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Duck Tape: Film Analysis of UCLA 2021

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A preview of Oregon’s week 8 opponent in Pasadena

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

The Bruins’ most effective aspect of football is their rushing attack, with 112 successful designed runs vs 86 failed ones, given the down & distance, or 56.6% per-play efficiency over the seven games I’ve charted. They average 6.0 yards per carry and get 10+ yard gains on 18% of all rushing playcalls outside of garbage time, combining pretty good efficiency with very good explosiveness.

There are three things working for UCLA in their rush offense: first, this is a fairly diverse rushing playbook in terms of blocking schemes, inside vs outside running, and using some creative formations, but without any significant dropoff that I can measure by being overstretched instead of specializing in one or two as some teams do. Second, they’ve got a couple of excellent backs in #24 RB Charbonnet and #28 RB B. Brown who are very tough to bring down and earn a lot of yards after contact. Third, #1 QB Thompson-Robinson is also an effective runner who gets a lot of designed carries on keepers and read-options, forcing defenses to expend resources accounting for him. Here’s a representative sample of successful rushing plays:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - One of the unusual formations UCLA uses a lot is an unbalanced, tackle-over line (fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood tells us that they’re called “taco” on UCLA’s playcard), here with #70 RT Anderson inserted between the left guard and tackle. They have a numbers advantage playside, and when the backers come up inside on the initial press Brown easily bends it out for a big gain.
  2. :16 - One of many “yaco” runs; the center and LT are both losing their blocks to the DTs and the LG gets knocked over by a backer on his pull, but Charbonnet just jumps over the mess for five yards on 1st down.
  3. :24 - The Bruins run the ball with 13 yards or longer to go about half the time, much more often than most teams. The defense initially shows eight in the box but drops three out expecting a pass, and that lets the offense read one, block the rest, and get an extra hat downfield for a big run.
  4. :43 - Designed QB keeps, not just read-options, are fairly frequent, and they run about 45% of the time out of empty as in this play. The defense is in man and nobody’s eyes are in the backfield, so when the blitz goes to the other side the QB has no opposition until a dozen yards downfield.

Disrupting UCLA’s rushing attack has the highest correlation with game outcomes, compared to the other quadrants of football - in their two losses, the Bruins’ per-play rushing efficiency, number of explosive rushes, and total designed rushing yardage were all held significantly below their season averages.

There are a couple of factors working against UCLA’s run game: first, each of the seven offensive linemen (same two tackles every snap, but frequent planned and injury-related rotation between five guys at center and guards) as well as the tight ends grade out with a significantly higher error rate at run blocking than pass protection on my tally sheet, and I very rarely see a totally clean play with every block going as planned. Second, while the formational diversity is fascinating to a film reviewer, they’re strong giveaways as to the playcall: only about 37% rushing when in the shotgun with an offset back (which describes about two-thirds of their snaps) and about 80% rushing when in the pistol or under-center, regardless of the configuration or count of the backs and tight ends. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The OLB playing wider out of the playside (this formation is always a run “tacoside”) gets the #74 LT Rhyan far outside and interrupting the WR’s block of one the DB, while the center has just plain missed the backer, and Anderson is risking a holding flag.
  2. :08 - Another run with a long way to go, and another tackle-over play, but this one from the 21-personnel pistol look Oregon fans may recall from their 2020 game. ASU’s defensive front simply wins every block on this play, a big part of why they limited UCLA to just 36% rush efficiency in this game.
  3. :15 - UCLA’s blocking tight end, #86 TE Martinez, has been out the last few games and according to practice reports will likely be out tomorrow. Dulcich simply isn’t as effective at blocking.
  4. :30 - I don’t believe I saw any tackle-over plays last week against Washington, but the I did see their typical pathing approach a lot - press inside, bend out. It took the Huskies until the second half to ever defend it properly, by cutting off the playside guard, getting inside the slice block, and bringing the safety down for contain.

UCLA’s passing attack is slightly below water, with 87 successful designed passing plays vs 88 failed ones, or 49.7% per-play efficiency. It’s a more complex situation than a simple coin flip, though, with a lot of ups and downs to the passing performance over the season.

Thompson-Robinson has had some pretty wild oscillations in his accuracy numbers between games, including the last two when he went from (in raw stats) 8/19 for 82 yards, 1 TD/1 INT for an 85.2 NCAA passer rating against Arizona, to 21/26 for 183 yards, 2 TD/0 INT for a 165.3 rating against Washington. There’s been some speculation about a recent injury, but I haven’t seen anything to confirm it and two of his lowest completion games were in weeks 0 and 1 against Hawaii and LSU.

While the per-play efficiency is mediocre, the Bruins average a healthy 8.9 yards per passing attempt outside garbage time, on the strength of frequent explosive designed passing plays - 18% of all dropbacks result in a 15+ yard gain. The playbook is significantly less complex in the passing game than the running game; for example this offense throws screen passes at a rate well below the Pac-12 average, less than two per game. I mostly see the same handful of plays over and over with an emphasis on engineering a single target to be wide open, usually #85 TE Dulcich, but with a few other tricks as well. I also think that Thompson-Robinson has, in his fourth year as starter, improved a lot in handling pocket pressure in terms of scrambling and finding the checkdown. Some examples:

  1. :00 - This concept — three verticals and an in-breaking route from the TE — makes up about 20% of UCLA’s pass playcalls. The high replay shows not much separation by the WRs against man coverage, but watch the QB the instant the TE hits his break and the DB over him bites outside, he’s released in the window between the backers.
  2. :19 - The line to gain on this 4th down is the 35, and we’re seeing a mesh in front of it, a checkdown, and the TE and slot receiver covered downfield. The pocket collapses on both sides, but Thompson-Robinson remarkably ducks down and darts through the hole, and there’s nobody in the middle of the field to stop him.
  3. :40 - This stress play is about 10% of passing playcalls, with the back and the No.3 receiver heading to the flats and the TE and No.2 camping at the LTG. The idea is that the backers have to make a choice between the wide and middle parts of the field; here the ILB goes for the back despite the CB staying on top of him so the TE is wide open, and he’s tough to bring down.
  4. :48 - Coach Kelly is hardly running the blur offense anymore, but he does run several hurry-up plays that usually follow a big gain while the defense is still sorting itself out. Here the Huskies are misaligned against this unbalanced formation — trips plus the TE and RB to the boundary — and the TE is covered up so can’t release. If they had a moment to think about it they’d realign the backers, the strong safety would actually cover the No.2, and the high safety would do something useful.

Other than the quarterback’s hot-and-cold accuracy, there are a couple other knocks on UCLA’s passing game. First, the wide receiver corps is not particularly dynamic, and in fact they were missing their most targeted player, #2 WR Philips, in the last game and it didn’t put a dent in their usual passing numbers (Philips appears to be back in action tomorrow, according to practice reports), whereas missing Dulcich was devastating because the rest of their TEs have pretty poor hands. Second, pocket collapses are frequent, with fully a third of all dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway (one of the highest rates I’ve ever observed), and Thompson-Robinson pulls off an effective play only about half the time when he scrambles. Some examples:

  1. :00 - A crosser to the TE — either in-line, as an H-back, or split out as the Y — represents about 20% of passing playcalls. Here the defense probably makes the best move it can, by jamming Dulcich immediately at the line, because his is the only man-beater in the pattern and the rest of the receivers aren’t getting separation in man.
  2. :16 - Probably shouldn’t try to get away with defensive holding, but this is basically the right idea against verticals - single cover the WRs because that’s not a big ask, mug the TE, and threaten the checkdown. Pressure will have gotten through by then and the QB will always take off.
  3. :42 - Using seven blockers in protection against a four-man rush buys enough pocket time to set up for a deep shot, but the top receiver just isn’t getting any separation and ball really dies on him in the air.
  4. :56 - It takes an extra second, but if the coverage can hold up loop stunts like this are really effective against this line. The LG just doesn’t see it and goes to help the LT, leaving the QB exposed and forcing a bad throw.

In the last few games UCLA has employed an unusual Emory & Henry wide split of the offensive linemen on a handful of plays. It produced a couple of big gains against Arizona St and Washington, largely because the defenses were baffled by it and misaligned. As soon as the defense started lining up properly it became ineffective, mostly due to the issues with the offensive linemen discussed above. A couple examples which I trust need no explanation:


UCLA LSU football Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Defense

I wrote extensively about the 4-2-5 defense that DB coach Norwood brought with him from Navy last season in my summer preview of UCLA. The most significant adjustment I’ve seen to it during the 2021 season is that the “Striker” position, officially a DB, has been playing in the box on virtually every snap as effectively a third linebacker at depth, and the “Raider” OLB position opposite him is more often replaced by a stand-up defensive end. The net result is a defense that operates more like a 4-3/3-4 hybrid than most of the nickel defenses common in the Pac-12.

Some of this is likely prompted by some positional re-arrangements and unavailabilities - #33 DE Calvert has switched from an ILB at which he was largely ineffective in the past, #12 DB Irby has switched from RB to the Striker role, they took on a host of transfers across the defense, and their most effective edge player, #45 DE Agude, has been limited recently. But to me keeping seven in the box and frequently five on the line mostly looks like an attempt to replace the single-handed disruption that Osa Odighizuwa brought last year, who’s now with the Cowboys and has three sacks and three TFLs in six games as a rookie.

Extra personnel has translated into frequent blitzing, and the Bruins are above water in their defense against designed passing plays largely due to quickly overwhelming the passer: 124 successes vs 118 failures, or 51.2%, and allowing only 7.9 yards per passing attempt while causing 23% of opponent dropbacks to end in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Bringing seven here, not a ton of pressure but the QB doesn’t think he has time to get off his first read despite pretty good coverage, interestingly from a former Stanford CB.
  2. :24 - Here’s why Agude is so valuable - the DTs are on the grass and the DE whiffs badly, but Agude has beaten the LT’s grabby blocking technique and pursues the play all the way around.
  3. :40 - Backing out of a massive rush like this is fairly common; here starter #91 DL Ogbonnia gets through on a nice swim move, and the starting Striker, #24 DB Knight, backs into underneath coverage then crashes the QB once he’s flushed.
  4. :49 - The blitz is pretty obvious here with the DB walking up to the line. Overwhelming this OL isn’t particularly challenging but it collapses especially fast here, with starter #58 DL D. Jackson getting past the center and the back not sure whom to pick up.

The tradeoff is that it’s pretty rare for the defense to generate appreciable pressure when only rushing four, and while their efficiency is decent their ability to stop explosive passing plays has taken a hit, allowing 17% of all dropbacks to gain 15+ yards (including 15 passes of 25+ yards on the season, #95 nationally). Extra rushers, or when they often show blitz but then back out, means there are quick passing opportunities that savvier quarterbacks have taken advantage of, and some injury and roster management issues have meant it’s not easy for the secondary to hold up in man coverage. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The high replay shows how UCLA fills in coverage after a blitz. With two backs in, the linebackers cover the flats in case they leak out, though both backs stay in for protection. That leaves the Z double covered but the safety is late and the X splits the DBs for a big gain.
  2. :23 - ASU capitalized on the voids created by heavy pressure, or in this case backing out but the LBs are still stuck in the middle of the field, several times for big plays. Here they’re in cover-0, fairly typical for their blitz structure, meaning no safety over the top, so the WR just has to beat single coverage, which isn’t a huge challenge against some of UCLA’s more plodding DBs.
  3. :43 - Not much pressure rushing four here, plenty of time to hit the out route against these DBs in a pretty soft zone.
  4. :59 - Only rushing three here against an empty set. Irby is trying to point out that the TE is crossing into the transfer ILB’s zone, but he just keeps on backpedaling to the endzone. The stand-up end is backed out in coverage and has a shot at the TE, but whiffs again.

This problem is especially obvious when it comes to screen passes, which UCLA is only defending at a 36% success rate, including a couple where the offense ran nearly the entire field. Here’s a representative sample of all screen pass defenses:

  1. :00 - Bringing everybody here, and the defense is again in cover-0, aligned to the strong side in man coverage with no safety over the top. The X receiver takes the CB with him to the other side of the field and now there’s three linemen to block the only DB left.
  2. :23 - Nice job by Irby here single-handedly blowing up the screen by getting outside leverage on the TE’s block and catching the legs as the ballcarrier tries to jump back inside.
  3. :36 - Given the defensive call, UCLA’s players are doing about as well as they can here, they’re just outflanked due to the blitz and how far the safety has to run.

UCLA’s rush defense is somewhat the reverse: fairly underwater in per-play efficiency with 68 successes against designed runs vs 75 failures, or 47.6%, however they’re only allowing 4.5 yards per carry outside garbage time and only 10% of designed runs go 10+ yards. In other words the Bruins let you have methodical runs, giving up 5-9 yard rushes 20% of the time, but they tend to keep those rushes from going explosive. Some examples:

  1. :00 - There’s something to be said for attacking a heavy set with a lot of bodies and enthusiasm.
  2. :08 - This is what Knight and the DBs in general bring to the run game - fast get off and the ability to call the bluff of unblocked running.
  3. :16 - I haven’t seen a lot of rotation away from the interior defensive line starters Ogbonnia and Jackson, but when they’re resting I usually see #93 DL Toia, the true freshman whom the Bruins got to defect from USC after Spring ball. He’s pretty valuable for sheer mass alone.
  4. :24 - In my opinion UCLA doesn’t have a perfect replacement for Odighizuwa for inside disruption, but the d-linemen do explode out of their stances and can wipe out opposing o-linemen showing poor technique to get into the backfield fast.

One interesting tendency jumped out from the numbers: UCLA is fairly efficient at defending the run on 1st & 10, about a 54% success rate and 7 percentage points better than their defensive average, and several opponents have effectively abandoned the run when looking at 2nd & medium thereafter. However, those who’ve stuck with it have been rewarded with lots of conversions, because the Bruins’ rush defense success rate falls precipitously to just 32% with 4-7 yards to go and 36% with 3 or fewer to go.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say about why the Bruins’ rush defense breaks down - their defensive front simply gets beat at getting off blocks and tackling. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Here penetration is cutting off the outside run so the back cuts it back in, giving the unblocked Calvert a chance to catch the back from behind, but he gets dragged for five yards.
  2. :07 - This blocking scheme ought to look familiar to any Oregon fan of the last 15 years. A couple of combo blocks have worked the DL pretty far back, then the TE comes off to clear the backer.
  3. :13 - Another familiar play, the backer crashing on the inside carry means UCLA has no outside contain with this many defenders crowding the line. The WR throws a nice block against the CB in man.
  4. :25 - I’ve watched this play a dozen times and I still have no idea what the end or the backers are doing.