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Bye week Bruins breakdown

As UCLA comes out of its bye week, let’s review what we know now, what can be hoped for, and what to be afraid of for the rest of the 2017 season.

NCAA Football: Colorado at UCLA
Josh Rosen is too good for this planet.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll say this for UCLA: At least it’s been interesting?

Currently, the Bruins sit at 3-2, though that record could really be anything to 4-1 to 1-4. On one hand, I did predict UCLA’s season would be chaotic and downright dumb at times, so I feel somewhat vindicated for being right.

But on the other hand, I didn’t think it’d be this crazy. Between the second-largest comeback in NCAA history; a “fun for the neutrals, hell for the fans” 4 and a half hour long in regulation shootout against Memphis; Josh Rosen playing like the number 1 draft pick; and the defense forgetting how to stop the run, it’s been an exhausting 6 weeks.

Speaking personally, I’m in a glass case of emotion right now.

So before UCLA returns to the Pac-12 gauntlet with a trip to Tucson against Arizona on Saturday, let’s step back and assess where UCLA is right now. From there, we’ll offer new hopes for what could still be a successful season and acknowledge the fears of how it could all come crumbling down by December.

What we know right now

  • UCLA is 4th in the Pac-12 and 10th nationally (out of 130 teams) in scoring offense, averaging 41.4 points a game, and last in the Pac-12 and 118th nationally in scoring defense, giving up 39.2 points per game. Ben Howland is sweating at all those points.
  • UCLA is a decidedly average rushing team, which is a vast improvement from 2016. After averaging less than 3 yards a carry in 2016, the Bruins are exactly America’s average rushing team - 65th out of 130 teams - with a 4.2 yards per rush average. Soso Jamabo has assumed lead back duties since coming back from injury against Stanford, and he’s averaged a healthy 5.4 yards per carry.
  • Meanwhile, UCLA is decidedly horrendous at stopping the run. They rank dead last in the Pac-12 in nearly all rush defense categories, including yards per game (284), yards per carry (6.3) and attempts per game (45). While UCLA did lost 6 front line starters from 2016, no one could have seen the bottom fall this far out.
  • What it all adds up to is a combustible combo of a lights-out offense and a defense that’s more lit up than the sun. Every game is likely to be a shootout, and even below-average rushing teams can run up yards on the UCLA defense.
  • Josh Rosen is the national leader in yards per game (427, and no one else averages over 400) and around the top 25 in nearly every category, including touchdowns (17, 2nd); completion percentage (64.9%, 28th); and yards per attempt (8.7, 21st). He’s been a supernova, unleashed by a creative offensive coordinator who recognizes what a special talent he has on hand.

What to hope for

UCLA has 7 games left and needs at least 3 wins to get back to a bowl game. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Here’s what I’m hoping for coming out of the bye week.

  • I hope Darren Andrews cracks 1,000 yards for the season - he’s sitting at 553, good for second in the conference and tied for first with 7 touchdowns. He has been so good this year, and to watch him grow and mature into Josh Rosen’s number 1 target - especially now without Caleb Wilson - has been fun to watch.
  • I hope UCLA continues to run the ball functionally. Jedd Fisch has clearly set up his offense as pass-first, run when needed; UCLA has a 65-35 pass-run ratio, and only two teams have attempted fewer rushes nationally than the Bruins. So while the numbers don’t show it, it has done enough to keep the offense moving efficiently. The Bruins have a stellar power success rate, meaning they convert short third and fourth downs (2 yards or less) for touchdowns or first downs. The national power success average is a nice 69%, but the Bruins are 7th best nationally at 89%. Runs like these aren’t sexy, but they keep the offense moving on track for the end zone.
  • I hope UCLA’s offensive line continues to improve. Hank Fraley truly deserves immense credit for making UCLA’s previously horrendous offensive line into a functionally mediocre unit. The run blocking isn’t great, but the pass blocking has kept Rosen upright - he’s only been sacked 8 times out of 245 passing attempts. Against Colorado, UCLA finally found success running left behind tackle Kolton Miller, so if he match the good play of right tackle Andre James on the other side, UCLA’s offense can only improve.
  • On defense, I hope the defensive line continues to pick up the pace. While most criticism of UCLA’s defense has centered on the linebackers, the defensive line has been disappointing, too. While Jaelan Phillips’ injury has thrown the original plan out of whack, a deep unit has largely underperformed. But Chigozie Nnoruka was monstrous at nose tackle against Colorado, and Rick Wade has caused havoc in his snaps off the bench. The pieces are there for more consistent pressure, and I hope UCLA can finish that pressure with more sacks.

What to fear

UCLA is a middling 3-2 for a reason. This isn’t an elite team, and there are warning signs that can’t be ignored. Let’s discuss what could go wrong the rest of the way.

  • On offense, I fear Theo Howard is shot. Theo hasn’t made the step forward like many had hoped, dropping a sure touchdown against Stanford and missing catches against Colorado. As such, he’s fallen a distant third in the receiver rotation, and now Austin Roberts may get more targets ahead of him after Caleb Wilson’s injury. Theo is special - no one is shiftier and can make more people miss. He has it in him to be the talented receiver UCLA recruited. But right now, his confidence looks shot, and he’s getting fewer and fewer reps. I hope it’s a slump he can break out of.
  • I fear the defense, especially the run defense, will get worse. I worry that the linebackers, who were boosted by Kenny Young’s play against Colorado, may just not be good this season and that missing Jayon Brown hurt a lot more than anticipated. Against Colorado, instead of the nickel defense that struggled, it was the 4-3 base that got gashed by quarterback Steven Montez’s zone read runs. That’s less than ideal when UCLA plays Arizona and quarterback Khalil Tate on Saturday, who rushed for 327 yards against Colorado last week. After that, the Bruins see Royce Freeman and Oregon, Washington and USC’s Ronald Jones/Stephen Carr combo. Hang on to your butts.
  • I fear UCLA won’t strike the right balance this season. UCLA has been extremely effective on offense when running plays at tempo. Rosen is a quick study, and the pace has gassed opposing defenses and led to easy scores. But it’s also led to UCLA’s defense feeling gassed as well. In the games against Texas A&M, Memphis and Stanford, UCLA ran at least 24 plays or more at tempo. But its defense also gave up 44, 45 and 58 points respectively. Meanwhile, UCLA’s offense struggled against Colorado, averaging just 5.3 yards per play as opposed to the 7.37 clip it posted in the first 4 games and running less tempo than any game previously. However, UCLA’s defense played its best game against the Buffaloes, limiting Colorado to 23 points and 5.19 yards per play after getting gashed for over 5.5 yards per play by everyone except 2nd half Texas A&M. It seems as if UCLA plays fast, the defense suffers, but if UCLA slows it down, the offense isn’t as effective.

Matt Joye at Bruin Report Online did a fantastic breakdown (behind a paywall, but it’s worth it) of UCLA’s tempo to non-tempo splits and delving into this question in great detail. Can UCLA manage to play fast offense and not be a sieve on defense? Or will the offense have to slow down and limit itself to allow the defense to play better with more rest?

It’s a balance I’m afraid this team is ill-equipped to strike.