No matter your general outlook and approach to UCLA football, there was something for you to take away from Saturday’s win over Hawaii.
Let’s start with the optimistic types. If your outlook on UCLA is generally sunnier, the offensive performance on Saturday made your personal sun shine that much brighter.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Josh Rosen played one of the best games I’ve seen any quarterback play live. He was absolutely incredible. Just look at this line:
15 yards per completion
I don’t care that he did it against Hawaii. His second half against Texas A&M was more memorable, and Brett Hundley certainly had more important big performances as a Bruin, but on Saturday, Rosen put on a performance unlike any I’ve seen in person in my 24 years of life.
Any time a quarterback can complete 88% of his throws and sling more touchdowns than incompletions, that is pretty special. And on Saturday, Rosen was special, and he and the offense have been downright unconscious after the first half against Texas A&M.
In the last 30 minutes of football, UCLA has outscored their opponents 70-7— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) September 9, 2017
No matter what Hawaii tried, Rosen sliced it apart. He made every throw asked, from basic screens to bullets in coverage. It was quarterbacking at the highest level, regardless of the opponent. See for yourself.
Those throws on deep corner routes from the opposite hash marks make me sweat.
Rosen wasn’t the only standout on offense. Jedd Fisch called a great game, clearly seeing the second half against Texas A&M as the foundation on which to build this offense. With the passing game setting up the run instead of vice versa and UCLA operating almost exclusively from shotgun, the Bruins gashed Hawaii for over 9 yards a play. UCLA didn’t have more yards than the 505 they put up only because they scored too quickly at times.
In particular, Fisch made a concerted effort to get the ball into UCLA’s most talented playmakers. At long last, Theo Howard was freed from his yearlong stint in receiver purgatory, and he broke out in a big way. Theo did it all, running crisp routes and showing awesome wiggle on screens while Hawaii zeroed in on Caleb Wilson. Howard had a career high 7 catches for 110 yards, including this sweet 26 yard touchdown where he shook two Hawaii defenders out of their shoes.
Demetric Felton also got some looks as jet sweep back. Felton got 3 carries for 37 yards and scored a touchdown, all on neat sweeps that UCLA hasn’t run in years. At this rate, UCLA’s offense looks downright scary and good enough to keep them in any game.
On defense, there was a lot less to like (more on that later), but Darnay Holmes stole the show. The freshman five-star housed his first interception for a touchdown and broke off a big 54 yard kick return that he was one tackle away from housing as well.
For an 18 year old to bait a quarterback into an interception like that is awfully impressive. It’s early doors, but Holmes may become UCLA’s best corner by season’s end if he keeps it up.
Overall, UCLA putting up 56 points and handily beating a team it was more talented than is encouraging. The offense played some sexy football on Saturday and scored touchdowns on 7 straight drives, the first of which went for 99 yards. They also had drives of 68, 73, 73 and 89 yards and left Hawaii helpless against anything they did.
In the words of the esteemed Bret Bielema, that 99 yard UCLA drive was borderline erotic.— Nico Gervasoni (@nicogervasoni) September 9, 2017
As long as Josh Rosen is healthy, UCLA figures to have the best quarterback on the field in every game not against USC (maybe not against Washington and Jake Browning, but Rosen has looked far better so far). That alone is enough for optimism - when your team has the better quarterback, they’re never really out of any game.
If you approach UCLA football with a healthy dose of skepticism and pessimism, Saturday’s win did nothing to dissuade you from that outlook.
UCLA’s defense, especially its front 7, was better than against Texas A&M, but it was still dispiriting. Hawaii and Diocemy Saint Juste ran consistently over UCLA, gaining 281 yards on 42 carries. While 124 of these yards came on two long garbage time carries, UCLA continued to look iffy after last week’s first half against Texas A&M. Not facing second-half Noel Mazzone every week shines a light on the defense’s slow retooling having to replace 6 top-end starters from last season.
Though giving up almost 4.0 yards per carry is not good, it is not as bad as 6.7 ypc for the game. The 2 garbage time runs skew the avg...— Mike Regalado (@TheBigDisco) September 11, 2017
In particular, the linebackers were shaky. Even before his questionable ejection for targeting, Josh Woods struggled. Krys Barnes came in and had 12 tackles, but many of those came after Hawaii gained 5 yards or more on a run. Potentially down Kenny Young for a game and Josh Woods for a half against Memphis could end up being problematic.
What’s worse is that UCLA suffered potentially serious injuries all across the board. Young, Adarius Pickett and Jaleel Wadood all suffered injuries and missed extended game time. Young’s injury was especially scary - he was leveled on a helmet-to-helmet block by a Hawaii receiver that knocked him woozy in the first quarter. He didn’t return.
Pickett and Wadood’s injuries are worth monitoring going forward based on how their replacements - Will Lockett and Octavius Spencer and Keyon Riley - struggled on Saturday. Hawaii found joy in the seams in the second half (though UCLA did play back more), and if UCLA goes extended time without its two best safeties, an already young defense will take on even more water.
Unlike last year, UCLA can’t play in its base defense when teams line up in max protection - there is no Eddie Vanderdoes to disrupt things or Eli Ankou to occupy two blockers. UCLA can load the box and run blitz, but they’ve been really undisciplined on run fits and left running lanes wide open. Both Texas A&M and Hawaii have had big runs where linemen kick out to block, only to have no UCLA defender for them to block in the lane.
On one hand, shaving over 2.5 yards per rush on defense is big improvement from Texas A&M to Hawaii. However, it’s an improvement from “horrendous” to “not great,” and UCLA needs to get to at least “solid” in a hurry. With teams like Stanford, Oregon and USC looming, UCLA needs to sort it out or risk getting barreled over.
For now, UCLA is 2-0, and ending a brutal September slate above .500 is a real possibility. That would a big step towards getting towards a solid bowl berth at season’s end. What’s more, its offense looks truly electric with Rosen at the controls and Fisch already showing more adaptability and creativity than his predecessors.
The defensive woes are rightly noted as cause for concerns, and it can only be masked so much before the bottom falls out. But if Josh Rosen has another game in which he throws more touchdowns than incompletions, UCLA has a puncher’s chance against anyone in the Pac-12.
And for an optimist like me, I take more solace in knowing that UCLA probably has the better quarterback between both teams on most days than I do take pain in knowing that UCLA’s defense may be the worst of the two on the field.