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The Eye Test: UCLA Answers Some Questions Against San Diego State
The Bruins have seemingly found their quarterback and a solution to their defensive troubles.
Two weeks, two games, two wins.
On the one hand, yeah, that should be the norm for UCLA in the non-conference, especially when those games are not against Power 5 (Power 2?) opponents. But on the other hand, Chip Kelly has repeatedly shown that he does not care as much about the nonconference slate as others, preferring to use that time to tinker and make changes before conference play. In the past, that has led to inexplicable losses to teams UCLA would routinely beat in the past like Cincinnati, Fresno State, and, yes, this very San Diego State team. In fact, Chip Kelly is the only UCLA coach in history to have lost to the Aztecs during his tenure. That’s not a great track record to have, and I’m sure most people went into this game feeling uneasy.
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Within that context, UCLA getting past the first two games relatively unscathed is a major milestone for the season. You can especially chalk this up as a major win because Chip Kelly still did his usual tinkering, but the level of play in the program has risen to the point that he can do his tinkering and still come away with comfortable wins. If one were looking for clues regarding the overall program health, that’s a pretty solid one in favor of Kelly.
What’s more, UCLA seemingly has some answers to a lot of the questions that existed prior to the season. The Bruins clearly have their quarterback and have some answers on the offensive line, while the early verdict on the defense is that it has the potential to be really good. Again, that isn’t a small thing considering how big those questions were at the start of the season.
But enough talk. Let’s get into the Eye Test.
This was honestly as perfect an outcome as you could want for the Bruins and Dante Moore. Chip Kelly made a lot of noise all week (and even in the postgame) about how the quarterback competition is still open but anyone with eyes can see that he has ultimately chosen to ride with the true freshman. Moore got the start in this game and played all the way through the third quarter, at which point the game went into clock management mode and Kelly switched to Collin Schlee. Chip Kelly and the coaching staff also did a lot of things to help Moore out by focusing on the run and keeping the running backs back as an extra blocker instead of using empty backfields.
The end result was that Dante Moore had an excellent outing in his first collegiate start. Moore finished 17-27 for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Moore was hitting throws at all levels and showed an excellent ability to attack the Aztec defense when it broke down, such as on the long Norwood touchdown when he recognized immediately that the safety had abandoned the area Norwood was running towards and hit Norwood in stride for an easy score. A similar thing happened at the end of the first half when Moore realized that the San Diego State defense was reeling following a big play to tight end Moliki Matavao, so the Bruins snapped the ball quickly and Moore threw a ball to Logan Loya with enough air under it that Loya was able to get under it for a touchdown.
Moore is not the athletic wonder that Dorian Thompson-Robinson was, but his processing ability is next-level and his ability to throw from different arm angles is something that is going to play going forward. This is not to say Moore had a perfect game, for the record; he had a couple of instances of holding onto the ball too long and taking a sack as a result, including the strip-sack in the middle of the 3rd quarter that could have brought San Diego State back into the game had the defense not held. But these are freshman mistakes and understandable (it’s also why the score is not a perfect A, you understand).
We also saw some of Collin Schlee in this game, and I’m intrigued at what he could bring to the offense. He looks to be the most comfortable runner by far among the three main quarterback contenders, running a pretty solid zone read when he was in the game and absolutely running over an Aztec defender at one point. You also can’t sleep on his throwing ability, as his two actual passes were well-thrown, and the second likely would have been caught had the starters still been in the game. I would expect we see Schlee more often this season, especially as a potential late-game closing option to absolutely punish opposing teams on the ground with a different look.
Running Backs: A
I don’t have much here. They were great, but in a way we sometimes don’t see from UCLA under Chip Kelly, which is to say they looked way more athletic and talented compared to their defensive counterparts. Carson Steele and TJ Harden combined for 175 yards and an 8.3 YPC, which is ridiculous (if you take out Harden’s 59-yard touchdown run, these two still ran for 5.8 YPC, which will win you a lot of games). They also did a solid job in pass protection, so can’t really complain here.
I thought it was interesting that J.Michael Sturdivant did not factor into the gameplan more, really only having the one drive of consistent production, but that drive highlighted to me that there was no chance San Diego State would be able to stop him, so he did become something of a Sword of Damocles hanging over the Aztec defense, ready to strike at any time. Instead of Sturdivant, Moore repeatedly targeted Logan Loya, which was an interesting wrinkle. Loya mostly rose to the challenge, finishing with four catches on six targets for 77 yards and a touchdown, but he also had a few bad drops that would have extended drives. Kam Brown saw some more play in this game which was good to see, and I’m still waiting for Kyle Ford to really get featured in the offense; he seems to be deemphasized at the moment when he’s one of the most talented receiver options on the team.
Offensive Line: B+
Generally thought the offensive line played well. There was only one sequence where the line truly broke down early in the second quarter, where two different holding penalties stopped a UCLA drive before it could even get going. Other than that, I felt the main rotation of guys held up well, with the exception of Duke Clemens, but I chalk that up to maybe being asked to do too much at the moment to try and help out a new quarterback and offensive line. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the play of Bruno Fina and Josh Carlin, which is a testament to the job done by offensive line coach Tim Drevno.
I think you can nitpick various things, but at the end of the day, this was a solid performance from the offense considering how vanilla the playcalling was. The execution was a bit sloppy to start each half but tightened up as the game progressed, and you got the feeling that UCLA could score at will if it so chose. That’s not a small thing, especially when you consider that the Bruins were giving a true freshman quarterback his first collegiate start against a defense that has been very good the past few years.
Run Defense: A
So, so simple here. San Diego State clearly wanted to run, and their rushing offense is the key to everything. They ended up running for 78 yards (sack-adjusted) and 2.8 YPC. The Bruins were simply bigger and faster than their Aztec counterparts, and linebacker play in particular was excellent in diagnosing when and where a run was happening and shutting it down quickly. The Aztecs had two runs go for longer than 10 yards, while the Bruins had 10 tackles for loss. I wanted to highlight UC Berkeley transfer Oluwafemi Oladejo, who took a large amount of snaps in this game and showed why he was so highly sought after, leading the team in tackles and always seeming to be around the ball.
Pass Defense: B+
Compared to last week, this was a much better performance across the board with one notable exception. The corners, specifically Jaylen Davies and John Humphries, were much better about playing up on receivers and did a better job in recognizing the down and distance situations they found themselves in. Safety play continues to be strong, especially from Kamari Ramsey, who looks like a future star at the moment.
The big issue at the moment is Devin Kirkwood, who seems to have taken a giant step backward this year. He’s gone from being the most reliable cornerback last year to a player who routinely looks lost in coverage and is having a hard time recognizing what he should be doing. The lone touchdown scored by the Aztecs came when Kirkwood failed to react to a long pass in time, and then failed to bring the receiver down before they got into the end zone. San Diego State almost scored a second time when Kirkwood let a receiver get behind him, but he got lucky that the Aztec receiver dropped the ball. This was his last bit of play while the game was in doubt, as he did not see the field again until the 4th quarter while Humphries and Davies were on the field while the defense essentially put the game on ice.
To dive into a bit of speculation here, I’m fairly sure the coaching staff is still not happy with the performance of the corners, particularly the play of Kirkwood who I’m sure they felt was their best available starter. There was a bit of a kerfuffle yesterday when UCLA sent out a depth chart that had Davies listed as the starter over Kirkwood before a second chart was sent out flipping those two back, but I’m sure that wasn’t a coincidence. Similarly, practice reports have indicated that Jadyn Marshall made the switch from receiver to cornerback this week and has looked good enough to stay in the practice jersey and not a scout jersey, which is a significant change. Marshall played corner in high school so this is not a crazy move for him, and he has the potential to be a game-changer at this position. So in general, things are trending positive for the secondary.
Let’s just look at this for a second.
I know the comparison isn’t completely fair considering the quality of the opponent, but this gives you an idea of what San Diego State’s offense looks like when they’re able to do what they want on offense. The Aztecs will load up on the run, move the chains, and crack off some big explosive plays. They weren’t really able to do any of that against the Bruins. UCLA dominated on the lines, forced the Aztecs into uncomfortable throwing situations, and capitalized as a result. That’s an excellent day at the office for the defense, even if I want to quibble about small things, and am grading this on a curve considering the standard of offense normally seen from San Diego State.
I am dinging this grade a bit though because good lord they took some absolutely brutal penalties in this game, including whatever Grayson Murphy was doing after the first Alex Johnson interception.
They weren’t asked to do much, so we only have a small sample size to go off of. Will Powers wasn’t getting the same air underneath the ball that he was getting last week, leading to some shorter punts, but was generally fine. PATs were also fine, and I’m sure R.J. Lopez enjoyed only having to hit chip shots in this game.
We got our first real looks at the return game, and while he doesn’t have game-breaking speed or quick-twitch ability, I thought Logan Loya looked fine on his return, finding a corner and getting a solid return that was called back due to an unnecessary blindside block by Carl Jones (also hurting this grade). I have more questions about Colson Yankoff returning kicks, as he just does not have the kind of speed you want to see from this spot, and his size is more suited for a downfield blocker than a returner.
Offensive Gameplan: B (for boring)
I have nothing here. Chip Kelly decided (rightly) that he didn’t need to get fancy against San Diego State, so he called a pretty vanilla game designed to give his true freshman signal caller as much experience as possible. It worked well, that’s all we really need to say here.
Defensive Gameplan: A
Again, pretty simple if you read up above - UCLA focused on shutting down the one strength of the Aztec attack, forcing them into trying to pass when they really don’t want to. The pass defense was improved from last week, and that was that.
From a coaching standpoint, this was about as perfect a game as you could want. Offensively, Dante Moore got a ton of experience and was able to continue building chemistry with the major contributors that he will lean on down the road, while the offense in total kept the film pretty basic. Defensively, mistakes from week one were (mostly) cleaned up, and the Bruins showed they could execute a game plan and shut an opponent down.
Looking further out, I know this is only two games, but I don’t think it is impossible to make some generalizations on what the ideal version of this team looks like. For example, there were assumptions that the offense would take a big step back this season after losing the two big driving forces from last year and having to rebuild the offensive line, yet after two games the Bruins comfortably sit in the top 20 of most advanced offensive metrics. As the season goes on and the team develops, I would expect that not to change too much and to potentially get better.
If we start with the idea that the offense will probably be pretty good this year, then we start to see the best version of the defense as well. UCLA’s front seven is very good, maybe even in the conversation for best in the conference, and the run defense has seen two very different but good rushing attacks to start the season and handled them both extremely well. I don’t know if the secondary will necessarily be “fixed” this season, but the fact that they made positive adjustments between games is a good sign and makes me more hopeful that defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn can continue to work on ways to protect the secondary from being exposed.
By the second half of this game, we saw a glimpse of that idealized team in action. The offense was essentially scoring whenever it had the ball, putting tremendous pressure on the opposing offense to match them. The defense then shut the run game down, making the opposing offense have to be one-dimensional. And finally, because the opposing offense was forced to pass just to have a shot, it meant the secondary played closer and was able to gamble more, coming away with three interceptions and four pass breakups. That’s a formula that can win you a lot of ball games.
Vibe Check: Party in the 619
First off, nobody fact check me on the area code. All I know of San Diego I learned from Rey Mysterio.
Second, I really enjoyed Snapdragon Stadium. We toyed around with going to this game right up until about 11:30 AM on Saturday when we finally pulled the trigger, bought two tickets, and drove down. The place is very much a soccer stadium in all the best ways, but I’m of the opinion that soccer stadiums do translate well into smaller college football venues (I really enjoyed the one year when UCLA did their spring game at Dignity Health Sports Park). It was very intimate and had a great setting, though as a Chargers fan, it was also a bit of a trip to not see Qualcomm where it used to stand.
Third, the vibes were pretty great for the Bruins because they did exactly what they needed to do! UCLA stepped on the gas against an inferior opponent and took the home crowd out of the game early, to the point where most of the SDSU student section was gone by the time the third quarter started up. There was a sizeable UCLA contingent throughout the stadium, though, and that group stayed the entire time and probably could have gotten a U-C-L-A chant going if they really wanted to. The walk out of the stadium was more of a celebration, with fans clearly excited about this team and what the future could be like with an exceptional quarterback like Dante Moore. Now it’s on UCLA to harness that feeling and turn it into momentum for the program.
Offense grade: A- (3.7)
Defense grade: B+ (3.3)
Special Teams grade: B+ (3.3)
Coaching grade: A (4.0)
Vibe Check: Party in the 619
Final grade for San Diego State Aztecs: A- (3.6)
For reference, here are the past grades from the season:
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: B- (2.66)
UCLA is definitely in a good spot to start the season. They’ll take on North Carolina Central this week in a game that should be over quickly (but you will want to stay for the marching band) and should be hopefully healthy going into the big matchup with Utah in two weeks. Depending on the availability of Utah QB Cam Rising and a bunch of other pieces for the Utes, that game is starting to look more winnable than previously believed.
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