For a half, UCLA looked like it had a chance to upset Oregon. Then, reality set in as the Ducks unleashed 28 unanswered points, running away with a 42-14 win. A few thoughts from the Bruins’ trip to Autzen Stadium.
1. UCLA isn’t there yet. Everyone knew before the start of the season that the back-to-back Stanford-Oregon ringer would test the Bruins’ mettle. They didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. Jim Mora put it best with an expressive outburst after the loss:
The Bruins looked a tier below the top of the conference after losing at Stanford, and Saturday night’s showing in Eugene only affirmed that. The defense is now carrying what still looks like a top-20 team, which no one would have guessed even 10 weeks ago.
On offense, UCLA hasn’t been able to attack the way an elite team should, looking uneven at Cal two weeks ago and putting together just one impressive drive at Stanford. And as impressive as Oregon’s defense was — its secondary in particular — the Bruins underwhelmed. Their only drive longer than 41 yards ended in an interception, and six drives went for less than 10.
The good news is that the offensive line will likely improve over the next few games, barring further injury. Scott Quessenberry was surprisingly effective in his first action of the season, even making some calls at left guard and taking the load off center Jake Brendel. (Brendel’s problem with low snaps also didn’t materialize in Eugene.)
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone also definitely reduced the volume of the playbook, but his calls were sometimes questionable even when considering the youth of the offensive line. Why have Steve Manfro run up the gut on a third-and-5? Or tight end Thomas Duarte take a bubble screen?
2. Brett Hundley looks lost. The comebacks he led at Nebraska and Utah feel like they happened a lifetime ago. The star quarterback’s play has now become inexplicably bad. Even with extenuating factors — injuries to the line and the starting tailback — he looked awful against the Ducks. How bad? His 64 passing yards made for UCLA’s lowest single-game total since Nov. 18, 2010 — a game in which Richard Brehaut, Clayton Tunney and Darius Bell (!) combined to go 6 of 25 with three picks.
Why that happened isn’t clear. The run game was rolling early, so it’s not like Hundley was asked to lift the team all alone. The line started three true freshmen, but looked better than it did a week ago. His talent didn’t just evaporate — he’ll still sprinkle in impressive runs here and there — but his decision-making has become very questionable.
Exhibit A was his horrendous interception to kill the Bruins’ longest drive of the game. Down 14-7 in the second quarter, UCLA had gained 69 yards on six rushing plays and a five-yard penalty. On second-and-7, Hundley somehow stared down right into triple coverage, then proceeded to loft a short pass toward linebacker Boseko Lokombo. Even if Lokombo hadn’t snagged the ball, another defender was hanging in position just a few yards back. UCLA receivers might not have even squeezed into the same camera frame, so ugly was the pick.
Mazzone’s complete avoidance of downfield pass plays has been mostly attributed to the young offensive line. At this point, however, maybe Hundley just can’t make those sort of throws without potentially coughing the ball up. His career arc is starting to resemble that of Washington’s Keith Price — which means next year will be full of redemption stories to read/write.
“He needs to shine in these kinds of games before everyone starts talking about the Heisman,” head coach Jim Mora said.
Hundley took personal responsibility for the offense’s struggles, but also didn’t (couldn’t?) offer much explanation for what went wrong. He had an uninspiring effort at Cal two weeks ago despite a career-high 410 yards. A similar showing against another Pac-12 bottom-dweller in Colorado won’t be encouraging.
3. The Bruins’ linebackers are elite. The unit is good enough that the Bruins have a chance against just about everyone. The quartet combined for five tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Anthony Barr and Myles Jack were as solid as ever on the outside, and Jordan Zumwalt tied a career high with 10 solo tackles — flirting with flags along the way.
First time since its 2012 loss to Stanford, Oregon didn’t hold a halftime lead. Sure, the Ducks broke loose in the fourth quarter, but that’ll happen against almost any defense in the country. Besides, it’s not like the Bruins took any pressure off by, y’know, scoring.
The most telling words may have come from Zumwalt. Asked if UCLA’s offensive struggles were making it harder on the defense, he said: “Next question.”