Improving the passing game is priority No. 1 for the UCLA offense this season, but the Bruins have to be careful they don't forget about the running game.
Last year, the opposite happened as Bruins installed the Pistol formation as a means to revamp a running game that had struggled for two years, but coach Rick Neuheisel acknowledged Monday the focus on running game came at the expense of the passing attack and UCLA plummeted to No. 116 in the nation in passing offense.
"It was really that we didn’t devote enough time to it," Neuheisel said. "Like anything, if you ignore it, it’s going to drift away on you. We needed to spend more time on it but because of the newness of the run game and the desire to get that up to speed, we missed out on that and we made a mistake and we all have to take responsibility for that."
Neuheisel also acknowledged that a set of injuries caused the coaching staff to overlook the root of the problem in the passing games. Quarterback Kevin Prince missed much of fall camp last season, so he wasn't sharp enough to be an effective passer early on.
The Bruins had success without throwing much against Houston and Texas, but Prince then got injured and Richard Brehaut took over as the starter. When the passing woes continued, Neuheisel justified it by saying he had an inexperienced quarterback.
"There were all these reasons that allowed us to rationalize why it was happening and it didn’t really require us to change," Neuheisel said. "But retrospectively as I look back, we didn’t spend the time we needed to if you are going to have a quality throw game."
They will invest the time this year while knowing they can't give the running game second-class status. The Bruins were No. 32 in the nation with 175.58 yards rushing per game last season and that is not something Neuheisel wants to give up.
He brought in Jim Mastro from Nevada to oversee the running game and help make sure that doesn't happen. Mastro was one of the Wolfpack braintrust that helped turn the Pistol into a successful offense and Neuheisel said Mastro's presence will help fine tune the attack.
"I think the production can be much different because we’ve got expertise now in how to formation teams, how to line people up and then how to get the quarterback to get us to where the advantage is," Neuheisel said. "I think a lot of that [last year], even though we were working hard at it, was a little bit of guess work and trying things just because it looked like it would work and copying people rather than knowing exactly why we were doing it."
The good news, Neuheisel said, is that he knows the run game works in this offense. But without a respectable air attack, defenses were able to key on shutting down the run game last season. When UCLA went 1-6 over their last seven games, they averaged only 113 yards rushing a game. In their first five games, when the Bruins went 3-2, they averaged 262.4.
"We’ve got to have a pass game," Neuheisel said. "We’ve proved we can run the ball. We know that it works and now we’ve got to marry a pass game to it. And a pass game that helps the run game and vice versa. We were unable to do that last year."