The Eye Test: Salt Lake City Remains a Graveyard for UCLA
The Bruins were done in by hubris yet again.
What an utterly frustrating game.
In the grand scheme of things, a loss to the Utah Utes on the road is not the end of the road for the UCLA Bruins. After all, better teams than this UCLA one have gone into Salt Lake City and emerged with a loss - the Utes have not lost at home since 2018, after all. But there is a large sense of frustration for how the Bruins lost this game. To wit, the Bruins had:
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A freshman quarterback who looked woefully unprepared for the most hostile road environment he had ever faced to this point.
An offense that looked uninspired and incapable of adjusting to what Utah wanted to do defensively.
A defense that, for the first time in the Chip Kelly era, looked and played to a championship level, albeit against an opponent that seemed more than comfortable with doing nothing with the ball.
A Utah team that was weak and still without many of their top stars, including quarterback Cam Rising.
Given all that, it is frustrating the Bruins still found themselves in the game late and could not pull off the victory. Even putting aside that this would be the last meeting between the Bruins and the Utes for the foreseeable future, it is hard to see the Bruins having a better opportunity for a statement win than this game, and yet the team came up woefully short.
The simple truth is that, despite our best efforts, we did not have a great read on what the strengths and weaknesses of this UCLA team were prior to this game. We had some ideas and beliefs after the nonconference schedule, but the Utah game acted as a bucket of cold water over this football program and leaves us with more questions than answers. That’s not a good place to be this early in the season.
Let’s get to it.
With the simple caveat that not everything that happened is his fault, Dante Moore had his first real freshman game of the season, and it cost the Bruins dearly. I don’t think Moore got a lot of help in this game from a multitude of aspects, but Moore missed more than a few throws that could have gone for long gains and even touchdowns, not to mention the throws he did not make at all because he was getting flustered early. As the game progressed, Moore was quicker to pull his eyes down and try to avoid pressure even if it was not there, which was as much a result of the porous offensive line than anything, but it led to plays breaking down quickly instead of getting time to develop.
All that said, though, there was never a point where I wanted Moore taken out of the game. Given that the same issues that plagued Moore would have been present had Ethan Garbers or Collin Schlee been in the game, I don’t know that they would have faired much better. Garbers has experience playing on the road in Utah but was having trouble dealing with pressure against Coastal Carolina, so I’m not sure things would have magically improved against a more formidable Utah front. Schlee, meanwhile, has not shown off the arm talent required to break open the Utah defense and would have the Utes more keyed in on the run than they already were. I would much rather have the true freshman with the most talent play and learn from this situation, which is hopefully what happens.
Running Back: C
Speaking of guys not looking great due to factors outside of their control, the running backs really did not have a good game here, but it’s hard to completely blame them. After all, they aren’t the ones struggling to open running lanes, and they aren’t the ones doing some weird matching of playcalling with personnel. For example, Carson Steele is not a particularly fast running back but more of a bruiser, which means it does not make a lot of sense to continually run him on stretch plays where he has to find and hit a hole as quickly as possible. TJ Harden was more successful in that regard, but there was only so much success that could be found given everything surrounding them. This game did highlight exactly what the Bruins are missing now that Zach Charbonnet is gone, as they don’t really have a running back that can elevate the offensive line at the moment.
I think it’s fun that the game stats only list two official drops when you could have listed way more. Josiah Norwood had a notable drop that would have been a sure touchdown, while a host of other receivers had catchable balls that they refused to make a play on. With a true freshman quarterback, the Bruins really needed the receivers to step up and make plays to help him out, and it was as if this group was refusing at every opportunity.
Offensive Line: F
Back during the Coastal Carolina Eye Test, I wrote this:
Now, all of this is not to say that the group did not struggle. Eventually, Coastal Carolina shifted their defensive philosophy towards sending more pressure, and the offensive line struggled to pick up where that pressure was coming from at times. It’s understandable - the line is new to working together and will need to develop their communication and teamwork over these next few games. But for a first outing, this was perfectly acceptable.
Which is not exactly a prediction of future failure but more a statement of concern that was willing to overlook some flaws. In hindsight, I probably should not have done that, and we collectively should have had more questions regarding the current composition of this offensive line.
You can maybe blame part of this performance on the playcalling of Chip Kelly, who refused to recognize the weaknesses of the line throughout and did not adjust to account for those issues, but on an individual level, the offensive line just played poorly. Duke Clemens has regressed tremendously, and it’s hard to say if the added responsibility as the lone veteran in this group is causing him issues. Garrett DiGiorgio had issues as well at right tackle, only looking marginally good once UCLA changed to a protect scheme that provided him as much extra help as possible.
The biggest issue was probably the play of Bruno Fina at left tackle, as he did his best turnstile impression throughout the first half and appeared to be benched in the second in favor of Old Dominion transfer Khadere Kounta. Kounta was “better” but this still wasn’t a great performance, and you could put a lot of the failures on the final attempt at tying the game squarely on his shoulders as he got beat like a drum on every single play.
The guards were probably the least objectionable, but even then there were plenty of issues. In particular, Spencer Holstege may be in the early running for the biggest disappointment on the team, as he looks wholly pedestrian and not at all like an impact difference-maker.
Putting aside that the playcalling was absolutely abysmal in this game, this was a game where UCLA absolutely needed individuals on offense to step up and perform well in a road environment, and that just did not happen. Too many of these guys are veterans for this kind of performance to still be occurring, and it may highlight that UCLA is still missing that next-level talent at many key positions.
Note: This section was written before the bye week, specifically before I spent Friday punching the air after watching Utah continue to look awful offensively. I’ve left it without changes but do want you to know the weekend did not make me feel more confident that this unit is for real.
It was actually hard to separate the defense into rush defense and pass defense because, for most of the game, Utah seemed uninterested in doing anything of note on offense. The Utes only had one real offensive drive of note and really struggled to generate offense with any sort of consistency, especially through the air. Eventually, UCLA stopped respecting the potential for Nate Johnson to beat them through the air and really keyed in on the run. I don’t think Utah’s offense is currently very good, especially without Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe, but that doesn’t take away from this being exactly the kind of performance you’d want to see from UCLA's defense if you were looking for signs that they may be legit.
In particular, I want to highlight the defensive line, which has long been a sore point for the team but has turned into a strength this year. That’s a huge development for the rest of the year and going forward, especially if the Bruins can continue to bring in and develop quality linemen. Jay Toia in particular was a force that almost single-handedly prevented Utah from doing anything they really wanted to on the interior, while this was perhaps the best game the Murphy twins have played at UCLA given the quality of their opponent. The line play was so good that you might not have even realized that Latitu Latu had a quiet game; if you asked me before the season to judge the UCLA defense, I’d have said that Latu would need to have an exemplary season for them to perhaps be good, but he’s been a non-factor in a few games and it has not hurt the Bruins in the slightest.
Kain Medrano probably earns defensive MVP honors for this one. He finished the game with a team-high 10 tackles but it felt like he had way more, as every time I looked up he seemed to be around the ball. Throw in his two sacks, an assist on another tackle for loss, and a forced fumble, and this was easily his best game as a Bruin. Maybe this is the lightbulb game that UCLA linebackers have from time to time, where everything clicks all at once and suddenly they go on to play at all-conference levels for the rest of their careers.
Even the defensive backs had a solid outing overall. Again, we should be grading this on a bit of a curve considering the opposing quarterback, but the switch from Devin Kirkwood to Jaylin Davies continues to look like the correct one, especially with Davies establishing himself as a legitimate cover corner. This group will likely get tested by Washington State’s cadre of top-level receivers, but if they can tighten up coverages that might be enough.
The continued insistence that Colson Yankoff is the guy who should be returning kicks is going to drive me insane. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and neither of his kick returns even made it back to the 25-yard line. If you’re putting him back there just to call a fair catch, sure, that’s fine, but if you’re asking him to get up to top speed and try to make something happen on the kick return, then we’re just throwing plays away for no good reason.
On initial watch, I thought Will Powers did not do a great job on his numerous punts, but he actually wasn’t that far off from what Jack Bouwmeester was doing for Utah. Still, I think there’s room for improvement here, and there’s probably something to my initial read on his performance that may take a few weeks to dig into.
Offensive Gameplan: F
Every year it seems we have one game where the hubris of Chip Kelly costs the team a winnable game. This appears to have been that game.
Part of the problem has long been that Kelly refuses to marry playcalling to personnel. That is to say, Kelly has his plays and he will call them regardless of the personnel that is on the field, refusing to take into account what their general strengths and weaknesses are. Sometimes, when you have really good players like Zach Charbonnet and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, those problems can be minimized. Other times, you get situations like the infamous failed fourth-down run by Keegan Jones in 2020.
We got a lot of that bad version in this game, especially in the run game. I have no idea what Chip Kelly saw to believe that trying to run to the outside against Utah was going to work, and I especially don’t know why he kept having his slower running back Carson Steele be the one to do that. At no point did UCLA show it could consistently create leverage on the outside to make those runs work, and they were better off just continually pounding the interior of the Utah defensive line (especially once tackle Aliki Vimahi was removed from the game due to targeting). That would have at least worn the defensive line down and could have helped the offensive line deal with pressure.
In hindsight, I’m also unsurprised that Chip Kelly never changed things up to better protect Dante Moore. UCLA did switch to more of a max protect scheme in the second half, but we never saw any designed play to change the launch point for Moore, instead choosing to keep him in the pocket the entire time. Again, a lot of hubris was seemingly in play here, as Kelly clearly believed that the offensive line would hold up and that Moore would be able to handle any pressure thrown his way. Both of those things were wildly optimistic - the offensive line was not good and Moore is a true freshman on the road in a hostile environment.
I’ve had this belief in the back of my head that Chip Kelly is not great at developing route concepts to scheme guys open. I wish I had the All-22 footage to back up this claim, but I’m basing it a lot on the fact that the UCLA passing attack never looks easy in the same way other passing games look. In a game like this, Moore could have benefitted from easy looks schemed out by the playcalling, but instead, we got the usual long-developing pass plays that have become a calling card under Kelly. It felt like the Bruins barely even ran mesh, which was a quintessential part of the Kelly offense at Oregon. Utah was even giving up these looks for free, playing further back on the UCLA receivers and leaving the short middle open, and UCLA refused to take the free yards.
One last thing before I move on: the call for a speed option on 3rd and 8 inside the red zone may go down as the dumbest call Chip Kelly has made at UCLA. Let me list out all the ways it was dumb:
Down and distance almost dictated that this be a passing down. Normally, a run here would be of the draw variety (likely a RB draw because…)
Dante Moore is not a mobile quarterback like Dorian Thompson-Robinson was, had not shown himself to be one in the game to this point, and was being asked to run a speed option for the first time at this level at a critical juncture.
Carson Steele, similarly, is not a speedy back. UCLA does not really have a speedy back at this point, but the better options would have been TJ Harden or bringing a receiver over.
UCLA had not had any success running to the outside all game. Just thought I’d remind you of that again.
Oh yeah, and the call was to run a speed option TO THE SHORT SIDE OF THE FIELD.
Chip Kelly should be in prison for this malpractice of a game.
Largely fine, the caveat being I don’t think the Utah offense is particularly good at the moment. Bruins really held strong against the Utah rushing attack, generated consistent pressure, and held the receivers in check for the most part. Again, I don’t think we’ll know more about this unit until the Washington State game.
Even given the success of the defense, the failures on offense were so egregious that the overall coaching grade has to drop as a result. This is especially the case because the head coach is himself an offensive guru who probably should have done a better job at preparing the team for this type of game. I can’t even handwave some of the problems like the poor play of the offensive line because (and I’ll probably dig into this more following the Wazzu game) the talent issues present are a result of the long-term coaching strategy.
Vibe check: Scary hours
The vibes in general for the fanbase are not good, which is to be expected following a loss, but they’re less good considering the manner that which the Bruins lost, where the offense was nonexistent while the defense stepped up. The long-time rallying cry for supporters of Chip Kelly was that as soon as he figured something out on defense, the team was poised to take a leap. Well, they seemingly figured something out on defense, and instead of taking a leap, the team still laid an egg against a wounded Utah team on the road.
It’s Year Six now for Chip Kelly, and the coach still does not have any tangible wins to his resume for fans to rally around. The best win-loss record the Bruins have posted under Kelly is 9-4. Their best conference record is 6-3 with no sniff of a conference title game. There is no bowl win yet. There is no road win over a good team yet. At some point, Kelly has to convert the patience shown by the UCLA administration into real results, because fan apathy already feels really high and there will be even less patience once the Bruins move to the Big Ten.
Offense grade: D-
Defense grade: A-
Special Teams grade: C+
Coaching grade: D+
Vibe check: Scary hours
Final grade for Utah Utes: C+ (2.3)
For reference, here are the past grades from the season:
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: B- (2.66)
San Diego State Aztecs: A- (3.6)
I’m rewriting this part after watching the football games over the bye week because I came away from those games with an even-worse view of how UCLA performed against Utah. Utah really does not have an offense, so I’m back to being unsure if the defense is for real or not, while I’m more sure than ever that the offense may have a fatal weakness on the offensive line. That’s not a good place to be mentally, and with a resurgent Washington State coming to town this week, UCLA, and Chip Kelly especially, need to show the fanbase that this team can be a good one.
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