UCLA Football – When do Injuries Become a Legit Excuse?


This UCLA team is broken – like, actually, physically broken – and though the coaches and players have to insist that injuries are not an excuse, fans and analysts don’t have a responsibility to motivate and perform, so we can be honest.

At some point, enough key players get hurt that you cannot reasonably expect the team to achieve what they set out to do at the beginning of the season. We will still root for a division title, a conference championship, and a Rose Bowl berth. But we cannot justly hold the team or coaches accountable to requirements that are, frankly, no longer appropriate for this team as it’s currently constructed.

I was initially frustrated by Jim Mora‘s post-game enthusiasm. Had he not watched† the same game I did, where the Bruins were trailing late against woeful Colorado? Did he not see well they moved the ball and sustained drives against his defense?

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But reading his remarks gives me a bit of perspective. Here is a list (as best as I can construct) of the players that have missed or are projected to miss significant time due to injury.

[table id=123 /]

Let’s focus on the defense because while the number of wounded is equal on either side of the ball, the defense has been more acutely affected. Seven of the eleven preseason projected defensive starters in a base-nickel package are currently injured: CB Ishmael Adams, CB Marcus Rios, CB Fabian Moreau, LB Myles Jack, LB Kenny Young, LB Deon Hollins, DT Eddie Vanderdoes. With Jack, Young, and Hollins injured, that’s all three starting linebackers in a 3-3-5 alignment either out for the season or missing significant time.

Here’s the projected linebacker depth chart we drew up before the season (based on a 3-4 formation, so with four starting linebacker slots).

[table id=84 /]

Note that every single inside linebacker on the three-deep is injured!

That’s the perspective that allows me to appreciate Mora’s attitude after Saturday’s game. With that many key players unavailable, it should neither surprise nor dismay us when the defense struggles against the run. It’s not a sign that the players are soft. It doesn’t prove bad coaching. It’s simply inexperienced players playing out of position.

Oct 31, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins defensive backs Nate Meadows (22) celebrates with UCLA Bruins linebacker Jayon Brown (12) after intercepting the ball during the fourth quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl. The UCLA Bruins won 35-31. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

This also explains why the defense struggled against Colorado’s tempo on Saturday. Numerous times Bill Roth and Matt Stevens noted on the radio broadcast that UCLA defenders were confused, out of position, and not set when Colorado snapped the ball. No, Tom Bradley does not have a ton of experience facing up-tempo offenses in his career in the Big Ten. And, yes, the defense does practice against what is supposed to be an up-tempo UCLA offense every day during the week. But this again points to the steep learning curve when two-thirds of your defensive starters are missing.

The same holds true for special teams (minus Matt Mengel‘s punting woes, which are a separate headache). Coverage and return teams are manned primarily by defensive reserves. With UCLA’s defensive reserves being pulled into full-time action, those that do double-duty in coverage are being more physically taxed, and those that have ceded their special teams duties are being replaced by younger or less talented guys who don’t know what they’re doing. As a result, the Bruins are losing the starting field position battle in seemingly every game.

Matchup-wise, the next two weeks should give the Bruins a break, since Oregon State lacks the experience and talent-level to pile up rushing yards, and Mike Leach‘s Washington State lacks the inclination to exploit the UCLA defense’s weakness against the ground game. But unless some of the questionable/unknown defenders come back healthy for the final two games, Utah and (a suddenly well-coached) USC could run wild over the Bruins. Prepare yourself to get sick of hearing the names Devontae Booker and Ronald Jones II.

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But as thoroughly painful as it is to imagine dropping the final two games (particularly against USC) to finish 8-4, it doesn’t have to be indicative of a structural flaw in Jim Mora’s program. It doesn’t mean that UCLA is incapable of making the leap. All it would mean is that a season that started out with high hopes, built on the promise of a very talented returning roster, ended up being a disappointment when much of that returning talent ended up unavailable due to injuries.

There might not be anyone to blame, and that could – if we’re honest with ourselves – be the most confounding part of it all.

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†Rather, the same game that I listened to, thanks to Comcast and the Pac-12 Network continuing to deny coverage to major media markets across the country, including here in the nation’s capital as well as the third and fourth largest cities: Chicago and Houston. Good work, guys!