Special thanks to David Woods of the Podcast of Champions for guesting on the Quack 12 Podcast to help dissect the mystery that is Chip Kelly’s playbook. We also discussed UCLA’s available roster, and which players can or can’t be easily replaced.
You can listen to the episode HERE.
Every game I’ve charted UCLA play over the past three seasons under Coach Kelly they’ve operated out of a substantially different playbook. It’s been pared down a bit this season in terms of the number of unique plays per game — it was one of the highest I’ve ever seen in 2018 and 2019 — but still, in the first two weeks this year we saw big differences in their formations, down & distance tendencies, and run/pass splits. So I’m going to forgo making predictions about what kind of offensive scheme the Bruins will employ on Saturday, since that seems like a fool’s errand.
The personnel remain constant, however, and their strengths and weaknesses are fairly telling. So far the biggest change in #1 QB Thompson-Robinson is that he’s not randomly putting the ball on the deck as he did so often and inexplicably the last two years (although UCLA has given the ball away five times, the only team in the league with as many turnovers as Oregon). Overall, this has been a pretty inefficient offense on a per-play basis - outside of garbage time they have 56 successful plays from scrimmage vs 66 failed ones, given the down & distance.
Where UCLA’s offense is a threat is at explosive plays - they have 18 snaps during meaningful play that went for 15 yards or more (not including four 15-yard DPI flags), and seven of those went for over 25 yards. The Bruins have put together nine full-field touchdown drives over the past two weeks outside of garbage time; eight of them featured at least one of these gigantic plays, and the ninth had assistance from multiple penalties. Every other drive stalled out fairly quickly. The upshot is that I very much doubt UCLA is capable of sustaining long, methodical drives against a functional defense, and the game will come down to whether or not the Ducks can cut down on explosive plays.
The Bruins have had 31 successful passing plays vs 38 unsuccessful ones in two games, about 45% which is well below average for a Power-5 team. It’s about the same rate in both games, although I think against Colorado it was more about the offensive line giving up the pass rush, and against Cal it was the Bears’ high quality secondary.
Much of the passing offense is playing out of structure or having to compensate for a porous line: about 23% of dropbacks ended in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, (not a good number), and on another 16% of plays from the pocket Thompson-Robinson was clearly being affected by pressure and threw off his back foot. That’s resulted in a 51.5% completion rate and a modest 144.0 passer rating. Here’s a representative sample of their passing offense:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Almost 10% of the Bruins’ offense has been screen plays, which they prefer to throw to the outside like this one. The defense clearly isn’t ready for it, and despite some obvious issues in their other roles, UCLA’s linemen are pretty effective downfield blockers.
- :20 - Thompson-Robinson prefers to get rid of the ball fairly quickly, going through his progressions faster than most QBs I watch, resulting in checkdown throws like this one on more than 28% of all non-screen passes from the pocket. The issue is that they’re frequently using 7-man protections, and on several occasions all three routes are to one side of the field, resulting in them getting blown up just as fast.
- :29 - The common thread in both defenses UCLA has played has been poor ILB pass coverage, which they’ve identified and exploited for some big plays. Here the DB has to take the sweep man breaking into the pattern, so the ILB should recognize it, carry the split-out TE up through the safety’s zone, and get into the throwing lane. He does none of that, so the QB gets to that read quickly and makes an easy instant decision.
- :41 - This pass rush structure should look familiar to Oregon fans, but apparently not to the OL. Good coverage across the board by the DBs leaves no good options, but the QB takes a shot anyway while he’s getting hit (a very frequent occurrence), resulting in one of his many interceptable balls.
What’s remarkable about how often Thompson-Robinson has to deal with pressure — by breaking the pocket or throwing off his back foot — is that he’s been relatively good at it, unlike a lot of quarterbacks I watch who like to play out of structure. David related an amusing fan theory on the podcast that the QB may actually be better when throwing as he’s falling down, since it’s the only way he puts some arc on his passes.
We also discussed the hypothetical that Thompson-Robinson isn’t available (after we recorded, rumors to that effect raised the Vegas line for Oregon significantly), and agreed that he’s the only irreplaceable part of UCLA’s offense given their adequate depth at every other position. What’s clear from the film is that he was a borderline 5-star recruit for a reason - his size, athleticism, and arm strength are vital to bailing the Bruins out of a lot of bad situations:
- :00 - The QB had only one successful pass while scrambling (although he did throw the ball away a lot, which is often the best option), instead preferring to keep the ball himself as in this play, and he’s clearly a dynamic runner who has to be accounted for in the defensive structure.
- :10 - This backfoot throw doesn’t work out, since the WR seems to lose track of the ball with two DBs around him, but typical of Thompson-Robinson it’s a strong and accurate throw (if not a wise one) despite a hurried motion.
- :22 - A second-string edge rusher gets past the LT despite his best efforts and hits the QB, but I’m impressed with how calm he is throwing this dart to the back who’s split Cal’s indolent ILBs.
- :30 - The QB trusts his very quick release to get this ball out before Cal’s best lineman gets home, though as usual he’s got a bit too much confidence in his ability to get it over a very rangey backer and between two good DBs.
UCLA’s rushing offense was similarly underwater - 25 successes on designed run plays vs 28 failures, or 47% … although there’s a notable split between games, losing badly to Colorado’s defensive front but treading water against Cal’s. I’m seeing mostly a zone-read rushing offense, with only a few power-blocked runs or RPOs sprinkled in, and fairly balanced between inside and outside runs.
I don’t think the major issue is the ballcarrier — Thompson-Robinson makes good reads and is quick with the ball, do-everything back #10 RB Felton has a great burst, and there’s a stable of viable backs behind him — but rather that the offensive line just isn’t doing much to open holes. They play the same tackles every down, but they’ve been rotating between five guards at the interior including the center, and I’m just not impressed with any of their techniques right now. It’s surprising how little talent there is here given the team’s prestige: three low-to-mid 3-stars, two unranked recruits, and a convert from the defensive line who’s clearly carrying some bad weight. Tellingly, their inside rush efficiency is their worst category of offense, including on short-yardage situations - they’ve been stopped on multiple 4th & short or 1-yd downs when running inside.
Here’s a representative sample of their rushing performance:
- :00 - We saw this heavy set with two TEs on the line a lot against Colorado, and barely at all against Cal. Classic inside zone, with combos at most places, the guard moving up to the second level, and the QB accounting for the one unblocked guy to create a numbers advantage. Felton does the rest against a single high safety.
- :24 - In the last several years across college football, RPOs have gotten pretty common out of this double-stack look. But it’s just window dressing here as usual for the Bruins since the DB movement reads to throw the screen. The guard fails to get free of his combo block and the back is easy pickings for the unblocked backer.
- :31 - The skill players are at least eager perimeter blockers in this offense, though their effectiveness at doing so isn’t high on my tally sheet. This was the most common reason for run success against Cal - a string of poor tackles.
- :48 - Throughout much of the game on Sunday, especially in the first half, UCLA changed up from their typical low playclock snaps to some very quick tempo to catch the defense unprepared. But UCLA was unsuccessful on a number of them, as in this play where there are three different zone assignment errors and the quarterback is having a hard time with the mesh.
Overall, UCLA’s defensive effectiveness was underwater at about 49% - successes on 58 defenses vs failures on 60, given the down & distance. But there was a wide disparity between effectiveness and run/pass splits with their two opponents’ offenses, and our sample size against a reasonably strong and balanced offense is basically non-existent.
The Bruins’ rush defense is the hardest to judge, because the split between Colorado and Cal’s run games was vast. The Buffs were absolutely crushing them, with only a 29% success rate against their run game - mostly power-blocked maulings from an improved offensive line whose strength surprised some but not others. Colorado recognized it and simply leaned on it hard, with more effective power runs against the Bruins than all their pass attempts combined. Cal, on the other hand, had a predictably poor offensive line that clearly wasn’t ready to play, and they got away from it quickly in favor of a quick passing game.
It’s jarring to see the same defensive linemen absolutely powerless one week and dominant the next, and I’m still not sure what to think of this group. Here’s my best attempt at a representative sample from the limited set we have; I trust it speaks for itself:
The pass defense has been more uniform: about 62% effectiveness, with similar frequency and success rates from both opponents (although I don’ t think efficiency passing is Colorado’s strong suit, and I don’t think Cal has any at all).
UCLA combines some pretty good speed in their secondary with a pass rush that can be brutally effective at times. The biggest issue I see is playing with such over-aggression that they sometimes get their leverage wrong:
- :00 - I think this is cover-3 (hard to tell with the absurdly tight angle ESPN used throughout this game) and the QB has an easy time dropping it into the deep hole when one DB has his hips turned the wrong way and the other falls down trying to cut hard upfield, and it’s a free play anyway.
- :16 - One DB levels a blocker, another falls down, and eight guys jump on the pile.
- :27 - A low throw for no good reason, fairly common with this QB, should give the CB plenty of time to come down to make the tackle. But he bites inside (where he has help) and gives up his outside leverage (where he doesn’t) allowing the WR past him.
- :36 - By far UCLA’s best lineman, #92 Odighizuwa, wrecks the guard and puts on a showstopping sack.
Schematically, UCLA has switched to a 4-2-5, which is probably related to bringing in DB coach Norwood (and briefly, apparently co-DC) from Navy which ran a similar defense. The most effective new player and position is the Striker role, which is a quick-hitting box safety played by Kent St transfer #24 DB Knight. David and I agreed that, given the effective rotation and absence of reliable playmakers at other positions, Knight and Odighizuwa are UCLA’s only irreplaceable defensive players.
I think there are still some lingering issues implementing the new scheme, however, and I continue to see technical deficiencies in DC Azzinaro’s defensive playcalling. Over the last three years I’ve observed errors in the alignment of his players at a rate which exceeds the threshold that, in my experience, gets most coordinators fired. Some examples:
- :00 - Bringing an obvious blitzer down onto the line against trips to the boundary makes this slant pass impossible to defend - they have no one to occupy the throwing lane and the DBs can’t play inside to the field.
- :08 - The entire defensive front is attacking the backside of this play despite the offset alignment of the back, with only three playside defenders against four available blockers.
- :15 - Blitzing with both DBs to the boundary playing 15 yards off the line is a recipe for a giant hole in the defense which quickly fills up with linemen on this screen.
- :31 - Cal’s TE helpfully points out the WILL who’s giving away the run-blitz and then whiffs on the mesh, while the MIKE chases the empty-handed back, giving the offense a numbers advantage - they only have one guy to the left of the hash vs one big blocker.