UCLA beat Nevada on Saturday night, 58-20. For a quick recap, go here.
For a moment, you and I were damn sure this UCLA team was about to take a path well-traveled.
For about 30 football minutes on Saturday, we were sure that these Bruins would falter when expectations were heaped upon them. We were sure that UCLA would revert back to their old ways, and we were damn sure that the successes under the Jim Mora era so far would be aberrations.
And those worries were well-deserved. These Bruins looked rather clueless in a lot of aspects in the first half. Offensively, this UCLA team appeared poised to score much more than just 17 points; indeed, long drives (due to the brilliance of Jordon James and Brett Hundley, as well as the UCLA offensive line) consistently put the Bruins in scoring position early, but these opportunities weren’t all taken advantage of. While sharp from the outset, settling for field goals didn’t prove satisfying (we’re not saying this team should have gone for it on fourth down every trip, but rather, this team shouldn’t have encountered fourth downs so late in drives to begin with). After all, after 280 yards of total offense, you’d expect more than 17 points. Perhaps we’re nitpicking, but these Bruins could have had around 28 points at the end of the first half, and it’s a damn shame they only put up 17.
The first half failures primarily fall on the defense, though. While head coach Jim Mora had said more than once over the offseason that UCLA’s defensive philosophy would be centered around sacrificing yards to limit points, in practice, this was a troubling notion. Sure, the Bruins held Nevada to “just” 13 points in the first half , but Nevada earned 259 yards. While it would be consistent for Mora to be OK with this, I’m sure his defense would’ve liked to get off the field a lot sooner than they did for the first 30 minutes of the contest. With Nevada holding the ball for 18:31 in the first half, why be content with allowing your defense to start sucking air midway through the third quarter?
Of course, that’s where the groaning and moaning stops.
Because this UCLA team is now adjusted to making adjustments. After a dismal (by UCLA’s new-found standards) first half, UCLA scored in the first four minutes of the second half, forced a blocked punt a minute later, and scored seconds after that. A 14-point swing saw a huge shift in momentum, and Nevada would go on to score just seven points for the rest of the game to UCLA’s 41.
Defensively, this UCLA team hit another gear. After Cody Fajardo tore up UCLA in the first half, the Bruins’ front seven—timid and confused, as if it had never seen a pistol offense before—exploded, suffocating the Nevada backfield and forcing the Wolf Pack into difficult situations on nearly every drive. Though Anthony Barr was quiet as all hell, Eric Kendricks and the UCLA defensive linemen smothered Nevada, holding the Wolf Pack to 132 yards for the second half. Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack dove into the collegiate football scene, finding themselves collapsing pockets and stuffing runners. (Jack even brilliantly broke up a pass play, knocking out what was a sure-catch right out of a Nevada receiver’s hands.)
In essence, the front seven stepped up and gave Nevada’s offense hell. That’s going to be the case for UCLA all season long if it wants to win games. Sure, the secondary didn’t melt down the way it did so often in 2012, but it wasn’t a performance worth remembering either. Perhaps this is because Fajardo is actually a really damn good quarterback, but it isn’t as if the secondary did a whole lot in shutting down Nevada’s star QB.
As much credit we’re giving the defense for their second-half performance, though, the UCLA offense earned just as much, if not more. Particularly, the Bruin offensive line was stellar, and it’s clear that the big uglies in 2013 will be a significant upgrade from the big uglies in 2012. Running back Jordon James was fantastic (155 yards off of 21 carries is no joke), but much of that is attributed to the blocking up front. This was even more apparent in the passing game; Hundley had significantly more chances to throw the ball downfield than he normally would have with last season’s offensive line. And let’s not get past the fact that Hundley was sacked just once all game, compared to getting buried 3.5 times per contest last season.
It was clear that the offensive line was providing an anchor, and that unit, with all their youth, deserves all the credit in the world for the Bruins’ offensive performance.
But don’t let that take away from the performances of Hundley and James either. These performances were, to Nevada’s chagrin, godly. The lanes were good, yes, but James showed significant patience in waiting for these lanes to develop while displaying some sexy cuts into open space. Meanwhile, Hundley wasn’t timid in the pocket and actually learned to step into it to buy himself time to throw. (His 2012 counterpart would’ve ran frantically and either 1) made an ill-advised pass, or 2) taken a sack.) And don’t you dare let it get past you that this quarterback has come into the season a totally different animal, looking significantly more athletic and sharp than he did in 2012. Hundley’s four touchdowns (two through the air, two on the ground) were all just icing on the blue and gold cake.
So sure, while we can complain about the first half all we want, there’s no real reason to fret about this win. Hanging 58 points on any team isn’t scoff-worthy, and especially so against a respectable mid-major program.
There’s no real reason to extrapolate anything significant from this win either. Despite the fact that it was just one win, it did come against a team facing a hell of a lot of uncertainty, with a new head coach, new starting running back, and a re-tooled secondary. UCLA handled the Wolf Pack the way they were supposed to handle them, and though they deserve props for that, they probably don’t deserve to be on any national title-contending radars at any point. Not yet, at least.
These Bruins did a fine job, and this bodes well heading into their first bye week of the season. Perhaps even more importantly, this fired up the fan-base and could give the Bruins serious confidence heading into their tilt with Nebraska on Saturday, September 14.
And after all, isn’t that the only thing that matters?
Thanks for reading.