I know I’ve been a little off in my predictions on scores this year, but this week it was prett close. I said UCLA would win 27-17, and it actually won 28-18.
I was that close mostly because the game was probably the most predictable of UCLA’s game so far this season, and did unfold pretty much like you would have expected.
The one mysterious and intangible element that almost impossible to really predict was how Matt Moore would react in his first college start as a true freshman. It wasn’t that his physical skills are really a question at all, but whether an 18-year-old thrown the wolves in this manner would have the poise and presence to execute the position well enough. I think it’s safe to say that Moore did it very well. He didn’t show any signs of panic, and actually had considerable pocket poise, far better than many more experienced quaterbacks. His athleticism and his naturally good feel makes him look very comfortable. He threw some good passes, which was pretty admirable. Heck, under the situation, the fact that he could just throw a spiral I thought was admirable. There are always prospects who are talented, have good arms and are athletic, but it’s very hard to measure their poise and their ability to handle pressure, be able to perform and make decisions when they’re actually playing college football. With Moore, there wasn’t that much to go on; he had only started at quarterback for one year at Newhall Hart. So, it’s especially gratifying for a UCLA fan – and I’m sure the UCLA coaches – when Moore showed on Saturday that he has the poise, presence, intelligence – and the intangibles – of what it takes to be a very good college quarterback.
Another bit of a mystery was answered Saturday also. There can’t be anyone out there left who doubts that Tyler Ebell can play at this level or be an every-down back. Just like in high school when he defied the limitations that many placed on him, he’s doing it again in college. After the last few weeks many said his production had gone down a bit because defenses were getting a handle on him. But he disproved that theory Saturday, running for 160 yards against a very good rushing defense – on a day when the were geared for the run and knew that UCLA’s passing offense was going to be very limited.
You also have to give a great deal of credit to UCLA’s coaching staff in their preparation for the Stanford game. If you watch the game closely, you’ll see that they did everything they needed to do to keep pass rushers off Moore. That sometimes even meant up to eight players left to pass block, but you have to respect that they recognized a weakness and made the decisive move to dedicate the man power needed to offset it. On offense, the game plan was to limit Moore’s playbook and give him plays that were easy to execute. Falling within those parameters the plays called were still pretty creative, with Moore rolling sometimes or setting up outside of the pocket, and receivers running smart pass patterns. On defense the coaching hasn’t probably gotten enough credit yet this season. It’s kind of a thing that, after the Oklahoma State and Colorado games, there were so many questions about the defense -- valid ones. The defense, since, has answered those questions, and much of it is due to not only the talent of the players but the adaptability and scheming of the defensive coaches. Recognizing that its defensive line might not be the best pass rushers around, the defensive philosophy has gotten more aggressive, rather than less. The pressure put on Kyle Matter through blitzes and stunts was one of the most satisfying pass-rushing games in recent Bruin memory.
Also so many of the pressures on Matter came as a result of excellent coverage from UCLA’s secondary. Ricky Manning and Matt Ware did an excellent job in this game. Ware kept Stanford’s big gun, Teyo Johnson, under almost complete wraps. After Ben Emanuel went down with his injury in the second half, there was a noticeable drop-off in the performance of the safeties. But it’s understandable when you’re using primarily a true freshman (Jarrad Page) and a career backup (Kevin Brant). Even so, there were no huge blunders or burns. With Emanuel and Jibril Raymo healthy, UCLA’s defensive backs are emerging as an elite group.
Perhaps the most elite unit on the team, though, is the linebacking corps. They prove it every week, with Marcus Reese having another excellent game. All three of them – Reese, Spencer Havner and Brandon Chillar, combined for 34 tackles, and Chilar had two sacks.
The defensive line has stepped up after the loss of Rod Leisle and is playing very well. Steve Morgan had a career game at tackle, with 3 ½ stops for loss. Dave Ball now has had a sack in six consecutive games and is emerging as the team’s best pass rusher.
A regular BRO message board poster, UCLAndy, posted some pretty impressive defensive statistics this morning. These are stats of Pac-10 teams in conference games:
Yards Allowed per Game
Ist Downs Allowed per Game
Touchdowns Allowed per Game
Field Goals Allowed per Game
Percentage of Passes Completed Against
Sacks per Game
It was also refreshing to watch Nate Fikse confidently run on the field and kick field goals, especially when he makes five of them.
While there was quite a bit to be positive about in the Stanford game, optimism still has to be tempered a bit. Stanford was a good game for UCLA to have this week, to break in a true freshman quarterback who had never had a college snap and in facing a pretty weak offense with a freshman quarterback of their own. UCLA is one win away from being bowl eligible. They’re at least two more wins away from having what could be considered a minimally acceptable season. But they now face a Washington team coming off a pretty stinging road loss against ASU – and they face them in Seattle, one of the toughest places to play in the conference. They then go on the road again to face an Arizona team that gave Washington State, perhaps the eventual conference champ, fits Saturday on the road. Then UCLA closes out the season playing probably the two best teams in the conference, USC and WSU. They’ll be doing this with a freshman quarterback, or a combination of freshmen quarterbacks in Moore and Drew Olson.
So, as our resident crank, Charles Chiccoa, suggested last week, bunker down and get prepared for what is going to undoubtedly be a very dramatic next four games. But make no mistake here. UCLA could win every one of its remaining games. The real mystery as to whether they’d be capable of doing it was whether Matt Moore would hold up under pressure. He’ll get considerably more pressure going on the road, but he showed Saturday that he has the poise to hold up under it. And UCLA has shown that the rest of the team is ready to step up and pick up the slack. And the coaching staff has shown that they’re ready to make the adaptions and decisions they need to put their team in a position to win.
Yes, it certainly will be a dramatic four games. The direction of the program very well could be riding on them...