UCLA Football: It’s Time for Noel Mazzone to Go


Noel Mazzone is arguably the best offensive coordinator the Bruins have had in almost twenty years, and you never want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But Mazzone has become the primary obstacle to UCLA’s continued success in meeting its goals, and it’s time to part ways.

USC 40 – UCLA 21

I come to this conclusion not as an overreaction to one particular game, but Saturday’s loss to USC did encapsulate many of Mazzone’s long-standing liabilities. To wit:

3 & Out The Bruin offense went three-and-out on eight of 15 drives – 53% of UCLA possessions – which doesn’t include the three additional drives that ended in turnovers. Combined, that’s 11 of 15 possessions (73%) that were utter failures. That wasn’t all on the gameplan; some of it was a failure of the players to execute, but how is it that in the twelfth and final game of the season the players haven’t been coached and trained to execute the offensive gameplan? Who is accountable for this abject sub-mediocrity of an offensive performance?

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Running Game Where was the run? USC was thin on the defensive line and undersized at linebacker; UCLA has one of the conference’s premier runners in Paul Perkins. Yet Perkins got only 17 carries. Nate Starks had six, and Soso Jamabo had one. That’s three different style running backs – all-purpose, power, and speedy/elusive – who combined for 24 carries out of 66 offensive plays.

The passing game was shut down by USC’s athletic secondary, and yet Mazzone didn’t shift his play calling approach toward the run; in fact, in the third quarter, during which UCLA led, Mazzone called eight runs and 19 passes – in the fourth quarter he called ZERO runs and seven passes. All this time, the Trojan defense was keying on Josh Rosen and clamping down on the Bruin receivers to the tune of 18 incompletions, two sacks, two interceptions, and a fumble. That’s entirely on Mazzone.

Man-to-Man USC’s pass defense had shown both zone coverage and man-to-man looks throughout the season. So when they committed to a man coverage scheme out of the gate on Saturday, it was something that the UCLA coaches had tape on. Yet this defense, the most basic coverage concept imaginable, completely flummoxed Mazzone.

Thomas Duarte said after the game that they ‘had a lot of stuff left in the bag that [they] didn’t really bring out,’ before quickly backtracking and emphasizing that his and his teammates’ failure to execute was more to blame than the play calls. Rosen said he would not ‘speculate on the game plan.’ Mazzone said that he had a zone game plan and a man game plan, and he threw out the zone plan once the Trojans committed to man coverage, essentially leaving the UCLA offense half of a playbook with which to win the division.

I think Mazzone contributed to the loss on Saturday, but I don’t put the whole thing at his feet. USC’s athleticism did give them an advantage in man coverage, allowing the linebackers to sell against the run. Rosen did account for three turnovers, and the punt unit essentially added another one with a 30-yard line drive to Adoree Jackson. Both the offensive and defensive lines for the Bruins were outmatched and outplayed by their USC counterparts. Perhaps most crucially, USC ran straight at the UCLA defense who struggled to stop the run even when healthy. Mazzone didn’t lose this game; he just made it that much harder for the offense to make up for the athletic deficit and the turnovers.

Arizona State & Washington State

The losses to Arizona State and Washington State are another story. It’s hard for me to place the responsibility for those losses anywhere but on the offensive play calling. I’ve covered the Arizona State debacle in exhausting detail. Note that his over-commitment to the run did the Bruins in that game. As I have mentioned before, Mazzone does not have a single bad tendency; no, he veers wildly all over the play calling philosophical map, sometimes even touching on brilliance before careening off to some hitherto unforeseen schematic debacle.

Nov 14, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins running back Nate Starks (23) is pursued by Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Darryl Paulo (99) on a 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of a NCAA football game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Against Washington State, Mazzone spun the wheel of ineptitude in his mind and it landed on ‘red zone struggles.’ UCLA drove into the Cougars’ red zone five times, coming away with a touchdown and four field goals (UCLA’s remaining score was a rushing touchdown from the 37 yard line, so it doesn’t count towards red zone statistics). Four different drives, UCLA started with the ball on its own 19, 21, 23, and 25 yard lines, drove deep into Cougar territory, and sputtered to a stop. The first two of these are the most egregious, stalling inside the Washington State 5 yard line.

The first of these started on the Bruin 25, covered 67 yards in four plays, before five snaps of futility: rush -1, rush 7, false start, false start, rush 3, field goal from the 4 yard line.

The second started on the Bruin 21, covered 76 yards in 12 plays, before four snaps of futility: incomplete (defensive PI), incomplete, rush -3, incomplete, field goal from the 5 yard line. So there’s variety in the failure; I imagine if you blended these first two red zone efforts for two balanced approaches (instead of two oppositely unbalanced), you come away with 14 points (or at least 10) instead of six.

That run for a loss of three yards on the second possession was especially maddening. On 2nd-and-goal from the 2, they installed the power package that uses Nate Iese at fullback and defensive linemen as additional blockers…AND THEN RAN IESE BEHIND KENNY CLARK OFF TACKLE!!! If you’re going to line up with power against an undersized defense in short yardage, run the ball at the defense! Don’t send your slowest ball carrier and your most plodding lead blocker around the long way! Two and a half weeks later, and this still flabbergasts me.

If Mazzone doesn’t directly hamstring the offense with bizarre play calling completely disconnected from what’s occurring on the field of play, UCLA is 10-1 heading into last week’s USC game rather than 8-3.

General Performance Issues

Beyond actually calling plays and costing games, Mazzone’s offense has been generally underwhelming to different degrees in the last year or two. It’s a rhythm-based offense that has never maintained a consistent tempo. Line play has gotten worse over the course of the year, and false-start and holding penalties continue to kneecap drives.

The avuncular dharma bum persona has worn thin as the offense has sputtered.

The scariest aspect is quarterback development. I take a back seat to no one in my admiration and appreciation for Brett Hundley, but can you really say he improved his play over the course of his three years at UCLA? The Bruins have a special talent on hand in Josh Rosen, who they’ll have for at least two more seasons. They can’t afford to squander those years with poor offensive gameplans, and it’s a disservice to Rosen to deprive him of offensive coaches that can help him improve at the position. As my colleague, Michael Hanna, has argued, quarterback recruitment and development has been a key failing of this coaching staff. (See Parts I and II.)

Next: USC Hires Clay Helton

It would be one thing if it were just an uneven tempo or slow development of linemen or quarterbacks, if Mazzone were good but just not good enough for that next level of competitiveness. I’ve argued before in this space about reasonable expectations and the dangers of being a malcontent. No; in Mazzone’s case, he’s directly costing UCLA winnable games, which has become the calling card of the Jim Mora Bruins. The next step for the Bruins isn’t necessarily adding an elite coordinator, so much as it is removing one who has become a hindrance toward meeting baseline goals.

I know Mazzone is well liked by his peers and his colleagues. Again, with the possible exception of Tom Cable in 2005, he’s the best offensive coordinator UCLA has had since Bob Toledo was promoted to head coach in 1996. But the avuncular dharma bum persona has worn thin as the offense has sputtered. It’s time for Mazzone to hit the road.