Here's a Scout on the Town recap for this weekend's playoff action from around the country,…
Championship Unit by Unit Analysis
While you have to be impressed with Brett Hundley's season, and the strides he has made as a decision maker, thrower, and runner as the season has progressed, there were a few big errors in Saturday's game that cost UCLA. Unfortunately, one of the major ones was made by Hundley. The interception he threw in the second quarter changed the complexion of the game. Up to that point, UCLA had scored two touchdowns on its opening possessions and was moving the ball with ease down the field. The pick came at Stanford's 20 yard line, after UCLA sliced through Stanord's defense starting at its own 15, and was just a very poor decision coupled with a very poor throw. The formation had Joe Fauria lined up on the short side, covered by a cornerback with a safety over the top. On the other side were three receivers lined up in single coverage. The decision to throw to Fauria was fairly poor, but he also threw the ball with little arc, so even in single coverage Fauria would have been unlikely to catch the ball.
Then, on the final drive of the game, he somewhat inexplicably scrambled for short gains in the middle of the field twice, and then spiked the ball after a first down with 47 seconds remaining. The spike there doesn't make a huge amount of sense, as downs are more important than time with the way UCLA's offense was throwing the ball. On the previous drive, he also took a bad sack on second down and threw a near-interception before UCLA punted the ball away from the Stanford 45 yard line. If, instead of throwing the ball into coverage, he had dumped it off to Devin Fuller, UCLA would have been in a manageable 4th down situation, which may have prompted the coaching staff to go for it.
Still, even in a game where he made some poor plays, Hundley made many more positive plays. His running was key in this game, and there were several plays where he either scrambled or had a designed draw that garnered very positive yardage. He did look a little tentative running on the wet field, especially inside the 20's where the field was very soaked, but most of the players on both sides looked a little tentative. The field conditions were very poor by midway through the game.
Projecting ahead, Hundley obviously made huge strides this season and has a few correctable things to work on through bowl practice and the offseason. Many of those issues were apparent in this game: he missed a few slant passes behind receivers, was indecisive at times on when to throw or pass, and didn't throw the ball away enough. Even with those issues, he was a top quarterback in the Pac-12 this season. If he corrects them, he will make a significant leap.
Running Backs: A-
This wasn't a weak run defense that UCLA was playing against. Stanford was first in the conference against the run, and had stymied UCLA's vaunted rushing attack just six days before. In this game, while much of the credit has to go to the offensive line for creating holes, Johnathan Franklin did a tremendous job of finding narrow seams and breaking big runs. This might have been his most impressive game of the season, when you consider the stakes and the degree of difficulty.
If there's any complaint it's that Franklin simply didn't run enough. With the way UCLA was rattling off big gains against Stanford on the penultimate drive, it would have been nice to see him run the ball on one or two plays on the final drive, even with the clock being a factor.
UCLA is going to miss Franklin in a big way next season. Behind him, Jordon James had another rough game, after playing poorly last week as well. Although he didn't drop swing passes the way he did last week, he showed little ability to break tackles or make quick cuts up field. He doesn't have great vision, and, while he's an OK open field runner, you get the sense that with his athletic gifts, he should be making more guys miss than he is. At this point, if you're projecting a year from now, James does not look like a starter-quality running back in the Pac-12, which does present some concerns. This time next year, Damien Thigpen will be coming off of an ACL tear, Paul Perkins will be a redshirt freshman, Steven Manfro may get some work, and a couple of freshmen will fill out the depth chart. It will certainly be one of the more interesting position battles to watch through the spring and fall.
The receivers were clearly improved from a week ago, but there were still too many drops against a team that plays as mistake-free as Stanford does. Darius Bell and Jerry Johnson both dropped catchable, if difficult, balls, with Bell's coming on a critical third down. Bell hasn't seemed quite the same since coming back from injury two weeks ago, dropping a number of passes in the last two games. It'll likely be very good for him to have the 15 bowl practices to round back into form.
Devin Fuller caught seven passes on Friday, and looks like he'll pretty clearly be a dynamic receiving threat next year if he elects to stay at the position. He doesn't have amazing explosiveness, but he has very good body control, nice hands, and good speed. With a year in Alosi's strength program preparing to be a receiver, it'd be very interesting to see where his body goes.
Shaquelle Evans caught one nice ball down the sideline on a deep out, and also had a great down field block on Hundley's long first quarter run. Otherwise, he had trouble getting open against Stanford's secondary, as did most of the receiving corps. Stanford clearly thought that it could get pressure once again with just a three or four man rush, so there were almost always at least six defenders in coverage.
Joseph Fauria was only targeted a couple of times, and only caught one ball, although the catch was an important one. The decision to lateral the ball in the fourth quarter was a purely awful one, but luckily it didn't cost UCLA. There wasn't much he could do on the interception by Hundley, given how underthrown the ball was.
Kenny Walker got a couple of swing passes in the 3rd quarter, and looked OK, getting near a first down on the second one. He hasn't shown great vision yet, which is probably a function of being a freshman playing at college speed for the first time. Once he puts it all together, he could be a dynamic threat both out of the back field and in the slot.
Once again, it wasn't a big day for the receivers, because there wasn't much open down field. Most of Hundley's throws came within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Interestingly, though, if any of Walker/Fuller/James had the ability to break tackles at this point, or the field had been less slick, UCLA's offensive numbers would have looked even more spectacular than they already did, and the Bruins likely would have won the game with ease. So it goes.
Offensive Line: B
If you're grading based on degree of difficulty, this goes from a B to an A+. In just six days, Adrian Klemm and the coaching staff took an offensive line that was abused by Stanford's physicality to the tune of seven sacks and under 100 yards rushing and turned it into a unit that allowed just three sacks and opened gaping holes in Stanford's defense. Aside from a slightly rough first quarter, the offensive line actually handled the Cardinal defense even when it sent multiple blitzers.
True freshman Simon Goines has struggled at times this year, but something should be said about his sheer willpower. Hurt since early on in the season with a knee injury, Goines has played in every game, even though he looks to be in considerable pain. Early on, in warm ups before the game, Goines was doing lateral drills and was grimacing every time he picked his leg up. Then he proceeded to play the entire game and do a very credible job of stymying Stanford's pass rush.
On the left side, Torian White had more considerable issues, but still, given the opponent, did a generally nice job. He was beaten on one of Hundley's sacks pretty badly, and also was responsible for one of the rare Franklin runs that was stuffed. Even still, he was markedly improved from a week ago.
Xavier Su'a-Filo had another excellent run blocking game, coupled with his usual solid pass protection. His backside block was key on Franklin's third quarter touchdown run, allowing Franklin just enough of a seam to burst into the open field. It's amazing how far he's come since coming into spring practice—at that point, he wasn't actually in great shape, and looked like it'd be a while before he could return to the form of his true freshman season. At this point, it looks clear that he's one of the best linemen in the Pac-12. It wasn't a stretch at the time, and it's even less of one now: he was the most important recruit Jim Mora brought in this past offseason.
Jeff Baca has had a rough two games, but, once again, the holding calls on him looked mostly wrong. The holding call near the UCLA end zone early in the 4th quarter looked particularly innocuous: Baca had him blocked, the defender turned and stumbled when Franklin ran past him, and referee Shawn Hochuli threw the flag. The other holding call on Baca was possibly more legitimate, with Baca falling on the defender at one point, but once again, there wasn't much of a hold—looked more like a solid pancake. There may be something technique-wise he's doing that's getting him the calls, but it's hard to see on TV or in person.
Jake Brendel had a very good game against Stanford's front, and worked particularly well against Stanford's nose tackle. Brendel is another guy who, when projected nine months from now, could make a leap. With a full year in Sal Alosi's strength program, he will get stronger, and now that he's had a full year playing center and making line calls, the odds are good that he'll be that much more polished next year.
It's no stretch to say that even with the loss of Baca, UCLA's offensive line could go from a weakness this past year to a strength next season. With the class that Klemm is bringing in, there will be competition at every spot except, most likely, center and left guard, with returning starters at four positions. When you factor in the weight that Albert Cid has lost and the potential return of Greg Capella, there's even a chance of contributions from the returning non-starters. After years of weak, mediocre offensive linemen, it's been impressive to see a line improve as the season's gone along, especially one comprised of so many freshmen.
Offensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: B-
For 80% of this game, the grade is an A. Noel Mazzone had a brilliant game plan. Recognizing that Stanford actually could be gashed up the middle in the run game, Mazzone used his swing passes and lateral game not to open up the deep pass, but instead, to open up running lanes for Franklin inside. Mazzone motioned running backs out of the back field on most plays which kept Stanford's linebackers out of the middle of the field almost entirely.
The issues began to crop up in the 4th quarter. After Fuller elected to return a kick from the end zone and got the ball the 15, Mazzone called a run for Franklin that was called back due to holding and then two consecutive swing passes to Fuller that generated nothing. At that point, facing a 3rd and 13 from the 5, the coaching staff called a draw to Franklin and then punted the ball. The draw was probably defensible, since UCLA didn't have much chance at converting a 3rd and 13 against this defense, but the two swing passes to a freshman who wasn't even a receiver at the beginning of the year were more questionable.
Then, on Hundley's second to last drive, the final two downs were both questionable calls. At 3rd and 13 from the 45, down three with just over five minutes to go, the offense should be thinking in terms of two downs, and in that case, a run might even have been a good call, considering the success that UCLA had had on the drive with Franklin and Hundley runs. Instead, Hundley forced the ball into coverage, and UCLA punted. The punt was about a 50/50 call at that point, but if UCLA had even gotten five yards on 3rd down, it would have been a no brainer to go for it.
On the final drive, Hundley's spike, if called from the sideline, was a poor decision, considering the amount of time left on the clock and the fact that UCLA had just gotten a first down. Then, the decision to kick the 52 yard field goal, while in a vacuum a fair call, grows murkier when you factor in the freshman kicker who's only made one field goal over 40 yards the entire season. The issue, though, wasn't so much that call as it was the decision to spike. If they hadn't spiked, it would have been a 3rd and 6, and…well, things might be different.
Defensive Line: A
You can't say enough about the improvement of the defensive line from last season to this season. While much can be attributed to the schematic change that has players like Datone Jones, Cassius Marsh, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa playing roles that are more suited to their skill sets, much of the credit has to go to defensive line coach Angus McClure, who has been a very good technical coach all season long. All three of the players mentioned above have turned into more technically sound players after getting by mostly on athletic ability previously.
Odighizuwa, in particular, had a fantastic game against Stanford. A week after playing a lot of outside linebacker in UCLA's Big set, Owa only played a handful of snaps in that position this week, and instead spent most of the game with his hand in the ground. He was instrumental in forcing Stanford's offensive line back, pushing several running plays into the back field. He was credited with just half a sack, but he assisted on several more plays behind the line of scrimmage, either eating up blockers or forcing a runner out of his glide path.
It's always difficult to notice a nose tackle, since the role is so thankless, but if ever there was a game where you noticed one, it was this one. Seali'i Epenesa showed tremendous strength on Friday, holding up double teams on a number of occasions, which allowed players like Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks to make plays. Honestly, at the beginning of the season, we thought Epenesa would be a place holder for a player like Ellis McCarthy, Donovan Carter, or a rejuvenated Brandon Willis, but he's gotten better and better as the season has progressed.
Jones and Marsh were once again very impactful, with Jones putting a monster hit on Kevin Hogan at one point. Jones has grown considerably since last year as a player.
It should be noted that the biggest myth about this Stanford team is that it had a dominant offensive line. Looking at the game last week, it looked like UCLA overcompensated for the perception that Stanford's run blocking was better than it was, and changed too much of what it is good at schematically. This week, UCLA wen much more with its best defense, rather than the Big formation, and it worked out very well.
This was probably Jordan Zumwalt's best game of the season, as he did his best Eric Kendricks' impersonation. He was all over the field, ranging from sideline to sideline making tackles. A week after getting burned for a touchdown after he bit on a Hogan run, Zumwalt was noticeable better about staying in control, and actually made a nice tackle on Hogan after he faked the throw and then ran the ball. He also showed why he could potentially be a force as a blitzer, breaking through the line with ease for a tackle for a loss in the second quarter.
Anthony Barr played very well in coverage on both Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. He had some issues against the zone read of Hogan, and...oh, yes, I am just trying to nitpick so that he'll consider not going out for the NFL Draft. Barr played another very good game, sacking Hogan a couple of times while also playing very well in pursuit. It's astonishing how much he has been able to impact the game this year, playing outside linebacker for the first time ever. He's displayed natural instincts for the position, and his athleticism allows him to recover even when he makes a poor read. There are reasons for him to stay, namely showing that he can still perform at this level with another ten or fifteen pounds on his frame, but who's to say what kind of decision he'll make.
Damien Holmes and Keenan Graham split time at the other outside linebacker position. Both struggled defending Hogan's runs, with Graham biting pretty hard on Hogan's zone read in the 4th quarter that garnered Stanford another first down, which prevented UCLA from getting the ball back with 3+ minutes. Graham played considerably more than he has since the beginning of the season. We've always liked his athleticism, and it'll be interesting to see how he factors into the rotation going through spring and fall.
Defensive Backs: C
It's hard to blame that 3rd and 15 touchdown on Sheldon Price. First, UCLA looked like it was trying to slide into Cover 2 when Stanford motioned into an empty back field, so the safety on that side probably should have been the one responsible for help coverage. Second, the coaching staff should have called timeout at that point, noticing the confusion in UCLA's defensive back field. It was a major SNAFU at a critical time, and we'll just generally blame the secondary and defensive coaches as a whole, rather than picking on a single guy.
Tevin McDonald is a decent coverage guy, but the coaching staff really needs to spend some time with him to figure out a tackling technique that works. Too often in games he ends up just throwing his shoulders at guys to tackle them, or diving in front of them as some kind of impediment. He missed a couple of tackles on Friday, and in this defense, UCLA really can't afford missed tackles from its safeties.
Andrew Abbott also didn't have a great day. This offense isn't a great matchup for him, considering the bulk of the tight ends and his own slight frame.
Aaron Hester's lone pass interference was probably a good call. He actually didn't play poorly in coverage. Price always has issues when teams run to his side, and this game was no exception. On the pitch play to Taylor for a first down in the 2nd quarter, Price was blocked way out of the play by one of Stanford's tight ends. It's a shame for him that he didn't get to spend four years in Alosi's program, because strength continues to be an issue for him even at the end of his senior year.
Randall Goforth probably had the best play of the night for the secondary, defending the pass in the corner of the end zone very well, showing clean, physical play to defend the jump ball.
Defensive play calling, scheme, and game plan: B
The game plan was nearly perfect; watching the game from last week, the number one conclusion you could draw is that UCLA's base 3-4 defense actually did a very nice job stopping Stanford, and the nickel wasn't too bad either. So, instead of going to that very big look, with six players pushed up to the line of scrimmage, UCLA generally ran its base, only putting Owa at standup defensive end in nickel sets. Then, when Stanford went out of its jumbo package into spread formations, UCLA did a good job of mixing up stunts and blitzes to get pressure on Hogan, who did not have as clean of a game as he had last week.
Really, the one significant, albeit major, complaint is that the defensive coaches did not see the issue on the 3rd and 15 and call timeout. Someone in the booth had to see the confusion in UCLA's defensive back field and should have called down to Mora to call timeout. The decision cost UCLA a great deal of momentum, and very possibly cost UCLA the game.
It's difficult, though, to judge an entire game based off one play. The most impressive part of this game is that the UCLA coaches on both sides were able to glean all the necessary items from last week's game and turn it into a focused game plan. A week after being dominated, UCLA became the dominant force, and you have to credit the coaching staff for that.
Special Teams: B-
Ka'imi Fairbairn is just not ready to kick 50+ yarders in Pac-12 Championship games, and there's no shame in that; after all, he's just a freshman. His earlier field goal was perfect, and even this one wasn't missed badly. The snap was bad, and the ball wasn't even down when he was starting his kicking motion, so you can't pin the blame on him. Kevin McDermott, who has rarely had a bad snap, was due to have one, and on a wet field, these things tend to happen.
What should no longer be happening are kickoff returns. We are big fans of Mora's decision to be aggressive in most facets of the game, but returning kickoffs, even with decent blocking, is a poor risk/reward proposition without a returner who's a threat to score a touchdown or three. UCLA doesn't even have decent blocking, as has been proven over the last half of the season, let alone a returner with the vision and explosion to return the ball for a touchdown. With the new rules that a touchback is brought out to the 25 yard line, it's really just foolhardy to continue to return kicks, especially with bad blocking and Damien Thigpen out.
Jeff Locke bounced back after last week and was much more consistent on his punting. His kickoffs were short, but much of that was due to the weather. Kickoff return coverage, and punt return coverage, were not great, although there were some uncalled penalties on Stanford.
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