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Interactive Graphic: Previewing UCLA vs. WSU

The Bruins have fallen on hard times under Chip Kelly.

Oklahoma v. UCLA Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Watching Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks teams reminded me of the opening monologue from Tommy Lee Jones’ character in No Country for Old Men. It felt like opposing defensive coordinators weren’t afraid, but like Ed Tom Bell, they didn’t want to push their chips forward and go out and meet something they didn’t understand. They knew it was their job to fight it, but they weren’t quite sure what they were fighting anymore. They almost didn’t want to know. That blur offense put the soul at hazard.

There was such an inevitability about Kelly’s Oregon teams. If they didn’t jump on you right away, you knew it was coming. Fate had brought them through this world to squash whatever hope your team had that day.

Looking back on how impressive those teams were makes it all the more perplexing to see where the UCLA Bruins are after three games in 2019. Kelly was the Anton Chigurh of the college football world, but now it seems like he could be the one giving that opening monologue at the beginning of No Country instead of being the existential threat it’s about.

The below chart compares WSU and UCLA’s offenses. Your eyes aren’t lying to you when you see where they rank in some of these categories, I swear. They’re currently last in the NCAA in yards per play, 121st in yards per carry, 113th in stuff rate (% of carries stopped at or before line of scrimmage), 104th in 3rd down conversion % and it goes on and on like that. The battered Coug in me who remembers those Oregon team’s hesitates to even put that in writing. Like calling it out will somehow awaken the beast and they’ll fix all these problems before Saturday, but it also seems like something may be broken with this UCLA offense.

WSU, on the other hand, is rolling. The Cougars are second nationally in yards per play, 11th in yards per attempt (which is pretty rare for the Mike Leach Air Raid), and even more shockingly, second in explosive play percentage. The Cougs are tops in success rate on offense, which is defined as 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. Anthony Gordon is keeping the Cougs on schedule and also hitting big plays.

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It’d be one thing if the Bruins were only struggling on offense, but their defense is also off to a slow start in 2019. They’re 104th in success rate, 121st in passing success rate and 114th in yards per play. Now, I think it’s important to point out that they had to play the buzz saw of Oklahoma last week, but even still, their performances against the Cincinnati Bearcats and San Diego State Aztecs left a lot to be desired statistically. Where they’ve done well so far has been keeping team’s out of the end zone once they’re in the red zone, but hopefully Easop Winston Jr. and Dezmon Patmon can exploit their 115th ranking in explosive plays to get a few touchdowns before the Cougs need to snap the ball in the red zone.

What has me nervous for this game is that the WSU run defense is off to a bad start in rushing success rate, ranking 101st nationally. The defense is also 97th nationally in yards per carry. I’m going to guess that this game will be like last week against the Houston Cougars where UCLA breaks some runs. Even though WSU is 25th in avg yards to go on 3rd down, they’re 98th in 3rd down conversion %, letting their opponent get a first down 44% of the time. The second half vs Houston it felt like the run fits got worked out, and hopefully that carries over into the early stages of this game.

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Banner Society’s Bud Elliot tracks a metric called the Blue Chip ratio. What he’s found is that for a team to have a shot at the national title, they need to have at least 50% of their roster be 4 or 5 star players. In the CFP era, UCLA has fallen the farthest of any team that has crested that 50% threshold and heading into 2019 had dropped to around 30% of their roster being blue chips. The below chart looks at the 24/7 composite recruiting ranking for the Pac-12 by position group. Even with the drop in recruiting talent, the Bruins are still solidly in the middle of the conference at most positions. On paper, they should be well ahead of WSU, but every time these two teams meet of late, the Cougs channel their inner Gabe Marks and give UCLA everything they can handle.

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It felt weird writing most of this. When Chip Kelly went to UCLA I was looking forward to seeing what he could do. The Pac-12 needs one of the LA schools to be viewed as “elite” (whatever that means) in order to get respect nationally. It’s crazy to me that the Bruins are still so far behind. I hope that it’s more Kelly needing to clean up a mess left by Jim Mora than a sign that something has gone really sideways in their program. They have talent; I just hope that it takes them another week to figure out how to best deploy it.