The most optimistic preseason hopes for Jim Mora's rapidly improving UCLA program had the Bruins dominating the Pac-12 South and surviving a reasonably tough pre-conference slate against Virginia, Memphis, and Texas. Many also had dual-threat Myles Jack and quarterback Brett Hundley as Heisman contenders.
However, in Week 1, the offense was somewhat pedestrian while the defense carried the day with three touchdowns and a strong day stuffing the Cavalier running game. In Week 2, the defense was pounded by Memphis, surrendering 164 rushing yards and 305 passing yards to a balanced Tiger attack while Hundley carried the day with 396 passing yards and three touchdowns.
UCLA seem poised to put it all together against Texas, but had to settle for scraping by with a 20-17 victory after Hundley hyperextended his elbow early in the game and was replaced a former Bruins' progeny. Presumably, Hundley will return for the Thursday night game in Sun Devil Stadium against Arizona State.
The Bruins will try to answer some questions about whether the program is ready to match the loftier preseason expectations.
1. Can UCLA's offensive line handle pressure?
Virginia sacked Hundley five times in the Bruins' opener, Memphis managed to get three sacks, and Texas' pressures got home three times despite a relatively risk-free game plan by a UCLA staff trying to protect Jerry Neuheisel.
While Hundley's injury against Texas was more the result of his proclivity for scrambling and looking to make plays in the open field, a facet of his game the Bruins are unlikely to reign in too much, the Bruins aren't going to make much noise this year if they can't keep him upright and healthy.
The Sun Devils have a pressure-oriented defense, but they do it in a way geared to combine sound coverages with favorable matchups for their pass-rushers, leading to QB harassment and coverage sacks. ASU ranked No. 18 in tackles for loss per game last year and ranks No. 30 so far this year.
Todd Graham's defense is similar to TCU's in that it'll bring four- or five-man pressures that are backed by a combination of zone and man coverage behind them. Rather than teaching a new coverage for a blitz, like a fire zone team might, they'll bring an extra rusher from one side of their defense and play man on that side while they play their normal zone defense to the other side.
In this instance, they bring their weakside linebacker on the blitz and play man coverage on the two boundary receivers with the boundary corner and safety. On the other side, they play their normal quarters coverage to the field.
Here's another example against the type of spread set that UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone loves to use:
Again, man/zone coverage behind a five-man pass rush:
This specific pressure is designed to force the QB to throw a quick hot read to the field against soft coverage, which will be easy for the Sun Devils to tackle well short of the first-down marker. Colorado instead calls a shovel pass, but thanks to the zone coverage, the free safety has his eyes on the backfield and is able to quickly arrive and clean up what the linebacker misses.
For UCLA to punish these types of blitzes, particularly on third-and-long, they'll have to provide Hundley with time to push the ball downfield. Or he'll have to recognize the blitzes quickly enough to hit them underneath with precision and leverage.
These aren't huge man blitzes or traditional fire zones, but are still complicated pressures to read and punish in real time.
The biggest issue for UCLA's line will be defensive end Marcus Hardison, a 6'5, 300-pound matchup problem on the outside who has stunning quickness for a big man and enough power to be a real handful, either attacking the outside shoulder of a Bruin tackle or stunting inside against those young guards.
2. Can UCLA's offense generate explosive plays?
UCLA's currently only averaging 4.33 20-yard plays per game, an average FBS number. Since ASU is averaging about that many given up per game, this will be another good test.
Besides bringing some rather safe blitzes, ASU tends to play a good deal of two-read coverage, a variety of quarters that allows it to play deep safeties who have impressive range.
Witness this interception by field safety and former walk-on Jordan Simone:
The Bruins have two primary ways of creating explosive plays on offense. One is when Mazzone's horizontal stretches successfully create a crease that allows a ballcarrier to turn north and south:
The other is when Hundley's arm strength creates an opportunity downfield or outside the hash marks:
Notice how much time he had against Memphis' three-man pressure to find that receiver. Hundley can make throws that defenses rarely have to account for at the collegiate level, and he won't be throwing up ducks like the Colorado quarterback threw to Arizona State in the clip above.
Jordan Payton has emerged as the main deep threat for the Bruins. They'll need him to beat the Sun Devil corners, on the sideline in their two-read coverages and all over the field when ASU plays man. Graham's defense is built around speed and won't be easily victimized by spread alignments.
Test 3: Can this defense stop the run?
This is only Bruin defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich's fifth year in coaching. He played NFL inside linebacker for 10 years and coached with the Seattle Seahawks for two years as a special teams assistant before coming over to UCLA to coach special teams and linebackers.
After his tremendous success with Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr, UCLA promoted Ulbrich to defensive coordinator for 2014 when Lou Spanos left to become an NFL coach.
For his limited experience, Ulbrich shows a definite grasp of how to build an effective collegiate defense. UCLA's approach is geared around simple and sound schemes, zone pressure, and multiple fronts. It's designed to allow the linebackers to run sideline to sideline and enable the coaches to prioritize speed in the back seven personnel.
Like many good modern defenses, they are at their best playing pattern-matching cover 3. They choose linebackers with the change of direction and speed to make deep drops, but also to break on the ball and arrive in time to make plays near the line of scrimmage.
What can get such a fast-flowing defense into trouble is when the backside of plays isn't properly contained. Savvy runners are able to advantage of over-aggressive safety support:
Memphis and Texas both landed some big shots in the run game by exploiting cutback lanes. The Bruins are replacing linebackers from the 2013 defense and are starting underclassmen at both safety positions, with freshman Jaleel Wadood replacing injured Randall Goforth and sophomore Tahaan Goodman manning the opposite spot.
The Sun Devils have a combination of zone read schemes as well as some classic pro-style runs they'll test the Bruins' discipline with. They often use formations with multiple wings and motion blockers. That will force the Bruins to think on the run to avoid blowing the structural integrity of their run fits.
With quarterback Taylor Kelly out, the Sun Devils will lean more on the run. The ASU run game, led by D.J. Foster and currently No. 4 nationally in yards per attempt with 7.13, is at its best when using motion and allowing the mobile OL to get out in space on plays like pin and pull that create new gaps. That can either put the ballcarrier on the edge or give him cutback lanes to exploit if the defense can't respond properly:
If UCLA's speedy-but-young defensive backfield cannot maintain gap responsibilities against the Sun Devils' motioning blockers and quick-moving OL, then the Bruins could see a repeat of the Memphis game, repeatedly being gashed for big plays in the running game. Arizona State also has an extensive play-action package to bring the problem to bear if the Bruins start panicking or overplaying these runs.
UCLA is an athletic and exciting team with a very talented QB and a brighter future than the program has seen in some time. But it'll have to demonstrate an ability to grow up quickly in order to handle road tests like this Thursday night battle and prove they belong in discussions about nationally competitive programs. If it can't, the conversation will turn to Arizona State as the new hot name in the South.