Wednesday, September 3, 2014
UCLA needs a fast fix for its offensive line
By David M. Hale
Win No. 1 of the season wasn't exactly one to celebrate for UCLA.
Yes, the Bruins' defense was brilliant, scoring three times to lead the charge over Virginia, but as Jim Mora succinctly put it afterward, "it wasn't pretty offensively."
Players marched into the locker room after the 28-20 win with little enthusiasm, a somber scene more befitting a loss.
UCLA's offensive line left QB Brett Hundley scrambling all game long at Virginia in Week 1.
Sophomore center Scott Quessenberry, starting in place of injured Jake Brendel, even took time to thank his defense for cleaning up after his own mistakes.
This may still have been the start of a magical season, but UCLA's offense certainly did its best to temper all that early enthusiasm.
"As a team, the sky is the limit," quarterback Brett Hundley said, "but we can't shoot ourselves in the foot and make mental lapses like this. We have to come out and perform."
And that has to start with the offensive line.
In reality, the Week 1 matchup with Virginia was destined to be a struggle. The Bruins may have arrived with a gaudy No. 7 ranking, and Virginia was coming off a 10-loss season, but the Cavaliers still featured a ferocious defensive front, led by linebacker Henry Coley, and coordinator Jon Tenuta has made a career of testing the mental toughness of opposing linemen. Meanwhile, UCLA was coming off a season in which it allowed the most tackles-for-loss in the Pac-12, had questions surrounding the ground game, and was beset by injuries up front.
The early struggles, in other words, were no surprise to the coaching staff.
"I looked out there one time," Mora said, "and our right tackle's a sophomore, our right guard is a sophomore, our center is a sophomore, our left guard is a freshman and our left tackle is playing his first game for us."
It wasn't that UCLA didn't anticipate problems, it's that the offense -- particularly the line -- didn't execute the solutions.
"I know there's going to be a lot of concern about our offensive line," Mora said, "and it's warranted at this point."
It's warranted because Hundley was sacked five times, warranted because Virginia racked up 11 tackles for loss (15 percent of UCLA's total plays), warranted because seven of the Bruins' first 11 rushing attempts went for a loss or no gain before Paul Perkins jumpstarted the rushing attack in the third quarter.
The end result was a game plan that was largely abandoned as the Bruins faced one third-and-long scenario after another. They needed 8 yards or more to convert on 7 of 18 third downs in the game.
"Our whole keys to victory was stay on schedule, keep ourselves in third-and-medium or shorts," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "So I'm like, who wants to call plays around here?"
There are, of course, explanations, too. The flight across three time zones and early kickoff wasn't ideal. The injury to Brendel had ripple effects across the line. Even the defensive highlights helped keep the offense from getting into a rhythm. But when it was over, no one seemed interested in looking for excuses.
"I didn't do a very good job of coaching my guys or calling plays, and my guys didn't do a good job of executing," Mazzone said. "Were there outside influences? Who knows? Who cares? We have to overcome those things and do a better job."
That may start with getting healthy.
Mora said Brendel, who suffered an MCL injury three weeks ago, is on the mend. Simon Goines should return from an ankle injury in a few weeks. Younger players are getting reps, and Hundley has added a level of stability to the offense that should help navigate some early obstacles, just as he did Saturday against Virginia.
Perkins' strong second half offers encouragement, too. The sophomore tailback finished with 80 yards on 16 carries, and while Mora said he expects a timeshare to continue with Jordon James, there's hope that the tailbacks can limit the workload for their QB.
"[Hundley] is a very good runner, but we don't want that to be our running game," Mora said. "I'd like to see us establish a little more rhythm with our offense."
But Week 1 wasn't really about what UCLA wants to do. If anything, it was a crash course on what the Bruins hope to avoid this season, and they still managed to emerge with a win.
UCLA also knows it may not be so lucky the next time.
"There are a lot of things we have to correct," Hundley said. "We had those moments you could see it, but it was the stuff that shot us in the foot. We'd start something, and then we'd hurt ourselves. We have to cut that out, and we'll be fine."