The Eye Test: UCLA Football Outlasts Sloppy Arizona State
The Bruins were not necessarily the better team, but they were the more prepared one.
This was…a weird game.
I mentioned in the post-game discussion that it was going to be difficult to grade this one, and I’m writing this after going through (most of) the sections because I was right. The UCLA Bruins were not great in this game on a variety of fronts, some of which you could tally to being on the road, but a lot just due to Arizona State being the best team they’ve played all season. Add in the fact that the Bruins were reintegrating a QB that had been absent the past few games and it makes sense that the Bruins looked bad for major parts of the game.
But UCLA came away with the victory, in large part because Arizona State looked like a team that had not played a football game for over a month. The Sun Devils made all sorts of errors in this game, many of them costly, and UCLA was able to repeatedly take advantage. Ironically, it’s this very formula that led to UCLA’s two losses on the season, as Colorado and Oregon were able to take advantage of a myriad of UCLA turnovers to essentially flip the game in their favor.
That leads into grading. How do you grade a game that UCLA was average in, but won due to back-breaking mistakes by the opponent? I tried to thread that needle here, so hopefully you all won’t get too mad at me. And if you do, just remember it’s all Joe’s fault that I keep writing this column.
Let’s get into it.
I love always starting with the quarterback spot because it is usually the one with the most controversy surrounding it. So let’s get started: I don’t think Dorian Thompson-Robinson was nearly as bad as most commenters believed he was.
To be sure, he made some poor decisions in this one, including the intentional grounding he took in the end zone in the third quarter. But, upon rewatch, it becomes pretty clear that Chip Kelly once again tried having Thompson-Robinson do things that are outside of his wheelhouse. Just to head this off early, these aren’t even things he was asking Chase Griffin to do the past few weeks, but rather the multiple reads in the passing game that Kelly tried to utilize against Colorado. Thompson-Robinson works best when given 1-2 reads in the passing game and he has the option to keep. Now that UCLA knows it has a capable backup in Griffin, DTR should be given the green light to run more often, as he showed in this game that he is excellent in the open field.
There were some other signs of improvement from Thompson-Robinson. For example, no turnovers! Sure, he had one pass that probably should have been intercepted had Delon Hurt not made an amazing play on the ball but, besides that, he did a good job of protecting the ball. In the second quarter, he even made a heady play by immediately sliding and protecting a bad snap from Sam Marrazzo, giving UCLA a chance to kick a field goal. Considering where he was at the beginning of this year, that’s pretty good.
All things considered, this game should serve as an example of why Chip Kelly is going to lean towards using Dorian Thompson-Robinson over Chase Griffin in future games. Was he perfect? Not really, but he provides a level of explosive play with both his arm and his feet that Griffin just can’t get to, and coaches will always lean towards playing the guy with more talent if possible.
Running Back: B
Maybe this is a bit unfair since it appears Demetric Felton was kept out of most of the game seemingly out of an abundance of caution, while Brittain Brown himself looked noticeably slower in the second half. It’s not surprising this is the case, especially with Felton, who has become a workhorse for the Bruins and is touching the ball on offense at an insane pace. Felton came up limping near the end of last week. So, I’m guessing the staff wanted to try and save him for this week as much as possible. Still, Felton came on during the last drive and absolutely took over for a good stretch of it, showcasing why he’s one of the best offensive threats in the conference.
Brown was effective in his limited carries, but UCLA, with Felton out, really did not seem to trust any of its remaining running backs to carry the offensive load like they have the past few weeks. If you take away the 64-yard run, Brown was still able to average five YPC on the game, which is fairly good, but he only saw nine total touches. It would have been nice to see him handle more of the workload with Felton not 100%. Keegan Jones saw some carries and was largely ineffective, but at least he’s getting some solid experience to build on for the next few years when he’ll be expected to contribute more.
With the return of Thompson-Robinson, the passing game was utilized much more, and the receivers responded with a solid outing. Kyle Philips was much more sure-handed in this one than he’d been in previous weeks, while Greg Dulcich returned to being a threat over the middle. The biggest shout-out goes to Delon Hurt, who saw extended action for what had to be the first time in his career and responded beautifully with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Always great to see a guy work hard and get rewarded.
Offensive Line: C+
Arizona State has the best defensive front that UCLA has seen all season, and I thought the offensive line had an average performance against it. As usual, the strength came from the tackle spots where Sean Rhyan remains exceptional while Alec Anderson held his own across from him. The interior of the line had more issues, which is understandable since that’s the same spot that was having issues earlier in the season. Interestingly enough, UCLA seemed to be running Atonio Mafi and Jon Gaines at the guard spots a lot, which led to some breakdowns in pass protection. Mafi is a big guy, and has looked good at run blocking, but pass protection is a bit more complex and he struggled at times here. That’s not a knock against him, for the record. Mafi just changed positions this past offseason. So, he’s very new to the position and it’s a small wonder he’s developed fast enough to be counted on for substantial snaps against the Sun Devils.
A B grade in general here feels pretty good. I think a lot of the flaws with UCLA in this game can be attributed more to poor game-planning and adjustments by the coaching staff than outright poor play by the players and their successes in the second quarter and on the final drive are things to build on. The best news is that they have momentum going into Saturday, instead of trying to rebuild things at the last minute.
Run Defense: C+
UCLA had some issues stopping the run in this one. I’m not going to lie.
Let me be fair here and point out that Arizona State has some exceptional talent at running back, likely the best the Bruins will have faced all year. They also did not blitz nearly as often because ASU QB Jayden Daniels is a threat with his legs.
That said, things ended up as a mixed bag. To be sure, the Bruins did a good job of limiting Daniels on the ground, keeping him to just six yards on 12 carries. But the Sun Devils were able to run for 196 sack-adjusted yards (for an average of 6.6 YPC), and the Bruins only had two tackles for loss that weren’t sacks, a sign that they struggled to get into the backfield and to diagnose various run plays. Once again, the Bruins were hurt by a lack of a true middle linebacker and Bo Calvert remains a poor facsimile of one in the middle. In the second half, Arizona State was able to have a ton of success on the ground, gaining almost 100 more yards compared to the first half. Obviously, we need to add the caveat that the defense was on the field longer due to the ineffectiveness of the offense that half, but even that dismisses the missed tackles that were present in the first half and finally started hurting in the second.
Pass Defense: B
I actually thought UCLA did a much better job against the Arizona State passing attack, for a few reasons.
Much like their run game, Arizona State has some serious talent at the receiver spots. They always seem to churn out a #1 receiver-type, with Frank Darby being this year’s iteration, and he is surrounded by a talented group that blends youth with ability. Jayden Daniels is a solid quarterback on top of that and is clearly the best QB UCLA has faced this season. So on some level, there had to be some assumptions that Arizona State was going to get theirs in the passing game.
The good news is that UCLA was able to limit the damage and, in many cases, came up with big plays to keep points off the board. First off, credit should go to UCLA’s defensive front for routinely coming up with big sacks in crucial moments, stopping Arizona State from scoring repeatedly. Caleb Johnson in particular came up huge in clutch moments, but we also need to mention Osa Odighizuwa who was his usual disruptive self on the interior.
It also helped to have Quentin Lake back. It is crazy how much better Stephan Blaylock plays when he has Lake across from him. Safety play was much improved over the past few weeks, which allowed UCLA’s corners to play more aggressive than you’d probably feel comfortable with. ASU tried to pick on the weak links in the pass defense, first attacking Obi Edoh with some success, but when he went out with an injury they switched to attacking Jay Shaw and found less success. Mo Osling was effective opposite him and he was especially effective when sent on corner blitzes, picking up two sacks in the game.
Generally, the Bruins kept Daniels on his heels often enough that they were able to slow down the Arizona State passing attack and routinely make big plays, and that’s a pretty good place to be.
Wait, how did I get to an overall grade that is higher than the individual grades? The answer is that the UCLA defensive effort was greater than the sum of its parts and I wanted to give them credit for repeatedly making big plays and limiting a potent Arizona State attack to only 16 points despite putting up 442 yards and getting little help from the offense at times. I don’t know if football has a good way to measure clutch plays like there is in baseball, but if it did UCLA’s defense surely came up with a huge amount of them in this one.
It was an ok game from special teams. Nicolas Barr-Mira hit a 44-yard field goal, which is his career long and a good sign for the Bruins going forward. Luke Akers was average on punts, only averaging 35.5 yards on the day. The biggest issue was in punt and kick coverage, where Arizona State was repeatedly able to find success. The big return near the end of the first half, which was only kept from being a kick-return touchdown by RJ Lopez committing the tactical yellow for a trip, really helped swing the momentum towards an ASU squad that had done almost nothing for an entire half, which the Bruins really can’t afford against good teams.
Offensive Game Plan: C-
Last week, my issues with the offense fell down to having a really good plan that was abandoned in the second half when the Bruins went up big. This week, I’m not sure the plan was all that good to begin with.
This was not the same offensive system we’ve seen over the past three weeks. On some level, that’s fine - besides trying to avoid being predictable, Arizona State has a great defensive front. So, running against that was always going to be a hassle. UCLA was able to find some success offensively by moving back to spread concepts and attacking the Sun Devils on the edges.
That said, it really feels like a lot of the offensive gameplan changed once it became clear Demetric Felton would not be a major contributor. Instead of establishing the run in order to pass, Chip Kelly instead turned to Dorian Thompson-Robinson to establish the pass in order to run. This led to some…mixed results. Perhaps to its detriment, UCLA seemed to run a lot of empty set formations, with DTR alone in the backfield. The lack of even a running threat next to him and, weirdly enough, the lack of a draw play from this formation, meant that ASU knew to play the pass and it led to a string of poor plays with minimal success.
On a similar note, the offense once again became more conservative in the second half while nursing a 14-point lead, and that was to the offense’s detriment. Gone were the spread concepts, instead favoring the stacked line, multiple TE run sets that had zero success. UCLA is too predictable in these sets, and a good defense like Arizona State is going to sniff these plays out rather easily.
Like I said, I get why the offense changed this week, I’m just not sure it was the correct change. A lot of it seemed like a reversion to the Colorado offense that was only able to find success once the Buffaloes had staked out a large lead. That offense does not seem to recognize the strengths of the offensive personnel. DTR excels when given 1-2 reads then an option to run, the running backs are exceptional in space, the offensive line is much better at run blocking than pass protection, etc. The only difference between this game and Colorado is that the Bruins didn’t turn the ball over an ungodly amount, which means this was probably a better indicator of how good the offense can be and it ended up at “barely good enough to support an exceptional defensive effort”. That isn’t going to cut it against Southern Cal.
Defensive Game Plan: A-
Flip side, completely fine with the defensive gameplan in this one. There was less obvious pressure being sent by the coaching staff, which made sense since they did not want to be burned by Jayden Daniels scrambling. Instead, we saw more targeted blitz choices, sending only 1-2 extra defenders while keeping other members of the defensive front back to plug in holes left by the pass rush. The ultimate downside of this defense is that it leaves the secondary on islands, and against a team with talented skill players like Arizona State, it can lead to breakdowns in coverage. It’s an inherent risk but one that UCLA should definitely take, as it can lead to more positive outcomes as well. UCLA got two turnovers this game, one of which was absolutely forced by the pressure sent towards Jayden Daniels, and that doesn’t count the sacks or poorly-thrown balls. Daniels had a paltry 6.4 YPA passing the ball, which is a good sign that UCLA made his life difficult.
On average, I think the coaching staff did fine. I’m more worried about the offensive system, as it appeared to be a lot of Chip Kelly reverting to bad habits regarding playcalling and strategy. The defense, meanwhile, had a performance that fills me with more confidence, as it showed it could adapt what it wants to do against various opponents. A lot of what UCLA did in this game can work against Southern Cal, along with some previous concepts from the last few games (given that Kedon Slovis is not the threat to run that Jayden Daniels is).
If you wanted a quick and dirty read here: get the offense back to the UC Berkeley/Oregon levels it was at, and keep the defense solid, and you have a recipe for winning the Victory Bell. Seems simple enough.
As I stated in the opening, UCLA looked like a team that had gotten to play football this past month, while Arizona State looked like a team that did not get to do so. The penalty results speak for themselves. UCLA only had five accepted penalties on the day for a grand total of 32 yards, while Arizona State had 12 for 83 yards. Arizona State repeatedly came up with back-breaking penalties that cost them major yards and touchdowns, along with a few defensive penalties that helped extend UCLA drives.
Then, toss in the turnovers; UCLA had none while Arizona State had two. The Bruins weren’t able to score off those turnovers, but it didn’t really matter as it prevented the Sun Devils from scoring. The worst was Jayden Daniels fumbling a snap on the UCLA 3-yard line, a mistake that realistically doesn’t happen if Daniels had gotten more reps this year, but a mistake that cost the Sun Devils at least three points, and likely seven.
All of which is to say that UCLA got a pass in this game for preparedness in part because of circumstance. They’ve gotten to play all their games this season, one of only three teams in the conference that has done so and they have taken advantage of that. Let it serve as a statement for why practice is not a good substitute for game experience.
Offense grade: B (3.0)
Defense grade: B+ (3.3)
Special Teams grade: B- (2.7)
Coaching grade: B- (2.7)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Arizona State Sun Devils: B (2.93)
Our previous grades:
And with that, we can finally turn our undivided attention to Hate Week. Southern Cal is coming off an impressive win, and still theoretically has a shot at the College Football Playoff despite looking bad in their other games. It seems like as good a time as any to beat them.
Go Bruins! Beat $c!