Just because they've turned the corner doesn't mean they've arrived at their destination yet.
UCLA got beat pretty soundly by a very good Stanford team Saturday, 35-17.
It wasn't surprising. If you've watched Stanford this season, you know the Cardinal is a tough, physical and disciplined team that is able to dominate the style and tenor of the game. Teams go in to playing Stanford -- like Oregon and UCLA -- hoping they'll be able to force their own will on the Cardinal, but not many have really been successful doing it.
Perhaps the only thing that was a bit surprising Saturday were some seeming blindspots in UCLA's gameplan.
When scouting Stanford's defense, there are some elements that are plainly clear. Stanford has the #1 rush defense in the country, and perhaps the best front seven. If you were UCLA's offensive minds you'd have to concede that UCLA, with its young offensive line -- that was missing one starter (right tackle Simon Goines) -- is going to generally get beat in pass protection on the day. It didn't seem, though, that UCLA gameplanned with that in mind much. Brett Hundley was sacked 7 times on the day (it felt like more than that), and at least a few of those were Hundley not recognizing when to just get rid of the ball. But regardless of Hundley knowing what do to when the rush collapses on him, there's the element here that the UCLA offensive gameplan didn't attempt to get him away from the pass rush. Hundley took fairly deep drops in a conventional pocket. He didn't roll out once and UCLA didn't move his launch point to get him away from the pressure. We asked Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone about it in the post-game interview and he said they did move Hundley's launch point. But we were talking by design, not by scrambling. While that can be part of the gameplan, to build in the option of a scramble, we're talking about gameplanning a roll-out or two. We know UCLA has roll-outs in its gameplan because we've seen them in practice (and we can say this because we saw them in spring practice and fall camp, when practice was open to the public). We did see one screen, and there were a couple of draws, which are plays designed to offset Stanford's pressure. But where are the receiver screens, the bubble screens, etc? Not enough quick curls and digs. Going horizontal didn't work that well since Stanford's defense pursues laterally very well. But going quickly down the field a few yards and hope for some YAC seemed like the way to go. And while UCLA did do this, it looked like it set up Hundley in a conventional drop with him looking downfield quite a bit, seemingly playing into the hands of Stanford's excellent pass rush.
UCLA's running attack, too, didn't seem well-designed with Stanford in mind. If you watch the Cardinal, even though that front seven is formidable, in their 3-4 they're a bit vulnerable to running directly at them through the A gap. UCLA's OL strength is its interior guys (even though Jeff Baca moved to right tackle for this game because of Goines' unavailbility). UCLA, though, ran quite a bit with its zone read, which is a running style that #1) doesn't exploit the A gap, and #2) doesn't run direct and immediately but takes time to develop, which is exactly, again, playing into the hands of Stanford's quick-to-pursue front seven.
It's no wonder that Hundley probably had one of his worst games of the season, because he wasn't put in the best position to succeed. He, of course, isn't absolved from culpability, like I said, not knowing when to throw the ball away (He actually did it at the end of the game, but ironically he was within the tackles and should have been flagged for it). He also missed on some throws, and that might be because it's far more difficult to throw accurately when you have the country's best front seven in your face. If there is one throw, however, that Hundley isn't great at yet it's the slant. He consistently throws behind receivers on slants, to their back shoulder, and in this game that was enough to make a couple of receivers drop the pass. And those drops came at moments that were critical for sustaining drives, drives that were critical to staying apace with Stanford.
UCLA looked like it could hang with Stanford early on, but Stanford got the edge in the second quarter. A big contributing factor to that edge-seizing was UCLA's choice to not go for it on 4th and 2 at the Stanford 39. it was a couple of minutes into the second quarter, the score was 7-7, and UCLA had actually out-gained Stanford up to that point and showed signs of moving the ball both through the air and ground. Most of the time, in college football, you should go for it on fourth and short at the opponent's 40, and this coaching staff has, throughout the season, shown a penchant for coming down on the more aggressive side in terms of these game situations. In this one, though, UCLA got a little conservative and punted. Coach Jim Mora said in the post-game press conference that he did it because he thought UCLA's defense was playing well up to that point and would rather pin Stanford's offense deep in its own territory than risk not converting the fourth down and giving them the ball at their 40 yard line. But here's the thing: You have to always figure in, against a physical team like Stanford, that your defense is going to wear down and eventually break down. In terms of risk, the percentages are probably better for you to go for it on 4th and potentially handing over the ball on the 40 than banking on your defense holding up against Stanford. The pay-off of converting the 4th, holding onto the ball and actually having a chance to score and go up 14-7 outweigh making Stanford have to start their offense at its 12 rather than its 40 (with the risk, too, that your punter puts it in the endzone and they start at the 20 anyway). For Stanford's type of power offense, starting at its 12 isn't a big deal. In fact, you could even make the case that, if you've conceded that your defense is going to eventually break down against Stanford's pounding offense, then your objective should be to get your defense off the field as quickly as possible to give them some rest. If you have this mindset, it's almost counter-intuitive to allow Stanford to march the entire field (from its 12 yard line) to a touchdown, which is exactly what the Cardinal did.
In other words, in this case, against Stanford, there were enough reasons to go for that 4th and 2 at the 39-yard line.
It was a game momentum changer. It was probably inevitable that Stanford seize the edge in this game, but if your UCLA you'd like to keep it, or at least keep it away from Stanford, for as long as possible, and put up as many points on the board as you can before Stanford grabs it.
As will happen against good defenses, UCLA didn't execute as well as it has for most of the season. Hundley was disrupted and off on a number of throws, and the receivers had the dropsies, which was uncharacteristic of them in 2012.
There are a couple of personnel-use questions, too. Joseph Fauria was, again, under-utilized, looking like the guy that Stanford's defense just plainly couldn't match-up against. He caught just four balls on the night. You have to take the swing pass to Jordon James out of any future gameplan; he just clearly hears footsteps and can't hold on to the ball.
UCLA's defense did try to gameplan to compensate for Stanford's power running game, sometimes going to four DLs with their hand down, which is UCLA's version of stacking the box, to an extent. It held up for a while, limiting Stanford's tailback Stepfan Taylor early, but, as will happen against physical power teams, it eventually wore down. Stanford gained 221 yards on the ground, which is far above its average (177/game), but that really wasn't what gave Stanford's offense control of its match-up against UCLA's defense. It was Stanford's passing game. Since Stanford made freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan its quarterback, it's been a different team. He's put up decent, if modest numbers, but he is effective in prolonging drives because he's able to convert critical passing downs (kind of similar to Hundley throughout this season, just not as much in this game). He definitely came through with the big pass completions Saturday, and that really made the difference in Stanford's flurry of points in the second and third quarter that essentially put away the game. Stanford's offense pretty much schemed around UCLA's pass rush for the most part of the game, rolling out Hogan, getting him away from pressure, giving him time to make a play. But UCLA played right into it, failing to get enough pressure on Hogan when it needed to - rarely, if at all, blitzing. UCLA has done a good -- not great -- job of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season when it rushed four, but it wasn't enough in this game to get Hogan out of his rhythm. Given that Stanford doesn't have a highly dangerous group of receivers, except for Zach Ertz, it seems that this would be a match-up in which UCLA should have blitzed a bit more to disrupt Hogan. Especially when it was clear that Stanford was going to throw in this game, and that the four-man rush wasn't putting enough pressure on Hogan. UCLA didn't seem to make that adjustment.
If we're talking game-changers, and coaching decisions that lead to them, you have to nominate the Kenny Walker kick-off-return fumble as perhaps the biggest one of the season. Take away that seven points and UCLA is actually in this game. It puts the entire game in a different perspective. In the fourth quarter, when UCLA has the ball with 10 minutes remaining, it would have been a completely different story if UCLA were down just 28-17 rather than 35-17. And while you can't what-if most points caused by turnovers, you definitely can on a fumble on a kick-off by a true freshman. You have to question if Walker, as a true freshman, should have ever been out there; it's not as if he's shown a clear ability to return kicks. It was the turning point of the game, and one that you can directly attribute to a coaching decision.
Perhaps the other primary force in this game was UCLA's penalties. It was called 12 times for a whopping 135 yards, compared to Stanford's 6 for 55. The 80-yard advantage is essentially one long drive for Stanford. The penalties, in this game and for the season, are easily the most disturbing aspect of Mora's program, and really the only true remnant of UCLA's dark ages. We can make a couple of excuses for them, however. First, you are naturally going to get some holding calls from your OLs when they're younger, vastly less experienced and probably not as talented as their opponent. Secondly, we went to our DVR and watched some of the holding calls, and then, objectively, watched Stanford's offensive line. We aren't much for complaining about the officiating in games, but this game was not called evenly. If the holding call on Alberto Cid in the third quarter, which negated an 18-yard run by Johnathan Franklin, was legitimately a hold, then Stanford's offensive line is holding on just about every third play. Stanford's offensive line is probably better at disguising their holding, especially when it's in a mess of bodies in its power sets, as opposed to being able to see it better in UCLA's spread. Even so, despite the excuses, there is no excuse for Jeff Baca's lack of discipline, especially on personal fouls. He's a senior, and a leader on the team, and we know there must be some pent-up frustration from his own Battered Bruin Syndrome, but it's not acceptable at this stage of his career.
One missed call has to be pointed out. All season long, I've watched helmet-to-helmet calls and have questioned at least 3/4s of them. Most of the time it seems like the tackler is going in cleanly and just inadvertently hitting the ball carrier's helmet when the ball carrier turns at the last instant. There have been some clear intentional helmet-to-helmet hits, too. And one of the clearest, that wasn't called, was by Stanford's Terrence Brown on Franklin in the third quarter on a swing pass. Brown specifically used his helment to spear Franklin's helmet, right in front of the line judge. If you're going to have this penalty in the repertoire, and over-call it all season, then make the call when it's blatantly obvious.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the impact of the long and frequent television timeouts in this game. The frequent long stoppages in play are clearly more of a benefit to Stanford than UCLA, given the differences in tempo between the two, and it's just another factor that couldn't have helped things on Saturday.
All in all, though, like I said, this game went pretty much as you might expect. Stanford is a better team that UCLA this season, especially with the emergence of Hogan. Stanford turned the corner under Jim Harbaugh, and David Shaw has continued to drive the bus down the road. The UCLA program has just emerged from that long, almost-perpetual corner and there is a long highway ahead of it.
But that doesn't have to mean that, after playing the Cardinal one week and getting thoroughly beaten, that UCLA can't make some adjustments from this game and beat Stanford Friday. Stanford isn't the type of team that is going to do things drastically differently. It might tweak its gameplan, but it's not in its nature to institute wholesale changes in its approach, especially after it worked so well Saturday. UCLA, on the other hand, has really nothing to lose. The Cardinal is the better team, and if UCLA plays it straight up, like it did Saturday, it will almost certainly lose again. So here's the chance for the UCLA coaching staff to show us their coaching acumen. If the re-match on Friday for the Pac-12 Championship Game is anything, it's a showcase for how each coaching staff can make effective adjustments from having just played each other. It will be interesting to see if the UCLA coaches can put in a gameplan that deftly counters and out-schemes everything we all just witnessed Saturday, and does, in fact, surprise us and the Cardinal on Friday.