Brett Hundley had probably his worst game of the latter half of the season on Saturday, and while it's hard to fault him entirely, given the fact that Stanford was able to simultaneously pressure him with three or four while dropping seven or eight into coverage, he didn't make tremendous decisions. After achieving pinpoint accuracy against USC, to the point where he was fitting the ball into spaces where he had about three inches of window, he might have even gotten a little overconfident. He threw several times into coverage, from the first throw of the game to the interception to the completion in triple coverage to Joseph Fauria. Obviously, he felt he had to do something down field given how much UCLA struggled to establish a consistent running game, but he certainly did force it a bit too much.
The biggest issue facing Hundley right now, and we've talked about this for several weeks, is his propensity to hold onto the ball too long. We've said before, and still believe, that you can almost live with the occasional unnecessary sack because it's a mistake of aggression—trying to fit the ball down field, rather than throw it away, is not a horrible thing to have in a quarterback. Against the Cardinal, though, he simply took too many, and actually didn't show a great feel against the rush. Part of it could be that he was expecting his line to play better—from his perspective, he sees how many guys Stanford is rushing, and probably figures his line can handle the three or four they sent. But he took several unnecessary sacks in the 4th quarter, including one where he actually eluded pressure, rolled slightly out to his right, and then just stood there looking down field. Once the pocket breaks down, he needs to have a better feel for at least knowing that it's time to keep rolling out.
His slants, which have been a problem for him all year, again caused issues on Saturday. Both the throw to Shaquelle Evans and the throw to Jerry Johnson probably should have been caught, but both went back shoulder when they needed to be front, and it's very hard for a receiver to reach behind him on a pass like that. He just doesn't throw that ball well, and you have to imagine that working on the slant will be a big point of emphasis for him in the offseason.
He actually didn't have a ton of running room on Saturday for scrambles; oftentimes, Stanford kept a linebacker in a short zone that acted as a bit of a spy. He probably had two other opportunities to run, aside from the long scramble for 38 yards, but other than that, Stanford had him covered pretty well. Unless the offensive line can play a whole lot better on Friday, UCLA could be in a pretty similar boat as far as quarterback runs go.
Running backs: C
Johnathan Franklin actually ran really well on Saturday, all things considered. He ground out some tough yards up the middle, and actually was only stopped for a loss on really obvious running downs when UCLA went with a two back set. He had at least two long runs called back by questionable penalties, including the phantom hold on Albert Cid where the "holding" occurred long after Franklin had squirted past. Running right at the Stanford defense, Franklin had some decent success, especially going between Jake Brendel and Jeff Baca on the right side. It's what we expected before the game—running laterally, it's very hard to turn up field against this very good pursuit defense. It may seem counterintuitive, but it's much easier to run right at the interior.
Jordon James had an awful game, aside from one first down run. He had a tough time handling swing passes, and you have to suspect that he was hearing footsteps on both of the drops. On the one pass he caught, he got hung up behind the line of scrimmage and dropped for a four yard loss. On that play, if he kept running, he might have had a chance to get back to the line of scrimmage. Right now, he just doesn't have great vision, and seems to be overthinking where to turn up field or what gap to hit.
Damien Thigpen's loss really hurt UCLA in a couple of ways in this game. First, without him, there's a vacuum behind Franklin—James hasn't shown any of the running skills or catching skills that Thigpen displayed this year. Second, and we'll get to this later, his consistent 20 to 25 yard kick returns are looking more spectacular given UCLA's abysmal blocking on special teams.
Steven Manfro didn't get a ton of time on Saturday, only seeing much work at the end of the game. If we had to guess, if he's close to fully healthy, he'll see some snaps at running back on Friday.
Offensive line: D+
This was obviously a very difficult matchup for UCLA's offensive line, given the big, physical nature of Stanford's defensive line. The Cardinal didn't blitz much, but they did do some tricky twisting and stunting, especially on the interior, that seemed to confuse Jake Brendel especially at times. Brendel had a couple of plays in pass protection where he would choose to commit to doubling on Xavier Su'a-Filo's man, and a twisting lineman would get in through the gap between him and Jeff Baca, where Baca was already engaged with another lineman. Stanford was able to get pretty consistent pressure with three and four—in fact, when the Cardinal blitzed, Hundley actually was able to make some plays, including the 38 yard scramble.
Torian White had a mediocre game, looking decent at times in pass protection and then getting pushed aside fairly easily. He's not hugely strong yet, and it's evident in a game like this. You have to figure another year in the weight room would serve him very well physically.
Simon Goines had one pretty bad play before he went out, allowing his man through untouched early in the first quarter near the UCLA end zone, but he only played about a quarter of the game.
Albert Cid actually played pretty well in relief, and the physical transformation he's undergone this year is actually pretty amazing. He pulled on a few runs, and didn't look totally awful doing it. He's still not ideal for that role, but it's actually a possibility for him to do it now, whereas last year he really couldn't move in the open field. His hold, as we stated above, was questionable—he kept his hands inside the numbers, with his left slipping up to the shoulder at one point. It didn't look like there was much grabbing, and it really didn't look like he impacted the play much at all.
Jeff Baca actually didn't have as rough of a game as you would expect from the penalties. First, the false start called on him was actually an illegal snap by Brendel, who, for some reason, had a few stalled snaps on Saturday, hitching the ball into the ground before getting it up to Hundley. Then, the unnecessary roughness was, in fairness, something that typically happens after most plays, with offensive lineman pushing guys around after the play is blown dead. In point of fact, Franklin actually got pushed himself on that run, well after the play was over. Obviously, the unsportsmanlike penalty was a frustration penalty, but at that point, you can kind of forgive him taking colorful issue with the refs.
Saturday marked a return of the dropsies and poor route running from UCLA's receivers. If there's one unit where a lack of focus might have been an issue, this would probably be the one you point to. Evans, Jerry Johnson, and Darius Bell all dropped balls that legitimately should have been caught. More importantly, another big reason for Hundley's sacks was the lack of separation down field. Stanford's secondary is not quite as good as UCLA's receivers made it seem on Saturday. Much like the Cal game, when Hundley was stymied and had to elude pressure, the receivers went to block rather than get open for the pass.
Evans had the one bad drop on a slant that was critical, mostly because it stopped what had the makings of a decent drive. Also, on a short out to the sideline, he wasn't on the same page as Hundley, not breaking to the sideline early enough to catch the pass, which looked like it went where it was supposed to go. The coaches talked to Evans after, so it looked like he was at fault.
Johnson made a couple of catches on short slants and digs where he was able to get YAC, but also missed on a slant. He and Evans both made nice down field catches, with Johnson's coming on that nifty diamond formation play, with four receivers on one side and Johnson on the other.
Joseph Fauria continues to play well in the latter half of the season, and, despite not getting targeted for much of the game, kept his head in it and played very well down the stretch, making two very tough catches over the middle in the waning moments. Given the matchups with Stanford's defense, and Fauria's obvious height advantage, you have to figure he'll factor more into the game plan this week.
Devin Fuller had a critical catch for a near first down on Hundley's most impressive throw of the night, and he really does look like he has a chance to be a dynamic threat at receiver. Here's hoping that he and his support circle are amenable to a permanent switch, because it's much more likely that he impacts the team there than at quarterback.
Offensive game plan, scheme, and play calling: C-
Watching the game over again, it was even more apparent that the scheme was, to a certain extent, fairly conservative. Aside from a couple of interesting formations (the two plays with the diamond formation, and the one where Franklin scored the touchdown with the tackles split out wide), UCLA mostly ran out of fairly conventional sets, and didn't do a whole lot out of the norm. Given what they probably saw on tape from Stanford (namely, their ability to pursue sideline to sideline), it was a little odd that they threw even as many swing passes as they did (four or five, depending on how you count a swing pass).
Then, in terms of the pass rush, it was very, very odd that UCLA didn't attempt to move Hundley's launch point, after it was clear that Stanford was able to get pressure with four. Even though Stanford is good in pursuit, Hundley has shown good agility in the open field, and should have been able to roll out effectively in the game. Noel Mazzone said after the game that Hundley's launch point did change, joking that Stanford forced him into it, but UCLA didn't seem to design much beyond conventional drops for Hundley.
We did like that UCLA went four wide for most of the second half, because splitting out Stanford's linebackers—or, better yet, getting them off the field—is the best way to generate running room against this defense. However, anything slow developing got eaten up, so you'd have to expect that UCLA will factor a little less zone read, and a little more conventional handoff, in the game this week.
If it's not totally agreed upon, we should reiterate—any time you punt from the 40 or closer, it's almost invariably a bad strategic decision. The field position you gain (likely no more than 30 yards) is absolutely, positively, demonstrably, mathematically, spiritually, and emotionally not worth giving up the opportunity to score on that drive. Unless it's 4th and 20, it should be a no brainer to go for it, and even then, some thought should be given to it. Then, when you factor in that the offense, and not the defense, is the strength of the team, it really doesn't make much sense. But think of it this way: if you have a bad defense, you go for it because you're not going to stop Stanford whether the Cardinal starts the drive on the 10 or the 40. If you have a good defense, you're confident that you'll stop Stanford either on the 40 or the 10. It's not a feel thing—it's just risk/reward thinking, and the first coach who really starts to operate on the proper side of it is going to win a lot of games.
Honestly, re-watching the game, the offensive game plan was so oddly conservative that you almost do get the impression that UCLA wasn't quite throwing the kitchen sink into this one.
Defensive Line: B
Probably the biggest thing you take away from the game after re-watching it is that UCLA's base 3-4 actually did a pretty bang up job against Stanford's big sets. The entire defensive line showed up to play on Saturday, especially Datone Jones and Seali'i Epenesa, who both were key in stopping Stanford's early runs. Some of UCLA's worst run defense, actually, came on plays where they went big on the line, and pressed too many guys to the line of scrimmage, which allowed Taylor to break one tackle and then get through.
Jones was instrumental in several of UCLA's stops in the run game, and was one of UCLA's most active players on Saturday. He lined up in a couple of different looks and looked much too quick for Stanford's interior linemen.
Epenesa actually had a few very nice plays where he shucked the Stanford center to push plays into the back field. He really has gone unheralded this year, but it's the sort of thing where, like a cornerback, you don't really notice a nose tackle when he's playing well. It's only when there's a huge breakdown that you realize something is wrong. Cassius Marsh had some nice plays in the run game, but also missed a tackle on Taylor's first big run on Stanford's opening drive.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa looked a little out of his comfort zone when he was asked to play kind of a stand up defensive end role in the four man front. He looked much more comfortable playing his usual position, and was key on several stops in the first half.
It'll be very interesting to see what the coaching staff decides to do with the defensive line. It looked like the defensive staff might have overcompensated to how dominant they expected Stanford to be on the offensive line. Two of the Cardinal's biggest runs came against a nickel front and the big front. Generally speaking, the base Okie defense actually did a very nice job.
Eric Kendricks put together some good tackle numbers on Saturday, but shaded himself out of position on a few runs, including one of Kevin Hogan's scrambles up the middle and the long touchdown run for Taylor. Something to consider—in that big set for Stanford, where eight guys are lined up on the line of scrimmage, it can be really hard to see where a run is going playing too close to the line of scrimmage. On the Taylor touchdown run, it looked like Kendricks was actually just guessing that the run was going right, when it actually just went straight up the middle.
Jordan Zumwalt had some issues in coverage against Stanford's play action. On one of the roll out throws to Ertz, he bit pretty badly and then didn't have time to recover. On the first touchdown, where Hogan hit Drew Terrell coming across the middle, Zumwalt pulled out of his zone to help against the run, which left Terrell wide open. It wasn't entirely Zumwalt's fault, which we'll get to, but he has to play a bit more disciplined.
Where would this defense be without Anthony Barr? He looked very good in coverage against Stanford's tight ends, having played safety in high school, and the pass interference call against him was a very iffy call. In fact, Toilolo probably could have been called for it just as easily, as their arms looked locked both ways. In run defense, he was also impressive, and helped to push several of Taylor's early runs into the back field. Obviously, he continued his streak of knocking a key player for the opposing team out of the game, putting a huge hit on the punter and forcing a fumble.
Damien Holmes got a little lost at times, and it seemed pretty clear that he had prepared himself mentally for a lot of play action, and kept looking for Hogan when he had already handed the ball off. He did make some nice plays in pursuit, and you have to like his motor. However, if there's one weakness against Stanford, it's that Barr has to drop into coverage because Holmes really doesn't have great coverage skills.
If there's one complaint, it's that the linebackers weren't able to generate much of a pass rush when Stanford went into its spread sets. Against the jumbo package, it's almost impossible to generate any kind of pass rush, so you almost forgive the roll outs being open out of that, but the linebackers needed to do a better job on the three and four receiver looks from the Cardinal.
Defensive Backs: C
Andrew Abbott has now had two of his worst games as a Bruin in the last three games, which is a shame. On Terrell's touchdown catch, he lost him off the snap, expecting Terrell to go to the sideline when instead he cut across the middle of the field. Abbott was left doing nothing on the play, which left Terrell wide open over the middle. He also missed the tackle on Taylor's long touchdown run very badly, and didn't look like he made a great effort either. Again, it's not entirely his fault, because in fairness, he probably wasn't going to be able to bring Taylor down anyway, but it wasn't a good play.
Sheldon Price had one play where he took a bad angle on a run play that went for much longer than it should have, but otherwise wasn't horrible in coverage. The cornerbacks were generally asked to play a lot of zone over the middle, which left the tight ends for Stanford open on the sidelines.
Most of the issues with the tight ends getting open looked more like a product of the scheme and the issues generating a consistent pass rush against Hogan than any real breakdowns in coverage.
Defensive game plan, scheme, and play calling: B-
It really wasn't an awful game plan, aiming to stop the run and let Hogan beat the defense through the air. If the offense had done a better job staying on the field, and Stanford hadn't been helped by so many penalties, then the defensive effort would have likely looked much better. UCLA stopped the run very effectively early on, and it was only when the team got worn down that Stanford started to have some success.
If you take away one thing from this game, it's that UCLA didn't do too horribly when it lined up in its base defense against the Cardinal. The big set also wasn't that bad, but against this Stanford offense, you probably want a defense-in-depth rather than everyone pressed up to the line of scrimmage because it provides more margin for error. The Cardinal offensive line isn't THAT good, and it would almost be smarter to run the big set on more obvious passing downs than vice versa because that might provide a better opportunity for a pass rush.
So, generally a good game plan, but you'd like to see a bit more pass rush on obvious passing downs, and maybe a little more base defense, rather than so many guys pressed to the line, on running downs. Stanford's offensive staff did a good job mixing things up, though, so there will likely be a fair amount of guesswork.
Special Teams: D
It's to the point where UCLA should really consider not returning any more kickoffs this year, and it's not because the returners are so bad, although Kenny Walker didn't show great vision on Saturday. It's more that the kickoff return team clearly doesn't do a good job blocking. Too many blocks are held for only a second, and too many players are allowed to run through virtually unimpeded. Walker was blown up twice on Saturday, and it's a miracle he didn't fumble both times.
Jeff Locke had a pretty forgettable day. He kicked a couple of very short punts, knocked one into the end zone, and looked, generally, just off. He'll bounce back of course, but given that the coaching staff clearly had a field position game in mind, his somewhat lackluster play was noticeable.
Kudos to Ka'imi Fairbairn for kicking the longest field goal of his career, by 13 yards, and then nailing a point after from about 35. Whatever Mora did for his psyche over the last 8 or 9 games has clearly helped considerably.