UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has gone to great lengths over the last year in an effort to improve a passing game that was among the worst in the nation last season and when the Bruins came out with 310 yards through the air in their season opener, it appeared he had, indeed, made strides.
Lately, though, that Week 1 performance seems more like a passing fancy.
UCLA has passed for only 145, 176 and 146 yards in its last three games, and attempted only 12 passes Saturday against Oregon State, bringing back memories of the one-dimensional offense that stonewalled UCLA’s season last year.
But a closer look reveals that while the passing numbers don't exactly make UCLA a high-powered attack, the Bruins are a better, more efficient passing offense than they were last year. They have 789 yards passing through four games this season--more than double the 327 they had through four games last season.
They are averaging 8.87 yards per attempt and 15.78 yards per completion—both very respectable numbers and up significantly from last year’s averages of 5.32 yards per attempt and 10.45 per completion.
They rank No. 14 in the nation in yards per attempt after finishing 114th in that category last season and they are No. 6 in yards per completion, up from No. 110 last season.
"When you’re averaging that much per attempt, I don’t worry about it," Neuheisel said. "If you can throw that little and average that much per attempt then that means we’re doing what we want to as an offense."
What Neuheisel wants to do is grind it out on the ground, control the clock and play keep away. He acknowledges that it’s not always pretty or exciting to watch, but argues that it is an effective way to win.
In UCLA’s wins this season, the Bruins have attempted 35 passes and 91 running plays. In their two losses, they attempted 54 passes and ran in 76 times.
"If you look at my background, you know I love throwing the ball," said the former quarterback. "This is a new and different thing, but what we need to do is figure out ways to win. That’s all I’m concerned with, not numbers. If we are averaging over four yards a carry and sometimes even higher than that, we can afford to stay boring, if you will, and continue to slam away."
They will be hard-pressed to do that this week against Stanford, which boasts the nation's top-ranked run defense. The Cardinal is giving up only 36 yards rushing per game and had a bye week to prepare for UCLA's Pistol-based running attack.
"Absolutely we need a throwing offense," Neuheisel said. "If they are ganging up to stop the run, we have to be able to hit big plays over the top of you."
So far, the Bruins have hit some of those plays. Nelson Rosario has receptions of 54 and 49 yards, Jordon James had one for 40 and Josh Smith had a 62-yard reception in the victory over Oregon State. The Bruins have tried to go to downfield to their playmakers on other occasions, but breakdowns in pass protection, poorly thrown passes and bad routes thwarted those efforts.
“That’s the thing, we have these playmakers and we need to capitalize on the opportunities when they come,” Smith said. “That’s our job in this offense is to keep the defense honest by making big plays. If we don’t do that then they just come after our running backs.”
So far, however, getting the ball to the playmakers hasn’t exactly been a top priority. Smith got his first two receptions against Oregon State. Randall Carroll, the team’s fastest receiver, has only one reception and Ricky Marvray has only two.
Last year, the Bruins had success with a run-heavy attack for a while. During UCLA’s three-game win streak early last season the team attempted only 49 passes (16.3 per game) while running 163 times (54.3 per game).
But teams caught on and planned around the run, forcing UCLA to pass more often and the Bruins lost six of their last seven games. They averaged 35 rushing attempts and 31 pass attempts in those games.
"You’ve got to figure out what is the prudent thing to do to give yourself the best percentage for winning the game," Neuheisel said. "That may change from game to game and even during the course of a game. We’ve been able to do that running in our two victories, but I believe we can do it with the throw game if we need to. Last year we weren't able to do that."