There are a lot of storylines coming out of the Hoos season opening loss to UCLA. The first, and most obvious, is the QB play. Without a doubt, backup Matt Johns outplayed Greyson Lambert, the starter. The nearly dominant performance of the defensive front 7 is another storyline. The solid play of a patchwork OL is another. Those three are the big ones. Smaller ones include the continuing poor play of the Hoos coverage and return teams, the inability of the Hoos WRs to consistently get open, and some questionable coaching decisions.
While the QB "controversy" will get the most publicity, the defense was by far the most interesting story of the day. The front 7 harassed Heisman trophy candidate Brett Hundley all day long, sacking him 5 times, forcing (and recovering) two fumbles, and generally made things awfully difficult for a very potent offense. Now, one thing to note is that UCLA was playing without OC Jake Brendel , their top OL and a Rimington Award nominee. Wahoo fans know firsthand how difficult it can be when you don't have a real center out there.
But the loss of Brendel can't fully explain the dominance of the Wahoo front 7. The Bruins had 8 running plays that went for a loss, and that doesn't include the 5 sacks. All game long, Mike Moore, Henry Coley, DaQuan Romero, Max Valles and Eli Harold were in the backfield causing problems.
The DBs weren't bad either. Both Quin Blanding and Anthony Harris made nuisances of themselves coming up against UCLA's ground game. They combined for 19 tackles. Without Demetrious Nicholson, the Hoos were a bit undermanned at CB, and the CBs that remained didn't match up all that well with UCLA's speedy WRs. At times, the cushion given to those receivers was way too much. This is a case of giving up a shorter play in order to avoid giving up a bigger play. But you can't give a 20 yard cushion on 3rd and 12. That just doesn't make sense. Especially considering the pressure the front 7 (or 6 at times) was generating, you had to realize that Hundley wouldn't be able to hold on to the ball long enough for long, complicated pass routes. If Tim Harris or Brandon Phelps can't cover their man on a simple "go" route, then they shouldn't be out there. Speaking of Phelps, I continue to be amazed that he keeps getting playing time. He never looked even remotely comfortable at safety, and yet the Hoos kept running him out there. Now he's back at CB, which should be his natural position, and he still doesn't look comfortable. Yet he's starting over more experienced players such as Drequan Hoskey.
OK, I've avoided it long enough. I guess I can't review this game without talking about the QB thing. Yes, Greyson Lambert threw 2 pick-6s and yes Matt Johns threw 2 TDs. You certainly can't disregard those two things. But you also can't just make judgments based on a single half of football. Guys have good games and bad games. If we saw Lambert at his worst, and Johns at his best, is it a fair comparison? If Lambert's shoulder was bothering him more than he let on, is that reason enough to bench him? It's obvious that the answers to both of those questions is no.
But on the other hand, we can't just disregard this game. Johns made plays. Lambert, by and large, didn't. Johns has earned the right to play. Maybe coach Fairchild opened up the playbook for Johns because the score was 21-3 and we needed to take some chances to get back into it. And maybe the gameplan coming into the contest was a conservative one because we didn't want to get into a shootout with a team like UCLA. Or maybe Johns simply has more confidence in his WRs to make plays, and so he was willing to throw those jump balls that Lambert checked off on.
It will frustrate many fans, but it isn't fair to bench either player. Both need to see time on the field. Hopefully, before long, one will separate himself from the other and the decision will be made. But, it seems likely that the Hoos will be "stuck" with a two QB rotation for a while. I'm not of the opinion that this is always a bad thing. It can be, if it divides the team and neither QB knows what his role is going to be game in and game out. But if there is a concrete plan in place, and the players support it, there's no reason why a two-QB system can't work.
As usual, a few more notes, in no particular order:
- A lot of fans seem to be upset with the offensive playcalling. Too many runs directly up the middle. Why won't Fairchild open up the playbook and throw the ball downfield? Maybe it doesn't occur to people that the few downfield passing plays worked because of all the runs up the middle? Also, when was the last time we completed a true "deep pass"? If there's no confidence we can get a WR open downfield, and complete that pass, then there's no point in throwing it. Plenty of teams have been successful with conservative game plans.
- Another issue with throwing deep is it requires the OL to pass block for a long time. This may not be something the offensive coaching staff is prepared to do. Sure, the OL didn't give up a sack. But UCLA had guys in the backfield a lot. One of the INTs was a direct result of the pass rush. And UCLA didn't send much pressure on most plays, because of the threat of the run.
- My biggest concern, as far as playcalling goes, is the constant substitutions. It seems like, at times, we substitute on every other play. If we sub in Miles Gooch and a TE, well there's a high probability we're going to run the ball. If we bring in Smoke Mizzell and Darius Jennings and Kyle Dockins, well now it's a pass play. This has been an ongoing problem. Sure we have a lot of talent at RB and WR. But this isn't pee-wee. There's no "everybody must play" rules. Pick a lineup and stick with it. If you want to use different personnel on the next drive, that's fine. But unless a player gets hurt or tired, let them develop some rhythm. Our best drives in this game came in the hurry up. And this isn't a new phenomenon. The offense gets into a rhythm and the defense is on its heels. So why don't we run that more often?
- I mentioned Blanding already, but man was he impressive. Nine tackles in his first start. Didn't really miss any plays. Sure, maybe he could've done a better job of keeping Hundley out of the endzone on the TD run. But Hundley is a big guy who runs exceptionally well. I doubt many NFL safeties wouldn't have done a better job than Blanding did. And I'm positive that no UVA DB could've kept him out. We may have our best all around safety since Dex for the next 4 years.
- Along those same lines, I know fans are disappointed that Andrew Brown didn't play. I hear he will play against Richmond, which may actually be a better game for him to get his feet wet. Truth is, if he's not 100%, why give him snaps that he hasn't earned? The Hoos are deep enough at DT that Brown simply isn't needed. Now, if Brown is as good as advertized, then let's see him get out there. But let's not play him just because he's Andrew Brown.
- The WRs continue to have problems getting open consistently, but this was the most impressive game, all around, from UVA WRs in a long time. Six different WRs caught passes, and each caught a pass of over 10 yards. Andre Levrone looked very dangerous, Darius Jennings looked as good as he ever has, and Canaan Severin was the only guy consistently open. This last points makes you wonder why Severin didn't get more (any?) playing time last year after playing sparingly as a true freshman. He had as many catches, and more yards, in this one game as he had all of last season. At 6'2" and 210, there's just no reason for him to have been buried last year, on a team that was just itching for playmakers on the outside.
- This may have been the best game Henry Coley has ever played. He was, simply put, everywhere. Fourteen tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, a pass broken up. He has always been a good solid MLB, but could he be turning into a difference maker for this team? Coming into the season, Coley was barely on the NFL's radar. A big year could change that. He may never be quick enough to play MLB in the NFL, but could he turn into a 3-4 OLB? Who knows. What really scares me is there is no MLB on this team with any playing experience behind Coley. This could be a problem next season.
- The Hoos simply have to do something about their punt return team. I can't remember the last time they had a successful punt return. These days, we're happy on a fair catch. Every other college football game I watched this week showed teams having more success at punt returns than we've had in years. I don't even know what the problem is? Apparently, neither does Larry Lewis, because nothing has changed. Maybe we need to completely revamp the punt return team.
- Let's talk briefly about the final offensive series of the game. We know now that Matt Johns misread the playcall on third down. But that doesn't excuse the other 3 plays. OK, I get the first down run. I don't think it would've been my call, but I get it. Now it's 2nd and 9. The theory now is that you run it and get a more manageable 3rd down distance. Except the defense knows this. Now is the time for play-action. Even a quick hitch screen to a WR or a dump off to a TE would've been preferable. Sure, you take the chance of an incomplete pass leaving you 3rd and long. But you also have a chance to make a big play. And the 4th down play-call was the same route the Hoos had been running all day, and it hadn't worked out once. Where is the creativity in WR routes? Some combination routes? Double moves? Or how about a simple slant route? A guy like Dockins or Severin had 25 pounds or more on the CB covering him. If they can't get a good release off the line for a slant pass in that situation, we have big problems at WR.
- All told, it is disappointing to lose a game we could've won. But I'm not too upset about this loss. It was a lot better than I expected, and there were enough positives that the season is looking brighter than it was a week ago.