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The Eye Test: UCLA Defense Proves Itself Against Washington State
Consider one question emphatically answered.
In last week’s Eye Test, I came right up to the edge of calling the game against Washington State a must-win. I really wanted to say it, but part of me had already written off the season as a rebuilding one where the main goal was to get Dante Moore as much experience and growth as possible before the move to the Big Ten next year.
But the Bruins have apparently decided that they will not go quietly into the night. I had questions after the Utah game, and some of them were emphatically answered Saturday afternoon against the Cougars. The defense especially proved that the early season was not a mirage and that they are a legitimately good unit, shutting down what had been a high-flying Washington State attack throughout the game. The offense, meanwhile, showed it could make some adjustments, and while there are still a lot of bad things going on, you could see the improvement. There was enough here to say that the season is back on track, and could still see the Bruins finishing near the top of the conference when all is said and done.
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Let’s get into it.
It is very clear at this point that Dante Moore is going to be a work-in-progress for much of the season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you - he is clearly the most talented quarterback on the roster - but it means UCLA fans are going to have to live with some growing pains in the near term. There are some clear deficiencies in his game, mostly tendencies that he was able to get away with at the high school level like running backward to try and avoid pressure. Dorian Thompson-Robinson did the same thing early in his UCLA career as well, and it’s a common thing for more talented quarterbacks to do because they are so used to being the best athlete on the field.
One of the big points of emphasis going forward has to be getting better at blitz pickup. For example, let’s break down the following 3rd and 7 early in the game.
Here’s the initial defensive alignment. The linebacker on the right side is already showing signs that he might be blitzing, but the offensive formation likely will prevent that from happening. Still, there are enough guys at or near the line of scrimmage to inform Moore that extra pressure is likely coming and to be ready for it.
Now with the presnap motion, we can clearly see that the linebacker is creeping down toward the line, and the safety has already come down to pick up one of the options on the right side. At this point, Moore should absolutely know that pressure is coming and that he likely will need to get rid of the ball quickly.
And finally, we’re at this point, where the ball has been snapped and that linebacker was able to get a free run at the quarterback. Now, not all of this is Moore’s fault - TJ Harden came to the inside to pick up a blitzer immediately instead of staying outside, while the offensive line clearly assumed all the pressure would come from the middle because we have two different linemen blocking air - but this is where presnap reads come in handy because look at the receivers. Not a single one is running anything close to a hot route, and the only player who is conceivably ready for the ball is being blanketed by three defenders.
Now, to his credit, while Moore struggled early he did improve as the game went on, and showed off his ability to throw on the move. This was a big point of contention after the Utah game, as it seemed obvious that a good way to help Moore out would be to move his launch point outside of the pocket just to get him away from the constant pressure. Moore seemed to thrive when on the move, hitting a variety of passes up and down the field in these situations. And UCLA added a new wrinkle to the offense by essentially creating a longer draw play, as Moore would fake a quick throw to the boundary before pitching the ball to the running back going the opposite direction. This is a fairly difficult thing to do if you’re not familiar with the technique, but Moore proved he’s no Ronnie Bass as he consistently saw the pitch and put it exactly where it needed to be so that the running backs were able to keep their momentum.
Finally, I feel the need to point out that a lot of the “mistakes” we see Moore make seem to be because he is being told to do certain things. There’s a lot of lamenting that Moore doesn’t keep the ball on handoff attempts which means opposing defenses can zero in on the running back, but that’s not his call, and according to Chip Kelly in the past, that sort of thing has never been the QB’s call but is instead called presnap by the sideline. You can’t blame Moore for something he isn’t allowed to do. Similarly, the pick-six was set up by a goal-to-go playcalling situation where Moore was seemingly told to either throw to the first option or put the ball out the back of the end zone. Go back and watch the two plays prior to the interception, especially the play immediately prior where Moore is not even under pressure yet gets rid of the ball after only a few seconds. I’m not sure what the thought process is behind this decision (if I had to guess, they want to simplify things for Moore to try and limit mistakes this close to the end zone) but it’s probably not the best strategy in the world.
Overall, not a bad outing, and if the Pac-12 refs get out of the way and don’t rob UCLA of two passing touchdowns, he looks much better.
Running Back: B+
Carson Steele was definitely the workhorse on the day, with his 30 carries totaling 140 yards, and part of it I think had to do with a better usage of him. Steele is not the quickest running back around but if you give him the ball and tell him to run forward he will do that. It just seemed that every time Steele was told to run through the A gap (and occasionally the B gap) he got good yardage, and any time he was asked to run a stretch play it was not going to go great. And yes, I know this is still very line-dependent and the offensive line in general is not great at blocking that outside zone run yet, but Steele is likely not the best running back for that position.
The better option would probably be TJ Harden, but he was seemingly stuck trying to grind out yards up the middle. Again, Harden feels like he’s being misused, as he’s a speedier option than Steele and should be used more for those outside zone runs rather than the punishing ones up the middle.
Finally, we’re moving him back here for the week, because UCLA got an amazing performance from Keegan Jones in a cameo performance as a running back late in this game. The 4th quarter curveball was a gadget play that brought Jones into the backfield presnap and gave him the ball, and his speed was a huge changeup to what the Cougars had been dealing with from the UCLA rushing attack to this point. Jones only had three carries, but each of them went for 10+ yards, and two of them were for touchdowns. I think I’d like to see more of Jones back at running back just to change the pace, but I understand why he was moved to receiver as a field-stretching option.
For as bad as this group was against Utah, they really picked things up here. The routes in general were cleaned up, and the guys made the catches they had to make to help out Moore. I think it’s interesting how much Moore likes to throw to Logan Loya despite my perception of him relative to other options; Loya had the most catches on the team with six and the second-most targets with 10, though I feel J.Michael Sturdivant’s targets were inflated by some passes out the back of the end zone where he was the closest. Speaking of Sturdivant, he would have had a touchdown in this game if the Pac-12 refs weren’t as incompetent as they were.
I liked the tight end play in this game, and each tight end made a big play at different parts of the game. Moore seems to have a good rapport with Carsen Ryan, hitting him for a couple of big games, while Moliki Matavao had a solid game overall.
Offensive Line: C
A much better outing for this group overall, but there are still communication issues that are causing problems. I’m guessing at the idea that Dante Moore is having trouble recognizing pressure pre-snap, but that also doesn’t excuse the offensive line still failing to block the guys in front of them. Do you remember that play I screenshotted up top? If you take away the free rushing linebacker, this still isn’t a good play from the offensive line, especially on the right side where a simple twist throws both players off and allows two more rushers to get free in the backfield, while Duke Clemens is left blocking air, and the left side isn’t free of trouble either. This got better in the second half, but it’s still something to monitor this week against what is typically a stout Oregon State front.
Honestly, it’s a bit weird; UCLA put up over 492 yards of offense and only came away with 25 points. Execution near the red zone plays a big part of this - the Bruins had seven red zone trips and came away with 3.57 points per trip, which isn’t great - but special teams also had a hand in this one, so I can’t fully blame the offense here. There’s still some a ton to worry about going forward but the trend line from the Utah game is moving in a positive direction, and it’s not like Washington State is a subpar defensive team (23rd in defensive SP+ is really good). And the Bruins literally ran 97 plays, which is a new high for Chip Kelly at UCLA, so they definitely did some good here.
Rush Defense: A
Ok so, like, sure, caveat here that Washington State is not a great running team in the first place and all that. THE BRUINS STILL HELD THEM TO 12 TOTAL YARDS RUSHING. This was such a non-starter of a strategy for the Cougs that they basically abandoned it for most of the game. In fact, it was shocking to see Washington State’s last-ditch effort on 4th and 1 late in the game be a designed quarterback draw considering how running plays had gone for the Cougs all game, and predictably the Bruins shut it down before Cam Ward was even able to get back to the line of scrimmage.
There’s something oddly satisfying about the UCLA run defense. Even when I had questions about how real this defense was coming out of the Utah game, I still felt like the run defense would remain stout and provide a backbone to build on, and that has basically borne out. UCLA’s defensive line is perhaps the best in the conference currently, and they’ve been so good that it is simplifying things for the linebackers, particularly Darius Muasau who seems to excel when pointed in a direction and told to do something but struggles a bit more when asked to make a read.
Pass Defense: A
I really thought about giving this group an A- mostly to try and keep everyone honest but nope, this was just a really really good outing against what has been one of the best passing attacks in the country to this point.
I’ve lamented before that we don’t have access to All-22 footage to give you the full view of the field, so I’ll do what I can to illustrate some of the impressive things they were doing in this game. Let’s start with this 3rd down play in the second half.
First, I want to point something out with the alignment. We’ve discussed in the past how UCLA secondary players would often play back off the line of scrimmage on passing downs and would give up easy underneath throws, and at first glance, this looks to be more of the same. But note where the linebackers are lining up, and what the play looks like after a second.
Right away, UCLA sends pressure from the near side, which happens to be the same side where most of the Wazzu receivers are lined up. Because of that, it takes that entire side of the field out of the play by making any pass in that direction incredibly dangerous and potentially subject to an interception (see what happened on Moore’s pick six for an example of this). We’re now down to only the far side of the field available for a pass, and the lone receiver on that side is being bracketed with Carl Jones dropping back to cover the quick pass while John Humphrey is ready to bump and run should the receiver get to the 1st down marker.
And you can see the end result here. Ward has to throw the ball at this point to avoid a sack, but he has no real options, so the ball is going to fall harmlessly to the ground.
What was impressive about this game was, after a certain point, defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn realized he did not have to send extra pressure every play, and started to generate pressure with only three rushers, allowing him to drop seven into coverage while an eight (usually Carl Jones) acted as a spy should Ward try to scramble. Here’s Ward’s second interception as an example:
Again, note the alignment. The defense is using an amoeba look where they can quickly play a run but are ready to defend a pass. Look how everything quickly shifts into a zone once the play moves into a clear pass.
The Bruins are immediately back into a zone, with safety help over the top. You can’t see the entire field, but even that receiver in the bottom right corner is being covered well, and again you see Carl Jones set up as a spy reading Ward’s movements. Ward is a great quarterback, but as soon as the Bruins were able to flex their advantage on the defensive line, it made it extremely hard for him to do much of anything.
There was never going to be another grade here. UCLA held Washington State, which by many metrics was a top 10 offense heading into this game, to a measly 216 total yards, including a hilariously pathetic 12-yard rushing. They forced four turnovers and held the Cougars to 10 points on offense, of which three came following a turnover deep in UCLA territory. This was a statement game from a defense that has been much-maligned throughout the Chip Kelly era, and if they can keep this up throughout the rest of the year, UCLA still has a very good shot to do something special.
Nope, not even going to try and sugarcoat it. Had UCLA lost this game, it would have been a major indictment of Chip Kelly’s coaching philosophy regarding the importance of special teams. The Bruins dropped seven points in this game from two missed field goals, one of which was blocked, and a missed extra point. That kind of malpractice in the kicking game should be unacceptable at UCLA, a school with a history of great kickers. Throw in the continued usage of Colson Yankoff as the primary kick returner DESPITE THE MULTITUDE OF BETTER OPTIONS AVAILABLE, and you get the picture of a head coach who considers special teams as little more than a nuisance. Absolutely unacceptable stuff here, Chip Kelly clearly hates me.
Logan Loya got the chance to return a punt and looked good doing it, that’s nice I guess.
Offensive Playcalling: B
You could see the adaptations from the coaching staff throughout this game, which is at least good to see because they were nonexistent versus Utah. There were still some of the same playcalling oddities that plagued the Bruins against the Utes, like weird personnel matching with playcalls (TJ Harden was particularly killed in this regard because it felt like he was exclusively asked to run up the middle) but the new wrinkles seemed like ways to at least make these work. In particular, I liked the adaptation of turning the outside run into something of an extended RPO by having Moore fake a screen pass before pitching to the outside, allowing the running backs to get the ball with speed and hitting the holes much quicker than they do on the typical outside zone run. We also saw much more designed rollouts for Moore, and he looked extremely comfortable on these plays so I would imagine we continue to see more of this until Moore is more confident in the offensive line being able to hold up. Finally, the two touchdown runs by Keegan Jones were an inspired bit of playcalling, and while teams will likely know to look out for this, UCLA has other speedy receivers they could do something similar with (or we just see Jones moved back to running back as the speedy option).
Now just destroy the page in the playbook that has a designed quarterback draw as a two-point conversion attempt and we’ll be good to go.
Defensive Playcalling: A
I went over it a ton in the defense section, so suffice to say this was just an excellent gameplan by the defensive staff, and the UCLA admin should already be looking a pay raise and extension for D’Anton Lynn to at least try and keep him an extra year.
This grade is inflated a bit because the defensive side of the ball was so good, but I have to also give credit to the offensive playcalling for figuring things out when they needed to. The Bruins more than doubled up the yardage of Washington State in this game, which is crazy impressive if you really think about it, and if the execution was a little better by the offense, this game is not nearly as close as it looks in the final score. There’s a reason most people who recapped this game on the national level came away from it believing UCLA was by far the better team, because they did so many things right. Good job to the coaching staff for getting the team refocused coming out of the bye week.
Vibe check: No more noon games, thanks
On a personal level, this game was a special one for me; my best friend married a Washington State alum, and with this being the last time the Cougars would be in LA for the foreseeable future, we threw a big tailgate and had a lot of people over to celebrate. There’s something special about getting out to the Rose Bowl well before a game, cooking up some good food, and watching football with the people in your life that you care about.
That said, I hate noon games so much. You end up at the Rose Bowl way too early, and the game itself ends up being a nightmare to sit through just from a weather standpoint. I don’t begrudge anyone who did not attend this game, but it’s a killer for attendance. That said, I can’t see UCLA playing many noon games in the future, because the Big Ten will have plenty of teams who can fill those time slots in a reasonable way, while UCLA will likely have home kickoffs starting at 3:30 PM at the earliest. There may be some Saturdays where you wake up and turn on the TV to watch the Bruins on the road at 9:00 AM, but I think we’re near the end of this particular nightmare of the TV era.
Offense grade: B-
Defense grade: A
Special Teams grade: F
Coaching grade: A-
Vibe check: No more noon games, thanks
Final grade for Washington State: B (2.97)
For reference, here are the past grades from the season:
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: B- (2.66)
San Diego State Aztecs: A- (3.6)
Utah Utes: C+ (2.3)
A B grade feels right here, especially when you consider that UCLA was hit or miss in one major aspect of football (offense) and completely failed another (special teams). Still, it’s a bit of a relief that UCLA could have such an up-and-down game and still come away clearly looking like the better team.
The upcoming Oregon State game will be the real measuring stick for the rest of the season. UCLA’s schedule is rather light after this, with only games against Southern Cal and potentially Arizona standing out as possible road bumps, so a win against Oregon State could be the sign that UCLA can make some noise in the conference title race. This would definitely be the year to do it, as things are going to get harder in the Big Ten.
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