UCLA Continues Its Free Fall

UCLA Continues Its Free Fall
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It all came together into one massive pileup Saturday night in Pasadena as UCLA continues its free fall.

The play-by-play announcer in the press box, who feeds the plays and stats to the media kept referring to Oregon State receiver Isaiah Hodgins as “Hodgkins.” Halfway through the third quarter, the stats network that the press box guy relies upon melted down, (and why wouldn’t it)? The announced crowd at the Rose Bowl was 48,532, but that included at least 3,000 high school band members, and thousands of area youth that got freebies as part of the “I’m Going To College” program. And the return of the student body now that school is in session? Their section was half filled at peak, and mostly empty by the end of the third quarter.

Good Thing It Is College Football

And did we mention that UCLA was down 21-0 to Oregon State six minutes into the game? The Bruins were no more prepared than the press box announcer for Saturday night. And OSU kept climbing all the way to a 48-31 win. Even in down years, there were certain teams that, more often than not, were certain W’s. One was the Beavers. But now UCLA is simply a tune-up game for Oregon State as they improve to 2-3 and prepare for Utah next week. UCLA dropped to 1-5, and 1-2 in conference, as their play gets decidedly worse in many realms. They have 11 days before their next game on a Thursday night at Stanford.

If this were an NFL franchise, it would be gutted, and they would start over. But college football being what it is in Westwood, head coach Chip Kelly is safe for now. He seems unlikely to make coaching staff changes. And as for the players…well there is talent out there, even if it is misused. And besides, it’s not the NFL and you have what you have because you inherited them or did not recruit to your needs.

If all you do is get up in the morning and look at the stat line, you would think UCLA won, or at least hung close. The Bruins had more total yards, (492 to 448). They had more rushing yards, (256 to 163). And even though Oregon State had more passing yards, (285 to 236), backup quarterback Austin Burton did a respectable job, considering his lack of prep work this season. He finished 27 of 41 for 236 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers. He also had 64 yards rushing, with some of that coming on sheer instinct. Burton also had a rushing touchdown.

UCLA Continues Its Free Fall
UCLA quarterback Jake Burton stretches for yardage during the game versus Oregon State Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.

Third And Fourth Down Killers

But what stats do not show is the UCLA defense getting repeatedly torched on third down and fourth down plays. The first example came early on. On Oregon State’s first drive, they had a third and two at midfield. Quarterback Jake Luton found Kolby Taylor wide open along the UCLA sideline and they turned it into a 45-yard completion. Luton would then hit Hodgins in the corner of the end zone for a four yard touchdown pass and the early 7-0 lead.

Later on in the same quarter Oregon State was third and 10 at the UCLA 17. Not a problem against Jerry Azzinaro’s porous defense. Luton hit Hodgins for 12 yards. Artavis Pierce followed that with a five yard touchdown run right up the gut of the defense and it was 14-0 Beavers.

UCLA was called for a facemask on the play and so the penalty was assessed on the kickoff. Oregon State popped the kick-up in a sort of jump ball. UCLA was totally unprepared and the Beavers recovered at the Bruins 27. Luton found David Morris all alone in the end zone on a wheel route and it was 21-0 and the boos started coming from the UCLA faithful. Fortunately, with such a small crowd, they aren’t very loud.

It was eight minutes into the game before UCLA even got a first down, and was greeted with sarcastic applause.

They would turn it into a real drive. It ended with Burton rolling to his right and firing a seven yard pass on a line to Kyle Philips who squeezed his toes in just in-bounds. The Bruins were down 21-7. They also used 7:43 off the clock to get the one touchdown. The clock would not be the Bruins’ friend much of the night.

Oregon State returned the favor immediately, and it came on a 4th down conversion. They had fourth and one at the UCLA 13-yard line. Luton rushed for two yards and the first down. Three plays later, it was Luton to Hodgins again. This time it was five yards, and with the missed PAT, the Beavers were up 27-7.

The Bruins added a 37-yard field goal to “cut” the lead to 27-10 at the half.

Back And Forth But Not Very Close

Burton and Joshua Kelley would engineer the Bruins first drive of the third quarter. Kelley picked up 25 yards on the ground during the drive. And Burton was dead on the money with a 30-yard pass to Jaylen Erwin in stride that got the Bruins down to the OSU two. From there Kelley took it in…sort of. He actually fumbled at the goal line and fell on top of the ball just inside the end zone. UCLA felt close for a few moments at 27-17.

But on, you guessed it, third and two and their own 47, Luton hit a wide open Tyjon Lindsey, who had blown right past defensive back Rayshad Williams. It was a 53-yard touchdown and a 34-17 Oregon State lead.

Demetric Felton would tease what was left of the Bruins faithful with a 75-yard touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage. The play was an inside zone read, but the Beavers defensive line did not cover the backside. Felton found the hole, broke one tackle and outran the rest of the defense. That was the good news. The bad news was that it sent the defense right back on to the field.

Luton would hit Hodgins again, right over Williams again. This time for 24-yards and another touchdown and  41-24 lead.

UCLA would get one more touchdown. Burton faked a hand-off to Kelley up the middle, and kept it himself for a six yard touchdown run. While it was a fine play, it capped a 17-play drive that burned 6:38 off the clock at a time when the Bruins were down three scores. The clock management in the play calling would all but ensure they would not have enough possessions to have a shot at the end of the game.

Oregon State added an insult to injury touchdown in the closing minute of the game for the 48-31 final.

Kelly’s Thinking

Kelly said after the game that he was not concerned about burning so much time with that last touchdown drive. “We got it to a two-score game with about five minutes to go which I thought was a manageable time. Our defense has got to go out there and stop them.” Sounds logical, except that the specifics are not. The defense did not prove at any point throughout the game, or throughout much of the season, that it could get the quick shut down. And being down two scores, they would have had to do it not once, but twice in the span of five minutes. It is a skill set that the soft schemes in the defensive strategy do not allow for.

UCLA Continues Its Free Fall
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly talks about the loss to Oregon State Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. (Photo from Tony Siracusa)

To the point of the defense, Kelly would not put the blame on Azzinaro, despite his unit getting lit up every week. “It’s with our whole staff. It’s not just with one guy on the defensive side of the ball. We’ve got to do a better job and that’s with all of us.”

Where Is Bottom

The Bruins are 1-5 for the second straight season. For all the weekly talk of youth, there are plenty of young teams in the country. UCLA is young, but not the youngest. They are young but experienced because so many freshman and sophomores have gotten so much playing time in the last year-and-half. The difference between this year’s 1-5 and last year’s is that in the 2018 version, you could see upside growing week by week. But in the 2019 version, short of a few sporadic highlight performances, there is no consistent thread that tells the fans this team is just a few steps away from turning the corner. It could be reasonably argued the team is actually regressing. And there is nothing that leads one to believe the coaching staff is going to shake its stubbornness is relying on schemes and strategies that are not close to working.

To the fan base that has little to look forward to right now other than showcasing their devotion, Kelly says he understands. “There is no one more disappointed than we are right now. So I think that is part of the process and we have to work through it.”

Until they do, the regular scene at the end of the games will be empty UCLA sections while the opposing team celebrates with its fans in the end zone.