The Eye Test: UCLA's Latest Loss an Indictment of Chip Kelly's Program
It is hard to look at all the problems that plagued the Bruins in this game without taking a longer look at the program.
The thing I kept coming back to in the immediate aftermath of this past Saturday’s loss to Arizona State is that this is Year Four of the Chip Kelly era.
When Chip Kelly came to UCLA, he had a prevailing theory about how to win in college football. Specifically, he had the idea that star ratings did not truly matter; what really mattered was that you recruited players that you could develop into top talent by the time they were upperclassmen, thus creating a perpetual cycle of quality players. From there, superior coaching (of which Chip Kelly assumed his side would always possess) would carry the day.
It’s an interesting idea in theory, but what we saw this past Saturday was Arizona State taking a hammer to that theory.
In hindsight, UCLA did not have much of a chance in this one. There is a huge talent disparity between Arizona State’s offense and UCLA’s defense, and every stop the Bruins managed to get had less to do with good play on their end as it did mistakes on the part of the Sun Devils. UCLA had more of a fighting chance on offense, but it required excellent playcalling and execution on the part of the Bruins, and there were enough issues from both the playcalling and the offensive line to derail that chance. Once Arizona State made adjustments at halftime, it was all academic.
Doing an Eye Test can occasionally feel like doing an autopsy, but this isn’t a sudden death. The loss to ASU was built years ago thanks to a series of poor decisions. I’m going to try to focus on the now, but just know that is the background for this particular disaster.
Let’s get started.
Perhaps the worst part of this game is that it was a waste of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s best performance of the season. DTR has always been something of a prime-time player; his performances can fluctuate based on the quality of his opponent. So it wasn’t surprising to see him put on a show on Saturday. With 21-32 for 235 yards and a touchdown through the air and another 93 yards on the ground, Thompson-Robinson was essentially the entire offense. Arizona State dared him to beat them, and for a half, he was more than up to the challenge. The drop-off in the second half had as much to do with the Sun Devils adjusting to him defensively than anything else.
Were there some small mistakes here and there? Sure, it’s a DTR game so there’s always going to be something small that happens. But in the flow of the game, the mistakes made sense. DTR kept the ball on that fourth and one at the start of the 4th quarter because he had just spent the first three quarters watching his running backs be ineffective and the interior of the line generate no push, and so he felt the best chance to succeed was a keeper. It’s understandable, and hard to truly blame him, so I’m not going to.
Running Backs: C-
Grading running backs can be hard because they are so dependent on good offensive line play, and this game was a textbook example of bad offensive line play. Still, this did not feel like a good performance from this unit, which put up 102 yards on 31 carries overall. It felt like the Sun Devils were particularly focused on shutting down Zach Charbonnet, and while his final numbers look fine at first glance, it speaks to how quiet his performance was that I did not remember his 21-yard run until I went back over the game tape.
I said in the ASU defensive preview that ASU was likely going to stack the box to shut down the UCLA run game, and that the Bruins best plan of attack might be to attack the middle of the field with Greg Dulcich. I only bring this up to brag and show that I sometimes know what I’m talking about, because Dulcich was clearly the mismatch that the Bruins kept going to on Saturday. Dulcich had nine catches for 136 yards in this one, clearly looking like a matchup nightmare for the Sun Devil linebackers, and UCLA took advantage of it.
The rest of the group didn’t fair as well. Kyle Philips had a very off game, with only six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Statbroadcast now counts drops by receivers, which is cool but I wonder how accurate it really is since it looks like every target a receiver has that isn’t caught is listed as a drop. Still, Philips was given three of these and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t just drop some passes. Chase Cota didn’t really factor into the pass game until things were out of reach, and no one else really stepped up. Arizona State has an excellent secondary but it’s not a great sign that this unit was able to accomplish so little.
Offensive Line: D-
Boy howdy were they bad in this one!
It’s incredibly weird to look at the offensive line that played in this game and realize this is the same group that ran all over LSU a month ago, but here we are. The biggest change is the rotation itself; instead of keeping Jon Gaines at center, Duke Clemens is in that spot while Gaines takes Clemens’s spot of rotating with Atonio Mafi. The results have not been nearly as good, and I have to wonder if this is a chemistry issue as much as anything else. I can’t imagine Clemens is in the center spot at the moment due to his snaps; his bad snap led to a UCLA turnover and got Arizona State in the game. Combine this whole outing with a poor performance from Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson on the outside, and it is frankly a miracle UCLA was able to do things consistently on offense.
This grade could probably be lower, but Thompson-Robinson really carried the group for a long period of time, and the playcalling did not help matters in the slightest. Maybe with a better game plan, this group has more of a shot to succeed, but alas, we do not currently live in that universe.
Run Defense: C-
Again, this grade probably could have been lower, but Arizona State did not run as much as they could have. To be fair, they didn’t really need to, but one of the more shocking aspects of this game was just how dominant Arizona State’s offensive line was against a UCLA defensive front that has more than held their own this season. The Sun Devils finished the game with 32 rushing attempts, but almost half of them came in the 4th quarter when they were trying to kill clock. Coincidentally, this was when UCLA was at their best in containing the run, as Arizona State ran it 15 times for 46 yards in this quarter. For the rest of the game? 17 carries for 126 yards, with a yards per carry of 7.4. That’s a huge yikes from me, but it again speaks to how effective they were on the ground.
And it ultimately didn’t matter, because
Pass Defense: F
There was a lot of wringing of hands following the Fresno State game because of all the cushion that was given by the secondary, but on a rational level I understood why there was a cushion in the first place because of a simple fact:
The secondary is bad, y’all.
After four years, this unit is still ridiculously thin, with the safety spot in particular showing how bad things can get if an injury happens. Quentin Lake, who has been the most consistent guy in the secondary, has not been himself since his injury against Fresno State, and he did not look good in this one before eventually leaving the game. Kenny Churchwell, who has been decent in a filler role, was likewise not a good option before he too got injured. Elisha Guidry, the other backup safety, was unplayable, and UCLA ended up turning to walk-on Alex Johnson for a majority of the second half. That’s not a good look!
But even beyond the depth, if your guys are getting cooked deep even when playing with a cushion, then it’s hard to win football games. UCLA has one guy with any sort of upside in Devin Kirkwood and two servicable defensive backs in Lake and Jay Shaw. That’s really it, and opposing offenses seem to recognize that. UCLA may have generally defensively against Stanford last week, but it wasn’t because the pass defense was particularly good; they gave up two long bombs that got Stanford back into the game.
What we also learned in this game is that UCLA does not have any way to consistently generate a pass rush without sending a ton of extra pressure, and even then it looked like Arizona State had done a pretty good job of scouting out what UCLA wanted to do on that front. UCLA was forced to go with a base pass rush for most of the game once the Sun Devils proved they knew how to attack the blitz, and it was readily apparent this was never going to end up with success.
The most damning thing I can say about this game is that, after a certain point, it never felt like UCLA was going to get the stop that could allow them to get back into the game. Arizona State had a huge talent advantage compared to the UCLA defense and was more than willing to abuse it. Even taking away the game plan put in place by the coaching staff, this defense just felt hopelessly outmatched. I don’t know how many remaining teams on the schedule will be able to do something like this (Oregon and Southern Cal stand out in this regard) but I’m not super optimistic that things will magically get better in this regard.
I think this grade would probably be lower if Arizona State wasn’t committed to making every special teams play into an adventure in this game. On the bad side, Nicholas Barr-Mira missed a 47-yard field goal attempt, and the Bruins almost muffed one punt. On the flip side, Arizona State actually did muff a punt which UCLA recovered, and they kept running out kickoffs which allowed the Bruins to pin the Sun Devils deeper in their own territory (it didn’t really matter).
Offensive Gameplan: D+
We were bound to have one of these games eventually. You know, the ones where UCLA definitely has the ability to repeatedly break down an opposing defense but will instead play right into their hand over and over because Chip Kelly is convinced of his genius. In this case, Chip Kelly clearly wanted to run the ball between the tackles and play at being a power run team, but that was exactly what Arizona State seemed to want. UCLA had ways to attack the Arizona State defense - they found a ton of success attacking the middle of the field and having Thompson-Robinson keep on designed runs - but refused to stick to that for any lengthy period of time.
With how UCLA’s defense was set up, the offense really needed to be perfect, and it really was not close. The UCLA attack ground to a halt in the second half and could not figure out the small adjustments Arizona State made. That’s not good, but it pales in comparison to…
Defensive Gameplan: F
There’s a lot of failures here. Let’s list them!
A failure to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of the defensive personnel.
A failure to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing offense, especially the quarterback.
A failure to self-scout tendencies, especially when it comes to blitzes.
A failure to adjust when Arizona State showed its hand offensively.
A failure to recruit high-end talent and put them in a position to succeed (ok this is a larger issue, but still!).
In short, UCLA has talent deficiencies in its secondary. There are smaller ones along the defensive line and among the linebackers, but the secondary is the biggest issue. But they also want to run a defensive system that puts a lot of stress on that secondary to play well, lest everything blows up. That’s probably not good! Then combine it with an anemic pass rush that only sometimes works if they just throw more bodies into the backfield than the opposing offense can handle, and its a recipe for disaster.
The worst thing I can say at this point is that UCLA might behoove themselves to switch to the dreaded bend-don’t-break defense against teams with quality offensive talent. If UCLA can limit teams to field goals instead of giving up rapid-fire touchdowns, that might improve things, but at this point I can’t see an in-season fix that will magically make this unit better.
The only reason this is not an F is because the offense looked good for the first half. Otherwise, it’s hard to look at this game as anything short of a disaster.
If you’re looking at the big picture, this was a game UCLA had to win. Arizona State has established itself in the opposite style of your program; they recruit like mad and don’t have exceptional coaches. Their talent level is well above what UCLA currently has, which is a hard pill to swallow, but its the truth. But if Chip Kelly’s system was going to work, this was one of those proof-of-concept games they had to win, especially with both programs in Year Four. And in Year Four, Herm Edwards proved his system to be superior.
Let that sink in for a second.
Actually, you know what?
You could realistically slap what I just wrote in the overall section of Coaching here, and it would apply. UCLA needed to show up to this game, at the very least to prove that things in Westwood were different this year, and instead we got more of the same. My mom sent me a text after this one stating that maybe the issue was the late start time, but that felt more like the bargaining stage of grief, as if she was trying to rationalize another poor performance. To her credit, she also knew this was just an excuse for what is exceedingly looking like an average team, and said as much about five seconds later (also, because I know she is reading this, hi mom!).
I looked with a few friends at how the UCLA players reacted, and a lot of them said different variations of “we’re going to work harder and get better, believe us” and it got me thinking that the UCLA program has turned into the boy that cried wolf. This team, from the coaches to the players, can constantly talk about improving and getting better, but until those results actually happen on the field, they’ll simply be empty words. I know I’m burying this in a section most people gloss over, but it was something that’s been stuck in my head and I needed to get out.
Offense grade: C- (1.7)
Defense grade: F (0.0)
Special Teams grade: B+ (3.3)
Coaching grade: F (0.0)
Preparedness grade: Fail
Final grade for Arizona State Sun Devils: D (1.25)
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)
Stanford Cardinal: B+ (3.25)
UCLA plays Arizona this week. Arizona is one of the worst FBS teams in the country. If UCLA struggles in this game, I think it will say more about the Bruins than it will about any improvement Arizona makes. And if they manage to lose….well, at least they’ll be landing at a tarmac when they get back.
The last four (?) coaches fired all lost to Arizona in their final year. I guess if we lose that’s a moral victory? Ugh…
Sad but this UCLA football program is mirroring Karl Dorrell’s current program at Colorado. Nothing has changed at UCLA since Dorrell’s exit from UCLA. History repeats its self again and again.