No, Mike Fafaul wasn’t quite that good, but the redshirt senior did as well as anyone could have expected in his first career start, throwing three touchdowns in the second half and keeping the Bruins in the game even as the rushing attack continued to falter.
The coaching staff built the game plan to help Fafaul, most notably dialing up a handful of plays on which he slid out of the pocket to create a shorter throw to a receiver breaking toward the sideline.
From an arm talent standpoint, Fafaul is not on the same level as sophomore star Josh Rosen, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t really make any “wow” throws. His first touchdown, in the third quarter, came on a roll-out as well, and it was nearly intercepted.
But Fafaul, in the face of a defense that knew UCLA was going to throw the ball time after time, settled in by the fourth quarter and started to make some impressive plays, showing comfort in the pocket and faith in his intermediate accuracy.
Fafaul’s average throw only went 6.33 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus, a result of the slightly simpler and more conservative game plan the Bruins employed with him running the show. For his part, though, the backup quarterback executed at a very strong level.
I wrote last week that I found it hard to believe the Bruins could win with Fafaul at quarterback. They didn’t win, but I stand corrected. He was far from the problem.
Running backs: C-
It’s hard to grade these guys each week. The running game is horrific, but many times the backs are met in the backfield with nowhere to go, so can the backs really be dinged?
The Bruins’ longest run of the day, which went for 12 yards, came when sophomore Soso Jamabo recognized that the original plan was completely mucked up, reversed direction and showed off some fancy footwork to pick up a big gain.
Though their job has admittedly been tough with the line’s run-blocking issues, none of the backs have shown any ability to squeeze out yards between the tackles. Sophomore Bolu Olorunfunmi sometimes can bowl a few defenders over, but that seems to be his main strategy, rather than finding the tiny bits of wiggle room available.
Wide receivers and tight ends: C-
This grade is saved by redshirt junior Darren Andrews, who continues to cement himself as the go-to guy the Bruins need.
Andrews tallied eight catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns, helping Fafaul find his footing. He did drop a pass, but he made plays when Fafaul needed him to.
But the receivers fumbled the ball twice, redshirt senior Kenneth Walker dropped another two balls and the tight ends continue to look weak in run-blocking.
Offensive line: D
The run-game struggles are well-documented, and they start with the guys up front.
The right side of the offensive line looked miserable Saturday, with junior right guard Najee Toran and redshirt freshman right tackle Andre James continually exposed by the Washington State defensive line.
Redshirt junior center Scott Quessenberry turned in one of his worst games of the season, giving up four quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus, as the interior linemen struggled all day to deal with the Cougar line’s stunts.
Defensive line: B+
It was another strong performance for these guys, who were a major reason UCLA held Washington State to under three yards per carry on the ground.
Senior defensive end Takkarist McKinley continued to make a case for himself as an NFL prospect, recording a sack and three quarterback hits while matching up mostly with the Cougars’ strong left tackle Andre Dillard.
As I’ve noted in this space before, McKinley also presents problems for opponents because they must be wary of leaving him unblocked on the weak side of run plays, where he can use his speed to chase down the ball carrier.
And at the point of attack, as well, McKinley is a disruptor in the run game. Here, both he and junior lineman Matt Dickerson win their one-on-one battles to stifle the rush.
Dickerson’s looked better the past few weeks as a run defender, helping fill the line out with playmakers.
Redshirt junior tackle Eddie Vanderdoes had a little more trouble than usual Saturday, but that’s to be expected against a Washington State interior offensive line that’s been solid all year.
Senior Jayon Brown had a fantastic game Saturday with nine tackles and eight run stops, according to Pro Football Focus, as well as an interception.
He’s excellent in the run game, using his speed and instincts to get downhill and make tackles near the line.
As you can see in that clip, he’s adept at making ankle tackles. It’s not a particularly reliable strategy, and sometimes Brown will miss tackles because of it, but his comfort making those plays adds to his range.
He’s also developing in coverage, and the Bruins have started to use him more and more often in the deep middle zone of their Cover 3 zones, which provides them with excellent versatility in mixing up looks against an opposing quarterback.
That’s what happened to Cougar quarterback Luke Falk when Brown picked him off in the first half. Here’s a really nice wide-angle, All-22-style view of Brown dropping into the deep middle.
It’s deceptive because the Bruins generally use a safety to cover the middle of the field and leave Brown in an underneath zone. Clearly, it fooled Falk there.
Brown also made the Cougar running backs look silly a couple times in blitz pickup situations. On this play, he registered a sack even while getting obviously held by the back. (It wasn’t called.)
Defensive backs: A-
This unit has been remarkably strong in coverage all year, and nothing changed Saturday. Facing off against a passing attack that entered the game second in the nation in yards per game, the Bruins held the Cougars and Falk to just 261 yards.
Falk came into Saturday first in the FBS with a completion rate of around 74 percent, but he went just 28-of-48, which is around 58 percent, and finished without a touchdown for the first time in 22 outings.
UCLA mixed up its looks brilliantly against Falk, showing off its prowess in both man and zone coverage and employing subtle variations in its standard Cover-3 looks.
With sophomore cornerback Nate Meadors out for the second straight week, defensive backs such as redshirt senior Marcus Rios, sophomore Octavius Spencer and redshirt freshman Will Lockett saw more of the field than usual, and all looked fairly serviceable, though Rios and Spencer did have a couple noticeable moments of difficulty.
Among the more experienced group of DBs, redshirt sophomore Adarius Pickett continued to excel, earning a Pac-12 Team of the Week nod from Pro Football Focus.
Redshirt senior Fabian Moreau, who I’ve described in the past as a lockdown corner, saw more targets than usual, allowing eight catches on 12 targets, and got called for a holding penalty. Moreau has a tendency to be grabby, but usually gets away with it and makes plays. Here, he actually gets wrong-footed a bit at the line but recovers to swat the ball away in the end zone.
Junior safety Jaleel Wadood continues to be difference-maker, both for his ability in coverage and for his exceptional sideline-to-sideline speed.
But Wadood is not always the most reliable tackler. Even when he misses tackles, his presence often disrupts the play and creates positive outcomes for the Bruins, but you’d like to see your safety finish some of these plays.
Wadood is on the small side, but he has plenty of traits that could translate to an opportunity in the NFL. His tackling will have to improve.
It’s an issue not just for Wadood but for the secondary as a whole, too.
Watch this clip.
You can slap a circus theme song on top of that clip without it feeling out of place. Three missed tackles on one play.
So there’s room for improvement for the defensive backs, but overall, it was another really strong week from a unit that’s been a pleasure to watch all year.