Gary Doran

Pac-12 Preview UCLA: Finally Top Billing in LA

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The New Director on the Set

In December of 2011, Jim Mora Jr. was hired as the new head coach of the UCLA Bruins. His hire was met with a few raised eyebrows, because of his lack of college coaching experience, however, he did bring with him NFL head coaching experience from the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.  For his Bruins staff, he surrounded himself with many assistant coaches who have reputations of being top-notch recruiters.

In the two years he has been at the helm in Westwood, the Bruins have had back-to-back six win and three loss seasons.  In his 2012 inaugural season, the Bruins captured the PAC 12 South title, but lost the title game to the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto.  With the quick upturn at UCLA, Mora Jr’s name has come up as a possible replacement at his alma mater, the University of Washington, and also the University of Texas this past year.  Considering the buzz that has surrounded Mora Jr. and his team lately, the UCLA Administration jumped quickly to extend his contract to run through the 2019 season, which was finalized last December.

The contract extension might be part of the euphoria happening in and around Westwood since Mora’s Bruins have been able to steal the bright spotlight away from their heated rivals, the USC Trojans, and shine it squarely on themselves.  Many around the Bruins feel that this may be a sea change elevating the program to be “A-listers” now.  The new LA vibe in Westwood: Bruins HOT and Trojans NOT!

More Glitz than Blitz?

Going into the 2014 season, the UCLA Bruins are being talked about as a possible contender for the National Championship.  The AP Top 25 poll has UCLA (ranked) as the #7 team in the nation starting out the season.  Their quarterback, Brett Hundley is also being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.  This coming year, they will be the only featured team on the PAC 12 Network’s weekly show, “The Drive”.  It’s been a very rapid ascent indeed for a program that had grown use to being upstaged in LA by their marquee rival, USC.

A Look Behind the Curtain

Let’s zoom in and take a close up look to see if we can decipher what is generating all this excitement for LA’s newest “star” team:

PAC 12 Conference Offensive and Defensive Performance Rankings

DEFENSENueheiselMoraMora
201120122013
Scoring Defense7th7th5th
Total Defense6th9th6th
Rushing Defense8th3rd6th
Passing Defense4th11th4th
Passing Defense Efficiency6th11th7th
Interceptions Made4th9th7th
Sacks Made10th4th5th
1st Downs Allowed9th8th9th
3th Down Conversions Allowed12th3rd7th
Red Zone Defense12th11th4th
OFFENSENueheiselMoraMora
201120122013
Scoring Offense10th2nd6th
Total Offense9th5th10th
Rushing Offense3rd7th7th
Passing Offense11th5th9th
Passing Efficiency5th3rd2nd
Sacks Allowed (Best to Worse)6th10th12th
1st Downs Made10th5th8th
3rd Down Conversions Made11th3rd4th
Red Zone Offense11th5th4th
Time of Possession8th8th7th
Turnover Margin5th (tie)4th2nd
Penalties8th12th11th

In the two years under Jim Mora, the Bruins have definitely upgraded their PAC 12 Conference offensive and defensive category production from those of predecessor Rick Neuheisel’s teams, yet eleven total categories in 2012 and again in 2013 had the team ranked in the bottom half of the conference rankings for a specific offensive or defensive category.  That works out to half of all the category rankings being ranked in the lower half of the conference during the two Jim Mora coached seasons.

Additionally, the two different Mora teams did not garner a single first place ranking on either an offensive or a defensive category in either season.  By comparison, ASU’s 2013 teams captured eight first place conference category rankings.  Even cross-town rival USC was ranked first in the conference in its Red Zone defense last year.  Clearly the team has improved from where Coach Mora took over, however, neither year’s rankings seem to exhibit a team at the top of the conference in terms of measured category performance.  Will we see significant improvements in the third season? Many inside and outside the program seem to think that will be the case.  Maybe it’s based on the trajectory of the team’s progress to date.

It’s not only Winning; It’s Who You Beat

In the twelve conference games that UCLA has won in the last two seasons, only four of the teams they beat had winning conference records, (ASU and USC in 2012, and UW and USC in 2013).   The other eight teams had a combined conference record over the two seasons of 16 wins and 56 losses, for a 22 percent winning percentage.  Since we are only looking at the conference performances in our PAC 12 previews, UCLA is not getting any benefit for its wins over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in both years.  However, that doesn’t negate several of its conference wins over some lackluster teams.  Although it’s good, it’s definitely not a wow type of conference record to date.

For the coming year, several sports sites have listed the UCLA Bruin schedule as one of the Top 20 toughest in the country.  It is very similar to last year’s schedule, where UCLA faced five teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time they played each other.  The Bruins won two and lost three of those games.  This year, UCLA will get both Stanford and Oregon at home, but have to face ASU and Washington on the road.  As always, there is the rival game with preseason Top 25 USC too.  Will they beat more of the higher ranked teams this year? Another six win and three loss conference record may seem like a giant step backwards.

For UCLA 2013: Get Ahead You Win. Fall Behind You Lose.

During the nine PAC 12 Conference games UCLA played in 2013, they had over 120 offensive drives.  UCLA was ahead in more than 50 percent of those drives.   Every one of them in which they were ahead ended up being against teams that they eventually beat.   On the other hand, there were 34 drives started where UCLA was behind.  Of those drives, thirty of them were against teams where UCLA ended up losing.  That means UCLA only started four drives being behind to teams they beat.  The Bruins of 2013 got ahead and stayed ahead.

Another way of looking at this is that in the games UCLA won, they were ahead 66 drives and behind in only four, the others were when the teams were tied.   As for the games UCLA lost, they were behind in 34 of the drives, tied many times, but never ahead when they started a drive. They couldn’t overtake those three teams

You Scored When?

UCLA scored a total of 36 touchdowns in the nine PAC-12 Conference games played in 2013.  Below are the circumstances when they scored:

 To Go AheadTo Stay AheadTo Catch UpTotal
UCLA Scores a TD821736
% of all TDs22.20%58.30%19.40%100.00%
UCLA Kicks a FG44210
% of all FGs40.00%40.00%20.00%100.00%

UCLA scored almost 60 percent of all their touchdowns when they were already ahead in the game, thus extending their lead.  That is one great way to keep a lead. Another way is to answer an opponent’s score with one of your own.  During the season, UCLA scored on its next possession after its opponent scored on 16 different drives, (13 touchdowns and three field goals).  Roughly one-third of all their scores during the year happened as an answer to an opponent’s score.  Seventy-five percent of those next possession scores happened where UCLA was victorious.  That is how you stay ahead and end up winning.

Another stat that supports UCLA ability to get ahead and stay ahead is that after halftime, UCLA never trailed an opponent it ended up beating.  Also, UCLA did a good job of not letting its opponents string together consecutive scores.  In the six games UCLA won, only Utah was able to score two consecutive touchdowns before UCLA scored again.

On the other hand, the three teams that beat UCLA did so by a run of consecutive scores at some point during their games.  ASU won their game with a flurry of unanswered scores in the second quarter.  Stanford did it with a modest two-touchdown scoring feast in the 3rd quarter and Oregon started its four-touchdown onslaught late in the 3rd quarter.  These three teams did what the other six teams couldn’t do; put together scoring drives without letting UCLA answer back.

How UCLA Acted when they were Ahead

 AheadAhead by Less than 10 pts.Ahead by More than 10 pts.
Total Drives663135
Touchdowns21147
Touchdown %31.8%45.2%20%
Field Goal Attempts624
Field Goals Made514
Turnovers312

UCLA scored on almost half their drives when they were ahead by less than 10 points.  That will keep a lead!  They also did not turn the ball over much when they were ahead, running nearly 90 plays per turnover.  The table does suggest that the Bruins may have taken their foot off the gas a bit when they were ahead by more than 10 points.

How UCLA Acted when they were Behind

 BehindBehind by Less than 10 pts.Behind by More than 10 pts.
Total Drives342212
Touchdowns1064
Touchdown %29.40%27.30%33.30%
Field Goals211
Turnovers550

When UCLA fell behind by more than 10 points, they appeared to do a better job of scoring points than when they were behind by less than ten.  UCLA also did a good job of taking care of the ball when they were more than 10 points down by not having a turnover in 65 plays.  These better results might also be attributed to their opponents taking their foot off the gas.  However, when UCLA was behind by less than 10 points, still within striking distance, their offensive results were not as clutch-like The biggest issue was not taking care of the ball.  In those situations, UCLA turned the ball over once every 18.5 plays.

Brett Hundley: UCLA’s Leading Man

Brett Hundley came to UCLA as five-star elite recruit from Chandler, Arizona.  He has all the physical skills and attributes needed to live up to the elite status given him.  He took over as quarterback of the Bruins as a redshirt freshman in 2012, where he ended the season 4th in the conference in passing, completing 68 percent of his passes for over 2,400 yards and throwing 18 touchdown passes.  Last year, in his second season, he again completed 68 percent of his passes for just under 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns passes.  In the two seasons, he has thrown just 13 interceptions in 544 passes.  That is roughly one interception in every 42 passes, which is impressive.

UCLA, like most teams, will go as far as their quarterback will take them.   A big part of the National Championship hopes harbored by the Bruins and their fans this coming year rests with their star quarterback also having a Heisman-like season.  The numbers above seem to indicate that is a possibility.  In five out of the six conference games UCLA won last year, Hundley did not throw a pick.  However, like many stars in Hollywood, there are some flaws when one looks closer.

The biggest and most challenging flaw for Hundley seems to be his proclivity to throw an interception at important points in the game, (not critical times, but near critical).  Four of his interceptions happened when his team was behind and trying to catch up in the three games UCLA lost.  The fifth one happened in the 4th quarter of a close game against Utah where the pick was returned for a touchdown that tied the score late in the game.  Last year, Brett Hundley threw an interception only once in 166 passes in games won by UCLA.  In the three games UCLA lost, he threw a pick once in every 16.8 passes; that’s quite a swing in ball security.  The big question for the coming season is if Brett Hundley has taken that next step to be more of a clutch quarterback.

A Little Help Please

In both of the past two seasons, UCLA was 7th in rushing yards in the conference.  The big difference is that in 2012, Hundley had senior running back James Franklin who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, and roughly 70 percent of the teams’ rushing yards in conference play. Franklin finished 5th in rushing in the conference.  Brett Hundley’s contribution with his feet was only 163 yards, or just over 11 percent of the team’s total rushing amount.

Although last year, UCLA was also 7th overall again and close to the same amount of rushing yards as in 2012, the team had to rely on Hundley for 430 yards on the run, which amounted to almost 30 percent of the entire rushing total in conference play.  The featured Bruins running back last year was Freshman Paul Perkins who ended the year 9th in the conference with 470 yards, which wasn’t that much more than his quarterback.  To have that Heisman-like season in 2014, Brett Hundley is going to need more help from the running back position than he received in 2013.  Who is going to step up for him?

As far as receivers, UCLA did not have a pass catcher in the Top 12 in the conference last year in either receptions or passing yards receiving.  The Bruins’ leading receiver Shaq Evans has moved on from Westwood, so who will step up to be that “go to” guy for Brett Hundley in 2014.  Again, if UCLA can get some quality receivers, the Heisman-like season for Hundley could be a reality.

Final Script

Some major awards could be headed to the LA team near Hollywood this year, but there are supporting roles that need to be filled.  Will a skilled offensive position player not named Brett Hundley step up to share some of the load?  Even though the defense lost some quality athletes, will that unit be able tomake some major leaps in overall productivity in 2014?  Will UCLA be able to beat more than two top 25 teams this coming year? Will Brett Hundley develop into a clutch quarterback in must-have situations?  Is Jim Mora Jr. and his staff actually quick turnaround artist(s) or is the UCLA Bruins team more of a mirage?  If most of these questions can be answered positively, then those major awards just might be headed to Westwood by the time the season’s final credits roll. If that happens, then the only questions will be; who to thank in the acceptance speeches!    Don’t change the channel!

 

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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