Noel Mazzone has taken the UCLA Bruins’ offense to heights unseen in 15 years, and then repeatedly and spectacularly crashed that offense into the ground in a fiery nose-dive of his own making. I have to confess; it’s taking a toll on my health.
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UCLA’s loss on Saturday to Arizona State was undoubtedly a team effort. As I outlined earlier this week, UCLA under Jim Mora has a history of dropping games against lesser teams the week after a big win. But I lay the bulk of the responsibility for this loss at the feet of Noel Mazzone.
The play-calling, particularly in the first quarter, was suffocatingly conservative. Here’s a simplified drive chart I’ve drawn up for the entire game:
[table id=113 /]
Notice a few things:
- The Bruins began each of their first four possessions with a run.
- Of the first eight times that the Bruins had a first down, they ran the ball on five of them.
- The first six times the Bruins faced a third down, they passed the ball.
- The first and third possessions are the archetype of conservative, risk-averse football: run, run, pass.
- The first six possessions result in punt, punt, punt, safety, punt, punt.
The narrative coming into this game was that, while Josh Rosen is quite capable, he doesn’t have to do more than he’s able because the Bruins are a running team. Joel Klatt of Fox and Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN were among the many media folks singing Paul Perkins‘ praise and calling him underrated – and rightly so! But it should have been no surprise, then, that Arizona State came in ready to load the box against the run.
Again and again in the first half, Mazzone called for Perkins to fling himself into the teeth of the blitz, to an average of 1.9 yards per carry. And again and again this forced Rosen into obvious passing downs, with the Sun Devils selling out on the pass rush and coverage. As a result, Rosen was 4-12 for 38 yards, one TD, and a sack on third downs, with one of those incompletions being called illegal grounding from the endzone, by rule a safety.
The box score would indicate that both Perkins and Rosen took steps back on Saturday, but that completely ignores that both of them were kneecapped by their offensive coordinator and his stubborn adherence to a doomed game plan.
Sep 26, 2015; Tucson, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins running back Paul Perkins (24) celebrates after scoring cduring the second quarter against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Mazzone did begin to open up the play-calling in the second half, with a more unpredictable mix of pass and run calls. Consequently, success begat success, and the Bruins started to make bigger and bigger plays, closing the game to within six points in the fourth quarter. But the ultra-safe play-calling wasted more than a quarter’s worth of opportunities, and it arguably set the tone for an overall uninspired performance on all sides of the ball.
One might surmise that Mazzone is forced to go conservative to protect Rosen from making confidence-crushing mistakes. Mazzone says that’s not the case, that he trusts Rosen completely; I’m inclined to believe him. His response to the critiques this week has amounted to, ‘Yeah, I probably could have been more aggressive.’ Gee, you think?
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not the case that Mazzone is just an unimaginative, safe play-caller. If he were, it would be dispiriting – and reminiscent of the days of Jay Norvell and Mike Johnson – but it wouldn’t drive me nuts the way Mazzone is threatening to. Just this season, I was criticizing the offensive play-calling at UNLV and in the first half against BYU for being too pass-happy and neglectful of the weapons UCLA has at running back.
No, what’s going to be the end of me is the all-over-the-place inconsistency of Mazzone’s offensive approach. He’s called brilliant games at UCLA. The second half at Nebraska comes to mind, as does the game at Arizona two years ago. Last year’s game at Arizona State, the prior week adjustments to tailor the offense to Jerry Neuheisel in the win over Texas, the first half at the Alamo Bowl. I raved just a few weeks ago about the perfect adjustments he made at halftime against BYU.
But then sometimes he just goes pass-wacky. Other times he gets content with a lead and tightens up. Still other times he seems to have prepared for a completely different opponent than the one on the field. That’s what it looked like Saturday. And I’m thrown off week-to-week on what to expect from the Bruin offense. It is enough to drive a fan crazy, and something tells me that if I ever do flip out and head back to Westwood to slap some sense* into that man, I’ll have to wait in line to do it.
*In a metaphorical sense only, of course. Don’t commit violence against any coaches, no matter how frustrating they are.