For the first two quarters of UCLA’s victory over Arizona at the Rose Bowl Saturday night, the maladies and miscues that plagued the Bruin offense for most of the first 4 and a half games this season looked to be irreparable for this season.
The receivers’ drops (6 in the first half, including drive-killers on third downs), the running game’s disappearance (14 carries for 26 yards), Josh Rosen’s inaccuracies (9-23 passing, including a woeful 2-14 in the second quarter) - all were on display during an insipid first half that only saw Rosen and company score 14 points against an undermanned and undersized Wildcat defense.
It was hard to suppress feelings that a team with this much offensive talent would misuse it so criminally and waste yet another rock solid defensive performance that shut down an Arizona offense that went toe-to-toe with Washington the week before and knocked starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins out of the game. The doom and gloom of a shaky September seemed set to linger into October, and this UCLA team would be yet another in program history that saw its performance fall well short of its potential.
So no, that wasn’t the Bruin faithful yelling Boooooooo-urns at halftime. But whatever it was, it soon turned to long-awaited cheers of relief after the first drive of the second half.
First and ten, Nate Starks for 6. Second down gain of 5, move those chains. Two plays later, including Starks’ longest run of the year that went for 29 yards, and UCLA was down near the red zone after covering 41 yards in 4 plays. Was this a sign that the offensive levee was about to break, or was it just another flash in the pan that would stall out before scoring?
I’ll let Theo Howard, freshman receiver mega-talent who had one catch in four games before Saturday and was the subject of a #FreeTheo Twitter campaign started by fans wanting to see him play, answer that question.
Jordan Payton, one of UCLA’s best ever receivers, had his thoughts on Theo:
Theo Howard going to be the best WR in UCLA history. @theohoward2— Jordan Payton (@JordanPayton) October 2, 2016
19 yards and two Arizona broken ankles later, Theo Howard was freed into the endzone, and the Bruins soon after found paydirt 3 more times in the second half on their way to a comfy 45-24 win over the Wildcats.
For as uninspiring as the first half was, the second half offense was equally impressive, even against a below average defense. The offensive line, already down its best run blocker in Kolton Miller who was injured in the first half, pushed Arizona around for 5.5 yards per rushing attempt in the second half. The receivers didn’t drop a single ball in the second half, and Darren Andrews and Kenny Walker both finished the game with over 100 yards and a touchdown and established themselves as Rosen’s preferred targets.
Rosen himself went 11-13 in the second half and finished 20-37 overall for 350 yards and 3 touchdowns, looking far sharper than he had all season and than what a sub-60% completion percentage might indicate (6 drops in a half will skew those numbers). One of his touchdowns included an absurd 29 yard touchdown pass to the corner of the endzone to Walker while he had defensive lineman diving at his feet.
That is pro-level arm strength.
After a rough first drive, especially for Randall Goforth after he was burned for 45 yards and a touchdown, the defense completely shut down Dawkins and backup Zach Werlinger in the first half and into the third quarter. While freshman third-string quarterback Khalil Tate did look very impressive running the ball after coming in midway through the third quarter, the Bruins defense held firm on third downs and let up when the game was into garbage time. Overall, the same Arizona offense that gashed Washington for over 7 yards a rush and 475 yards of offense was held to under 5 yards a play and nearly 100 fewer yaards while converting a measly 4 of 17 third downs. Were it not for late garbage time yards on the final Arizona drive, this would have been the third straight game Tom Bradley’s defense held its opponent under 350 yards of total offense.
The most impressive thing about the defense is that while it is clearly better with Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes on the field, it is getting contributions from all three levels. On Saturday, it was the linebackers’ turn to shine, and Kenny Young and Jayon Brown led the way, combining for 23 tackles, 2 pass break ups, a sack and another tackle for loss. There is a convincing argument to be made that UCLA’s defense is the best in the Pac-12 South, alongside Utah and Colorado, and that argument will only get stronger if the defense continues to perform like it has in the start of Pac-12 play.
Saturday night also saw the special teams bounce back from a disappointing start to the season. Of the many things Jim Mora has improved about the football in Westwood, special teams is one that is consistently overlooked and underappreciated. It was frustrating to see normally reliable Ish Adams and Mossi Johnson struggle on kick returns and even muff punts throughout September. On Saturday, Adams finally busted a 52 yard return in the first half that set up UCLA’s first scoring drive at the Wildcat 40 yard line. After Adams went out injured, Adarius Pickett and Randall Goforth took their chances and delivered as well, taking back a punt 33 yards and a kickoff 50 yards respectively to set up the UCLA offense with free yards. With the offense struggling to pick up yards itself, it was refreshing to see the returners carry the slack and make things easier for Rosen and company.
2 games into the Pac-12 gauntlet, and UCLA is 1-1, a place where many prognosticators saw them being before the season started. So by most accounts, UCLA is right on schedule. However, it’s been a bumpy ride, marred by a offense that truly hasn’t taken off for a full game yet and by both losses being games that should have been won. But everything is still on the table, and even games against average to below average teams like Arizona (an especially banged up Arizona) count in the win total.
Was there one big takeaway from this game? It’s hard to say. The defense continued to prove it’s legit at all three levels and can carry this team a long way, even if Arizona’s third string quarterback ran the ball pretty effectively. The offense’s second half was very encouraging, but the first half (second quarter specifically) still lingers as proof that it’s not out of the woods yet. It’s been 5 games, and of those 20 quarters, the UCLA offense has played to or above expectations for at most 6 quarters. That simply won’t be good enough to earn a trip to Santa Clara, even if there is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12 South. Nearly halfway through the season, and UCLA still hasn’t looked like the team many Bruin fans hoped. The talent level is still high, and the pieces are there, but if they haven’t come together yet, will they ever?
That question goes unanswered for another week until Saturday, when UCLA finishes the back half of its Arizona schools doubleheader against an Arizona State squad fresh off a pasting by USC in which quarterback Manny Wilkins went out injured. If he can’t go, it might be the second straight week in which UCLA faces a backup quarterback. If that’s the case, and with Arizona State’s dead-last-in-the-nation pass defense going up against a steadily-improving Josh Rosen, the winds of hope and change may breeze through Westwood like the Santa Anas do around this time before too long.