We’re eight games into the 2013 season and we still don’t know what to make of the UCLA Bruins.
Of course, that’s how we’ve felt about each game, too. Against Nevada, UCLA looked sluggish out of the gate. Against Nebraska, the Bruins were blown out for a half before delivering a rout of their own. Against Stanford, the Bruins hung tough (and ugly) but eventually got routed late in the second half. Against Oregon, the Bruins gave the second-ranked Ducks their toughest challenge of the year but a fatigue-ridden third quarter saw the Bruins lose 42-14 anyway.
This game against Colorado, in front of an 80,000-plus Homecoming crowd? With Brett Hundley reeling, Noel Mazzone on the ropes, and the entire UCLA offense needing to pull something together to stop us from getting our pitchforks out? They delivered, but only kind of.
That’s where this UCLA team is at. The Bruins’ offensive brilliance comes in more than flashes but appears less than necessary to call the unit “consistent.” Noel Mazzone’s first two drives of the evening — a very Marty Schottenheimer-like run-run-pass-punt sequence on each — earned boos from the crowd, and for good reason: After a two-week run of listless and conservative play-calling, UCLA fans had seen enough of an offense that failed to capitalize on the opportunities its defense gave them.
And in true UCLA fashion, after those two drives, the opposite would be true.
The Bruin offense found its way, even if it stumbled on a drive here and there. Hundley looked confident and Mazzone began to call plays that proved that he, too, had confidence in the sophomore quarterback.
But this wouldn’t be a 2013 UCLA game if we didn’t get to see the Bruin defense frustrate the living hell out of us.
And frustrate us they did. The Buffs would earn 381 yards of total offense for the night, much of those being timely enough to extend drives and keep the Bruin defense on its heels. Indeed, Colorado turned in 26 first downs (to UCLA’s 18) and converted eight of its 17 third-down attempts. Meanwhile, Colorado held the ball for nearly 36 minutes of game-time, dwarfing UCLA’s 24. Freshman QB Sefo Liufau earned a career-high in yards and completion percentage against the Bruin defense, too, and frustrated the Bruin linebackers on a night where Anthony Barr and Myles Jack hit Liufau far too late, far too often, purely out of frustration.
(And the bravado that Liufau showed throughout the entire affair, as a freshman quarterback, was nothing short of respectable; hit after hit, Liufau popped right back up and stood within inches of Barr, trash-talking best defensive player in the country.)
And, because the defense was aggravated and jumpy, the Bruins wound up with 11 penalties for a whopping 122 yards, extending the Buffs’ drives on countless plays.
Of course, there are some excuses (or reasons, depending on your lens) that the Bruin defense often had a hard time getting a bottom-feeding Colorado team off the field. The easiest one has to do with the onslaught that defense had to put up with against the yawn-and-brawn, ground-and-pound rushing offense against Stanford, followed up with a stellar, 41-minute performance against the Oregon Ducks the week after. The other is that the Bruins were missing Eric Kendricks, who many believe to be the leader of the UCLA defense.
But this is Colorado after all, a team that is still, despite some improvement, the Pac-12′s token bye week. Paul Richardson be damned, the UCLA defense shouldn’t have had a problem disposing of this CU offense, but it did.
Of course, ironically, they held on long enough to let the offense take over the game. Credit, for the first time in awhile, Noel Mazzone, who was content with abandoning the run game as it broke down time after time. (We could also blame Mazzone for that, too, since the only run plays he ever called were rushes down the middle, but still.) Instead, he relied on Hundley, who turned in his best performance — eye test- and box score-wise — in weeks.
Because, for the first time in awhile, Hundley wasn’t shaken by his uneasy pass protection. (Which, by the way, stayed uneasy all game long.) Much of that was alleviated by Mazzone’s improved play-calling, though, because the Bruins had every intention to actually spread the field; since, y’know, this is a flavor of the spread offense that UCLA runs.
For the first time in awhile, Mazzone utilized the middle of the field to open up the passing game and create some running lanes, primarily for Brett Hundley, who led the Bruins in rushing. Although Hundley still held the ball for far too long (that won’t get stamped out this year, but it’s a long-running issue Hundley’s had), the designed QB keepers hopefully proved to the second-year offensive coordinator that Hundley’s at his best when he’s a dual-threat, not simply a threat to run.
Of course, keep your optimism tempered. After all, the Buffs allow nearly 50 points a contest against Pac-12 foes and the Bruin offense rolling was expected. (And, if we’re being picky, not as dominant as we would’ve liked.)
But the offensive bounce-back is good for a UCLA team’s psyche that was badly damaged after two straight losses to damn good teams. Sure, the Colorado game may not be indicative of where this UCLA offense is at, but consider it a tune-up game for the rest of the year.
Because Arizona’s waiting. And so is 6-2 Arizona State, 6-3 USC, and 5-3 Washington. Though the schedule gets “easier,” for UCLA, it doesn’t really ever get easy. The Colorado game was a nice respite for a reeling Bruin team, but if UCLA wants a shot at the Rose Bowl again come early December, it might want to consider moving and turning on all cylinders.