The Eye Test: UCLA Fails to Cushion Disappointment Versus Fresno State
I’ll be honest, I tried putting this one off as long as possible. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that I already tried to put my thoughts on this game into words, and part of it may have to do with how busy this past week has been, but really I just did not want to watch this game again. And I will be more honest by stating that the game was just as unpleasant to watch the second time as it was the first.
But so we trudge on, trying to figure out what exactly went wrong for the Bruins. Or, maybe it’d be more accurate to say we’re trying to find anything that went right.
Welcome to an autopsy of a disaster. Let’s dig in.
If you were looking for the quintessential Dorian Thompson-Robinson game, you couldn’t do much better than this one.
The game was just full of inconsistency for DTR, vascillating between moments of brilliance and stupidity with an alarming frequency. Thompson-Robinson threw some exceptional deep bombs, such as the touchdown to Kyle Philips and the deep pass to Chase Cota (that was eventually fumbled) but he mixed a huge deep miss to a wide open Greg Dulcich in between those. He was UCLA’s most effective rusher (13 carries for 67 yards) except for the one time he needed a single yard and inexplicably bounced it outside on a QB sneak. He was remarkably clean while passing the ball, but he also had one of his trademark inexplicable empty-hand fumbles at an inopportune time.
That’s the main issue with this performance here. Fresno State essentially threw everyone into run defense and dared Thompson-Robinson to beat them, and he very nearly did, but you could look at the inconsistency as a minor factor for why the team lost. I have to imagine that teams will do something similar to UCLA in the future, especially since the Bulldogs showed this could be a recipe to slow down the Bruin attack. That puts more pressure on Thompson-Robinson to perform at a high level on a more consistent basis. He absolutely has to do that if the Bruins are going to turn things around.
Running Back: N/A
Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet combined for 16 total touches in this game (Charbonnet, who looked like a Heisman dark horse a few weeks ago, got six of them), and Fresno State keyed in on them throughout the game, stacking the box and daring UCLA to throw. Dorian Thompson-Robinson actually ended up as the leading rusher, especially as he was repeatedly able to gash Fresno State on the outside on zone reads, but that speaks just as much to the Bulldogs’ game plan than anything else. Hard to grade this group as a result.
On the good, Kyle Philips continued his strong early season with another good showing, racking 113 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. Joining him was Kam Brown, who finally emerged as a deep threat in this game and looked solid doing so.
For the bad, Greg Dulcich had a really poor outing, and this game really highlighted the current flaws in his game. Specifically, Dulcich can get out-physical’d by teams, and ends up getting taken out of games as a result. Unless you’re a Rob Gronkowski, it’s really hard to get away with being a tight end that can’t block at the next level, so that’s something to watch.
We may also need to have a conversation about Chase Cota, who has been extremely inconsistent so far this year, and had an extremely-bad fumble following a big gain here. I get that he’s an excellent blocker, but it may be time to start working in some of the younger players in his spot.
Offensive Line: C-
One of the lingering questions I had following this game was what the impact of Sam Marrazzo’s return will have going forward, because the returns from the first game were not great. Marrazzo looked slow and not as physical as Jon Gaines had in the prior weeks, which is understandable considering this was his first game back from injury, but it is something to keep an eye on. More pressing is that Marrazzo’s return meant there was a shift in position for the rest of the line, which meant guys like Atonio Mafi, who looked really good in run blocking during the first two weeks, rarely saw the field. And yes, Fresno State stacked the box defensively, but the offensive line just failed to generate much in the way of push against the Fresno State front, with their best runs coming from misdirection rather than anything the line was doing. I have to imagine other teams will be able to hit on that formula.
At least pass protection was fine. Not exceptional, but fine.
Inconsistency was the name of the game for the offense. Once it found some (and once the coaching staff started to move away from a game plan that wasn’t working) the offense was able to turn things on, but they had dug themselves a big hole by that point. The offense is impressive in its ability to flip between a grinding, efficient attack and explosive, but it needs to be able to do that quicker in order to combat what appears to be a weaker defense than initially believed.
Rush Defense: C
Fresno State did not really run the ball - they had 37 attempts compared to 54 passes - and they did not have a ton of success running the ball - they averaged 3.9 sack-adjusted YPC - but that didn’t really matter. Fresno State was able to find enough success to make UCLA vulnerable. Fresno State RB Ronnie Rivers was honestly impressive in this one, gaining 136 yards on 21 carries, and he hit two 30+ runs that really hurt the Bruins. UCLA’s defense rests in part on their ability to shut the run down and create longer down-and-distance opportunities, which allows their pass rush to pin their ears back and go on. In a game like this where UCLA was not able to bottle up the opposing rushing attack, then you clearly run into problems. Hard to say how the loss of Otito Ogbonnia affected the run defense, since he is UCLA’s best run stopper, but this effort wasn’t at the level of previous outings.
Pass Defense: F
And ultimately the run defense having issues didn’t matter because Fresno State knew they could throw all day on the Bruins.
This was bad, and even though a LOT of the blame goes to the scheme employed, it’s not like the UCLA defensive backs did well either. Various Bulldog receivers were able to create separation and gain solid YAC at times, and there were a ton of missed tackles on that final drive that allowed Fresno State to repeatedly get out of bounds and stop the clock. The pass rush wasn’t much better, with Fresno State getting the better of UCLA’s defensive line on the rush, and the blitzing not being fast or effective enough to stop Fresno State from throwing into the newly-vacated zone each time. Once again, hard to know how the loss of Quentin Lake, who had been having an excellent season up to this point, affected things, but it wasn’t good.
So again, let’s add the caveat that the defensive scheme did the players no favors, because it really was that bad. Still, this kind of performance is the sort of thing that can cause you to reevaluate your thoughts on the team in general. The UCLA defense got beat at the line fairly consistently, and that caused a cascading series of issues that the team never truly recovered from. UCLA does not need great defense to be good this year, but it can’t be this bad either. The fact is that success in year 4 of the Chip Kelly era revolves around an embattled defensive coordinator getting his side of the ball to not be a metaphorical tire fire, which is not a good place to be in any circumstances.
Just not a good game from this unit. Nicholas Barr-Mira continued to look consistent, while RJ Lopez has turned into something of a weapon in getting touchbacks on kickoff, but that’s about it for the good vibes train.
Luke Akers feels like he’s perenially a half-second away from getting blocked on his punts, and having a punt average of 41.5 isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. Kazmeir Allen had a great kick return to put UCLA in scoring position, but he followed it up with an ill-advised return that ended up at the UCLA 9.
But the biggest culprits for this game was the punt coverage unit, which jumped offsides not once, but twice in this game. Fresno State ultimately didn’t score on either drive that this occurred on, but this speaks to the bigger issue of the defense not being able to get off the field, and special teams prolonging their struggle. Just not a good look.
Offensive Gameplan: B-
After watching the game a few times and reading various analysis from around the internet, I’ve come around to the idea that UCLA’s offensive gameplan ended up actively hurting the Bruins and played right into the strategy laid out by Fresno State. UCLA did an impressive job of hitting on explosive plays - they had eight passes of 15+ yards, with four of them hitting for over 35 yards each - but Fresno State seemed more than willing to give those up. In return, the Bulldogs stacked the box to make it almost impossible for UCLA to run the ball and, crucially, prevent it from controlling the flow of the game. I’m not a big proponent of time of possession as a meaningful stat, but when your opponent holds the ball for 20 more minutes than you do, then you are likely doing something wrong.
Frankly, there were ways for UCLA to reverse this earlier. The Bruins were most effective when Dorian Thompson-Robinson was keeping the ball and running to the outside, and all four of UCLA’s rushing attempts of 10+ yards belonged to him. They likely could have utilized this more and done more to attack the edges against Fresno State’s stacked box to extend drives and eat up more of the clock.
But these are more macro gameplan issues. UCLA still scored 37 points and miscues by the players left more on the table, so it’s hard to blame the offense too much for this game. It just happens that the things the offense were doing to score those points ended up being a detriment to a defense that was already struggling.
Defensive Gameplan: F
Here’s something I wrote just last week when talking about the LSU game:
That said, I have to assume a better offensive coaching staff will do a better job of finding the soft spots of the defense, which for now still appears to be the play of the secondary. Quentin Lake had an excellent game and the coaching staff seemed to get over themselves and recognized that Jay Shaw was their best cover guy as he saw a ton of play in this game matched up against Kayshon Boutte, but the Bruins too often play a soft zone with a cushion because they don’t have consistent options on the outside. Again, a better offensive staff might recognize that the way to attack this defense is to constantly take what they give you in the underneath game, but that’s a problem for another game and not this one.
Sometimes it hurts to be this right.
Anyway, Fresno State has a better offensive coaching staff than LSU, and they did exactly what I said should be done in order to attack the UCLA defense. It’s a hyper-aggressive defense in theory, but that aggression leaves gaping holes for the offense to exploit, and the Bulldogs had the right combination of smart coaching staff and capable quarterback to take advantage. Too often, UCLA would try to overload the Fresno State backfield with extra rushers, but Fresno State would counter by keeping a running back back to block. That would give Bulldogs QB Jake Haener more than enough time to find the open receiver for easy yardage.
And those receivers were usually open because UCLA was determined to pair an aggressive pass rush with the softest cushion imaginable. You are realistically only supposed to run one or the other; if you blitz a lot, you’re supposed to pair it with press coverage so that the quarterback does not have much of a window to find someone open, and if you play cushions, you should play them with no blitz and instead flood the secondary with defenders to make it difficult to find a passing window. Doing both just repeatedly leaves the underneath open, and that’s exactly what Haener and the Bulldogs took. Just insanely stupid stuff from the defensive coaching staff this game, which shouldn’t have been that surprising considering all the evidence we’ve had these past four years.
I don’t want to rewrite that macro strategy discussion I wrote in the offensive gameplan section, so let’s just pretend I’m doing so again here so that I don’t repeat myself.
That said, this was a game that reeked of hubris from the coaching staff, either believing they were much better than they believed or that Fresno State wasn’t as good as they expected. The gameplan on either side of the ball did not seem to change much between games, but the difference in ability between the older, more experienced Bulldogs and the younger LSU Tigers was night and day, and it showed on the field. The coaching staff should have had three weeks of game film to tell them Jake Haener was more than capable of hitting the very pass that would destroy the UCLA defense, and after the first two games they should have expected opponents would stack the box and try to make a shaky Dorian Thompson-Robinson beat them in the air. But it wouldn’t be a Chip Kelly season if the coaching staff didn’t show their ass at least once.
In the postgame media scrum, Qwuantrezz Knight repeatedly stated that UCLA did not expect to lose and that the result was stunning. Now, obviously he could have been referring to how the team felt during their furious late-game rally, but it speaks to where the team seemed to be mentally. This is a team that very clearly spent the past two weeks reading their own press clippings, got high on their own supply, and did not take a very good Fresno State team seriously, and it showed. The final score would indicate this was a close game but the reality was that the Bulldogs were clearly the more prepared team and were clearly the better team for the vast majority of this game, and the ultimate irony is that Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer did to Chip Kelly what Kelly promised he’d do at UCLA, which is to outcoach opponents with better talent.
Again, this would be shocking if it hadn’t happened time and again, but it’s maybe a bit of a surprise that, in a clear “show me” year for Kelly’s program, the Bruins would lay an egg for the majority of the game. The comeback may have been fun, but at the end of the day it was akin to putting lipstick on a pig.
Offense grade: C+ (2.3)
Defense grade: D+ (1.3)
Special Teams grade: D (1.0)
Coaching grade: D (1.0)
Preparedness grade: Fail
Final grade for Fresno State Bulldogs: D+ (1.42)
And as a reminder, here are the scores from past games:
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors: A (3.65)
LSU Tigers: A (3.75)
Yeah, that feels right. A D for disaster.
Now the Bruins have to try and regroup so that they can play *checks notes* oh no it’s time for Stanford. This feels very much like a must-win game if Chip Kelly is going to have any shot at sticking around past this year. Let’s see what they do.