Okay UCLA fans, the sky isn't falling. The 27-20 loss to Oregon State last Saturday is a mere bump on the road back to relevance.
The Bruins really had no rhythm throughout the game from an offensive standpoint. The Beavers did a great job at shutting down the run—essentially making UCLA one dimensional. OSU held the nations top rusher, Johnathan Franklin, to only 45 yards on 12 carries.
The offensive line—which was by far the biggest question heading into the season—had actually been performing quite well. In this contest, OSU defensive ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton caused havoc on the young UCLA unit.
After playing very well in the first three games, redshirt freshman center Jake Brendel had a clunker of a game. True freshman tackle Simon Goines was constantly being blown backwards and had a tough time dealing with the foot speed of Crichton. Redshirt freshman Torian White played better than he did last week, but he also didn't have the best game.
The central theme in the offensive line is the fact that the aforementioned three are all freshmen. It's not prudent to believe that freshmen—at vital positions—will perform consistently throughout the year. Growing pains are to be expected, and shouldn't come as a surprise.
Defensively, two experienced players in Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, particularly Price, were torched by the Beavers' dangerous receiving duo of Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton.
With Hester, the pass-interference penalty reared it's ugly head yet again. It's almost expected that Hester will commit at least one P.I. penalty a game. Price was burned on two long touchdown plays that the Bruins couldn't quite overcome.
He took a bad angle on a slant across the field with no safety help over top, and thus Cooks scampered 75 yards for a score. On a fly pattern later in the game, Wheaton simply outran Price and scored on a 42 yard pass.
An emblematic characteristic of the Bruins' first three games is making big plays. Against the Beavers, their longest run play went for only 25 yards. Quarterback Brett Hundley did find Shaq Evans streaking down the sideline for a 65 yard touchdown, but there wasn't ever the feeling that UCLA had momentum in this contest.
The culprit behind such a proclamation? Well, a dichotomy of a young football team going up against an extremely well coached opponent often times can result in a loss.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker devised a great game play. They took away the swing passes and plays designed to get the UCLA athletes in space horizontally, and made Hundley beat them with passes down the field.
Hundley did have a good game, going 27/42 for 372 yards and a touchdown. Even then, he did miss some receivers on relatively easy throws, and was the victim on multiple dropped passes—namely by Steven Manfro and Kenny Walker.
There aren't many "moral victories" with a loss on this level, but this wasn't a defeat on a demoralizing level that we've seen under Rick Neuheisel teams. In fact, this was the closest loss in conference play in years.
After starting the season 3-0, expectations naturally grew. UCLA actually became a media darling for the first time in seemingly forever. People were proclaiming that the Bruins would challenge Southern Cal for supremacy in the Pac-12 South Division, and even that UCLA would finish the year with a double-digits win total.
Those things could still happen, but one needs to be cognizant of the situation in it's entirety.
Jim Mora is relying upon an inordinate amount of inexperienced players at vital positions. Nine true freshmen and eight redshirt freshmen saw time against Oregon State, with five of those players starting.
This is a team that ranks at the top nationally in most offensive categories. That's a monumental difference from a year ago, when the team was struggling to score points with regularity.
Another interesting facet will be to see how the young squad will perform on the road. The Bruins go to Boulder to face the Colorado Buffaloes this weekend, and have games in Berkeley and Tempe coming up as well.
Was this 3-0 start all smoke and mirrors, or is this team improved from a year ago? I tend to lean towards the latter with the caveat being that this team still has lots of growth to undergo.