Nota bene: In addition to excluding UCLA’s game against FCS Alabama State from the dataset referenced in this article for the usual reasons, after talking with Michael I also chose to exclude UCLA’s opener against Bowling Green. There was a lot of uncharacteristic play in that game and the opponent provided very poor competition – they’re currently ranked 146th on the Sagarin list of all 261 Division-I teams, below 24 FCS teams.
The most remarkable thing about this year’s Bruins is that head coach Kelly, unlike the previous four years in Westwood in which he used a massive playbook that changed week to week and constantly introduced new formations, has pared this offense down to possibly the most compact and simplified one in the conference. More than 75% of meaningful snaps are conducted out of a standard shotgun spread 11-personnel formation with the back offset, with the rest being a smattering of under-center, pistol, empty, and 12-pers. Both rushing plays and the passing route tree look like a “best-of” album from Kelly’s last four years – plenty of zone reads, some off-tackle power, and a whole lot of Y-cross.
Setting that shock aside, the roster and personnel usage has gone exactly as Michael and I worked out in July’s preview. There simply aren’t a lot of other options for what the two-deep could be, given Kelly’s idiosyncratic approach to recruiting and the transfer portal. As has been the case for years, most passing plays are designed to scheme a single target open and everyone else might as well be a decoy, and since the pocket doesn’t reliably hold up long enough to get to a second read in the progression, fifth-year starter #1 QB Thompson-Robinson has developed quite a career at scrambling and making off-schedule plays.
The two most common “live” options in the passing game are #9 WR Bobo, a tall transfer from Duke who’s built like an outside receiver but frequently lines up in the slot, and #19 WR Allen, a converted running back who’s quite fast but used almost exclusively as a possession receiver on short throws. Those two combined have more targets during meaningful play than the rest of the team combined. In this way they’re used like tight end Greg Dulcich and wideout Kyle Philips over the last couple years, both now in the NFL.
UCLA’s best quadrant of play from scrimmage has clearly been the passing offense, with 66 successful designed passing plays vs 52 failed ones, or 56% efficiency, given the down & distance. That’s an above-average number though shy of elite, as is their 9.6 adjusted YPA. Where UCLA has excelled has been in explosive passing, with over 20% of designed passing plays gaining 15+ yards – a championship-caliber figure, in my experience. Here’s a representative sample of successful downfield passing:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – This is what Michael was referring to on the podcast as Thompson-Robinson being at “the peak of his powers” – this drag route is very long-developing play that he has to have patience for, he throws it with perfect accuracy, in-stride, with a very quiet base. Gorgeous pass.
- :14 – He’s also a pretty effective QB on the hoof, rolling left here and conducting a mid-level read of the flood concept. The zone coverage here is proper across all throwing lanes but he’s got a tall receiver with a good vertical and he lofts it over the defense.
- :28 – This screen pass would have gotten blown up and he can’t throw it downfield with the OL that far past the LOS, so he just runs it. The blocking here isn’t great but he picks his way through, breaks a couple tackles, and gets the 1st down.
- :35 – Pretty poor blitz pickup even with a seven-man protection, and Thompson-Robinson is going to get hammered. In previous years he might have dipped but this year he’s taking the hit and delivering an accurate ball.
While Thompson-Robinson seems to have completely eliminated the bizarre open-field fumbling and massive negative-yardage plays that plagued his early career, there are still a few factors working against the Bruins’ passing efficiency. They replaced both their offensive tackles this season and it’s taken some time to get up to speed, and each of the five starters plus the sixth man come in for below-average blocking grades on my tally sheet. I think their tight end talent isn’t what it has been in previous years for Kelly and that limits both their blocking and formational options, and the current running back depth borders on the precarious and there haven’t been nearly as many passes to them out of the backfield. I also think that the almost programmatic nature of this offense locks them into several unproductive plays if the defense doesn’t take the bait as expected. Some examples:
- :00 – I didn’t think last year’s tackles or tight ends could get worse in pass protection but I was wrong.
- :11 – The line to gain is the 35, the 4th down this sets up will be in a later clip. The wheel to Allen is wide open given this cover-1 blitz but the throw is going to be this crosser the whole way. Pressure doesn’t give Thompson-Robinson any time to find something else even if he wanted to.
- :20 – Redzone play design has been kind of funky this year. The heavy set is supposed to create an easy fade but the defense is just faster to the QB than the play can develop. Other than Allen there aren’t any real speedsters among the pass catchers.
- :32 – I’m reasonably certain this slant is the only read on the play, given RB motion and sideline release to the wide side opens the defense to it. There are better throws than three yards deep on 3rd & 9 with the single safety over it but I don’t think they’re live.
Starter #24 RB Charbonnet has continued to be one of the most productive backs in the league. Even though the run-blocking grades from this offensive line would predict an underwater rush efficiency rate, the Bruins have pulled to slightly above average with 51 successes on designed runs vs 46 failures, or 52.5%. Their yardage has been excellent at 6.7 adjusted YPC, and explosiveness has been nearly elite at 19.5% gaining 10+ yards. Other than Charbonnet’s quality in breaking tackles and making big plays out of nothing, the other factor that I think has dragged the rushing efficiency higher than I would have expected has been Kelly’s playcalling homing in on structural vulnerabilities once opposing defenses display them, repeatedly calling similar run plays the defense shows they don’t know how to stop.
Here’s a representative sample of successful runs:
- :00 – I don’t really think this is a read, it looks like just a straight inside handoff, but still a pretty light box with the RPO threat to the field. The line’s doing Charbonnet no favors so he makes his own play, which is pretty typical.
- :19 – This is 3rd & 1, the superimposed stripe is wrong. Here’s the backup #22 RB K. Jones, a track star who was unrated out of high school. The play is to press the A-gap then bounce to the B-gap, but both the left and right guards are failing to control their blocks so he as to keep running outside, tearing his shirt in the process.
- :35 – This play is meant to give Charbonnet a one-on-one with the safety in the redzone, but it’s more like a two-on-one given the LT’s do-si-do with the backer. He gets through both for a decent gain.
- :42 – Both the left and right tackles miss their assigned second-level blocks, earning some misplaced praise from the commentator. A couple defenders have free shots at Charbonnet as a result but he eludes them for a big run.
Still, I would describe this as a “pass-to-win” team rather than a “run-first” one, which is quite a reversal for Kelly given his history, as they call a passing play on about 55% of all meaningful snaps despite playing with a lead on 70% of reps in Pac-12 play. Even though Charbonnet is a great back, the limitations of the offensive line and Thompson-Robinson’s greater ability to do damage when improvising if the play’s not there mean the rushing offense is the relatively weaker of the two parts of the offensive.
The most significant aspect of the Bruins’ mediocre rush efficiency, in my opinion, is how it affects redzone playcalling and effectiveness. Despite ranking 12th in raw yards per game nationally, UCLA comes in at 57th in redzone TD conversion rate, and on my tally sheet their overall offensive efficiency rate when snapping the ball in the redzone falls to 46% compared to 57.5% outside the redzone. It looks to me that Kelly doesn’t trust the run game to simply pound it between the tackles when they get to the goalline, but rather trusts the QB to make a play.
Some examples of problems in the run game:
- :00 – An outside run to the boundary with three perimeter blockers and the LT should be an easy win with a talent mismatch against a G5 team, but not today. The TE, slot man, LT, and RG are all missing or losing their blocks.
- :06 – The guards, who unlike the tackles are longtime vets, just aren’t getting any push on the interior of Colorado’s line. I haven’t seen the same ability to improvise better plays out of Jones when the hole’s not open.
- :21 – The TE is initially blocking the wrong guy, then when he gets to his correct assignment gets beat by him. The LT gets juked by the LB who assists on the tackle.
- :31 – Everybody’s blocking the right guy on this play, they’re just not controlling those blocks to open a hole away from the read defender.
Although UCLA turned over almost its entire defensive coaching staff, there hasn’t been a fundamental change to the front structure or philosophy, though its pass rush is coming from more traditional edge players rather than the hybrid DB/OLB positions of the last two years. I would characterize it as a 4-2-5, with a couple of big space-eating DTs, a couple of edges (alternately labeled DEs or LBs on the official roster but with the same assignments regardless), two ILBs at depth, and a nickel safety. They play a lot of cover-2 and generally put a premium on preventing explosive plays.
In rush defense it’s been a mixed bag. Defensive efficiency against the run has been underwater, with 45 successfully defended designed runs vs 55 failures, or a 45% defensive success rate. They’ve had some injury and talent issues with the defensive tackles, and rely on aggressive linebacker play to gum up the works even though the back end tends to play out of the box. Every team over the last four games has reliably gotten methodical rushing gains by simply blocking the front effectively in bread-and-butter plays without having to get particularly inventive. Some examples:
- :00 – Now this is how you control blocks – solid base, flat back, keep the feet moving, and turn your defender to make a lane. The ump is doing a better job defending this play than the front.
- :07 – I tried to crack what the ILBs’ keys are as to what run gaps they’re meant to fill, but for all I could figure out it’s random. Here, as on about a quarter of plays, both backers go to the C-gaps and the back faces no opposition right up the middle after both DTs get combo-blocked.
- :19 – About 20% of standard downs had this defensive line configuration – no DTs, all four of the edge rushers on the line. It’s not real great at stopping the run.
- :30 – Another example of by far the most common successful run by opposing offenses, which is inside zone comboing the DTs while the ILBs choose other gaps. Solid hit by the DB saves a much bigger run, as with the previous two clips.
However, UCLA has been pretty effective at stopping explosive rushing. They’re allowing just 4.5 adjusted YPC, which is a little better than average for a Power-5 defense, and only 11% of opponent runs gain 10+ yards, which is very good. The longest run they’ve allowed all year was 47 yards (against South Alabama); other than that no run has gained more than 20 yards. I attribute this to pretty good tackling by the safeties playing within the structure and philosophy of the defense and very little cheating and getting trapped by bad angles. It’s also the case that aggressive front play that simply clogs up gaps has been reasonably effective against the offensive lines UCLA has played to date, none of which I think are elite this year. Some examples:
- :00 – Nine guys in the box as the field compresses in the red zone, just too many to block.
- :06 – In a lot of short-yardage situations, UCLA will bring one of the ILBs down onto the line. Michael and I both think this one is the most athletic of them and should be getting a lot more playing time; he knocks the pulling RG to the ground and squeezes the lane shut.
- :14 – The DTs are getting combo’d again so the line is reset about four yards back on a long yardage play, but the edge and ILB get off their blocks (pretty lousy ones from the worst OL coach in the conference) to stop the run before it does too much damage.
- :20 – Good teamwork here, the edge whacks the LT on his way up to the second level, delaying him and letting the ILB close the intended gap. The back bounces but the safeties have enough time to come down and kill the play.
The strength of the pass defense has been its pass rush, and while I don’t think they have any defensive tackles capable of interior penetration (and haven’t since Osa Odighizuwa left for the NFL at the end of 2020), all four players in the edge rush rotation have shown some real flash against the offensive tackles in this league. That’s prevented a lot of deep passing – only about 15% of opposing pass attempts have 20+ air yards in conference play, completed or not – and has kept yardage and explosiveness to merely average levels: 7.2 adjusted YPA on designed passes with 16% gaining 15+ yards. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s a blitz from the corner and one ILB, while dropping the other and an edge player. It’s a tight window with the backer in coverage and the TE can’t handle the ball, while the safety gives him a typically hard hit that probably would have knocked the ball out anyway.
- :11 – Nice job earning a pocket collapse only rushing three here, the edges back out and the ILB just crushes the center. Easy to cover the scramble with all the additional bodies in coverage.
- :29 – Not just an incomplete pass from a bad backfoot throw under pressure, but the pass rush earns a holding flag here too.
- :36 – UCLA has used this funky configuration a few times, with an edge over the center and two DTs on either side. There are three ILBs in on this play, one on the line and two at depth, that lets them back out an edge and two backers while sending replacement pressure up the middle. The DT gets around the LT, impressively, and forces a high throw on the scramble, which the DBs hit hard to break up.
However, pass defense efficiency has been fairly poor for the Bruins, with 57 successfully defended designed passing plays to 73 failures, or just a 43.5% defensive success rate. Furthermore, of the 12 stats I compile from charting on both sides of the ball, this is the only one that has a significant change from excluding a single game: it falls to a very poor 38.5% if the Colorado game is removed from the dataset (this was the Buffs’ first game after making a change to their new true freshman starting QB).
There are a couple things going on here. First, UCLA is pretty susceptible to screen passes since they play the safeties high and crowd the front with blitzes and bluffs (this was also true last year). Second, as Michael and I discussed on the podcast, I think their backup ILBs are much better in their Tampa-2 coverage structure than their starters are, and they get only a fraction of the playing time. Third, while I think the DBs do a pretty good job in tackling and aggressive pass breakups, it’s simply not a great secondary in coverage, stemming from a revolving door of talent issues and developmental problems from constant portal exchanges. Some examples:
- :00 – The second tight end motioning out of the formation doesn’t cause UCLA to re-align here, so they have two over three against the screen pass.
- :07 – With two deep safeties, as UCLA operates much of the time, offenses can still generate one-on-ones down the sideline by sending the No. 2 receiver deep as well. That’s been a good matchup since UCLA’s corners are not their strongest position.
- :23 – Some zone coverages handle routes out of the backfield by handing the No. 2 off to the deep safety and bringing the nickel down onto the back, but UCLA just backs everybody out against deeper throws. It’s a good way to generate chunk yardage.
- :41 – Another three-man rush, but UCLA’s zone wastes four defenders camped out over a hitch and a checkdown while leaving a big hole between the backer and safety.