The Eye Test: UCLA Football Let Down by Coaching Against Southern Cal
UCLA could not afford to make tactical mistakes against the Trojans, yet they continually did so en route to blowing an 18-point lead.
Hey guys. It’s been a long week already, I’m a bit tired from other things and really don’t want to dwell on a game that annoyed me to no end longer than I have to, so this is probably going to be a shorter Eye Test than normal.
That said, what you’re going to see in a few sections is something of a “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” effect in this game. There have been some issues I’ve pointed out in past Eye Tests that came into play again here, with some of them being systematic in nature. The UCLA Bruins had this game in hand at multiple points, but they did things like switching to a more conservative offensive approach, making strange rotation choices, questionable short-yardage play-calls, and relying on the coverage unit to be anything other than a disaster, all of which led to Southern Cal storming the field after completing an 18 point comeback. And hey, if you lose a game after being up 18 points in the second half, that is a pretty good sign that you as a program have some problems that really need to be addressed.
I don’t think this is necessarily the best article to get into those problems (especially as I am writing this portion while Early Signing Day is going on), but this year’s Eye Test is pushing me to write a post-mortem on the season, which is new.
Anyway, let’s get into this.
This was, perhaps, Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s best game as a UCLA Bruin. Funnily enough, it wasn’t that surprising - last year, DTR was the best player on the field for either team as he tried in vain to carry a poor UCLA team to a Crosstown Rivalry victory. Thompson-Robinson went 30-36 for 364 yards and four touchdowns, while running the ball 10 times for 50 yards, and was once again the best player on the field for either team. That said, having the best player on the field does not immediately lead to victory - there are 22 players on the field at one time, after all - and it does say something that UCLA has had the best player in the game for three years running and is 1-2 in this game.
I’m sure there are people putting some of this loss on Thompson-Robinson. I’d even say that Thompson-Robinson himself feels some level of responsibility with his two interceptions. But that would be misplaced, as DTR did more than anyone else to help the Bruins win this game. This was Thompson-Robinson as close to the height of his potential as he’s been, and it’s an excellent example of why the coaching staff was always going to go with him as the starter if available. His ability to hit the downfield threats opens so much up for the offense, as does his ability to scramble and pick up yards with his legs. If he’s still here next season (I think he will be but stranger things have happened), he has the potential to put on a really great season.
Running Back: B
My main takeaway here is that Demetric Felton is probably not 100% (and hey, maybe you shouldn’t have been using him in a game that was clearly over and thus opening him up to injury!) but he had a heroic effort in this one. Felton had 90 yards on 21 carries while adding five catches for 47 yards and two touchdowns. Southern Cal was clearly keyed in on Felton touching the ball whenever he was on the field, and it still didn’t matter all that much because he’s so electric. Felton broke multiple tackles on his touchdown catches and was strong running both between the tackles and in space.
My second takeaway is that Brittain Brown once-again deserved more touches than he got, especially with Felton not at 100%. Brown had seven carries for 34 yards and a touchdown and looked strong when he was given a chance.
My third takeaway is that Keegan Jones has the potential to be a good back down the line, but he probably should not have been in this game in the first place, and especially not on a huge drive late in the game. UCLA’s player rotations have remained questionable all year, so it’s not surprising to see that rear its head and cost the team in the biggest game of the year.
The coaching staff obviously sees Kyle Philips as a major playmaker and has experimented with getting him the ball in various ways, including lining him up at running back for a few plays. Philips himself had eight catches, with most of them coming in key moments to keep various UCLA drives alive.
Greg Dulcich was the other major contributor, and it felt like he really came alive in the second half when Southern Cal focused more on the running game. He’s such a mismatch for opposing defenses and showed it as he caught eight passes for 167 yards and a momentum-changing touchdown late in the third quarter. That touchdown is the play everyone will be talking about, as Dulcich straight outran Southern Cal’s secondary, loaded with five-star talent. It’s the biggest visual metaphor for Chip Kelly’s strategy of developing talent rather than recruiting it. It’s too bad the natural talent won out in the end.
Chase Cota and Delon Hurt had solid games in support. Ethan Fernea had a wonderful touchdown catch early in this game, breaking tackles and outrunning the Southern Cal defense on a screen play en route to the end zone.
Offensive Line: C+
I think UCLA’s offensive line did ok considering the talent level that Southern Cal possesses, but this is clearly where UCLA struggled the most on offense. Southern Cal had 11 tackles for loss but only one sack, which is indicative of the fact that Southern Cal was routinely able to blow up plays before they could get started. Unsurprisingly, the breakdowns came from the interior of the line, which went into the season as the weak link and, while improved, showed it still has a ways to go before we consider this line as a strength. Jon Gaines in particular missed a few key blocks in short-yardage situations, including on the 4th and 1 in the third quarter.
The biggest issue is that, unlike previous games, the offensive line did not seem to be able to impose its will on the opponent. In fact, they seemed to wear down as the game progressed, which is a bit worrying. Maybe this is just a case of the line needing more time to develop and get stronger, but it’s also indicative of what having talent on the defensive line can do for you.
All that said, I wanted to shout out Alec Anderson for an absolute monster block he had in this one that was so good ABC put it in slow-motion. Anderson’s emergence on the right side has been a major bright spot for the line going forward.
Here’s the long and short of it: the UCLA offensive players did what they were supposed to do, and played well enough to win this game. They were just hurt by a coaching staff who routinely loved to sabotage them with various mistakes. So the offense itself will get a good grade. You can probably guess how it’s going to go for the coaching grade.
Run Defense: C
Southern Cal does not have a good rushing attack, and this is the same team that had just run for 25 sack-adjusted yards against Washington State a week ago. So while 119 sack-adjusted yards may seem like a good effort by the Bruins against a normal opponent, it’s not a great effort against this particular team. More distressingly, Southern Cal’s rushing attack improved as the game went on, as they were able to seemingly wear down the UCLA front. Otito Ogbonnia was perhaps UCLA’s best defensive lineman just for his ability to physically match up to the Trojan offensive line, but all this really did was highlight the talent disparity between the two squads.
Pass Defense: C-
On the flip side, Southern Cal has an excellent passing attack. Kedon Slovis, weird arm issues this year aside, is a smart quarterback, and the Trojans are absolutely loaded with stud receivers who will be playing on Sundays. Even with all of the progress UCLA has made this year on defense, this was going to be a tall task, and the Bruins ultimately weren’t up to it, but it’s hard to blame them. After all, when Slovis is able to just throw jump balls knowing that his cavalcade of talented receivers is likely to come down with it, you basically have a cheat code of an offense.
That said, UCLA did struggle in multiple facets of this one. For one, the Bruins struggled to get after Slovis with any consistency. Southern Cal’s offense naturally limits the effectiveness of the pass rush by getting the ball out early, but even then UCLA was not able to generate much of a push without throwing a ton of bodies into the backfield. That’s a recipe for disaster against a team like Southern Cal, as it leaves fewer defenders on the backside, and Slovis is a good-enough quarterback to make the right decision against a blitz. This was a game where UCLA’s lack of top-end pass rushers on the defensive line comes into focus, which is something you absolutely have to have in order to beat the Trojans.
On the outside, I completely understand why UCLA chose to offer so much cushion to the Trojan receivers - they’re so much better than what the UCLA secondary can offer that you’re essentially just trying to limit the damage - but Southern Cal was more than willing to take what was given and repeatedly chunk away at the UCLA defense. And that strategy still didn’t matter because the Trojans were able to nail a bunch of explosive plays anyway. The worst was clearly Drake London’s touchdown catch, where he broke through multiple tackles en route to a 65-yard run, but the Trojans were routinely able to get behind the UCLA secondary, and had Slovis been more accurate, this could have gotten really ugly really quickly.
This is a bit unfair, but a lot of the failures we saw from the defense on Saturday came down to a talent gap. Southern Cal consistently gets good talent, and they have an offensive coordinator in Graham Harrell who is actually good-enough to utilize it effectively. But when you have a talent gap, you have to have a combination of superior scheme, development, and luck to overcome it, and even that is not good enough sometimes. The current UCLA scheme has been leaps and bounds improved over what it has been the past few years, but this game did much to show that the defense has a ways to go on the development front in order to match up with Southern Cal more effectively. There were just too many missed tackles, missed assignments, and poor plays for me to give this defense a good grade, despite recognizing that they fought hard the entire way. A victory required a near-perfect effort from the defense, and we did not get that.
I mean, what did you expect? Between the fake-punt-but-maybe-just-a-blown-blocking-assignment-who-knows and the decision to kick short and allow Southern Cal the chance for a return DESPITE KNOWING UCLA’S KICK COVERAGE TEAM IS NOT VERY GOOD, there was no chance for this grade to be any good. It doesn’t even matter that Nicholas Barr-Mira was nails on his go-ahead field goal under a minute left. Special Teams was the definition of special on Saturday, and when the margin for error is so small, you cannot afford mistakes like the Bruins had.
Offensive Game Plan: C-
This is as fair a grade I can give here because, on the one hand, UCLA’s scheme and plan of attack against the Southern Cal defense were really solid! Clay Helton was forced to call multiple timeouts just to get his defense on the same page, and the Bruins were able to score points and gain big yards on multiple plays just due to Southern Cal’s defense not being prepared. That’s not nothing, and it should be celebrated.
That said, we also got the greatest hits of all the issues that have plagued the offense. Chip Kelly has this borderline obsession with running halfback dives on 4th and short attempts, and it has repeatedly cost the Bruins as opposing defenses key in on that fact. You would think at some point we’d get a designed rollout of some sort, but nope. We also saw the return of the dreaded conservative shell in the second half once UCLA got the lead. This has been a theme of the team in their wins, and a troubling trend in general, so it was unsurprising to see the Bruins try to sit on the lead, and it was unsurprising that Southern Cal was able to claw their way back into the game as a result.
I’ll get back to this in the final group grade because I want to talk about:
Defensive Game Plan: B
Generally, I thought the defensive game plan was fine. I think the coaching staff recognized that they were stuck between a rock and a hard place defensively, as they lack the talent at a few positions to match up effectively with Southern Cal’s attack, and so tried to pick their poison by sending extra pass rushers while trying to keep Southern Cal’s talented receivers in front of them. There was more of a resemblance to the much-lamented bend-don’t-break defenses of the past, but in this case, I think it was warranted. Still, I’d have liked to see UCLA try to be more aggressive in their coverage on blitz plays, as pairing a blitz with a cushion in coverage is a combination that a talented QB (like Southern Cal has in Kedon Slovis) will routinely take advantage of.
Here’s the biggest takeaway from this game: when the chips were down, Chip folded.
As I stated, scheme-wise the Bruins were generally in a good position. The offensive scheme was excellent, and the defensive scheme was as good as it was going to get considering the circumstances. But those don’t exist in a vacuum - Southern Cal was always bound to adjust at some point, and the UCLA coaching staff never offered up a counter-punch.
I’m going to point something out really fast before I get to my larger point: in the second half, Southern Cal only punted the ball once, and that was after a three-play drive late in the 4th quarter where they were clearly hoping to burn clock. The Bruins forced an interception as well, but that was basically it, as the Trojans scored five touchdowns in the second half. Five! Meanwhile, the Bruins turned the ball over on downs more times than they scored touchdowns in the second half.
You could point to any number of coaching mistakes that cropped up in the second half of this game. What was going on with that fake punt attempt? Why do we call the same play on every 4th down? Why was Keegan Jones in the game on that second 4th down attempt, even though you had plenty of time to sub him out? Why did you play for the field goal on the final drive? Why did you kick it short knowing your kick coverage team is not great? Why did you not call timeout after Tyler Vaughns hauled in a long completion to save yourself some time on the final drive? Why why why?
What that boils down to is that Southern Cal, the team with all the talent in the world and a sliver of hope for something bigger this season, played with urgency while UCLA went through the motions, assuming that what they had done in the first half would carry over. I’ve talked in the past about the hubris shown by Chip Kelly, in his clear belief that he is the smartest person in the room at all times, and how that hubris has repeatedly informed his poor run at UCLA, and we have once again seen that sad fact laid bare on national television. UCLA did not blow an 18-point lead because the players suddenly got bad, but because this coaching staff has never shown the ability to understand how in-game changes can affect the outcome and instead let the Southern Cal coaching staff of all groups run circles around them in the second half.
I found myself agreeing with something Southern Cal QB Kedon Slovis tweeted after the game when he put up the #WinnersWin. UCLA has winning players all throughout their lineup, but the biggest problem is their coaching staff from the top on down is filled with guys who lack a winning mentality. The sports world loves this idea of having a killer instinct, of knowing when to put your foot on the throat of your opponent, and this year has laid bare that Chip Kelly lacks that. Without that ability, UCLA football will always be held back.
The players played great in this one. They deserved a coaching staff that would fight for a victory just as hard as they did.
Here’s what I will say: UCLA absolutely looked like the more prepared team to start this game, which isn’t surprising. Now, did they execute the best? Ehh. UCLA was able to score a bunch of points after forcing missed tackles from Trojan defenders, but it’s not like the Bruins weren’t missing plenty of tackles on their own.
Also interesting, they weren’t clearly the most disciplined team on the field. Sure, Southern Cal had its usual array of personal fouls and taunting penalties, but there weren’t that many of them. Meanwhile, the Bruins kept making dumb mistakes, culminating with the worst display of defensive incompetence we’ve perhaps seen all year, where UCLA had the Trojans facing a 3rd and 10 but proceeded to commit two straight offsides penalties, thus gifting Southern Cal a first down. They would score the next play.
So yeah, UCLA was prepared, but this is the closest I’ve been since the Colorado game to flipping this category to Fail.
Offense grade: B+ (3.3)
Defense grade: C (2.0)
Special Teams grade: F (0.0)
Coaching grade: D- (0.7)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Southern Cal Trojans: D+ (1.5)
Our previous grades:
So there’s one game left, against a resurgent Stanford Cardinal team at home. UCLA has played well enough to be undefeated this season, but they’ve continually let mistakes get the best of them. The Stanford game becomes critical, if only for the coaching staff to prove they can learn and evolve - a failure to do so really should lead to a lot of soul searching, not just from the coaching staff, but from fans who need to decide how much longer they are willing to put up with mediocrity.