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The Eye Test: UCLA Football Reaches New Nadir Against Colorado
Somehow, Chip Kelly's squad found a new low, and the question becomes how much worse things could get.
Welcome, everyone, to the first Eye Test of the 2020 UCLA Bruins football season! This is my fifth year doing this column across various sites, and I can honestly say that nothing makes me hate UCLA football more than doing a deep dive into the positives and negatives of each game. That’s a bit hyperbolic - I love UCLA athletics to the point that I willingly watched every second of this past game a few times - but these last few years have been a rough go of things, and I am starting to run out of ways to describe it. It’s a rough go of things, I will admit. If you want my read on the current predicament with UCLA football, you can find it over here. For now, this column will (mostly) focus on this game.
Anyway, let me give the yearly introduction. The Eye Test is our way to break down each UCLA football game to determine how the team performed on an individual and team-wide level, and gauge how the team is progressing throughout the season.
The Eye Test is divided into five categories. The first four are holdovers from last year: Offense, Defense, Special Teams, and Coaching. The last category has once-again changed, as I grew to hate the Discipline/Execution section and how it felt redundant to the other sections. So it has been replaced with a general catch-all section titled Preparedness, which gauges how prepared the team looked for the game, and can include things like turnovers, penalties, and the like. Unlike years past, the Preparedness section won’t have a GPA, but rather be Pass/Fail. A Pass would bump the grade up by a half-letter (aka taking a B to a B+) while a Fail would do the opposite (B to a B-). I don’t know that this will necessarily “fix” my issues with the section, but it will at least give me something to do.
As a reminder, not every section is going to have long-sections of writing for it. For example, I don’t see the Receivers section being very long this week as they were generally fine. And as a last reminder, all grades are completely arbitrary and correct.
All right, let’s get into it.
JUST GONNA KICK THINGS OFF WITH A GRADE THAT WILL SURELY GET PEOPLE ANGRY!
I understand why people would want to give Dorian Thompson-Robinson an F and move on. His first half was, for the most part, abysmal, with him contributing two of UCLA’s four turnovers all on his own, and creating a hole that the team never could dig out of. In general, DTR regressed as this game went on, losing fundamentals as he pressed to make something happen. Colorado got pressure pretty consistently, but even when he had time DTR was throwing off of his back foot, and by the end of the game he was even showcasing last year’s bad habit of running backwards when pressure arrived.
In the second half Thompson-Robinson looked much better, and I think part of that was the fact that he was allowed to run. His first run of the game came on that big 65-yard touchdown, and just the threat of him taking off with the football seemed to open things up. There’s a good reason for that: Dorian Thompson-Robinson is an awful fit for this offense in its current form.
That’s not a slight against DTR, by the way. I think he could shine in an offense more tailored to his skill set. Maybe something like, I don’t know let me just pull a concept off the top of my head, the Blur offense. An offense that utilizes his skills as a runner to put pressure on the defense and open up simpler passing concepts would make perfect sense for DTR. But that’s not the world we live in, as Chip Kelly is still wedded to this offense that struggles on multiple fronts. So yes, Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a bad game, but you could see how he has been failed by his head coach.
Running Back: B
Weird game for this unit. I expected to see more of grad transfer Brittain Brown in the backfield, but he only got two carries and really didn’t see the field. The game situation pretty quickly moved UCLA away from their preferred attack plan of ground control, and we ended up seeing more of Kazmeir Allen and Keegan Jones as a result. Both players held up admirably, with Allen looking bigger and Jones showing off excellent speed.
That said, Demetric Felton was rightly the star of the running back show, as he ran the ball 10 times for 57 yards and a touchdown, while catching seven passes for 46 yards and another touchdown. There is a recognition by the coaching staff that Felton is the biggest playmaker on the team, and so there’s rightly a concerted effort to get him the ball as often as possible. If there’s a problem, it’s that too often they give him the ball in disadvantageous situations and just hope he can make something happen. Better deployment of Felton would go a long way to finding consistent offensive success.
Similar thing to the running backs. There felt like a lack of separation on watching, but I don’t know how much of that is the fault of the receivers or the scheme. Considering how often the receivers made good plays on poor balls from Thompson-Robinson, I’m liable to lean towards it being a scheme issue.
The only receiver that really stood out was tight end Greg Dulcich. Dulcich only had four catches but made them count, going for 126 yards and a touchdown. The Bruins have been gifted with excellent tight ends the past few years, and Dulcich looks ready to take over that mantle.
Offensive Line: D
This…was not a good showing from the new offensive line.
On the positive, the tackle spots were generally fine. That’s good news, as Sean Rhyan is looking to avoid the sophomore slump that plagued Christophany Murray last year, while Alec Anderson proved he can step up and be consistent through an entire game. The rest of the line…..ehh. Sam Marrazzo was ok but didn’t wow me, though I guess I should be thankful his snap issues were minimal. The guard spots were more of a disaster. Paul Grattan saw a good amount of playing time and looked like someone who was struggling to make the jump up from DII to Power 5 football, looking slow and missing blocks. Duke Clemens and Jon Gaines were not much better, and it does make me wonder why Clemens in particular was flipped to the right side when he proved to be effective on the left next to Rhyan last season.
Generally, the line struggled to handle any sort of pass rush from the Colorado defenders. Thompson-Robinson was bad, but it doesn’t help that he was hurried eight times, and generally had to elude pressure the entire night. A cleaner pocket would have helped tremendously. It’s hard to really judge them on run blocking as UCLA went away from that for the most part, but the run blocking on 4th and 1 at the beginning of the 4th quarter doesn’t help their case.
So a lot of the issues offensively have to do with turnovers - they had three of the four on the night - but the execution was lacking from the two most important position groups on this side of the ball, and that just can’t happen. Things clearly got better in the second half, but by then the damage was done.
Run Defense: D-
Colorado ran the ball 59 times for 264 yards and five touchdowns. The fact that the defense got hung out to dry by turnovers in the first half is the only thing preventing this from being an F. Colorado running back Jarek Broussard had his way with the Bruins, as he averaged 6.0 YPC on 31 carries with three touchdowns.
UCLA, at this point in the Chip Kelly era, does not have a solution to run defense, in part because they have a poor defensive line. They lack bodies, and the bodies that they do have consistently struggle to perform on the field. Even Osa Odighizuwa, the star of the defensive line, only takes that moniker due to the dearth of star power around him - put him on some of the defensive lines during Jim Mora’s tenure, and Osa would be a rotation piece at best. Worse still, there’s been a strange exodus of defensive lineman to the opposite side of the field, which leaves the defensive line with even fewer options (for example, Siale Liku was the only DT prospect the Bruins brought in in 2019, and is now an offensive lineman, leaving the Bruins with no prospects at the position for a whole recruiting class). There is no scheme change that can reasonably fix this issue, which means UCLA is stuck hoping their existing defensive line can improve, otherwise it will be a long year.
Also not to be left out, the linebacker play was bad! Bo Calvert seems hilariously miscast in the Mike linebacker spot, being repeatedly out of position, and feels like a better fit on the outside in pass coverage. The group generally struggled to fill lanes, which made life easier for Broussard. Unlike the defensive line, the Bruins have actually brought in some new recruits in recent years, and you wonder at what point those guys get a larger shot at fixing the problem.
Pass Defense: D-
Before we get into it, I should note that Rayshad Williams, who had essentially taken the top cornerback slot by the end of last year, did not see the field in this game. I don’t know if he was suddenly injured in practice this week or what, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
With that out of the way, the pass defense was, much like the run defense, not good. One of the reasons I switched to run and pass defense instead of position group grades was it allowed me to group the pass rush with the secondary, and on that front UCLA, as is tradition now, failed to generate much of a pass rush. But even considering that, the Bruins secondary made converted safety Sam Noyer look like one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, as he was able to pick apart the Bruin defense with relative ease. The return of Quentin Lake did not solve the issues at safety, as Colorado consistently attacked the seam with success against both Lake and Stephan Blaylock. Obi Edoh struggled in coverage when he wasn’t hurt, which isn’t what you want to see from a transfer who takes on a starting job. Qwuantrezz Knight, the other transfer, was a lone bright spot here, flying around and making solid plays before he got hurt.
As I said, I can’t give them the full F grade since they were stuck in some bad spots early, but as the game progressed it became clear that Colorado was going to find success regardless of where they started their drives. UCLA could not stop the run with any sort of consistency, while the pass defense kept giving up back-breaking conversions. Colorado possessed the ball for 39:31, which is an unacceptable amount of time to let your opponent dictate the terms, especially at altitude. Yes, the UCLA offense didn’t help matters - even when they scored, it was quick, as the Bruins’ longest touchdown drive lasted 1:35 of game time - but Colorado was able to wear the defense down in part because it couldn’t get the necessary stop to get off the field. It doesn’t help matters that the defense failed to generate a single turnover, which would have been helpful.
On the one hand, Kyle Philips fumble on the first punt return of the game basically started a cascading effect of terrible for UCLA, which is bad. On the other, the Bruins blocked two FG attempts, which is nice.
More importantly, the Bruins were breaking in two new specialists, and both looked good. Nicholas Barr-Mira wasn’t asked to make a FG in this game (in part because UCLA was never in a position for that to be an option) but he made all of his PATs and looked good doing it. Luke Akers handled punting duties and looked strong in that regard. Getting a solid performance from the specialists in their first real game is the one good thing to come out of this game.
Offensive Gameplan: C-
Honestly, I should put this grade lower for what I said in the quarterback section, but my hope is this is the final nail in Chip Kelly trying to fit a square peg in a round hole regarding DTR and the pro-style offense he so desperately wants to run. UCLA looked much better on offense when Thompson-Robinson was allowed to run and use his feet to make plays, which coincides with what we saw last year.
A lot of the issues on offense revert back to the issue of self-scouting, particularly UCLA’s lack of it. The offensive coaching staff does not seem to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel and scheme, which does not speak well about them. There is, of course, the chance that they do understand those things and are purposefully trying to drive into that skid, which is markedly worse. At some point, I have to assume that Kelly’s human instinct of self-preservation will kick in, and the offense will figure things out. If it doesn’t, that would in itself say a lot about how Kelly views his continued employment at the school.
Defensive Gameplan: D-
One last time, yes it’s hard to call plays when your opponent gets to start with the ball on your side of the field four times (including twice inside the UCLA 10 yard line) but at the end of the day, the vaunted scheme changes do not seem to have had a noticeable effect. In fact, I’m more likely to believe Chip Kelly now when he said that there wasn’t going to be a shift in the defense, as this defense was functionally similar to what we saw the past few years. My new “favorite” wrinkle was UCLA choosing to overload one side of the defensive front, which allowed Colorado to simply run plays into the now-vacant side. Truly a work of defensive brilliance here.
None of this should be surprising at this point. Once the decision was made not to fire Jerry Azzinaro in the offseason, UCLA’s defense was never going to have a shot. It didn’t matter that new defensive coaches were brought on the staff, and all of the talk about how defensive backs coach Brian Norwood was going to help install a more aggressive 4-2-5 defense was always bound to end up as talk, because at the end of the day, Azzinaro is still the guy in charge, and is still the guy calling the shots. Chip Kelly trying to win games while keeping his buddy employed as defensive coordinator has reached Greek tragedy-levels of ineptitude; it’s an old song, but Kelly and Azzinaro continue to sing it anyway.
I don’t have the energy to get into the overarching problems with this coaching staff at this point, but suffice to say that Colorado, with a new coach in Karl Dorrell and with less practice time than the Bruins to implement new systems, looked more together than a team in the third year of Chip Kelly being in charge. That should be damning to even neutral observers. Something is broken in Westwood, and it starts at the top.
Four turnovers is bad. Nine penalties is bad. 525 yards of offense allowed is bad. This all was bad. A furious comeback attempt only serves to mask the ineptitude on display for much of it.
Offense grade: C- (1.7)
Defense grade: D- (0.7)
Special Teams grade: B (3.0)
Coaching grade: D (1.0)
Preparedness grade: Pass/Fail
Final grade for Colorado Buffaloes: D+ (1.58)
Hopefully, you guys see how the preparedness grade works, as normally that 1.58 cumulative would have this in C- range, and so the letter grade got knocked down.
Next week we’ll theoretically have a game against Utah to sift through, which also means the return of the graphs. That in itself is a cause for celebration.