USC-UCLA: Why Bruins can run table and crash College Football Playoff
The UCLA Bruins control their own destiny. At 8-2 they seem to be playing some of their best ball at just the right time. If the Bruins win out, they would be an 11-2 team that would have likely beaten four ranked teams, including No. 1 or No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.
It’s a tough hill to climb, but it’s the reason their name has popped up in College Football Playoff discussions. The journey starts this weekend in the Battle of L.A., as No. 9 UCLA hosts No. 19 USC in the Rose Bowl.
The Bruins’ offense has developed throughout the season, and that’s one of the main reasons the team has the opportunity to make a late-season push towards national relevancy.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues UCLA’s offense was having early in the season, how they’ve addressed and impressed in the second half of the year and why they’re now playing like a team capable of winning the Pac-12 and crashing the playoff party.
Sacking the issue of sacks
After the third week of the season, Bruin nation was wondering if star QB Brett Hundley would limp out of the season alive. Hundley had been sacked 12 times in the first three games, and UCLA had allowed 100 sacks since the start of the 2012 season -- the third-most among FBS teams over that span. The Bruins were banged up along the offensive line, running backs weren’t executing in pass protection and Hundley looked unsettled.
After Hundley had been sacked 21 times in the Bruins’ first five games, he has been sacked only eight times in the last five – including only once in their last game against Washington, which ranks second in the nation in sacks with 40.
Why the turnaround?
Noel Mazzone is not asking his running backs to block in pass protection as much, and the development of the run game has taken pressure off the pass game.
Hundley helped by more scat protection
Earlier in the season when teams would send pressure, the running backs would often stay in to help protect. It wasn’t working. The Bruins’ running backs struggled greatly when they were assigned to block a defensive end or bigger linebackers who were blitzing.
Credit Noel Mazzone for finding a way to adapt and improvise his offensive scheme to make his offense more efficient. One main reason for the drop in the number of sacks UCLA has allowed in the second half of the season has been the utilization of more “scat” protection. Instead of keeping the running back in to block, the Bruins release him quickly into a route and -- based on tape -- it seems they’re doing it more often than ever.
In the first photo, you can see that Washington tries to pressure with a Nickel dog -- bringing the defender aligned on the third receiver from the top on a blitz. Every coverage man is in man-to-man with help from a deep-middle safety. There is a linebacker responsible for covering the running back if he releases on a route, but if the running back stays in and blocks, the linebacker can “pressure rush” or “add” into the blitz (which is what teams were able to do against UCLA early in the season).
In the next photo, you can see the back does not stay in to block but instead releases on a flare route immediately. Hundley recognizes the pressure and throws it to the back, who is now in a one-on-one situation in space with a linebacker trying to track him down. This play resulted in a big gain for UCLA.
Here is a video of what UCLA’s scat protection has developed into. You can see the running back actually starts to run his flare route before the ball is even snapped (it’s considered a legal motion since he is moving laterally). This is just smart ball by Mazzone that has really helped Hundley, who seems to be much more comfortable in the pocket knowing that he will often have a quick outlet if he recognizes pressure coming.
How the run game has developed
UCLA’s ability to rush the ball has developed over the course of the season. In their first five games, the Bruins averaged 167.8 yards per game, while in their last five they’re averaging 263.8 yards per game.
Paul Perkins is really hitting stride. His understanding of the offensive blocking schemes is evident on tape -- especially with the two-back runs that have been increasingly effective for the Bruins lately. He’s running with conviction and he’s seeing cutback lanes and hitting them without hesitation -- and it’s a big reason he has racked up 1,172 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
While Brett Hundley has completed over 72 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns to only four interceptions, his presence in the run game has been the real difference-maker for the offense. He was hurt early in the season and it affected his confidence when he did run the ball. There was hesitation and a lot of early slides to protect himself.
In his first five games, Hundley had 241 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry, but now he’s back. In the last five games Hundley has rushed for 497 yards, averaging more than six yards per carry. Studying tape of the past few games, Hundley looks like he’s moving at a completely different speed. There is no more hesitation, and he has truly reemerged as a dual threat.
Take a look at the next set of photos from UCLA’s game against Utah early in the season. It shows how defenses knew they didn’t have to honor Hundley’s ability to run the ball because -- even on read zone plays -- there was a slim chance he was going to keep the ball to run with it because of his injury.
In the next photo, notice there are no defenders paying any attention to Hundley on this read zone play.
Hundley could’ve run for a huge gain on this play -- and likely would have hit his head on the goal post.
Seemingly the only time Hundley was running with the ball early in the season was when the pocket broke down on passing plays and he scrambled. There were not nearly as many quarterback draws (except some in the red zone), and there was not a major threat of Hundley keeping the ball as a runner on the read zone -- it was simply a zone play to the running back.
In the second half of the season, that’s changed. He’s running quarterback draws from anywhere on the field and keeping the ball on the read zone.
The reemergence of Hundley’s ability to run has been a difference-maker for the Bruins in the second half of the season, where they’re averaging almost five minutes more in time of possession per game. Hundley at full speed and strength as a runner adds an absurd amount of additional stress to defenses. Not only do they have to respect and defend the read zone, they now know they’re playing with fire if they choose to blitz. Washington chose to use only three rushers on a surprisingly high number of snaps in the Bruins’ last game. That may have been a tactic to keep more players sitting in zones with their eyes on Hundley because of his ability to run.
Here’s a video of how UCLA’s zone read can look now as opposed to what it looked like early in the season:
There’s no question that UCLA is a much different and better team than they were earlier in the season. They’ve won four straight games and are looking to win their first conference championship since 1998. We’ll get a feel for just how good they’ve become Saturday night when they host the Trojans, who – with some help – could have a shot at the Pac-12 title as well.
Hayes Pullard (75 tackles) and Leonard Williams (62 tackles, 6.0 sacks) have led the way for a Trojans defense that has allowed 23.3 points and 396.8 yards per game, snagged 18 takeaways and has racked up 16 sacks in the last five games after having only eight in the first five.
If the Bruins can continue to play soundly in the areas in which they’ve shown improvement -- better protection for Hundley and a more developed run game -- they can compete with anyone and have a legitimate shot at running the table and finding themselves in the College Football Playoff party.
Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He's currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.