UCLA overcoming adversity and beating Utah Thursday, 34-27, could be the biggest example yet that things are different in Jim Mora’s program.
That was clearly a game UCLA, in any other year, under any other coach, would have lost.
After quarterback Brett Hundley got something caught in his eye, or lost a contact, or just got his bell rung, the game obviously changed. It will tend to do that when your quarterback says he looked at the line of scrimmage and “saw 22 people.”
In any other game, if the vision of UCLA’s quarterback was blurry, that would mean about a 25 -point swing for the Vegas oddsmakers. But not these days, with this UCLA program.
Add that it was on the road, in a tough environment, in Utah, which, by the way, is a place UCLA has been blown out in its last two visits (2007, 44-6; 2011, 31-6).
Add that the Bruins’ starting tailback and right tackle both suffered game-ending injuries.
Add that it the conditions weren’t great, with the temperature in the 40s with intermittent rain showers that seemed to time it well for when UCLA had the ball in the second half.
Add that it was perhaps one of the worst officiated games ever. That comment needs no other qualification than that. It was the one of the worst officiated games in college football history.
Add up all of that and it’s miraculous that UCLA came away with a win. It’s a testament to the newfound grit and toughness of the program – and well, the program’s coaching and newfound talent.
UCLA didn’t necessarily do a great deal well in this game. But its best achievement was turning Utah’s quarterback Travis Wilson into a huge liability for the Utes. Wilson, so far this season, had been looking like he’d be in the conversation for all-Pac-12 honors. And it wasn’t just his throwing accomplishments; Wilson had been devastating in his previous games running from scrimmage. UCLA’s defense did two things incredibly right – it essentially took away Wilson’s ability to do damage running the ball, and then forced him into six interceptions. Make no mistake: Those interceptions were the deciding factor in the game. Utah’s offense was able to move the ball against UCLA’s defense, but was stopped down and limited dramatically because of those six picks. UCLA did it in two ways: It put just enough pressure on Wilson to force him into bad throws and literally tip his passes to create a few of those interceptions, and the UCLA secondary stepped up beautifully to disrupt Utah’s receivers and their routes. Wilson, while he has the potential to be an excellent quarterback, still tends to throw the ball with too much zip and with absolutely no touch. There were any number of throws that went through a receiver’s hands (heck, through UCLA defenders’ hands: Utah’s first touchdown pass). UCLA’s zone passing defense seemed to be well-schemed for Wilson’s type of rockets, with plenty of Bruin bodies roaming downfield to disrupt the sight lines of receivers. But then you simply have to give a huge amount of credit to UCLA’s young secondary. While it did make some mistakes and take some bad angles on tackles, it made some huge plays. Ishmael Adams had one of the best interceptions ever (again, it doesn’t need to be qualified) when he knocked the ball out of the receiver’s hands and then snatched it out of the air after it had bounced around on the receiver while he was on the ground. Adam’s play on the ball was a thing of beauty in itself but the concentration to stay with the ball was remarkable. Anthony Jefferson’s two interceptions were key, and great plays themselves. And, of course, Myles Jack’s game-winning interception at the end of the game was huge.
It was another instance in which UCLA’s defense looked vulnerable in the first half and then, in the second half, stepped up. It’s now becoming such a recurrence that it just can’t be coincidence that UCLA’s defense plays better in the second half. The UCLA coaching staff denies that it makes significant adjustments, but looking closely you can see a few tweaks. Mostly, the UCLA defensive line adjusts, with its DL lining up just a bit differently, like it did against Utah. That accounted for better run defense, holding Utah to just 35 yards rushing in the second half. There was more pressure on the quarterback or, more accurately, more efficient pressure. UCLA pass rushers seemed to recognize better access points in the Utah line, and where Utah’s running backs were struggling to pick up blitzers.
You, again, have to give credit to UCLA’s secondary. So far this season it seemed that UCLA Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos was a little cautious about sending too much pressure and leaving his young secondary undermanned. Against Utah, UCLA sent more pressure and the UCLA secondary stepped up to the challenge.
Perhaps among the best achievements of the game was Jim Mora calling for a review of Jefferson’s interception. The highly inept officiating staff was proceeding with calling it pass interference when it was clear that the pass had been tipped. It was a critical time of the game, in the third quarter, after Hundley had his vision impaired and momentum was shifting. It not only kept Utah’s offense off the field, it allowed UCLA’s offense to eat up some clock and then convert a critical field goal to put the Bruins up by a touchdown.
Myles Jack is clearly a freak. He made a number of shocking plays. His ability to cover is truly amazing, knocking down a couple of passes in this game that were key. His interception to ice the game showed such explosive acceleration that it could be time to use him in some situational stuff offensively.
Anthony Barr was a force. Utah’s offensive game plan was obviously to get rid of the ball quickly, to offset Barr, but even with quick drops and releases he got pressure on Wilson, collecting two sacks, a total of three tackles for loss and numerous hurries. Keenan Graham’s great, athletic sack in the fourth quarter was a big one, and much of it was because Utah had to dedicate two blockers to Barr.
If you’re, then, talking about achievements in this game and gutsiness, give the game ball to Hundley. He had perhaps his best all-around first half of his career, going 12 for 15 for 175 yards, along with a perfectly thrown post route to Devin Lucien that Lucien seemed to not want to catch. That first-half performance was the best decision-making 30 minutes of Hundley’s career, being near-flawless in recognizing Utah’s pressure, finding the right receiver and making an accurate pass every time. The game then completely changed when he had the eye issue and, of course, so did Hundley’s performance. UCLA’s play-calling got conservative, which you might understand since its quarterback couldn’t see very well. But what was, then, amazing about Hundley’s performance is that UCLA went to its running game, which is a read option, and Hundley, with his bad eye, started keeping the ball. So, let that sink in: a quarterback who can’t see very well, perhaps because he got his bell rung, is now the offense’s primary ball-carrier. It exposed the limitation of this version of Noel Mazzone’s offense; when it goes primarily to a running game it’s almost entirely based on the zone read, which could then force your quarterback to run with the ball. But it didn’t show any limitation of Hundley, who ran for 90 yards in the second half, including the game-winning, 36-yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter. What a remarkable performance by the redshirt sophomore quarterback.
There were, of course, some unremarkable aspects of this game. It can’t go unnoted that UCLA center Jake Brendel had one of the worst performances in recent memory by a center. Perhaps half of the offense’s plays on the night were afflicted with low snaps. It massively impacted the effectiveness of UCLA’s offense, with Hundley having to field the ball at his ankles repeatedly, which throws off the timing of the offense completely. Brendel’s errant snap to Jerry Neuheisel was a huge snafu. And then, in the second half, with UCLA trying to hold on, with just 6 minutes remaining, Brendel was called for a hold. There were, of course, a number of impactful penalties in this game, but that was a big one, and it came from the player who perhaps impacted the game negatively the most for UCLA up until that point.
Of course, UCLA’s penalties again were an issue, being called for 13 of them for 100 yards. But it has to be said that this officiating crew was so horrendous that a number of the calls were absolutely wrong. Myles Jack’s block in the back on Randal Goforth’s interception return was entirely incorrect, and it kept 7 points off the board. You can’t even list how many errors the officials made in this game.
The defensive line, after four games, looks like the unit that’s the weak link. Yes, Cassius Marsh made some big plays at the end of the game that were huge, but consistently the defensive line is getting pushed down the field. It seems pretty clear that it’s time for Eddie Vanderdoes to get more reps than struggling Ellis McCarthy.
Overall, perhaps the nation watching on the national telecast wouldn’t look on this game as an example of good win by the 12th-ranked team in the nation. But those of us that know realize just how good of a win this was. It was easily UCLA’s biggest achievement of the season so far. Beating a bad New Mexico State team by a zillion at home makes you look pretty, but the Utah game is the type that builds a team’s fortitude. Won’t this team now think they can pretty much overcome just about any adversity? They showed that they have that gutsy dimension, to pull out a tough game in adverse conditions – the type that all great teams have. Wouldn’t every last man wearing UCLA’s uniform look at its sideline and have an immense amount of faith in their coach? They’d have to recognize that their young quarterback took another step in his maturity and character in the amazing performance he put forth on that field. And if they didn’t before, they now have to feel that they’d go to war with him.
While UCLA might not be quite ready to be mentioned among the very elite echelon of college football teams this season, that game was made of the stuff of champions.