The Eye Test: UCLA Beats Washington, Looks Unconvincing
The Bruins looked improved from the previous week, but questions still remain.
I don’t know how much I really want to write about this game.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot that could be said about UCLA’s 24-17 victory over Washington this past week. We can talk about an offense that looked strong for most of the game, got too cute, and then was able to put things away late. Or we could talk about a defense that was shaky for the most part, only aided by possibly the worst non-Arizona offense in the league. Or any other smaller factors (Dorian Thompson-Robinson: good! UCLA secondary: still not great!) that contributed to the game.
But honestly, watching this game just left me tired, and not in a “that was an exhilarating game” sort of way.
I think I’m just growing tired of the discourse surrounding this team. Around the idea that every win should be celebrated as an example that Chip Kelly’s system is working, or that every loss or poor performance is grounds for termination. I myself have contributed to this discourse numerous times on both sides, and will probably do so in the future, but for right now I’m just tired of it. It won’t end until Chip Kelly is either extended or fired, and even an extension may not settle things without wholesale changes to the staff.
But that’s a thought experiment for another time. Let’s break down this game.
This might have been Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s best game of the season, and it occurred in large part because he was not asked to do too much. Gone were the longer passes and slow developing routes in favor of quick strikes and inside misdirection plays, which Thompson-Robinson was able to hit fairly consistently. Now, was he perfect? Absolutely not. I mean, at one point DTR threw a bounce pass on an open screen attempt, and while I think the bounce pass is losing its appeal in the modern game and needs to come back, its not exactly what you should be throwing in a football game. The receivers also had to work to make their catches at times, which limited their YAC attempts. Dorian ended with 8.7 yards per completion, which is the lowest total he’s had all season, but his sack-adjusted yards per attempt of 6.8 was one of his highest all season, which together lines up with the idea that UCLA did not want him doing too much complicated action.
Going forward, this is probably the blueprint for success for UCLA. They’d obviously like to sprinkle in longer pass plays when they can, but the Bruins clearly want to ride their rushing attack while having Thompson-Robinson provide just enough passing to keep defenses honest. It’s not a bad strategy if they can get it to work against better competition.
Running Backs: A
Another game, another solid output from the group. Or I should say Zach Charbonnet, who received by far the bulk of the offensive workload in this one, carrying the ball 21 times for 131 yards while also catching two passes for 10 yards. Charbonnet played to his standard in this game and was electric throughout, with four of his rushes going for 10+ yards. Brittain Brown played sparingly in this game, with only three carries for 26 yards.
The receiver group was without Kyle Philips, who was left behind in Los Angeles and has only recently returned to practice. Thus, we got a longer look at Logan Loya, and he looked like someone who could step in and take over for Philips next year. That’s a positive. Chase Cota had perhaps his best game of the year, catching three passes for 60 yards and causing the bar I watched the game at to explode whenever he touched the ball. Kazmeir Allen had the most catches in this game, with most of them taking place near the line of scrimmage as part of that inside pitch action. It’s a smart way to get him involved and let him try to make a play in space. I expected Greg Dulcich to be more involved in the game plan for this game considering the absence of Philips, but he didn’t register a catch until the final UCLA scoring drive in the 4th quarter. Fortunately, one of his two catches was for a touchdown, but it was a surprisingly quiet night for Dulcich.
Offensive Line: A-
Honestly, a good game from this group. Things finally seem to be gelling with Duke Clemens at center and Jon Gaines at right guard, with the line paving the way for 237 rush yards while not giving up a sack. To grade on a curve, Washington doesn’t have a great defensive line, but this is the kind of performance the line needs to have in order to build confidence as a unit. Also want to give credit for the unit doing well with the funky Emory and Henry formation (which I only learned the name of because college football Twitter repeated it multiple times as it happened so thanks y’all).
The offense scored points on four of their nine drives. A fifth drive ended at halftime with a missed field goal attempt, and a sixth drive ended the game. That’s not a bad result, and for the most part the offense performed really well. In fact, I’d say the lull that took place in the third quarter had more to do with the playcalling getting cute than anything the offensive players were doing. Things could have been better, but this was a solid performance.
Rush Defense: A
I knew that Washington’s rushing attack was really bad this year (among the other problems with the offense), but I was not prepared for what I saw. Washington’s offensive line was supposed to be one of the best in the conference, but they look and played awful in this game. Washington ran the ball 31 times and only got a measely 83 yards on those carries (94 when sack-adjusted). The Huskies were more successful running the ball than I felt on rewatch, posting a 41% rushing success rate on the game (UCLA had a 43% by comparison), but in general the Bruins did a good job of limiting the Huskies rushing attack.
If you wanted one stat from this section, here’s this: there were eight times where Washington had two or less yards to gain a first down and chose to run the ball, and they were only able to pick up the first down on one of these runs. Not bad at all.
Pass Defense: B-
There’s a few things here. First, UCLA’s defense against the pass was “fine” - there were problems like Cam Johnson getting burned multiple times and Stephan Blaylock continuing his string of underperformance in game, but the passing defense mostly held up. Now, how much of that has to do with Dylan Morris being a bad quarterback? Hard to say. He definitely contributed to Devin Kirkwood’s impressive interception by underthrowing the ball enough that Kirkwood was able to catch back up with the receiver and make a play on the ball.
In general, I think this sort of effort works against a team playing like Washington currently is. The pass rush was more effective (again, Washington’s offensive line is not very good) and the Bruins were able to take advantage of Morris not being accurate enough to make them pay in man coverage. Is this kind of performance going to work against Utah or Southern Cal? Probably not. Hell, I don’t actually know if it works this coming week against Anthony Brown and Oregon. But for this particular game, it worked.
Grading on a curve, UCLA’s defense was good for most of the first half, got very bad to end the half and through the third quarter, then picked things up in the final frame. Against Washington, that’s fine. Let’s see how it goes against a team with an actual offense next.
It was fine! Nicholas Barr-Mira missed a 54-yard attempt, but honestly I’m not holding that against him, as that’s an NFL-level kick that he was asked to make at the end of the half. Luke Akers was an adventure in punting this game, and the punt coverage unit in general felt a bit sloppy.
Logan Loya took over punt returning duties with Kyle Philips out, and looked solid in the role. UCLA didn’t return any kickoffs, but were aided by Washington continually trying to return kicks that they really should have just fair-caught.
Offensive Playcalling: B
In rewatch, it looked very much like the UCLA coaching staff did not respect the Washington defense, and was more than willing to just try some things out in this game. Which is perfectly reasonable to do against an outmatched opponent! I guess the hope is that the staff got to see how these things work out in a game setting and will be more judicious in how they utilize them going forward (for example, the Emory and Henry formation probably should be seen only once in the game, if at all). Even when Washington seemingly figured out how to attack the UCLA offense in the second half, it never truly felt like the Bruins would not make the correct adjustment.
Defensive Playcalling: C
This was improved from last week, with the Bruins showing a little more aggression with their blitzing. The pass defense is still a mess, and a better quarterback likely could have taken advantage of this, but fortunately Dylan Morris is not good. There is a part of me that would love for the defense to be more aggressive, as creating turnovers is their best path to success, but this was fine for the week. Oregon is going to represent a gigantic upswing in quality, however.
The UCLA did not have to break out their A game against Washington. They probably did not have to break out their B game either, but the Huskies showed enough life in this one that the coaching staff did have to make some adjustments down the stretch. Said adjustments basically involved removing all of the gimmicky plays that were being run and going back to basics, but you get what you get here.
And now for the “looking forward” part - Oregon is much better than Washington. Joe Moorhead is the best coordinator in the conference, Tim DeRuyter is solid on defense, and Mario Cristobal has excelled on bringing in talent to the Ducks program. Oregon is a team that thrives in prime-time; the Ducks went into the Horseshoe and convincingly beat Ohio State, and then spent the next few weeks playing down to their opponents, with that eventually catching up to them against Stanford. With this game getting College Gameday and being on at a premium national timeslot, I have to imagine the Oregon coaching staff will bring their A game. The UCLA coaching staff is going to have to do the same.
Easy enough grade to give. The team again looked better than they did against Arizona, and seemed generally prepared to play. The offense was crisp early, the defense…well they got stops, which was better than the week prior, and the team generally cut down on the penalties from the week prior.
Offense grade: A- (3.7)
Defense grade: B- (2.7)
Special Teams grade: B+ (3.3)
Coaching grade: B (3.0)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Washington Huskies: B (3.17)
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)
Arizona Wildcats: C (2.42)
UCLA is sitting at 5-2. It’s a good record, indicative of a team that has taken a leap from being bad to being able to beat the bad teams on its schedule. But it hasn’t proven it can beat the good teams on its schedule, and in the two games against actual good teams, UCLA has played one good half in total. That’s not ideal.
That’s why this upcoming game against Oregon is so important. Oregon is a good team, despite what recent weeks may have led you to believe. It’s a national game, with College Gameday in the house. If Chip Kelly wants to prove that his program has turned the corner, this is a game he has to win.
I’ll be at Gameday on campus in the morning. Hopefully things work out.