UCLA Football: What Is Wrong With UCLA? Are They Quitting?

Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Football team is struggling this season as the pieces of the offense are not fitting into this puzzle that is the Bruins.

Much has been made over the last month about the slow spiral downward for UCLA Football. Head Coach Jim Mora is officially hearing hot-seat talk after starting 3-5 following a disappointing 8-5 record in 2015. Reasons for the Bruins demise have been coming fast and furious since QB Josh Rosen was injured against ASU and UCLA consequently lost three games in a row.

The popular view of UCLA’s decline is summed up quite nicely is this quick ESPN Clip titled: “What Happened to UCLA”.

The rap in a nutshell is: UCLA went away from Noel Mazzone’s simple offense in favor of a pro-style scheme (engineered by new OC Kennedy Polomalu), but they lacked the personnel to successfully use the system and have struggled to run the ball. Eight games in, UCLA is the worst team in FBS in rushing yards per game (85.5 ypg) and 2nd to last in yards per carry (2.81 ypc).

After a month and a half of seeing the Bruins struggle on the ground, fans were clamoring for the team to just throw the damn ball. The fans got their wish against Utah last Saturday when UCLA put on an Air-Raid style performance en-route to 464 yards passing and 45 points.

After the offensive outburst, UCLA fans are lamenting that the Bruins didn’t air it out sooner. Unfortunately, UCLA had its worst defensive effort of the year and allowed 52 points in the loss to Utah.

The Conference title is almost certainly out of reach, and UCLA has been reduced to a Pac-12 spoiler for the rest of the year. All that’s left for fans to do is to pick through the debris in order to find what went wrong. As we search for meaning here are some narratives that have been overblown:

Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone: a man with a quarterback recruiting plan? Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone: a man with a quarterback recruiting plan? Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Talking Point #1: UCLA switched from Mazzone’s offense to a pro-style to run the ball more. Reality: That’s HOGWASH

UCLA was largely a run first offense under Mazzone, but in 2015 the running attack became one-dimensional because Rosen did not have enough carries to keep the defense honest. The fast pace offense also had very few contingencies for extra pass-protection, and without a strong running QB to help keep the offense efficient, the Bruin defense was often left out to dry last year (which was compounded by a slew of defensive injuries).

Mora and Mazzone parted ways amicably in the off-season because the Mazzone offense (which was perfectly suited to Brett Hundley and his strong legs) did not fit with the college version of Josh Rosen. Based on the chart below, its clear that the N-zone offense is more balanced then people give it credit for, but it just wasn’t quite right for Rosen.

Mazzone Play Call Selection Run Plays (%) Pass Plays (%)
 2012 599 (55%) 496 (45%)
2013 566 (59%) 392 (41%)
2014 557 (56%) 435 (44%)
2015 459 (47%) 510 (53%)
2016 280 (58%) 258 (42%)

The only year that Mazzone called fewer runs then passes was last year with a non-running Rosen. He may have run an option system in high school, but the lack of a back-up QB (the #2’s under Rosen have been career backup Jerry Neuheisel and walk-on Mike Fafaul) and likely his NFL aspirations created an urgency to keep Rosen on his feet.

Running the option was not an option for Mora and Rosen, because you don’t expose talents like Rosen to decapitation at the hands of opposing defenses.

As the option read handoff was a key element in at least four of the six total plays in the streamlined Mazzone offense, and because Mazzone’s scheme often left free rushers with easy shots at the QB, the system that worked so well for Hundley was not suited to take advantage of Rosen’s talents.

The Bruins also made the switch from the spread and hurry N-zone offense as a favor to their defense. UCLA had a pretty efficient offense in the Hundley years, but in Rosen’s first year it was more boom and bust. After never falling below 29 minutes per game in Time of Possesion with Hundley under center, the 2105 Bruins were last in the Pac-12 in Time of Possession (behind even Air/Bear Raid teams Washington State and Cal). The 2015 offense would either have a spectacular 5 play drive for a touchdown or a 3 and out; either way, they were not able to stay on the field long enough.

The switch was also an effort to get the short yardage game going again. With Hundley under center, the Bruins had the knowledge that Hundley could run for a few yards at any moment as a security blanket. Over the years, they also had great backs like Johnathan Franklin and Paul Perkins to get tough yards, and they also discovered wrecking ball phenom Myles Jack halfway through 2014. The Bruins averaged at least 3 YPC on 3rd/3 or shorter from 2012 – 14 (see chart).

3rd and 1-3 yards Rushing Attempts Yards per Carry
 2012 30 3.10
2013 46 6.17
2014 46 3.52
2015 38 2.45
2016 15 6.47

2015 is the only year that Mazzone’s Bruin offense failed to regularly convert 3rd and short. Once again, for all that Rosen could do, the unwillingness to run him took an important piece from the running attack and made it one dimensional. Running from under center, out of the pistol, with a full back or multiple tight ends were all supposed to be wrinkles available to the offense under the new, more diverse system.

The bottom line is that the Bruins did not change the offense so drastically to improve the run game. They changed to a more deliberate and diverse style to fit what they thought was the new strength of their team: a quarterback who could make every throw and make great decisions (as Jason Seahorn noted, the sophomore version of Rosen still has a way do go).

They did it to keep their offense on the field because of the disconnect between Rosen and the read-option. They did it to give them more options in the short yardage game that has struggled since Myles Jack went down early last year. The bonus was supposed to be that they could match up with Stanford better, but that was not the primary motivation.

Aug 30, 2014; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers offensive players line up against UCLA Bruins defensive players in the third quarter at Scott Stadium. The Bruins won 28-20. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 30, 2014; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers offensive players line up against UCLA Bruins defensive players in the third quarter at Scott Stadium. The Bruins won 28-20. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Talking Point #2: The offensive line is not suited to run the more diverse offense: Reality: This O line would have trouble running in any offense.

As already noted, Mazzone fostered a very healthy running game while at UCLA. The play calling was balanced, and he was helped by some special talents like Hundley, Franklin and Perkins along with a number of productive offensive linemen. When starters Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch, and Jake Brendel all departed for the NFL last year and reserve Fred Ulu-Perry decided to transfer, some thought it would spell trouble for the UCLA running game.

It appeared that the losses would be mitigated in part by the pick up of Texas transfer center, Jake Raulerson, but a Dikembe Mutombo-style block from UCLA graduate admissions left the offensive line pretty thin. After four years of Brendel starting at center, the Bruins had Scott Quessenbury starting at center coming off of a one season layoff from injury. Not getting Raulerson severely limited the depth and potential experience of the interior of the line, and it looks like attrition has finally taken its tole from UCLA at a position they were able to take for granted during the previous Mora years.

Likewise, both returning tackles Connor Mcdermott and Kolton Miller were expected to be good, but depth behind them was also an issue coming into the season (and an injury to Miller may truly have undone things).

Why do the Bruins apparently have so little depth on the O-line? Well losing three mutli-year starters could certainly drain any team, but the loss of the players above also coincided with some shenanigans and suspensions by Bruin offensive line coach and star-recruiter Adrian Klemm. The coach was suspended during the 2015 spring and under investigation for the past two seasons.

Go Joe Bruin Recruiting Expert Michael Hanna noted:

The 2016 offensive line class was a scrapped together three-man class consisting purely of projects and that the class in 2017 is shaping up to be similar. In a bumper year for west coast OL talent, UCLA has whiffed on all the elite names and is looking likely to bring in another group of developmental projects with nary a plug-and-play recruit in sight.

There’s no way to quantify the effect of Klemm’s ordeal on the development of the players already in the program or identify the recruits that UCLA may have missed out on, but certainly the offensive line is in the worst shape its been in since Mora was hired.

Another puzzling factor that has negatively affected the running game is the strange shell game that Mora played with the running backs at the beginning of the season. After losing Paul Perkins to the NFL and in light of the offensive changes, having a confident and determined back to carry the ball should have been a top priority for the Bruins. Unfortunatly for the Bruins, Nate Starks missed the first two games of the season for unknown reasons (Mora was petulant with the press over the situation).

When Starks returned, Soso Jamabo missed the BYU game after starting the season with a team high 181 yards and 34 carries (does anyone even remember a Bruin running that much?). The herky-jerky rotation of running backs has certainly also had a negative impact on the running game, and UCLA coaches noted early in the season that yards were being left on the field due to tentativeness by the backs.

Which is why blaming the scheme change on the running game struggles is severely overstated. Polomalu has tried every conceivable type of running play this year (which shows the flexibility of the playbook), and they have yet to find something that can be executed consistently. Man-blocking plays like trap, power and iso have been just as unreliable as the stretch and inside zone. They’ve tried under center, in the shotgun and even worked in the pistol and wildcat. UCLA will get 4 to 8 yards on one play and 0 to -4 the next; there has been no happy medium. The fact of the matter is that the 2016 UCLA offensive line and running backs would have trouble running the ball no matter what offense they were running, N-zone or otherwise.

October 22, 2016; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora during a stoppage in play against the Utah Utes during the second half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion: The Bruins Quit (On Their Own Offense)

When the postmortem on the 2016 UCLA season is being performed, many will point to ASU as the turning point in the season. After four games the Bruins were 3-2 with two last second losses to Texas A&M and Stanford, but the feeling around the program was that they were still getting the kinks worked out and success was just around the corner.

Then they take the field in Tempe, Josh Rosen gets knocked out of the game twice and the Bruins lose their third game with a resigned whimper. However, the turning point in the season may have been the week before. Kolton Miller went down in the victory against Arizona, and it appears that the Bruins gave up on the new Ameoba offense at that point.

The Bruins came out against the Sun Devils and threw the ball 29 times in the first half with only 11 runs. The Bruins only managed 3 points in the half and midway through the second quarter, Rosen takes a sack that knocks him out of the game (he would later return, but ASU would finish the job with another hard hit).

Up till that point, UCLA had not been good at running the ball by any means, but they had been effective enough to set up the play action passing game and control the ball long enough to keep the defense fresh. Even in the losses to Stanford and A&M, the Bruins  were able to grind and put themselves in a position to win the game, but they came up short because of some dropped balls and a couple costly turnovers.

Believe it or not, heading into the ASU game, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Jamabo were both averageing 3.9 yards per carry and Nate Starks was at 3.4 yards per carry (and that’s after a horrible performance against BYU). These aren’t  world beating numbers, but they were sufficient to keep the defense honest and allow the Bruins to stay the course.

Instead, they give up on the run completely against the Sun Devils, and Sparky immediatly knocks Rosen out of the game. Now, with walk-on Mike Fafual at the helm,  the Bruins have adjusted to a faster pace offense and completly eschewed the running game (they had 10 carries for running backs against Utah).

By giving up the run and giving up on the changes they’ve made this year, they have exposed their star player to injury and they have possibly unwound the progress they made on the other side of the ball. Sure the offense got going against Utah and broke out for points, but they also had 5 turnovers on less than 24 minutes of possession.

When (or if) Rosen comes back this year, how long will he last if defenses can continue to tee off on him? Now, eight games in and sitting on five losses, the Bruins are a team without a starting QB, they have no offensive identity, and their current direction will likely hamstring the defense heading into the final stretch of the season. Go Bruins

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