Bruins Can’t Exorcise Night Demons Versus Sun Devils

UCLA Bruins Wide Receiver Kyle Philips. Photo Credit: Greg Turk | UCLA Athletics
UCLA Bruins Wide Receiver Kyle Philips. Photo Credit: Greg Turk | UCLA Athletics

What is it about playing Arizona State at night in a big game? In 2013, the Bruins hosted the Sun Devils in primetime with the chance to be PAC-12 South Champions for a second consecutive year. Win that game and the following against USC, and it was theirs. Lost.

In 2015, the Bruins again hosted the Sun Devils at sunset with a freshman phenom named Josh Rosen, undefeated to start the season, and ranked 7th in the country. Lost. They haven’t been back in the top 10 since.

In 2016, the Bruins visited the Sun Devils in a “PAC-12 After Dark” showdown to jumpstart their season. Lost. Rosen had a season-ending injury and it was the beginning of the end for both the Rosen and Jim Mora eras.

Sure, the Bruins may have won MORE head-to-head matchups recently with the Sun Devils, but ASU has won the BIGGER games.

History reared its ugly head once again Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. A perplexing 42-23 defeat that left Bruin faithful dazed, confused, and yet all too familiar. Both teams came into the contest with a big-name 4th-year head coach still looking for a signature season, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with multiple years in the same offensive system, and a historical propensity for letdowns at inopportune times. But only one walked away with a decisive lead in the PAC-12 South race a quarter of the way into the season. Unfortunately, it was Forks Up, not Fours Up.

Is The Defense In Witness Protection?

Can somebody please call a search committee and rescue team to find the UCLA defense? Every member of the Bruin defense needs to be reported missing on milk cartons in the grocery store. This is a shell of the unit that looked supremely physical, tenacious, and dynamic in wins against LSU and Stanford. While the secondary got repeatedly lit up due to double-moves, poor tackling angles, or blown coverages, the true culprit of Saturday’s loss was the defensive line. ZERO sacks and ZERO quarterback hurries.

Jerry Azzinaro’s secondary plays with a hyper aggressiveness that can lead to being susceptible to the big play vertically. However, this style is successful when it is complemented by a pass rush that can consistently force opposing quarterbacks to process information, make decisions, and get rid of the ball sooner than they’d like.

When an average quarterback, let alone an All PAC-12 performer like Jayden Daniels, can comfortably sit back and simply wait for the UCLA secondary to have their inevitable leaks, it’s a buffet of disastrous SportsCenter highlights waiting to happen. In fact, Daniels hit WR Ricky Pearsall for scoring strikes of 65 and 54 yards, respectively, along with a 48-yard post to TE Curtis Hodges and a 47-yard sideline cross to WR Geordon Porter. Granted, injuries at safety to Quentin Lake and Kenny Churchwell played a factor, but this was still an unacceptable performance considering ASU’s leading receiver through the first four games was RB Rachaad White.

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Time To Remove The Chip On Their Shoulder

Despite the defense’s shaky play, the game was still in striking distance at the beginning of the 4th quarter with the Bruins trailing 32-23 and facing 4th & 1 at the ASU 2-yard line. Chip Kelly made two fundamental mistakes at that point: a.) going for it, and b.) not giving the ball to bruising Zach Charbonnet. Chip must know his team by this point in the season – they are not built to come from behind. In fact, in UCLA’s three wins this season, across a total game time of 180 minutes, they’ve trailed for a grand total of 14 SECONDS. Kick the field goal and get the game to a manageable one-possession 6-point deficit. Especially considering that despite ASU’s 42 points, they never actually drove the ball on UCLA.

ASU had 5 plays of 40+ yards. In addition to the four passing plays described above, Rachaad White ran for a 49-yard touchdown, right at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, on a beautiful spin move at the UCLA 37-yard line before scampering to pay dirt down the left sideline. Those 5 plays summed 263 yards for ASU; their other 47 plays netted just 200 yards combined. Not only did they have exactly one 40+ yard play on each of their five touchdown drives, but their other two field-goal drives were the result of a botched UCLA snap recovered by the Sun Devils deep in Bruin territory, and a turnover on downs deep in Bruin territory in garbage time. That’s what made this game so torturous for Bruin fans – just five bad defensive plays cost UCLA the game.

ASU didn’t have a will-enforcing drive in this game that conveyed a sense of dominance or obvious superiority to the Bruins. Which is why Chip going for it early in the 4th was so perplexing. The risk-reward ratio was completely out of whack. Risk going for it, get the touchdown and you have a one-possession 2-point deficit; safely kick the field goal and you still have a one-possession 6-point deficit. But go for it and miss? Now you have a two-possession game where the play-action pass goes out the window, DTR’s usage rate soars, and the game inevitably converges to a backyard sandlot game of improvisation and erratic play. This irrational game management is cut from the same cloth Kelly displayed in last year’s losses to Oregon, USC, and Stanford.

Not In The Penthouse; Not In The Outhouse Either

Fans have gone from romanticism to reality with the 2021 season. This humbling home loss coupled with defeats by LSU and Fresno State this past weekend has made Bruin faithful come crashing down to earth from fantasies of a possible 11-win season and even an outside chance at the college football playoff. However, in the revolving door of contention that is the PAC-12, everything to make this a breakthrough season – division title, conference championship, and Rose Bowl berth – are all still very much in play. The Bruins have seven games left, three against Colorado, Cal, and Arizona, teams with a combined record of 2-12. Warren Buffet’s predictive powers aren’t required in assuming those are three wins. The remaining four games are against Utah, Washington, Oregon, and USC. Good teams certainly, but a combined record of only 10-8. Split those games and it’s 8-4, sweep them and it’s 10-2.

The reality is a 7-2 conference record (thus a 9-3 record overall) will probably win the PAC-12 South, so if the Bruins can go 6-1 the rest of the way, they are set up for success. But that requires complete strategic clarity: no more irresponsible 4th down decisions, a pass rush that shows up every week, and controlling DTR’s usage rate by running the ball relentlessly, consistently, and successfully with Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Do those things and even though the Sun Devil demons weren’t exorcised, the 23-year nightmare without a PAC-12 title could very well be.

UCLA Bruins Wide Receiver Kyle Philips. Photo Credit: Greg Turk | UCLA Athletics

UCLA Bruins Wide Receiver Kyle Philips. Photo Credit: Greg Turk | UCLA Athletics