For some teams it is too soon to ask about where the season goes. Teams are anywhere from five to six games into the season. But as UCLA approaches the halfway point of the season, coming off a badly played game against Arizona State, the time is necessary, and it is now. What is next for UCLA?
The first part is obvious. The Bruins play Arizona in Tucson Saturday night. The Wildcats are winless under first year head coach Jedd Fisch. The former UCLA offensive coordinator inherited a tear-down project from the vanquished Kevin Sumlin. Arizona may have no wins, but they gave Oregon a tough game and regularly look like they are making strides forward, albeit in small increments. A UCLA win should be a lock. But the issue of putting two halves of football together is still problematic for the Bruins.
Pass Defense Is MIA
Last Saturday, both sides of the ball went missing in action for UCLA in the loss to Arizona State. The offense managed 158 yards in the second half Saturday, but only 24 of it was in the fourth quarter. And they got a big nothing on the scoreboard. ASU wasn’t exactly putting up record numbers. The Sun Devils had 184 total yards in the second half. But they were productive yards as ASU outscored UCLA 18-0 in the final two quarters to get to the 42-23 rout.
Earlier in the season, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said teams were putting up big passing numbers against his defense, because the Bruins were shutting down the running game and forcing teams to throw more. That is just not the case at this point in the season. UCLA is 128th out of 130 teams in the country in passing yards given up per game. They have dropped 16 spots since Kelly professed his theoretical conclusion. Any review of the last three games shows that teams are coming out with a throw-first mentality, because at least for now that is the way to beat UCLA. Arizona State has one of the most prolific running quarterbacks in the country. But Jayden Daniels came out throwing because UCLA’s pass defense continues to be highly vulnerable.
Teams Taking Advantage
UCLA is allowing 321.4 passing yards per game. To add insult to injury, Arizona State had 33 fewer plays and nine fewer minutes in time of possession than did UCLA. The Sun Devils just did more with what they had, and UCLA’s pass defense made that task easier. Sure, UCLA is still 34th in the country in rushing defense. Because few teams are rushing first and throwing second against them. Why would they? Stanford’s starting running back was injured for the UCLA game. It made the decision to let Tanner McKee air it out very obvious. Saturday, Daniels completed eight of his first 11 passes including two touchdowns. The vaunted ASU run game was more complimentary to the passing game than it was the primary weapon.
The stop rate for the UCLA defense is 60%. That means in 40% of the drives by opponents UCLA is giving up points. How does that play out nationally? UCLA is 106th in the country, per the data compiled by True Media.
The Numbers Are The Numbers
Combine the run defense stats and the passing defense stats and UCLA is a lowly 91st in the country in total defense. When explaining to us, weeks ago, why UCLA could not muster a consistent running game, Kelly told us, “You take what a defense gives you.” That works both ways. Opposing coaches are taking what the UCLA pass defense gives them. And it appears to be a very generous pass defense. With UCLA being tied for 66th in the country in sacks by its defense, quarterbacks have plenty of time to take advantage of the generosity. The aggressive nature of the UCLA defense that was apparent earlier in the season has been neutralized by teams looking to protect their passing game.
UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert said the Bruins are still blitzing but running into seven-man protection fronts. So if they don’t get to the quarterback it is leaving the secondary on an island. “In a lot of those situations, you’re going to leave your DB’s in one-on-one match-ups,” he said.
Laundry On The Field
Haven’t gotten enough of the salt in the wound? The Bruins are now 84th in the country in penalties committed. They are tied for 107th in the country in penalty yards. Translation: They are committing a lot of penalties, and a disproportionate amount are the big yardage ones.
It would seem reasonable to expect more discipline from a team that is built off experience. Kelly agreed…sort of. “It’s fair to expect that from anybody,” he said. “We don’t make excuses for anybody. I don’t say a senior can’t have a penalty, but a freshman can.” Sure, but in past years, many mistakes were attributed to youth and inexperience, an issue that does not exist this season. But the mistakes are still there.
Kelly also noted that the Pac-12 as a whole is the most penalized conference in the country. That would imply there is an officiating issue, long acknowledged by fans and the media. Of course, Kelly was not about to be fined by the conference and would not go there. But that rationalization also implies that all teams in the conference are suffering at a high level from penalty flags, and that is just not true. Utah, a very disciplined team, is only seventh in the country in penalties. Washington and Washington State are tied for 19th in the country. Arizona is 46th. Cal and Colorado are both far better off than UCLA.
The statistics say it is specific teams dragging down the numbers and making it the most penalized conference in the country. Ironically, Arizona State was the most penalized team in the conference going into last Saturday. But the Sun Devils got flagged fewer times and for less yards than did UCLA.
Reality Check In The Desert
Too many got too giddy over what was a big perception win over LSU in the second week of the season. The folks in Baton Rouge are trying to show Ed Orgeron the exit door as the Tigers turn out to be a very average team. The UCLA fan base plummeted back to Earth after yet another loss to Fresno State. It turns out Fresno was very good but also got beat by Hawaii, a result that makes total sense if you follow college football on a national landscape. There are only two dominant teams and the rest of the country is a free-for-all. Can UCLA take advantage of that? Or are they on the vulnerable side of the chaos?
The road win over Stanford felt like a complete game. The offense made adjustments to get the running backs involved again. But a close review of the game showed a very assailable defense. Then came the meltdown against Arizona State and being outscored 18-0 in the second half. Now comes a chance to fix the problems against a winless Arizona club who has used three quarterbacks this season to varying degrees of success.
Calvert said the Bruins should not be looking at this game as a way to undo what happened last weekend. “That’s how you kind of hurt yourself; going into a game trying to make up for everything you did in the last game,” he said. “When we have played as a full team and played all together on both sides of the ball with that energy and firing on all cylinders, you guys have seen that this team is really good.”
To get to really good, on a consistent basis, will require some major adjustments immediately. UCLA fans have been patiently waiting for years to have an experienced team that would not have the problems the Bruins are experiencing.