The No. 19 Washington State Cougars welcome the UCLA Bruins into an anthracite-laden Martin Stadium to open Pac-12 play on Saturday night. The Cougs are coming off a victory over the Houston Cougars that was statistically much more dominant than it felt, with the defense performing an absolute heel-turn in the second half as the entire team adjusted to the faster game speed of a tougher opponent.
The Cougs are now 3-0 for the third consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened in any measure of history recent enough to matter. The Bruins are 0-3, and haven’t been showing any signs of trending up in head coach Chip Kelly’s second season at the helm.
Wazzu is favored by somewhere around 18 points and Bill Connelly’s SP+ projects a 38-21 final score in favor of the Cougs.
Kelly was hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2007. Two years later he took over as the head coach and was college football’s standard bearer for one thing that is now ubiquitous in the sport: tempo. Prior to Kelly, the Ducks had been to seven major bowls and had four 10-win seasons in their entire school history.
They went 44-7 under Kelly and averaged roughly 45 points per game. During his tenure, the Ducks went to two Rose Bowls, two Fiesta Bowls and a BCS National Championship game.
They were the face of the Pac-12. Not only were they good, they felt cutting edge.
In 2010, they won every game by double digits except for two, a weird 15-13 win at Cal — because all games at Cal are weird — and the BCS National Championship against Auburn.
They called his offense The Blur. It was a level of tempo no one in Division 1 was really doing. They didn’t just not huddle, they sprinted to the ball as soon as the ref could spot it and often even faster than that.
They held up stoplight signs on the sidelines telling the offense how fast to push it. They’d get one first down and the green light would go up and you just knew, whatever personnel the defense had on the field had to stay there until they quit from exhaustion or the Ducks scored. And the Ducks scored fast.
It pissed Nick Saban off, back in 2012.
It’s a tremendous advantage to the offense. So I don’t blame any offensive coach for wanting to do it, and taking advantage of it, deceiving the defense with the pace of the game, whatever you want to call it. But I just think that someone should examine: is this where we want this to go for player safety?
Alabama rode an up tempo spread-running offense with Jalen Hurts to the Championship four years later. Pieces of Kelly’s offense are everywhere now, like the Air Raid but unlike Mike Leach, Chip Kelly has zero interest in running the scheme he invented just a decade ago.
Kelly left Oregon for the NFL right before the NCAA levied sanctions against the Ducks for recruiting violations in 2013. He produced a couple 10-win seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and wore out his welcome by week 16 of a mediocre-but-not-awful six win season. The next year he had a terrible outing in San Francisco that ended the NFL’s interest in him.
If the UCLA administration knew that they were hiring Chip Kelly the guy and not Chip Kelly’s Offense, the fans didn’t. After 15 games, they don’t go to home games in one of the greatest venues in the sport and have serious questions about why Kelly isn’t running his offense. What used to be The College Offense. An offense that has infiltrated the sport to some degree at nearly every program.
“Oregon was a long time ago,” says Kelly, “They had a lot of success with the single wing in the 1930s, too, but people, football evolves and things evolve so maybe drop that take, to be honest with you. I never said when I came in here that we were going to run the offense that we were running at Oregon, so I don’t know why that continues to come up as a question.”
Only Rice, Texas State, and New Mexico State rank lower than UCLA in scoring offense this season.
The Bruins are still figuring out who they are a little bit offensively. They’ve played with various tight end personnel groupings, pistol, single back, four wide receivers, and pre-snap motion, while not doing any one thing exceptionally well. The offense goes how sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson goes.
Their 263 yards per game is good for 129th nationally and their 4.1 yards per play is 130th (or last).
The majority of what UCLA does starts with a zone read. Expect to see a heavy dose of that on Saturday. Out of this 2x2 set the Bruins love this pop-pass, especially on short yardage downs. The play has a zone read middle iso and an option route from their inside receivers. SDSU is showing six in the box and playing at least five yards off the receivers on a short 2nd-and-3.
Robinson is reading the left defensive end (highlighted) and handed the ball off to his running back, who was stopped around the line of scrimmage.
He just struggled with these reads throughout the game against SDSU. The Oklahoma game had some improvement, helped out by some motions to get the defense adjusting on the fly but it didn’t fare a whole lot better. His offense is outnumbered in the box with A-gap pressure and his defensive end is sucked in to the line, and he still gave up the ball.
On a key drive late in the fourth quarter they ran this same play twice on short yardage, with Robinson missing reads both times and handing the ball off to a running back that had no chance. They failed to convert a fourth down and effectively ended the Bruins chances at a win.
This is one of those things where if he decides to be a runner, or make plays himself rather than handing it off, the Bruins could be drastically better offensively overnight. That’s a tough ask for a young quarterback with more than a few confidence-decimating plays under his belt.
UCLA moved the ball into the Red Zone but then...... pic.twitter.com/nqNBgfrAfk— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) August 29, 2019
UCLA defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro hitched his wagon to Kelly in 2009, joining the staff at Oregon as the defensive line coach. Prior to Oregon, Azzinaro was a highly successful defensive line coach in the Northeast — spending time at Boston College, UMass, Syracuse, and New Hampshire (2007) — that really struggled whenever given total control of the defense. He was a co-DC at Duke for three seasons in the mid-2000s and won a total of three games. His teams ranked 100th, 89th, and 105th in defense during that stretch from 2004-06.
Azzinaro followed Kelly to his NFL stops in Philadelphia and San Francisco, serving as defensive line coach at both spots.
He didn’t have another shot at Defensive Coordinator until Kelly gave him the role at UCLA 12 years later.
Wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and olive shorts, the Bruins’ defensive coordinator cast a striking silhouette. His white beard, glasses and stocky build complete with a belly that spilled over his waistline made him look like a shopping-mall Santa Claus. — Ben Bolch, LA Times
The Bruins had hopes to make the switch to an aggressive 3-4 defense this season, using a bulky nose tackle to eat up lineman in the middle and fire athletic linebackers through gaps. This has not happened. UCLA looks a lot like WSU did in their 3-4 before Alex Grinch, failing in run fits with players being asked to control two-gaps and linebackers that fly themselves out of position half the time they stunt.
And it hasn’t provided any measure of pressure on the quarterback.
If you’re going to be slightly undisciplined and out of position, at least raise some hell while you’re doing it. Cougs are familiar with what that looks like too — increased havoc from the defensive line was the first thing that really signaled a defensive turnaround on the Palouse.
In coverage, UCLA will happily play their quarters and cover 2, and mix in cover 3 when they stunt multiple backers. They went super aggressive against Oklahoma’s wide receivers in the first half, electing to play man with either a single to two-high safety shell and got absolutely smoked.
Somehow, they didn’t account for Sooner quarterback Jalen Hurts in their man coverage underneath and he damn near walked the ball up the field untouched. That got shored up with a QB spy and they had a little more success as the game progressed when they weren’t trying to man-up that receiving corps.
Linebackers still had issues with backs out of the backfield and intermediate crossing routes were typically wide open whenever the safeties played soft over the top. The communication in their underneath zones hasn’t quite been to level it needs to be to stop passing offenses that attack that part of the field. WSU should be relentless here.
I wouldn’t expect much press man out of them this week after the whipping Oklahoma put on that secondary ... but coaches are stubborn.
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson has a massive problem with pressure. When faced with it, if he’s not outright dropping the ball, he’s scrambling backwards to make a bad play worse.
- WSU’s defensive front presents a challenge to read-option teams. The stemming along the front changes keys for blocking assignments and reads for the quarterback. This could be an insurmountable challenge for an offense that doesn’t totally know what it wants to do and isn’t very good at the things it’s being asked to do.
- UCLA hasn’t pressured anyone and Wazzu is pretty damn good at vertical drop pass protection. This seems like a huge mismatch in the Cougs’ favor.
- The Bruin secondary is allowing over 71% of passes to be completed for 10.5 yards per pass. This is among the bottom of the barrel for FBS programs. It is also just about what Anthony Gordon is averaging.
- UCLA hasn’t fully incorporated their tight ends into what they do offensively and that’s sort of a missed opportunity at the moment. Especially with USC transfer Devin Asiasi. He’s a big-bodied pass catching threat that could provide a nice target at intermediate yardage.
The big thing in this game is to jump out to a lead. If WSU could get a possession or two ahead of the Bruins in the first quarter, that all but eliminates UCLA’s ability to run middle isos and hitches up and down the field like they enjoy doing. The further ahead the Cougs can push a lead in the first half, the more they can force UCLA to be more aggressive on offense.
And neither their head coach nor quarterback want to be doing much of that.