For the first time in awhile, casual and serious observers of the college football world will keep a mindful eye on the UCLA football program. Jim Mora’s successful first season ended with a whimper, but in his second season as head coach, the Bruins managed to improve their overall record (from 9-5 to 10-3) despite a much more difficult schedule.
Even with that improvement, UCLA rarely looked like a national title contender for an entire game. Though the box scores tell a different story, the Bruins’ offense was normally the source of frustration. Noel Mazzone’s play-calling and decision-making came into question regularly, and his uncharacteristically conservative approach left the task of slaying solid teams almost entirely to his defense. Against Oregon, for example, the Bruins held Oregon to 14 points in the first half and 21 points through three quarters, but had only scored 14 points the entire game themselves. (Although it’s important to note that Brett Hundley looked indecisive at times, as is his custom, and the UCLA offensive line was a bit of a patch job for much of the season.) In many instances, UCLA’s defense anchored the Bruins, while the offense sometimes felt useless and even counterproductive.
Did an offensive romping of USC and Virginia Tech change all of that, though? Were the final two games of the season enough to convince observers that the Bruins were, indeed, for real, and had finally grown up, and that the offense was to take the credit?
Not entirely. The hype began when Brett Hundley announced he’d be returning for his junior season, in an announcement that got UCLA fans ready to run through a few walls.
Of course, the idea that Brett Hundley is the sole reason this team went from preseason top-25 team to national contender is one that’s pretty off-base. While quarterbacks are really damn important, it’s unreasonable to say that Hundley’s the sole reason.
The real reason UCLA’s 2014 campaign will be examined so heavily is the retention of an offensive unit that’s been considered young and inexperienced for about two years now. Hundley is obviously a large part of why the unit should be a cohesive one.
Because while Hundley’s return in the context of the unit is important, the Bruins are bringing back an offensive line that got much better as the season progressed. While injuries threw freshman offensive linemen like Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond into the fold quicker than the staff would’ve liked, the youngsters—like Benenoch and Redmond—had more in-game experience to hang their hats on entering the offseason. Despite the fact that the line itself could be relatively young—Benenoch and Redmond will surely get a lot of run, though junior and potential All American Jake Brendel will anchor the line—it’ll be a rather experienced and talented one.
Those are the two primary components that could ensure UCLA’s offense develops into an elite one: a solid offensive line and a veteran quarterback.
But that’s not why UCLA’s hype is legitimate.
Much of the attention here has been placed primarily on UCLA’s offense, and that’s the point: The attention will always stay on the offense, whether the offense is stagnant, average, or stellar.
What UCLA needed in 2013, though, was “average.” The UCLA defense, for all the hype the offense gets, did the lion’s share of the work last season.
Again, in the case of the Oregon game, UCLA’s defense held Oregon to 21 points through 45 minutes of game-time, by far the best any defense had done against the Ducks up to that point in the year. The box score says that the Bruin defense went on to allow 21 more in the span of a period, but what the box score doesn’t say (unless you’re looking at a drive-by-drive summary) is that the Bruins squandered countless offensive opportunities. Though the Bruin defense continuously stopped Oregon in its tracks, UCLA’s offense faltered on the regular. In the second half, the Bruins ran four or less plays on four of their final eight possessions, a damning statistic given the fact that Oregon would go on to explode in the final quarter. The defense was asked to carry much of the load, and at some point, it gave out.
While we won’t go into too much detail (Ed. Note: because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want), the same can be said for a number of UCLA’s poor offensive performances. (The Stanford game is another example, but the wins against Utah, California, and Arizona were also cause for concern on offense. Perhaps the only game in which the defense seemed at fault for much of the team’s shortfalls was against Arizona State, when Jim Mora moved Myles Jack to running back for nearly the tilt’s entirety.)
But that’s what was missing in 2013: A consistent offense that (consistently) at its worst ate up clock and gave its defense a blow, and at its best, did what the team did against Nebraska in the second half. (That is to say, tear apart defenses.) The UCLA defense shouldered much of the load, and that’s incredibly important moving forward because it’s an innovative defense built to deal with spread offenses, a rarity in college football.
If the offense can provide the defense with a lot of slack (and then some), this 2014 team might live up to the hype after all.