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UCLA clamps down on the Cougars in Provo

A defensive masterpiece picks up a stuttering offense to get the Bruins a hard-earned victory against BYU.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Brigham Young
UCLA’s defense was high-flying on Saturday night in Provo.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

While the offense sputtered and stalled, the UCLA defense stood tall like the mountains surrounding LaVell Edwards Stadium to lead the Bruins to a hard-fought 17-14 win over BYU on Saturday night.

Going into the season, prognosticators and predictors of UCLA football circled this game in Provo as a trap game. Visions of the last trip to Provo in 2008 - a 59-0 blowout loss - still haunted the minds of some (okay fine just me), and BYU, with their rough and tumble style of play and eternally mobile quarterback Taysom Hill, looked to be a bad matchup. Last year, BYU had the Bruins on the ropes in Pasadena after rattling Josh Rosen for 3 and a half quarters before Nate Starks saved the day.

So it didn’t put any Bruin fans at ease watching the UCLA offense churn and wheeze like an engine on a cold day. It had its moments, but it never could keep running for more than a drive or two.

You could see the gears of Josh Rosen’s nonstop brain moving at light speed as he continued to struggle with errant throws and bad timing like he did against Texas A&M and UNLV. He never looked comfortable for any extended period of time outside of a drive midway though the 3rd quarter, where he made 3 key throws, the last of which found Darren Andrews on a shallow drag route for a 33 yard touchdown. Those 6 points, with a tacked on extra point, would be the last 7 of the 17 UCLA scored on the evening.

You could see the running game sans budding star Soso Jamabo, who didn’t play for reasons kept private by Jim Mora, struggle as the offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks all caught the missed assignment bug. There were too many plays where a lead blocker ran by an oncoming BYU defender and didn’t consider blocking him until after the ballcarrier was tackled in a heap.

The offensive malaise, coupled with a defense that couldn’t stop the run going into Saturday, could have been a dangerous mix in a hostile environment against a team playing its first home game in front of a fired up home crowd.

Luckily for the Bruins, none of that mattered.

While the offense will continue to be tweaked and molded as it finds itself in Kennedy Polamalu’s new system, the much-maligned defense came through in a historically great performance to shut down a BYU offense that, though scuffling going into Saturday, looked to be a bad matchup for a defense that treated running backs and mobile quarterbacks less like threats to be stopped and more like traffic to be avoided. The defense held BYU to 23 yards on 25 carries, the fewest rushing yards ceded by a Bruins defense since 2008.

Any discussion of the defense on display in Provo starts with Jayon Brown, a middle linebacker who was thrown into the deep end and told to swim after taking over for Myles Jack. He was never more than a special teams contributor, and last season, though he was solid, his struggles mirrored those of the front 7.

But on Saturday, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley gave Brown one job - “don’t let Taysom Hill out of your sight” - and Brown performed it to perfection. He was everywhere, spying Hill standing up, or even lining up as the nose tackle with his hand in the dirt before dropping back to track the BYU quarterback. He finished the night with a team-leading 9 tackles, a sack and 2 pass break ups.

For the third straight game (even if he only had a quarter in the first), Takkarist McKinley lived up to the standard he set himself as being one of the best defensive linemen in the country. Nothing BYU did - block him one-on-one, double team, chips with a tight end - could stop him. He caused havoc throughout the game, even chasing down Taysom Hill on a third down after he clearly re-injured the groin that has been nagging him so far the play prior. He and Eddie Vanderdoes continue to carry the defense to a level far above the mediocrity that UCLA had been mired in all by themselves. Their continued health is the linchpin to this UCLA season.

So while UCLA did let BYU come back to 17-14 after a 17-0 lead midway through the third quarter, there was never the sense BYU could come back fully. BYU’s first touchdown, a one yard dive by running back Jamaal Williams, was aided by 3 UCLA penalties, including 2 inside the 5 yard line. Even then, the Bruins defense still held firm for 4 plays before BYU scored.

Even after the second BYU touchdown, a 23 yard pass from Taysom Hill to Nick Kurtz that capped off a furious 9 play, 91 yard drive with under a minute left in the game in which UCLA played prevent defense, there was never a doubt the Bruins wouldn’t stop the Cougars if BYU recovered the onside kick.

The Bruins face their seemingly impervious dragon, Stanford, next Saturday under the bright lights of the Rose Bowl on national TV. But before we start to think about how UCLA can snap an 8 game losing streak to the Cardinal, let’s quickly review Saturday’s game and highlight what went well, what didn’t go well and what it all means.

WHAT WENT WELL

Obviously, the game ball goes to the defense. Four sacks, 6 tackles for loss and 23 yards on 25 BYU carries are pretty stats to look at. But it went further than that. Tom Bradley’s inherently passive defensive scheme, one that refuses to blitz to chagrin of this writer and many fans, can’t work without a strong defensive line that brings pressure on its own. And against A&M and UNLV, the line wasn’t strong.

So it was very impressive to see the defensive line put the work on a big and bulky BYU offensive line. Vanderdoes and McKinley earn the headlines, but in his first game back after a concussion, Deon Hollins was great rushing the edge in passing down situations. Rick Wade had a huge sack and did very well setting the edge when BYU tried to run side to side. Eli Ankou was a rock up the middle that didn’t allow any BYU interior linemen to get a push. And Keisean Lucier-South, though used exclusively on passing downs, was able to whip the BYU tackles on a handful of occasions to flush Hill out of the pocket and force inaccurate throws. UCLA’s secondary is arguably the best in the conference, so if the defensive line can play to its talent and be above-average, the defense will take a huge step up in conference play. Plays like McKinley’s sack below, where he spun the left tackle out of his shoes, make Bradley’s scheme of pressure with 4, cover with 7 go.

Speaking of the secondary, BYU’s receivers had no chance of getting open at all on Saturday. Aside from getting beat for the second BYU touchdown, Fabian Moreau continued to back up Jim Mora’s belief that he is bona fide NFL talent. Adarius Pickett followed up his strong start to 2016 with an interception and a crushing hit of Mitchell Juergens early on that knocked him out of the game. In all, no one in the Bruins’ defensive backfield put a foot wrong.

On offense, the lone bright spot was Darren Andrews, and even he had an uneven game. Andrews finished with 4 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown, including his aforementioned 33 yard scamper to paydirt after a drag route. But he did start igonminiously, bookending his first catch with a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that earned him a chewing out from Jim Mora on the sidelines. So it was nice to see Mora hug Andrews after the touchdown, and this game proved that he has blossomed into one of Rosen’s most reliable receivers.

WHAT DIDN’T GO WELL

For as well the defense played, the offense mostly played a clunker, and there were two main components that were especially worrisome. The first was the lack of separation made by the receivers. BYU’s secondary, though ballhawking, is not especially talented even with Kai Nacua, who didn’t play the entire first half. But there was almost no instance in which a UCLA receiver beat his man one-on-one. The lack of separation will only exacerbate itself as UCLA faces more talented Pac-12 secondaries, and for a quarterback that is playing jittery and seems to be thinking too much, not getting guys open a lot is a worrying trend.

The second trend was the run blocking, both by the offensive line and skill players. Of the five starting linemen, only Kolton Miller didn’t miss a run block by my count. Now no one is going to play 100% and get every block, but the three interior linemen were especially poor. Najee Toran and Scott Quessenberry were the two biggest offenders, and Kenny Lacy had two instances where he pulled on a run play...and ran by the guy he should have blocked. The fullbacks and tight ends also missed blocks in the running game as well. Nate Iese is a far better receiver than blocker, but he wasn’t alone. Austin Roberts and Cameron Griffin both had plays where they were stood up or missed an assignment by running by the defender who made the tackle. For an offense that is being led by a shaky quarterback at the moment, these things need to get cleaned up ASAP going into Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12.

Let’s end what didn’t go well with that shaky quarterback, Josh Rosen. The final stat line - 26-40 for 307 yards for 2 touchdowns and an interception that was not his fault - wasn’t indicative of a poor performance. And Rosen didn’t have a terrible game, but he was by far from his best for the third game running.

My verdict on Rosen is this: while I don’t think it’s time to panic, I do think it’s time to reset our lofty expectations. I think Rosen will continue to be a fine, upper-tier Pac-12 quarterback for the rest of the season, but I don’t think he will be the conference’s best like many Bruins hoped. You can see him thinking and scanning in the pocket, patting the ball once, twice, three times before making a throw while not quite totally set. He had a number of plays where passed up an easier throw to a running back or short receiver in favor of a deeper throw that fell incomplete. He’s playing up in his head, and you can see the frustration in his body language in his sidelines talks with quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo.

But there were flickers of the Rosen UCLA fans love. It’s no surprise he looks most at ease running Noel Mazzone plays, where there is only one read to make. Rosen’s crispest throws came on backside hitch plays, a Mazzone offense staple with only one primary receiver, and he picked up easy chunks of yardage when he didn’t have to read the defense and go through multiple progressions.

You also saw Rosen make plays like the one below, where he recognized the pressure, evaded it, reset his feet and fired a strike to Jordan Lasley for a first down. Notice how he kept his eyes downfield instead of the Cougar pass rusher diving at his legs.

Right now, Rosen is in a funk, but his immense talent won’t keep him down all season. I am hopeful he can play his way out of it. At this point, he has to, or else UCLA won’t get anywhere close to their goals for this season.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

UCLA ends the non-conference play at 2-1, which is what most would have had them at going into the season. It very well should be 3-0, but it also could have been 1-2. UCLA just hasn’t put together a complete game yet on both sides of the ball. Against A&M, the offense couldn’t withstand a fearsome pass rush, and the defense couldn’t do quite enough to pick them up. Against UNLV, the offense was much better, but the defense let an inferior opponent gash them and hang around. And on Saturday, the defense played near perfect, but the offense left points on the table.

It’s hard to imagine the complete game coming Saturday against Stanford. Unfortunately, the Cardinal own the Bruins right now, and a similar script has unfolded in the last 8 games: Stanford punishes UCLA with intellectual brutality by running the ball at will and stifling the UCLA offense until garbage time. Jim Mora retooled the offense and defense to be more like Stanford, and now his squad will go up against the real thing. We’ll see just how far it has come and how far it may need to go on Saturday, but at the moment, that tree may prove just too tall for the Bruins to climb.