles:

  • The weird overturned interception play at 10:20 in the first quarter. Devin Fuller got both hands not the ball on a slant. I personally call this a drop. My bigger qualm is Rosen not going after the slant to the other receiver at the top of the screen who had a better look pre-snap and was actually past the 1st down marker with his route on a 2nd and 5.
  • 13:50 in the 2nd quarter, Jordan Payton quits on a route that was a TD pass in the making. Very surprising from Payton. This is a well thrown ball by Rosen.
  • The interception by Ishmael Adams was a phenomenal play that I would trust Adams to make many more times than he doesn't. As soon as he jumped, I knew it was a TD. He's a hell of a playmaker.
  • There were not many missed tackles by the defense in the first half. Only one of any real consequence. Jayon Brown had Donovan Lee tackled in the backfield on a 3rd and 1 run. Did everything perfect except finish the tackle. Ends up a 21-yard run to get the Buffalo into field goal range. I'll bet Jayon would trade about 10 of his other tackles in this game if he had gotten this one. Would've gotten UCLA's defense off the field and been a huge confidence boost going into the half having basically played defense for the entire 2nd quarter.
  • Stephen Johnson gets stripped on a kickoff return to give Colorado the ball after they scored to make it an 8-point game.
  • The fumble by Josh Rosen was an extremely costly mistake and a poor play by him. In a 3rd and 15 around midfield, just take the sack. Up 12 points in the 4th quarter is not the time to try and extend a play when you are the kind of athlete Rosen is. Caleb Benenoch also gets beaten pretty badly around the corner and McDermott doesn't do a great job picking up a late stunt around the left side, but there's no reason Rosen should have done what he did under pressure.
  • Easy sack for Aaron Wallace on Colorado's final drive. Dominates the right tackle with a pretty basic arm extension. Nothing fancy, just getting a man off balance and making a play. Wallace has been great all year, probably the most pleasant surprise on the defense.
  • Flawless man coverage by Nathan Meadors on the game sealing interception. Ran a better route than the WR and trusted his eyes and head. Huge play for a true freshman. And the Inland Empire representing once again.

Again, an acceptable job in this capacity by the Bruins. Passable. C+ (2.3)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field?

I'm going off the model here and talking about some general leadership issues. I have all the confidence in the world in the leadership ability of players at UCLA. They give everything they have in these games.

This is about the other representatives of UCLA football.

The coaching staff did not put the team in a position to excel, they put them in a position to hope that Colorado would lose the game by being less talented than UCLA.

That is cowardly, in my opinion. I was disappointed watching this back even more than I was watching it happen.

College football is not the NFL. You do not get credit for simply getting wins because there are not 16 games in a year.

You don't get to make the playoffs if you lose games or barely beat crappy teams (no disrespect to a steadily improving Colorado program, but UCLA is on a different level of football at this point and time).

12 teams out of 32 don't make the playoffs. It is 4 out of the entirety of college football.

You cannot win championships by minimizing risk and playing safe.

Champions have games where their focus lapses or they get a couple rough breaks and a team hangs around for 3 quarters against them.

There is nothing wrong with that happening.

There is something wrong with that happening consistently against teams that have no business remaining competitive.

There is something wrong with going safe over challenging your team to perform above expectations against every team they play.

UCLA football needs this coaching staff to get the UCLA football team to meet the John Wooden standard every game.

Did UCLA do their best to become the best they are capable of being against Colorado?

I do not think so, but am welcome to hear a challenge to that assessment. D+ (1.3)

Grade Card for the Colorado Buffaloes:

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? C+ (2.3)

3.) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? C+ (2.3)

4.) Do our players play disciplined and with exceptional effort for 60 minutes every game on special teams, offense and defense? B (3.0)

5.) Do our players execute? C+ (2.3)

6.) Do we have leaders on the field? D+ (1.3)

Colorado GPA: C (2.25)

For reference, the GPA for last week's win over UC Berkeley was a B+ (3.57). The game (the word "loss" doesn't seem to sum it up well enough, so I'm just calling it a game) against Stanford was a D+ (1.52). The loss to Arizona State was a C (2.17). Those two standing in sharp contrast to victories over Arizona, a B- (2.9), BYU, a B (3.27), UNLV, a B (3.26), and Virginia, a 3.45 (B+).

UCLA heads up to Oregon State to face one of three teams that Jim Mora has never beaten in Pac-12 play. That one that beat Mora in his first season as the UCLA coach was a much different team than this one, although I am not sure that it was a better team.

It will be cold, it could be rainy, and UCLA could easily show up expecting Oregon State to lose the game for UCLA. I expect a convincing win, but would not be surprised to see a repeat of the Cal/Colorado back-to-back underwhelming wins from last season.

Until then, Go Bruins!