UCLA Football eked out a one-point victory at home over BYU on Saturday. There were three aspects of UCLA’s coaching that I thought merited further comment.
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1. Offensive Halftime Adjustment
The Bruins’ offensive approach in the first half was fairly balanced, with 16 run plays and 15 pass plays. But the production was anything but; UCLA rushed for 143 yards on those 16 carries (at 8.9 ypc) but gained only 52 yards on five completions through the air (at 3.5 ypa). That doesn’t even include the three turnovers via the passing game.
BYU sold out to stop Josh Rosen – pressuring him, hitting him (albeit without a sack), blocking his throwing lanes – and it worked. The freshman clearly looked rattled and forced bad passes. This wasn’t a situation where pulling Rosen for Jerry Neuheisel would have done any good, as Neuheisel may have maintained a bit more poise but still wouldn’t likely have had more success through the air against the physical pass defense of BYU.
It seems that Noel Mazzone figured this out and came out of the half with a new strategy. After the defense forced a punt on BYU’s first possession of the second half, Mazzone dialed up the following drive.
UCLA Drive Chart, via screenshot from ESPN.com.
Coming off of Devin Fuller‘s fantastic punt return, Paul Perkins only had to go 17 yards for the touchdown, but more than anything this drive signaled Mazzone’s commitment to run the ball in the second half. The Bruins rushed 19 times for 153 yards in the second half, compared to eight pass plays.
Unsurprisingly, success running the ball took some of the defensive pressure off of Rosen, and he went 6-8 for 52 yards (6.5 ypa) and a touchdown. That’s not a great line by any means, but it showed that Rosen was more successful when Mazzone wasn’t putting the offense on his shoulders. The passes he did throw were shorter, higher-percentage routes.
Maybe Mazzone got a little too enamored with his shiny quarterback toy and asked him to do too much in a rough spot; maybe he wanted to build Rosen’s confidence again after the frustrating outing against UNLV the week prior; maybe Mazzone scripted a balanced attack and left himself the option to see what worked and adjust accordingly. Regardless, Mazzone made the right call in favoring the run in the second half.
2. Nate the Great
Zooming in a little on that run-game strategy, I thought it was brilliant to feature Nate Starks in that final, game-winning touchdown drive. Perkins had been fantastic all night but, by his own admission, he was gassed at the end of the game, having surpassed his previous single-game highs for carries and yards.
Sep 19, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins running back Nate Starks (23) hugs running back Paul Perkins (24) after he scored in the fourth quarter of the game against the Brigham Young Cougars at the Rose Bowl. Ucla won 24-23.Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Before that drive, BYU had seen Starks three times: two rushes for 16 yards in the first quarter and one 5-yard rush on UCLA’s second possession of the second half. But when he came in on the final drive, he rushed for 31 yards and then 22 yards – setting up 1st-and-goal from the BYU 7 yard line – and then two more carries to punch it in for the go-ahead score.
I don’t know who called for that personnel switch, if it was Jim Mora, Mazzone, or Kennedy Polamalu, but it was a masterstroke. To invoke a boxing analogy, for the whole game, and especially in the second half, UCLA had been relentless with a left jab at BYU, only to explode with a final combo of four successive right hooks to get a KO. Starks has about ten pounds on Perkins and is a more forceful north-south runner, and he just tore through the Cougar defense.
3. Bend but Don’t Break
The story of the first half of the game, aside from Rosen getting picked off thrice, was the stellar effort from the defense to keep UCLA in the game. After a 10-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on their first possession, the Cougars were held to drives of 6, 9, 3, 8, 14, 27, and 16 yards, which ended punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, turnover on downs, end of half, respectively. Outside of that first drive, their only other first-half score came off of an interception; BYU took possession on the UCLA 36 yard line and still couldn’t even gain 16 yards to enter the red zone against the suffocating Bruins defense.
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A large part of this was due to pass pressure. BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum was sacked three times in the half, triple the number of sacks that UCLA had produced in the previous two games. But in the second half that pressure let up, and you can see that in the results. BYU had second half drives of 0, 75, 62, 61, and 43 yards, resulting in a touchdown and two field goals. What happened?
Tom Bradley eased off the pressure to accommodate a secondary that suddenly got very thin. With Ishmael Adams still on suspension, the Bruins were in a bind when starting corner Fabian Moreau went out with an injury. The BYU offense picked on his replacement, redshirt freshman Denzel Fisher, and Myles Jack shifted back into a more exclusively nickel cover role. The focus of the defense went from ‘get after the quarterback’ to ‘don’t get beat.’ This ultimately worked, as Jack came up with the game-sealing interception.
This is how the bend-but-don’t-break defense is supposed to work. It’s best, not when it serves as the base defensive philosophy, but as a situational approach. Give up the middle of the field in bite-sized chunks, and tighten up when the offense crosses your 30. This was an astute, in-game adjustment by Bradley that, while it may not have had the fans fist-pumping and screaming like in the first half, was ultimately essential to the Bruins’ second-half comeback.