The Eye Test: UCLA Puts on Uninspiring Performance Against Arizona
The Bruins may have won, but it wasn't pretty to look at.
Here are some statements that are true:
UCLA was favored by 16 points heading into the game. UCLA covered the spread.
UCLA had a one-point lead at halftime. They had three yards passing at the half.
UCLA is absolutely lucky that Arizona is one of the worst teams in the country because this could have been much worse.
Simply put, the Bruins did not play well enough to win this game in so many different ways. The offense could not pass the ball whatsoever, and the defense could not stop the pass until Arizona’s quarterback left the game. They were outgained at the half, could not get off the field, and generally looked like a program ready to move on from a coach. That they ultimately outscored their opponents 20-3 in the second half does not hide these facts as much as some would like you to believe.
Let’s get into this.
Folks, I couldn’t sugarcoat this one. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was unplayable for too much of this game to garner anything higher.
Watching the game live, I remember being convinced that DTR was injured in the first half, but he played fine in the second half. So, it’s hard to say that’s the reason for the poor play. And, even if Thompson-Robinson has a history of poor starts to games throughout his career, going 1-8 for three yards and throwing for a touchdown and an interception is still a bridge too far. He was not even constructive in the run game, only running six times for 28 yards.
This was just an abysmal performance that makes it hard to state that Thompson-Robinson is a net positive for the offense. His continued presence on the field and his unchallenged position as the clear starter for the team does not speak well about Chip Kelly’s program because I’m left to consider one of two options here: either every other quarterback on the roster is worse than Dorian and thus Kelly has failed to recruit talent to the most crucial position on the field or there are other quarterbacks who are better but Kelly is stubbornly sticking to the horse that he started with.
I think what struck me the most about this game, and I realize I’m not talking a lot about his performance in this game, but to be fair, it wasn’t good enough to talk about in the first place, was what I had seen earlier in the day. Oklahoma fell behind Texas big in the first half and their preseason Heisman hopeful Spencer Rattler was playing another in a string of poor games this year. Did Lincoln Riley stick with the struggling incumbent? No, he switched to another option, bringing in freshman Caleb Williams and allowing him to engineer the comeback that won Oklahoma the game. Even if the move had failed, it still showed a willingness to admit when something is not working and an understanding that change is needed.
Come to think of it, that might be the defining failure of the Chip Kelly era. I’m gonna write that down. Anyway, Dorian was bad. Let’s move on.
Running Back: A
The running backs, however, were not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Zach Charbonnet had a nice bounceback game, gaining 117 yards on 21 carries for a solid 5.6 YPC. The bigger performance came from Brittain Brown, who had receded to the background while Charbonnet had emerged but roared to life in this one, gaining 146 yards on 12 carries for an impressive 12.2 YPC. This isn’t even a case of one long run artificially inflating the numbers — half of Brown’s carries went for 10+ yards, which is ridiculous. It should not have been a shock for the running backs to have a good performance against Arizona, but it was still nice to see.
Once again, I find myself having to give an incomplete grade to this group because it’s hard to accurately grade their performance considering how bad Dorian Thompson-Robinson was. When the ball actually got to them, they were fine, and they blocked well, but nothing really stood out either way which is too bad because Arizona is bad enough that someone could have had a nice breakout game.
Offensive Line: B
The offensive line was definitely improved in this game, though it felt like part of that improvement was down to a change in formation with the Bruins abandoning the tight formations they had used to little effect against Arizona State in favor of more spread formations with bigger gaps. The Bruins had 329 rushing yards. So, I’d say they did a good job of figuring some stuff out on that front. Arizona also struggled to get into the backfield, only grabbing one sack and four tackles for loss on the day. So, good job.
That said, it really did feel like this could have been….I don’t know, better? Again, Arizona is not good and they have really struggled against teams with worse talent than UCLA this year. So, I feel that the offensive really should have looked consistently better here. In particular, I’m still not sure what is happening with the center position. I get that Sam Marrazzo had the spot last year, but he’s been injured and ineffective this year and UCLA has moved away from Jon Gaines in that backup spot to instead put Duke Clemens at that spot. Clemens has been fine, but the line has not gelled in the way it did the first two weeks with Gaines at the center spot. But that’s a conversation for another day.
If UCLA had just run the ball the entire game, this grade is probably better, but it did attempt to pass the ball as well and UCLA’s passing attack was so bad that I can’t in good conscious give the entire group a higher grade. It sucks when the play of one individual can bring down the entire collective, but that’s just an example of the power that the quarterback position has.
It also feels weird to look at a game where UCLA scored 34 points and put up 329 yards on the ground and say they performed poorly, but it’s true. We do grade on a curve based on the quality of the opponent and Arizona is the worst team UCLA has faced this year. They should not be putting up numbers worse than what they did against Hawai’i. At least that game had the benefit of being the first one of the season. This was game #6. So, things should not be backsliding. Despite what Bruce Feldman would have you believe, Chip Kelly is definitely on the hot seat, and I remain shocked that he is willing to stake his UCLA tenure on the erratic play of Thompson-Robinson.
Run Defense: B+
Credit where credit is due: UCLA made it hard for Arizona to run the ball. The Wildcats ended the game with 140 sack-adjusted rush yards at a rate of 3.6 YPC, which is more than you’d like from a yardage standpoint, but the Wildcats only ended the game with a rushing success rate of 31%, which essentially meant that the Bruins were shutting down the Arizona rushing attack on most plays. It also helps that the best run of the day from Arizona was a 16-yard scramble by Jordan McCloud, and only two designed runs went longer than 10 yards.
All of which is to say “Good job on doing one thing well, defensive line and linebackers.” But we once again need to talk about:
Pass Defense: F
Somehow, the pass defense had a worse showing than they did against Arizona State, which I did not think was possible but here we are.
It says a lot about how this unit is performing that the entire defensive system was adjusted to compensate for its poor play and they still got carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Arizona QB Jordan McCloud was efficient in this one, hitting passes left and right before he was knocked out of the game (and the season) with a leg injury, and really that might have been the one thing that saved this team. If Arizona was better at executing in the red zone (in three trips the Wildcats scored one touchdown and two field goals), then this game could have looked a lot worse.
UCLA went to a zone and flooded the secondary with defenders in this game, which feels like the right move (we’ll talk more about that later) but, even then, the secondary seemingly lacks either talent or ability. The best player in the secondary is Quentin Lake and he looks to be playing hurt. Honestly, he probably shouldn’t be playing in the first place if he is actually injured, but I imagine he saw the play of his backups and decided that maybe he wasn’t that hurt after all. Lake at less than 100% is better than anyone replacing him. Jay Shaw is the best cover guy the Bruins have, but a soft zone doesn’t play to his strengths. Stephan Blaylock really should not be this average after four years. Qwuantrezz Knight really helped solve some of the rush defense issues but having him in coverage most of the game, again, does not play to his strengths.
There was a point in this game where it looked like the last team to have the ball would win because Arizona was able to move the ball just as well as UCLA was in that first half. As I said, the biggest difference in the game is probably the fact that Arizona struggled in the red zone, which isn’t all that surprising considering they are a bad team.
And that gets to the heart of the matter. Arizona is bad. Their offense ranks 105th in the country, according to SP+. There isn’t a ton of talent to be had, and they’re in the first year with a new head coach. It should not have been this difficult, but the UCLA defense may be beyond fixing at this point. I guess I can give them some credit for shutting down the backup (not something every UCLA defense of the past decade can claim to have done!) but McCloud’s performance in this game should scare anyone who still had any faith that this defense can figure things out.
Can’t complain about this one. Nicholas Barr-Mira hit all of his field-goal attempts, Luke Akers was solid if unspectacular on his two punts, and Kazmeir Allen had a huge kickoff return. If there is a complaint, it’s that Allen didn’t score on his return, because the UCLA offense predictably threw away the gift it was given, but that’s not going to be held against them.
Offensive Gameplan: C
It was fine? I’m going to ding them for continuing to play Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the first half despite how bad he looked, and for continuing to pass despite how bad DTR looked, but as I will again mention: Arizona is bad. The offensive game plan did not have to be all that special, and UCLA’s run game here proved that point. Let’s just move on to the bigger issue.
Defensive Gameplan: D
On some level, I agree with the decision to cut back on the aggression and flood the secondary with bodies. At the very least, UCLA needs to drastically rethink the way they bring that pressure because the Arizona State game acted as proof of concept that teams had figured out how to effectively recognize where pressure was coming from and attack it. Frankly this started way back during Fresno State, but ASU really made things obvious. For the time being, filling the secondary with bodies should make things harder for opposing offenses. This is a level of self-scouting that the team rarely displays.
That said, UCLA still doesn’t have a pass rush. So, even throwing a bunch of bodies at the secondary doesn’t solve the issue because opposing quarterbacks just have to wait for their receivers to find a soft spot in the coverage and take advantage of it. That’s basically what happened here with Jordan McCloud tuning up UCLA’s anemic pass defense. And that’s a huge failure on the part of the coaching staff who has recruited and developed these players. UCLA does not have any playable depth. The guys on the field are barely playable as it is. The Bruins are forced into a bad schematic plan in part because of the failures of the coaching staff in recruiting and developing talent. It’s hard to look past that fact.
Here’s the long and short of it, buried all the way down in the coaching section, but this was a game where UCLA absolutely needed to blow away their competition in order to get fans to feel ok, and that simply didn’t happen. People who did not watch the game will point to the fact that the Bruins covered the spread, but that ignores that this was a one-point game at halftime, or that the Bruins did not take a double-digit lead until midway through the 4th quarter. UCLA did not look like a team with upwards momentum. They looked like a team that was preparing to lose a bunch of games in the next week.
They get a C- because that is the lowest grade you can get while technically passing (I know Ds Get Degrees but I teach high school so we’re going with that rubric) and technically passing is an excellent description of what UCLA did in this game. They did not win so much as they failed to lose, and in year four this type of performance has to fall on the coaches. You can’t blame the players for this anymore. This is a coaching issue through and through.
The penalties were bad. UCLA committed five of their eight penalties on defense, with every single one going for 10+ yards, and two of them coming on third downs when the defense had miraculously gotten a stop.
The energy level was even worse. Again, this was a game UCLA had to win and had to win convincingly, in order to get people back on their side. A one-score game through three quarters does not inspire confidence. Pulling away late thanks to an injury to the opposing quarterback does not inspire confidence. Having three passing yards at the half does not inspire confidence. This was not the most important game of the year to this point, but UCLA should not be treating games as if they are gimmes. They haven’t earned that right yet, and may never under Chip Kelly.
Offense grade: B- (2.7)
Defense grade: D+ (1.3)
Special Teams grade: A (4.0)
Coaching grade: C- (1.7)
Preparedness grade: Fail
Final grade for Arizona Wildcats: C (2.42)
And as a reminder, here are the scores from past games:
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors: A (3.65)
LSU Tigers: A (3.75)
Fresno State Bulldogs: D+ (1.42)
Stanford Cardinal: B+ (3.25)
Arizona State Sun Devils: D (1.25)
Grading this game out to a C feels right. UCLA did not put on a good performance, but they did get the win.
That said, the schedule is about to ramp up. Washington is not nearly the team it was projected to be, but they still have an excellent defense, and UCLA’s defense is making opposing offenses look much better than they probably are. With it being a road game, this has the makings of being a bad time. We’ll see how it goes.