Grading the Bruins at the half

Midway through a critical season for head coach Rick Neuheisel, the Bruins are an enigma, more difficult to grade than a trigonometry term paper. The Bruins stand at 3-3, halfway to bowl eligibility and markedly improved from the 4-8 record of a year ago. Yet even in victory, the team has looked subpar, unable to execute with consistency or precision.

Wins over San Jose State, Oregon State and Washington State have not been without stress, and blowout losses to Texas and Stanford have exposed major weaknesses. Perhaps the team’s best performance came all the way back in Week 1, when they lost by four points by virtue of a missed field goal and missed PAT to a now-6-0 Houston team.

Against the Cougars, the Bruin defense was exposed. Since then, they’ve been stripped to the bone. UCLA ranks in the bottom third nationally in 11 categories, with the defense particularly suspect, 86th or worse out of 120 teams in all four major categories – run, pass, total and scoring defense. Offensively, despite an improved passing game that has only accounted for four interceptions, the Bruins are still averaging only 198.67 passing yards per game, 89th in the country. The running game, though good, hasn’t been able to pick up the slack, and UCLA ranks 62nd nationally in total yardage (393.17 yards per game) and 78th in scoring offense (25.83 ppg).

For the Bruins to advance to the postseason, the defense will have to improve vastly.

For the team to stay in the conference race, the offense will have to step it up a notch or two.

And for the fans to start valuing the wins – and for Neuheisel’s seat to cool down – the Bruins will have to start to look better doing it.

Despite the instability of a fault line, the quarterback play has been improved this season for the Bruins. Still, Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince have a long way to go before being considered in the Pac-12 top tier.

Running Backs
Erratic usage has been perplexing, but Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman have delivered when called upon. The duo has combined for 839 yards and eight touchdowns and has been pivotal in all three wins. Franklin’s going to break one sooner or later.

Wide Receivers
If Mike Johnson’s message finally clicks, this unit is primed for a big second half. The talent is there between Nelson Rosario (480 yards), Joseph Fauria (196 yards, four touchdowns) and Co., but the consistency and effort has been lacking.

Offensive Line
Four sacks in six games is a massive upgrade over last year, but there is still pressure on the quarterback and a hesitation to open the playbook fully. The run blocking has been good but inconsistent. A healthy Sean Sheller would’ve been crucial.

Defensive Line
What was expected to be a much-improved unit has instead regressed considerably. The Bruins have been simply blown out up front at times, and the opposition has gained 181.5 yards per game on the ground. Then there’s the pass rush, which has disappeared.

Lapses in coverage, missed tackles have plagued unit, particularly in the short passing game. Eric Kendricks looks like a good one in the making, but his playing time has been inconsistent. Patrick Larimore has been better in recent weeks, but needs to make bigger impact.

Defensive Backs
Passive coverage has inflated the opposing passing numbers, but overall impressive starts for Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price. Tony Dye’s absence at safety has been crucial, as has relative lack of depth with several others bumped and bruised.

Special Teams
An upswing in recruiting was supposed to have a trickle-down effect on the coverage and return game, but it most certainly has not. Add to that a kicking game that has been comedic at times, and the once-special unit is bordering on mediocrity…or worse.

In what is a make-or-break year for the entire coaching staff, the group has been shockingly conservative at times, seemingly playing not to lose. Defensive passiveness, offensive indecision has both units playing well below the talent level.