UCLA Bruins turn the tide in Lincoln

Eric Francis

UCLA found itself behind the eight ball early in Lincoln as uncharacteristic mistakes forced the Bruins to spot the Nebraska Cornhuskers an 18 point lead in the first half. After settling down from an emotional start, or perhaps waking up after the early kickoff time, UCLA ended up dominating Nebraska in a true tale of two halves.

One of the silver linings from the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA had to have been the "signature" road wins the Bruins would steal. UCLA beat Lane Kiffin's Tennessee team in Knoxville in Neuheisel's second season, and then may have started the chain reaction to Texas and Mack Brown's collapse when UCLA's pistol offense worked the Longhorns in Austin. We all know how much those road wins ended up meaning for UCLA in the long run; they might have helped out with recruiting, but in the long run, they were just over-hyped victories against overrated teams.

Now Jim Mora can add his first big road out-of-conference win to his list of accomplishments with the emotiona, comeback victory over #23 Nebraska in front of a record crowd in Lincoln. While this Nebraska team reminds me a bit of the 2011 Texas team, this game and UCLA victory feels a lot different than those past road wins UCLA has been accustomed to earning.

First of all, UCLA played horribly on offense in the first half. Brett Hundley and his receivers were not on the same page at all, Bo Pelini's defense was forcing UCLA into predictable spots, and the Bruin offensive line was performing at a very sub-par level. The Bruin defense might have appeared to be folding under the pressure as well, but honestly, if it wasn't for Hundley's bad interception and UCLA's punter dropping a long snap, the Bruins held Nebraska to just seven points in the first half.

In the past, this game would have gotten really ugly for the Bruins (see 2007 Utah, 2008 BYU, 2009 Cal, most of the 2010 season, and 2011 Arizona). If UCLA was staring at an 18 point deficit with Neuheisel or Norm Chow calling the shots for the offense, Hundley would have been picked off three more times and the Bruins would have lost by 50 points. This UCLA team is much different. They actually blew out a decent opponent after being smacked around early on. As soon as things started clicking, the Bruins dug down and blew the Huskers right out of the stadium.

But how did things go so wrong in the first half, only to turn around completely in the second half? Let's take a look at some key early plays, starting with Brett Hundley's uncharacteristic interception:

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There are some key components to analyze before we get to the actual interception. In the image above, UCLA is running a mesh play in which two crossing receivers try to deter man coverage and find holes in zone coverage. The hot-route, or "blitz escape" route is usually a corner route ran by the outside receiver (in this case it's #1 Shaq Evans). Upon noticing the cushion that Nebraska's defense was giving Evans, Hundley and his receiver identify that a stop route would be the best option for this situation, and both players execute to earn the first down.

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In the image above, you'll notice how Evans is receiving the same exact cushion from Nebraska's defense, but Hundley and Evans are seeing two completely different things. Right off the bat Hundley looks directly at Evans, knowing that Evans is definitely his best option for third downs situations. As the Nebraska defensive back starts to run back with Evans, Hundley is thinking that the Huskers are running man coverage. Evans, on the other hand, sees the safety moving over to guard him as he passes the cornerback, properly reads the zone Cover-2 look, and starts to move towards the natural gap between the safety and cornerback. By the time Evans turns back to make a play on the ball, Hundley had already made his mind up about what he saw on the play and threw it about five yards behind Evans for an easy interception.

That was a very tricky situation for Hundley, but its obvious to see that he was anxious about the third down, and wanted to make the easy play before getting a complete read on the play. That is something that many quarterbacks struggle with regularly, but Bruin fans should still expect to see fewer and fewer of those mistakes from Hundley as his career progresses.

This interception gifted Nebraska seven points early in the game, showing that poor execution was already starting to plague the Bruins in the first half. Another interesting play early in the first half reinforced that assertion, as shown below:

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This play utilizes a few very complex concepts that are being used almost exclusively at the highest levels of football. That concept is called a packaged play. Although this play might have ended up with as an incomplete pass, its execution is very indicative of what exactly went wrong for UCLA's offense in the first half, and why the Bruins were able to turn things around so quickly. We'll break this play down step by step:

First, a packaged play is essentially two or more plays packed into one play. In this situation, it's a stick play, in which the slot receiver runs a very short stop route that tries sits down in the middle of zone coverage, and a run play called a draw play. The quarterback has to make one or two reads to determine which play to use, and if he chooses the pass play, which receiver to throw it to. The first read Hundley makes on this play is to determine what type of coverage the defense is running, and Hundley utilizes a very useful concept that Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone is famous for using.

That feature is called a key motion and it is one of the most useful features a quarterback can use. The repetitive, quick motion UCLA's running-backs use as they run towards the sidelines is also known as a key motion which serves several purposes, but its main and most important purpose to help a quarterback quickly identify and confirm defensive coverages before the snap. For instance, if the running back is chased rapidly by a linebacker, the quarterback knows the defensive is running man coverage. If the defensive secondary appears to merely slide down to guard the running-back, the quarterback can see that the defense is using zone coverage.

In the image above, Nebraska's defense simply slides out a defender to guard the running-back on the key motion revealing their zone coverage. Hundley now knows that the "stick" route, ran by the inside receiver, will be open when the ball is snapped.

Had Nebraska been running man coverage, Hundley would have two more options, either to throw a deep pass, or to hand the ball off to his running back on the draw play. So basically, Mazzone's play calling was completely set up for success. When this play is read as correctly as Hundley did, it should be successful nearly every time. But for some reason, UCLA's receiver just didn't execute on the play, and the drive stalled.

Again this play was very indicative of why UCLA was able to really turn the tide around completely later in the game; everything was set up correctly by the coaches and defense, but basic execution caused UCLA to stall early in the game.

And almost as if the Bruins woke up from sleep walking, they simply started executing:

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Above, crossing routes force Nebraska's defense to mix up its man assignments, leaving a receiver wide open. Brett Hundley and Darius Bell execute a corner route well against the mix up for a big gain.

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In this play above, Devin Fuller burns a Nebraska defender, and Brett Hundley puts the ball right on the money for another big gainer.

UCLA ended up scoring its first touchdown at the end of the second half, and carried its momentum into the second half. The Bruin defense locked down as expected, bottling up Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense for the rest of the game.

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In this play above, you can see exactly why the Bruins put up so many points in the second half. Nebraska became so concerned with the passing game that they started leaving five or fewer defenders in the box. With so few defenders on the weak side of the formation Jordan James just needed a small crease to get into his comfort zone in the open field. The Bruins were able to bust a few more of these runs as they started their blowout of Nebraska.

UCLA was the better team from top-to-bottom on Saturday, and if it wasn't for their poor start, the Bruins could have really embarrassed the Huskers. But the emotional week and start to the game, combined with a 9 A.M. start time probably didn't bode well for the Bruins anyways. And unlike previous years, the Bruins didn't collapse completely after falling behind early, Jim Mora's squad rallied and ended up blowing out a truly subordinate team. The Bruins are right on track for their conference schedule this season, and have truly emerged as a significant favorite in the Pac-12 South.

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