The Eye Test: UCLA Proves It Has Moved Past Stanford
The Bruins only needed two quarters of good play to put away the Cardinal.
Don’t have much of an intro this week. I didn’t watch the game live due to being at a wedding, but my main takeaway on rewatch was how weird the whole thing felt, like both teams were going through the motions. That benefitted UCLA, which is more talented than Stanford at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less weird.
Welcome to the quintessential Dorian Thompson-Robinson game.
The story of this game was, in many ways, the play of Thompson-Robinson, and the duality of his performance, because your opinion of his performance might rest on your opinion of him as a player. If you’re a fan of DTR, you would rightly point out that UCLA does not win this game if he doesn’t become the best player on the field in the second half. If you’re not a fan of his, then you might rightly point out that UCLA likely would have won by more if he was not his usual erratic self in the first half. Fans point at the touchdown passes to Kyle Philips as proof of his ability. Detractors point to that ridiculous illegal forward pass as a sign that he might never truly get it.
Perhaps the most interesting part was that Thompson-Robinson did not need to be good to win this game. The Bruins had over 200 rushing yards, and Stanford never seemed able to consistently stop the UCLA rushing attack, so all Thompson-Robinson had to do was be average and it would act as an acceptable complement. The fluctuation in ability in this game remains concerning in that respect, but for now, UCLA’s game plan on offense appears to be a decision to ride the run game until Dorian gets going.
I’m going to bump his grade up a little bit for gritting his way through injury in the second half, and considering he has looked fine in practice this week, I’d assume it was just a stinger that went away after the game.
Running Back: A
Easy grade, easy life. Zach Charbonnet was treated like the lead back in this one and responded in kind, racking up 118 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries for a strong 5.1 YPC. He also got involved in the passing attack, catching five passes for an additional 42 yards.
Brittain Brown ended up in more of a supporting role, but he was highly effective here too. Brown had 65 yards on eight carries, good enough for an equally ridiculous 8.1 YPC, and got the bulk of his carries in the second half when the goal was to wear down the Stanford defense. Brown was in the game for more than that, and UCLA actually ran two-back sets that featured Brown and Charbonnet on the field at the same time, which I have to imagine is really unfun to try and defend.
I have to credit both guys for adapting to a shift in responsibility. This goes extra for Brown, who is essentially getting demoted despite playing just as well as his backfield partner. But this seems to be the best path forward for the rushing attack. Charbonnet has been incredibly good to start this season, and UCLA absolutely should be looking to maximize his impact in these games.
Kyle Philips had an impressive day overall, both as a receiver and as a punt returner. We’ll talk about the punt returning later, so let’s focus on the receiving part of his game this week, which was very good. Philips got to show off his speed in this one, just straight running past the Cardinal secondary for his 75-yard score, while remaining consistent as a downfield option. Throw in his excellent blocking and relentless drive, and Philips is a guy who is going to see some play at the next level.
The same could probably be said for Greg Dulcich, but opposing teams have seemingly recognized that and appear to be scheming to take him out of the game. Dulcich only had four catches for 42 yards, and Stanford seemed to key in on him with their coverages. That’s not a bad thing for the offense in general, as it means the defense is devoting extra resources to one spot which would, in turn, open up other spots on the field, but you’d like to see more production from Dulcich, especially since his blocking leaves so much to be desired.
Finally, it feels like Logan Loya is starting to supplant Chase Cota as the third receiver. Both players saw action, but only Loya saw targets in this game, getting the ball thrown to him three times. Loya looked to be a major piece coming out of high school, so this shouldn’t be too shocking, but it is an interesting development.
Offensive Line: C+
It’s hard to look at an offensive line that got over 300 yards rushing and say they performed badly, and that’s definitely not the case here, but it’s hard to say they were particularly great either. The tackles, Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson, certainly played well, but the interior was a bit of a mess in this one. Sam Marrazzo did not play particularly well and then got hurt, leading to Duke Clemens getting the bulk of the snaps at center. The interior looked out of sorts from this point on, and honestly, I’m wondering why they didn’t move back to the Paul Grattan/Jon Gaines/Atonio Mafi interior that was working well the first few games as a fallback option, especially if Clemens can be rotated in for passing downs.
But yeah, if you’re looking for the weak link offensively in this game, it was surprisingly the line. Inconsistent blocking and a variety of mistakes made things more of an issue than they should have been.
Through four games this season, the offense has become fairly easy to understand. They are generally a strong unit with an elite rushing attack that will nonetheless bumble their way through portions of the game. This is fine against the majority of UCLA’s opponents; there are really only a few teams on the remaining schedule with the kind of firepower necessary to make UCLA pay for this. But this is what explains why this game was able to get close despite the Bruins gaining almost 100 yards more than their opponent. The Bruins could afford to tighten things up at times, and they really should have been better in the red zone (14 points on four trips is not going to cut it against a good team) but for this game, it was enough.
Run Defense: A
No real notes here. Stanford can’t really run to begin with, and UCLA’s entire defense starts with the idea that they’re going to shut down the run. That the Cardinal only gained 67 yards rushing is more clinically interesting than anything else. Though I will note that the Statbroadcast page for this game appears to be broken because it said Stanford had -63 rush yards, which was at least a little funny (and was also the point I realized I had to go back and fix a lot of stats for this week so that was fun).
Pass Defense: B
This was definitely a better scheme than last week, but it’s still hard to have any sort of faith in this half of the defense after watching Tanner McKee launch multiple deep bombs. Yes, this defense is going to get burned at times, but that’s going to happen when the scheme is working as intended. That said, I felt that secondary play was fine in this one. Obi Edoh had perhaps his best game as a Bruin, appropriate since he transferred from Stanford, and Devin Kirkwood is continuing to grow into a problem for opposing teams.
This was a solid bounce-back effort from the defense against a team that has a recent history of torching them. Obviously, there is a different quarterback for the Cardinal than there was last time, but the Bruins were able to cut 200 yards and 24 points from their last meeting, which is a huge improvement. I’m still not sold on this unit long-term, but they also don’t need to be world-beaters; just get to average and the offense should be able to take care of the rest.
Mixed bag here. Nicholas Barr-Mira, who has been pretty darn good from within 45 yards over the past year, missed a 43-yard kick early in the 3rd quarter. I’m hoping this is just a fluke miss, but it is going to hurt this unit grade. Kyle Philips, meanwhile, finally got a chance to return some punts and reminded everyone how dangerous he could be in that role with an early 59-yard punt return that set UCLA up for their first touchdown. Stanford wisely kept the ball away from the return units for most of the rest of the game from that point.
Offensive Gameplan: A-
There were some noticeable improvements this week, like the focus on getting Zach Charbonnet touches, so I can’t complain too much. A lot of the issues that came up offensively were from miscues by various players rather than any issue in tactics, and really the Bruins could have scored even more if they didn’t keep shooting themselves in the foot. I will ding the game plan a bit for the weird choice that keeps happening where UCLA will move away from what is working offensively once they get a lead, but that final touchdown drive was a thing of beauty.
Defensive Gameplan: A-
Again, can’t complain too much here. The problems with the secondary giving up giant cushions while blitzing were fixed this week, which really cut down on the defensive issues that happened against Fresno State. Stanford was forced to almost exclusively pass for most of the game, and this team does much better when they know a pass is coming (as most teams do).
Really good bounce-back game in general from the coaching staff. It seemed they learned their lesson from the Fresno State game, because they were much more aggressive in getting that early lead, and were ruthless in putting Stanford away late. And again, the reason this game wasn’t a blowout has more to do with the players making mistakes than any tactical error by the coaching staff, which is in a way much more reassuring.
Overall: Pass, barely
UCLA had some issues from various places in this game, especially on the offensive line, and they got lucky that the referee crew finally allowed both sides to be physical in pass defense rather than letting Stanford get away with things like they usually do. But I didn’t feel too great about this game when rewatching the middle section, because UCLA really lacked a sense of urgency for almost two quarters, and only turned things back on once the game was tied. Hopefully, that had more to do with Stanford being outmatched and the Bruins getting lackadaisical as a result because they cannot afford the same thing against Arizona State.
Offense grade: B (3.0)
Defense grade: B+ (3.3)
Special Teams grade: B (3.0)
Coaching grade: A- (3.7)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Stanford Cardinal: B+ (3.25)
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)
B+ feels right here. Even when Stanford tied the game up in the 4th quarter, it never really felt like UCLA had lost control, but you can’t feel too great about the game being tied in the first place.
Now for the new big test: Arizona State. I’m still not completely sold on this being a top-tier team, but given the state of the conference the Sun Devils might represent the only non-Oregon roadblock left on the Bruins slate, and I’m not even sure they’re any good either. In any case, UCLA absolutely needs to win this game at home if they want to be playing meaningful football in November and December.