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The Eye Test: UCLA Football Gets the Job Done Against Arizona
The Bruins put in a workmanlike effort to get back to .500 on the season.
No real intro this week. Let’s just jump into it.
Chase Griffin was fine. Perfectly fine. He did a much better job protecting the ball in this one, but his final stat line (12-20 for 129 yards and a touchdown) belies the fact that the offensive staff did not plan for him to throw the ball much, if at all. He averaged 10.8 yards per completion, which is a good indicator that the coaching staff did not trust him to push the ball down the field. That all makes sense if you consider that Griffin’s strengths in the passing game come from his accuracy and not his arm strength. Griffin did a good job of hitting on short and medium routes, but deep routes just seem outside of his wheelhouse.
The big question going forward if Griffin is to remain the starter (and I would have to imagine that Dorian Thompson-Robinson will regain the job once he is available again) is whether he can turn the passing game into a threat. Right now, Griffin hasn’t been tested in that area since opposing defenses are just incapable of stopping UCLA’s rushing attack, but Arizona State and Southern Cal represent the two “best” defenses the Bruins will face on this schedule. So, having some kind of aerial threat would go a long way to keeping those defenses honest.
Running Back: A
Not much I can really say here. Demetric Felton was once again a workhorse, rushing 32 times for 206 yards, which is an astonishing 6.4 YPC and a touchdown while chipping in four catches for 26 yards as well. Brittain Brown, in more limited touches, added 72 yards on 16 carries, a more modest but still really good 4.5 YPC, and he had one touchdown on the ground and one through the air. UCLA has committed to the run to the tune of a hilarious 56-20 run-pass split, but it’s much easier to do so when your running backs are producing on this level.
Much like last week, not much was asked of them in the passing game. Kyle Philips again had a drop on a pass he should have reeled in, Dulcich was rather quiet, and the Bruins threw more to running backs leaking out of the backfield than their actual pass catchers. On the flip side, the receivers are still contributing to the run game by being very good blockers and it’s the team-wide commitment to blocking that is helping this offense hum.
Offensive Line: A-
I felt the line did another outstanding job in this game, especially since the Arizona defense was so committed to trying to stop the run. The Wildcats consistently stacked the box, yet the Bruins were still able to average five yards per carry while keeping Griffin clean in the pocket on the few attempts he actually had.
I did ding the grade a bit because this performance wasn’t as good as the one against Oregon, which featured more talent along their defensive front. Now, part of that again has to do with Arizona committing to stopping the run with the bodies necessary to do so, but this is a matchup you’d have liked to see the offensive line dominate just a bit more after seeing what they did against the Ducks.
When this offense is focused, it can get things rolling in a hurry. The Bruins essentially put the game away in the second quarter with a barrage of offense. In the second quarter alone, the Bruins put up 186 yards, 137 of which came on the ground over 20 attempts for a monstrous 6.9 YPC. They only faced three third downs all quarter, picked up 11 first downs, possessed the ball for 9:10 of the quarter, and put up 17 points. There was not much Arizona could do to stop them.
So, it was very disappointing to see that second half, where the Bruins only managed 122 total yards and ran for a paltry 3.9 YPC on 23 attempts. Yes, the playcalling was a huge factor here (and we’ll get to that later) but the lack of urgency seemed to permeate everything the offense did in the second half until they had one last touchdown drive to put the game away for good. The grade reflects that drop-off in effort but also recognizes the reason said effort dropped off in the first place.
Run Defense: A-
This feels unfair, but Arizona was able to find some success in the run as the game went on. I think a lot of that had to do with the offense flailing around in the second half, but it is something to keep an eye on. Honestly, there’s not much I can write here. The defense has played so well, especially against the run, that I’m being forced to nit-pick, and playing a lesser opponent like Arizona is the exact perfect time to do so. I must say how refreshing it is to be at this point with the defense.
Pass Defense: A-
A clear caveat before we start: Arizona had to go to the backup quarterback after one play after Grant Gunnell was knocked out of the game after landing on his shoulder. So, take everything here with a grain of salt considering true freshman Will Plummer probably didn’t expect to play in this one.
That said, I thought this was a better performance for a pass defense that is still missing a key piece in Quentin Lake. The secondary did a much better job and we finally saw some of Rayshad Williams and Elijah Gates. Gates, in particular, looked solid at the corner slot, and maybe things are starting to click for him. Stephan Blaylock had a better game after struggling against Oregon, while Obi Edoh had perhaps his best game as a Bruin, showing a real talent for getting to the quarterback on designed corner blitzes.
The pass rush was good, getting to Plummer consistently and making his debut a nightmare, but they did struggle a bit in contain. That’s going to be something that needs to be cleaned up this week, as Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels is a gifted runner who has no problems tucking the ball if he sees an opening.
The overall grade takes into account that a not-good Arizona team was forced to bring out its backup plan and predictably struggled, but UCLA, once again, was great on defense. There are some things to clean up, but this was a game where they did not have to be at their best to win. Sometimes that’s good enough.
Now, I will say that Arizona State does present an opportunity for the defense to earn that coveted full A. If they hold the Sun Devils to similar stats that they just held the lowly Wildcats to, UCLA should win that game handily.
Hey, finally a week without some kind of catastrophe on special teams. In fact, the unit looked really good! Luke Akers was solid on punts, including an absolute gem of a punt late in the game that pinned Arizona at its own one-yard line, while Nicholas Barr-Mira nailed his first two collegiate FG attempts from 31 and 30. There were some questions about how reliable the kicking game would be this year and, while we still don’t know how Barr-Mira will look from longer distances, you should at least feel some confidence in his ability to put points on the board should the Bruins stall in the red zone.
The next big step will be to get something out of the return game. So far, UCLA has been a non-factor here, where last year they were a threat to get a return touchdown, if not flip their field position.
Offensive Game Plan: C
A grade of C can mean many things. Usually, it means you had an average performance, neither good nor bad but in the middle. In this case, a C grade is indicative of a performance that was very good for one half and not good at all during the other. Just compare the numbers between the two halves here for UCLA:
The UCLA offense dropped off precipitously in the second half, in large part because the game plan got much more conservative with a 20-7 lead. On the one hand, that makes some level of sense. Arizona had not shown much of an ability to threaten UCLA offensively. So, limiting their chances by focusing on protecting the football is a smart strategy. The problem here is that UCLA is not at the level where they can get away with turtling up for an entire half of football, no matter the opponent. The fourth quarter got dicier than it really should have with Arizona at one point lined up to kick a field goal that would have made it a one-score game. Luckily for the Bruins, the snap was bobbled and the threat went away, but the threat remained until UCLA was able to put the game away with a last-minute touchdown drive following Arizona’s first turnover of the game.
That’s basically where I’m at with this game offensively, as the end result did not justify the process. UCLA was so good in the first half when the game was very much in doubt, so to see the playcalling become that conservative despite the game still being in doubt was disappointing to say the least. There seemed to be a belief that UCLA could flip the switch back on offense if necessary, but this game should put to bed that particular belief. The UCLA offense has talent, but not so much that they can clearly coast against lesser opponents.
I also am going to ding the grade for the 4th down play calling. I do want to stress that I’m not against the decision to go for it on 4th down. I’m very much Team Aggression on offense, but, specifically, the fact that UCLA’s go-to 4th down call appears to be a halfback dive. Some self-scouting would go a long way to make the Bruins less predictable on 4th downs and would likely lead to an increased success rate.
Defensive Game Plan: A
On the other side, this was just another great defensive game plan. The aggressive defense works extremely well with UCLA’s personnel and I liked that they did not change things up once Arizona was forced to make a switch at quarterback. I really don’t have much to add here. There are some minor things that need to be cleaned up ahead of the last major games, but, for this game in particular, they did exactly what they needed to do to secure the victory.
This essentially mirrors my thoughts on this game from a coaching perspective. UCLA did what it needed to do to secure the victory, essentially putting the game away in the first half. The biggest issue is that, while the defense continued their stellar play into the second half, the offense took their foot off the gas pedal in a major way, which turned the second half into a slog. It didn’t need to be that way and, so, the grading here reflects that.
It’s hard to say UCLA did not look prepared for this one. I do want to note that UCLA was actually under their season average for penalties per game, as they only had six where they’ve been averaging 7.2 on the season and the 43 penalty yards were low as well. Even the penalties themselves were outside of what you would normally expect. The two false start penalties, for example, came from receivers, which is something that can quickly be cleaned up, while one of the holding penalties was committed on a downfield block well past the line of scrimmage, something that is rarely called.
Something I would watch going forward: UCLA has started a bit slow on offense in these games and it has put the defense in some unenviable positions to start. The Bruins cannot afford to do so in these last two games. So, it will be interesting to see if things improve here.
Offense grade: B+ (3.3)
Defense grade: A- (3.7)
Special Teams grade: A (3.7)
Coaching grade: B- (2.7)
Preparedness grade: Pass
Final grade for Arizona Wildcats: B+ (3.35)
Our previous grades:
It’s a strange bit of deja vu to be sitting here looking at UCLA and believe they are better than their record would indicate, but that’s how it was near the end of Chip Kelly’s first season at the helm. That year, the Bruins came on strong down the stretch, and were much better than their eventual 3-9 record indicated. Similarly, this year’s team appears to be much better than their 2-2 record currently indicates and it’s not much of a stretch to believe that the Bruins could be closer to 3-1 or even 4-0 if they were any better at protecting the ball on the road.
Now comes the tricky part of the season. UCLA’s last two known opponents were picked to finish near the top of the division and Southern Cal itself is the Pac-12’s last, desperate attempt at making the College Football Playoff. If UCLA is going to pretend to be a good football team, these are games they need to, at the very least, be competitive in and, considering the general tenor of the conference, they should make a play to win them.