I guess they can’t all be blowouts. Have we gotten spoiled or what Bruins fans? UCLA gutted out a 34-27 win against Utah, but I think it actually might have been the best win of the still young season. Counter intuitive, I know. Besides the W, the Bruins found out a ton about themselves, their team and a myriad of things that need fixing. In a hostile environment on the road in wintry weather, the Bruins overcame injuries and mistakes, dug deep and came away victorious.
How they did it wasn’t pretty, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.
So, what were those mistakes and what can we learn from them? In no particular order:
Low snaps will be your undoing.
All night long, center Jake Brendel kept snapping the ball low. I don’t recall that being an issue previously this year. It’s got to get fixed, though, because it costs the quarterback time to catch the errant snap. With the kind of pressure that future opponents are sure to bring after watching this game, that spells trouble.
Fortunately, quarterback Brett Hundley handled them in stride. But the second he went out after losing a contact lens, young backup QB Jerry Neuheisel couldn’t grab the low snap, and you saw how that could have been disastrous.
I wish that we could see the All-22 film on NCAA games the way you can with the NFL so we could identify why this was such a problem all night. Speculatively, I think it was a combination of the ferocious blitzing that the Utes brought all game coupled with the loss of tackle Torian White to a broken ankle and having to play two freshmen on the right side of the offensive line.
All things considered, the Bruins handled it pretty well. But that needs to get cleaned up, or opponents will continue to exploit it. (Confidential to Noel Mazzone: When your line keeps getting beat, change the protection, and give your QB some additional blocking help in the back field. You’re welcome.)
The Bruins ran a lot of read option in this game. I don’t have a problem with that. However, I think it might be more successful if the play-calling threw in a few more long bombs down the field. Even if they don’t connect, it will at least keep the defense honest. Plus, that’s a great technique to beat the blitz—a couple of long shots down the field and maybe the Utes don’t constantly drop everyone down to the line of scrimmage.
Penalties can determine the outcome of games. Again, the Bruins got away with them here. But it made things much closer than they needed to be. I’m not that worried about defensive penalties. Sometimes those just happen, especially when you are coaching your defenders to play aggressively. But the penalties on offense have to get cleaned up; you cannot hand out free yardage to your opponents.
Which brings us to coaching.
I think the coaches did an outstanding job preparing this team to go on the road and face Utah. Particular kudos to the defensive staff who obviously made tipping balls a point of emphasis. Six interceptions against a quality team like Utah was the reason the Bruins came away with the win, none prettier than Myles Jack’s pick in the final moments. Tackling was solid too.
On the offensive side, adjustments aren’t just for halftime gentlemen. In a few weeks, the Bruins will be playing high-flying Pac-12 rivals Oregon and Stanford. The offensive coaches need to be ready to change protection and adjust play-calling to react to their opponents' changing defensive schemes and the real time game conditions.
Here’s a good example: I love hurry up offense. Who doesn’t like watching the trendy new 15 yards and a puff of smoke type play that is currently in vogue? However, the coaching staff needs to recognize that sometimes the clock is your best friend. The terrific Fox Sports announcers did a great job of pointing that out. Late in the game when you have possession and the score is close in your favor, the more clock you burn, the better. Why give your opponent any additional time to try to mount a comeback?
The Bruins need to watch the tape of the game (in this case the Fox broadcast version would be ideal) and, in the future, adjust accordingly. That means using up all your play clock before snapping the ball. Stay in bounds. Bleed the clock. Teach that strategic thinking to Hundley and the rest of the offense so they will be prepared and not false start. Mastering that switch in change of pace could be the difference in what is likely to be more closely fought Pac-12 games.
Again, when you are a winning team, these are good problems to have. They are all easily correctable and will yield immediate results. Just as important, the Bruins discovered that they are never out of any game. The old clichés of overcoming adversity and being resilient are clichéd for a reason.
UCLA needed a test. It couldn’t have come at a better time with lots of practical examples to learn from. This game will pay dividends down the road. The Bruins are also lucky that they can fly under the radar for the next two weeks. They are in a good position to get their house in order for the upcoming schedule since the spotlight locally is currently focused on the USC coaching drama, the impending opening of Lakers training camp, Kobe Bryant and his Mamba rehab and, of course, the white-hot glare of the Dodgers playoff run.
I think this is a good thing—plenty of time to work on correcting mistakes, studying opponents' film and generally keeping a low profile until late in the month when the national media is going to finally realize that what is shaping up in Westwood is pretty special.
Shh, Bruins Nation—don’t tell anybody, yet.