Saturday night's battle between UCLA and Texas has had some of the shine rubbed off in the last couple of weeks. Texas' second blowout loss to BYU in 12 months tamped down the stakes a bit, and while UCLA is still a national title contender -- top-15 ranking, undefeated -- the Bruins haven't looked the part. The offense didn't make the trip to Virginia two weeks ago, and against Memphis last week, it seemed as if the defense hadn't made the trip home.
Still, this game takes place in the Death Star of stadiums and involves the Death Star of college football programs. So it's going to feel like a pretty big game whether it actually is or not. Plus, if you're in the market for story lines, this game has them.
What's wrong with UCLA? Anything?
UCLA was favored to beat Virginia by 21 and won by eight. The Bruins were favored to beat Memphis by 24 and won by seven. Ranked seventh in the preseason AP poll, they have since fallen to 12th despite a 2-0 start. That they won these games means that their goals remain intact if they begin to play as they are supposed to, but they've played 30 points below expectations thus far. So what's wrong?
Technically, not a lot has gone wrong twice. The offense played jetlagged against what is likely a pretty strong UVA defense, gaining just 358 total yards (4.9 per play) and scoring seven offensive points. In that game, UCLA failed up front, struggling to get a push in the run game (especially in the first half) and letting Cavalier defenders establish residence in the backfield; UVA had 11 tackles for loss, which is about twice what you should feel comfortable allowing.
Against a solid Memphis defense, however, UCLA gained 540 yards (6.4 per play), moved the chains 30 times, and scored 42 points.
Defensively, it has been the same story. Virginia averaged just 4.6 yards per play, and UCLA took advantage of an overwhelmed Greyson Lambert, picking him off twice and returning both interceptions for touchdowns (they also scooped up a fumble and took it back for six points). They allowed UVA running backs just 103 yards in 34 carries, as well. Virginia eventually tacked together 20 points, but the defense certainly got a passing grade.
Then, against a Memphis offense that ranked 107th in Off. F/+ last season, UCLA allowed 469 yards (5.8 per play) and 28 points (plus seven more on a pick six).
It's almost good news that the offense has been culpable in one game, and the defense has been suspect in the other. If you're going to put together two disappointing results in a row, you want a) to win anyway, and b) not to have too many running themes merge. UCLA managed that. Still ...
Can UCLA keep Malcom Brown and the 'Horns out of the backfield?
Even while moving the ball well against Memphis, the Bruins allowed another 10 tackles for loss. That puts them dead last in TFLs allowed so far this season, and while Virginia and Memphis have attacking defenses, that's awful. With quarterback Brett Hundley and playmakers like receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte and running back Paul Perkins, UCLA should be able to overcome negative plays. But even the best skill position players can overcome only so much, and while the players above are solid, they're not the best.
The offensive-line-as-sieve theme could be quite problematic against the Longhorns. Texas has plenty -- plenty -- of its own defensive issues, but the 'Horns have been able to invade the backfield. They've made 15 TFLs in two games, 18th in the country, and tackle Malcom Brown is one of only 19 FBS players with at least four TFLs through two games. He had three against BYU, and end Shiro Davis had two (with a third tackle for no gain). Bad things began to happen to the Texas defense when it became clear that Texas' offense had nothing to offer, but even in the Longhorns' 41-7 defeat at the hands of the Cougars, they still allowed only 4.9 yards per play. They sacked Taysom Hill six times in 34 pass attempts ... and Hundley has been awfully sack-prone in his career.
UCLA ranked 26th in Adj. Line Yards last year but 109th in Adj. Sack Rate, and that's not all on the line. Hundley's strengths are obvious, but if Texas' secondary holds up and allows the defensive line time to get a push, UCLA could spend a decent amount of time going backwards on Saturday. That could mean that, from a field position standpoint, Texas' offense might be put in position to succeed.
What does Tyrone Swoopes have to offer?
Tyrone Swoopes has only thrown 44 passes in his college career. Like watching a baseball player who hasn't reached a minimum number of at bats, we can't learn the story of someone's abilities in 44 passes. Swoopes has completed 25 of those passes, just as Vince Young completed 25 of his first 44 a decade ago.
The differences: Young's first 25 completions gained 430 yards. Swoopes' have gained 202. And while Young threw more interceptions in that span (two to one), he also got somewhere on the ground. Noted as a great athlete in a huge package (6'4, 243 pounds), Swoopes really hasn't.
In the first two starts of Swoopes' career, Texas has averaged 3.7 yards per play and scored a total of 14 points. He will make his third start on Saturday in support of David Ash, who is again suffering through perpetual, unfortunate concussion issues.
Against BYU last week, the offensive staff -- coordinator Joe Wickline, quarterbacks coach and play-caller Shawn Watson, etc. -- did what you're supposed to do with a young quarterback: try to make him as comfortable as possible. They had Swoopes throwing a series of short passes right out of the gates, mixing in some rush attempts. Indeed, Swoopes completed his first eight passes for 75 yards; the rushes didn't go very far (two carries, nine yards), but this was a conservative, smart approach. Then again, it may have been smarter in intention than execution.
So the offensive line wasn't opening any holes, play caller Shawn Watson didn't include any misdirection, and there have been no attempts at introducing a perimeter run game to put defenders into conflict.
Even the use of the zone read was extremely limited, with one notably bad decision by quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to keep the ball. He was immediately hit by two defenders and lost several yards.
There was no Power read for Swoopes to work inside the tackles or let Johnathan Gray use his speed to the perimeter. There was only one quarterback draw. There weren't even any wrinkles to the zone read like using an H-back on the move to eliminate the read defender or another overhang player.
The fact that Swoopes showed himself to be a relatively average athlete who lacks the short-area burst and overall elusiveness may limit some of the quarterback run game, the more frustrating takeaway is that the best description for the offensive gameplan against BYU was extremely bland and generally lacking in any apparent imagination.
More on Swoopes
More on Swoopes
Thanks to penalties, a missed field goal, and a good BYU defense, this safe approach didn't result in any early points. And BYU adjusted, limiting Swoopes to 12-for-23 passing the rest of the way with three sacks and an interception. Combined with a complete lack of a running game -- behind a shuffled-around, deficient line, Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown combined for 75 yards in 28 carries (an egregious 2.7 per carry) -- Swoopes faced a deck stacked against him. Texas finally scored late in the third quarter but managed just 258 total yards.
Thus far, UCLA's defense hasn't been nearly as disruptive as recent iterations; the Bruins have only nine tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and nine passes defensed. Granted, they've made their disruptions count, with three defensive touchdowns, but Texas doesn't have to fear a swarming set of defenders caving in Swoopes' pocket on every pass attempt, at least not if the Memphis version of the UCLA defense travels to Arlington.
Still, UCLA did swallow up Virginia's short passing game, and Memphis found a good portion of its success while operating from a no-huddle approach Texas is unlikely to employ. What will Watson and Wickline come up with in their offensive gameplan? Two starts in, I'm not actually sure what Swoopes does well yet. The staff might not, either.
Texas' defense is in a lot of ways built to stop what UCLA will attempt to do on offense, and that alone gives the Longhorns a fighting chance. But until a thin Texas offense proves it can mount any sort of sustained threat, bank on the Bruins moving to 3-0, even if they again don't look impressive.