It’s as Clear as Black and White — You can attribute the Bruins’ 49-24 win over Rice to weak competition if you want, but you have to admit: UCLA looks more explosive and exciting on Offense (with 3 TD runs over 70 yards each, and the most points in a game since 2005), and made better halftime adjustments on Defense than ever before (24 points allowed in 1st Half, ZERO points allowed in 2nd Half)
ONE GAME from a new regime is NOT a big enough sample size to justify sweeping generalizations about whether the 2012 UCLA Bruins are a success or failure. With a new Coach, new staff, new schemes, and new Quarterback, there are bound to be kinks in the hose. And those kinks were prevalent and numerous, but not enough to stop UCLA from thumping Rice 49-24 in the season openers for both schools. The Bruins exploded out to a 19-0 lead in the first ten minutes of the game, then quickly IMPLODED, giving up 17 straight points to almost even it up. But then Jim Mora righted the ship, calmed down his team, and guided them to the fairly comfortable 25-point final winning margin.
Before I analyze the all-too-familiar negatives, let’s look at the glaring positives: BIG PLAYS. The Bruins scored Touchdowns on 3 of their first 5 plays from scrimmage, including their very first snap, which QB Brett Hundley took himself for a 72-yard TD run. Surprisingly, Hundley ran and scrambled VERY LITTLE after that, despite the unmitigated success of that first attempt. But his running wasn’t really required, because Jonathan Franklin had that covered. Franklin scored 3 TD’s, including 2 scampers over 70 yards each. Add to that Hundley’s productivity through the air, which included two TD passes, and you have the making of UCLA’s highest scoring output since the days of Maurice Jones-Drew.
Hundley was far from perfect, throwing one bad Interception, and getting thrown for losses a few times instead of throwing the ball away or eluding the rush as he did so often during practice. But he managed the team well, and looked comfortable in the no-huddle offense. He missed his target on two short slant patterns and went “O-fer” on 3rd Down Conversions, but he hit more Receivers than he missed, and certainly made the decision to start him look like a good one.
Hundley was not one of the issues that the Bruins face moving onward. Instead, the biggest worry right now is Special Teams, especially the Field Goal Kicker, Ka’imi Fairbairn. The Bruins’ True Freshman Placekicker had THREE PAT’s BLOCKED in the First Half. It was a combination of low trajectory and Defensive penetration, as the same Linebacker got in to knock down all three kicks (an NCAA All-Time Record). Fairbairn later made a Field Goal, and an Extra Point, but later in the game, Mora declined to let him kick another PAT, choosing instead to go for two a couple of times. At one point they were up by 17, so a PAT would have been sufficient, but apparently, Mora didn’t want to allow any more NCAA records to be set, with a 4th Block in one game.
Special Teams also saw another major miscue: Dalton Hilliard collided with Punt Returner Steven Manfro as a punt came down, causing a Turnover. Manfro had a rough first game, as he also fumbled a Kickoff (which Franklin alertly scooped up and advanced), and even worse, dropped a sure Touchdown reception, by taking his eye off the ball. That wasn’t the only TD that the Bruins threw away — Devin Lucien’s Personal Foul on a Touchdown Pass to Damien Thigpen took 6 points off the board.
For a while, it looked like UCLA would need every point they could get, as their Defense was looking soft, confused, and undisciplined. After going up by 19, the Bruins eased up, and let Rice run all over them. The Bruins looked like last year’s team, missing tackles, over-pursuing, missing assignments, and failing to cover Receivers (without interfering with them). The Owls outscored UCLA 17-0 and 24-10 during a First Half stretch. But towards the end of the Half, with the Bruins up 29-24 and the Owls driving, the Bruin Defense caused a fumble, and Damien Holmes collected the loose ball and took it to the house.
With the score 35-24 at the Break, the “overs” were already locked, and it looked like the Bruins might be looking for a new Defensive Coordinator this weekend. But then a very strange thing happened: They made effective Halftime adjustments, and completely SHUT OUT Rice for the entire Second Half. Behind the hard hitting of LB Anthony Barr, the tough DL play of True Freshman Ellis McCarthy, and the speed and activity of LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA was able to stop everything Rice tried to do. A hard hit on the Rice QB at the end of the First Half may have limited his effectiveness after Intermission, but more likely, the Bruin adjustments were the real reason for the turnaround.
At the start of the game, the Bruins were blitzing like crazy, and it worked. But Rice adjusted and called plays that countered the blitz’ effectiveness. In the Second Half, the Bruins must have changed their blitzing package, because the Owls were more confused and stifled by the D. The Bruins ended up with 7 Sacks, which is half as many as they had the entire Season last year.
The big questions are: Will the Bruins improve from their Game One performance (as most teams do), AND, did the level of competition make the Bruins look a lot better than they really are? The answers to these questions will come a week from Saturday, as highly-regarded Nebraska comes to the Rose Bowl. Obviously, the Cornhuskers will be more physical than the Owls, and will present a much tougher hurdle. In order to compete with Nebraska, the Bruins will have to eliminate all the screw-ups that elicited bad memories of the previous regime, like the Pass Interference, Personal Fouls, Fumbles, Collisions, Interceptions, and Blocked Kicks. There is a lot to clean up, but with the HUGE UPSIDE that both the Offense (1st Half) and Defense (2nd Half) showed, it is not out of the question that the Bruins could take a big leap forward next week. With Franklin, Thigpen, and Jordon James all looking good as ballcarriers, and with Lucien (who made a spectacular catch late in the game from Richard Brehaut), Joseph Fauria (who caught a tough TD pass), and Shaq Evans impressing on the Receiving end, and with Hundley’s arm looking better than expected, Nebraska better not come in too cocky, or they will go home unhappy.
Below are 42 more photos from the Cheer Event at The Grove on Wednesday. Click on them to expand them…Then write in with comments about your take on the Bruins’ first game of the year. Are they new and improved, or is it just illusions of grandeur based on how bad Rice sucks? I say the former, but if they don’t clean things up soon, they will not succeed. And don’t even get me started on how Barkley, Woods, and Lee are salivating right now, at the opportunity to face that Defensive Backfield.