Friday, 4 October 2013

The (early) Roundup: The best six interception passing performance of all-time

#12 UCLA 34, Utah 27

This game was a shootout that had both coaches thinking their defensive secondaries would be their downfall all season until it wasn't and they didn't. UCLA's Brett Hundley and Utah's Travis Wilson tore up their opposition in the first half and it looked like we were in store for a typical high scoring Pac-12 classic. UCLA began the game by driving right down the field with ease and were sparked by a 44 yard catch and run by Paul Perkins. On Perkins' big play, a Utah defender made a terrible mistake trying to tackle Perkins along the sideline instead of just pushing him out and that allowing Perkins to get an extra 20 yards or so and reach the one yard line. The play call was also indicative of UCLA's game plan trying to deal with Utah's pass rush. The Bruins attempted to run the ball (to little avail) with their tailbacks but mostly built their attack on screens, swing passes, and draw plays to get the ball out of Hundley's hands quickly before Utah's pass rush could make an impact.

Utah was facing a similar predicament as they too had a less than great offensive line facing a defense with a fearsome pass rush and a suspect secondary. The Utes also tried to run the ball unsuccessful but used quick passes very effectively as Wilson found Dres Anderson on a screen pass on Utah's first series that Anderson busted for a 54 yard touchdown. UCLA had a productive second drive that ended with a surprising pooch punt by Hundley on 4th and three from the Utah 35. After the teams traded three and outs, Utah took control of the game with a somewhat fluky touchdown. Remember the final play of Utah's overtime loss to Oregon State? Well Utah basically got their karmic justice for that play as a Wilson pass went right through the hands of a UCLA defender and straight to Utah receiver Sean Fitzgerald.

UCLA bounced back strong with consecutive touchdowns sandwiching a Wilson interception but Wilson put together a drive to get a field goal shortly before half and suddenly Utah was trailing 21-17 at the break with the first possession in the 3rd quarter and feeling like they could pull off the big upset. But, suddenly UCLA's defense decided to perfectly repeat their performance from the Nebraska game and took over. Just like the Nebraska game, UCLA struggled to make an impact with their front seven early and left their secondary to get picked apart in the first half. In the second half, UCLA's front rose to the occasion and took over the line of scrimmage and didn't even give Nebraska a chance to throw quick passes. UCLA was able to make that exact same adjustment to stop Utah cold in the second half, shutting the Utes out save for one field goal. Utah's second half possessions went like this: Interception, Interception, Punt, Interception, Punt, Punt, Interception, Field Goal, Interception.

UCLA replicated their defensive effort from the Nebraska game but unfortunately for them, their offense was not able to open up the flood gates and win comfortably. Utah's halftime adjustment was to start blitzing from all positions and all angles and they simply overwhelmed UCLA. Despite six interceptions and out-gaining Utah in terms of total yardage, UCLA was never able to create distance in the second half because of Utah's defense. The Bruins complete lack of production from their running backs left Hundley in far too many third and longs. On one such third down early in the 3rd quarter, Utah sent a jailbreak blitz that put four Utah defenders in Hundley's face. Hundley shook off a sack twice but once he was dead to rights he failed to eat the sack or throw the ball out of bounds and foolishly tried to make a play. Hundley heaved the ball into coverage and was intercepted by Keith McGill for a 19 yard pick-six that tied the score at 24.

Utah's constant pressure and UCLA's inability to run the ball gave Utah many chances to take control of this game but UCLA's secondary finally stepped up and made plays. Travis Wilson threw six interceptions on the night but only one of them was a bad play by Wilson. Ishmael Adams made an amazing play to knock the ball out of a receivers hands and tip the ball to himself, twice the ball was deflected while still in Wilson's hands for interceptions, and twice a Utah receiver let the ball go off their hands and straight to a UCLA defender. Only one of Wilson's picks was not either a great defensive play or a mistake by his receiver as he badly overshot his man early in the fourth quarter and threw straight to Anthony Jefferson of UCLA. After the Jefferson interception, UCLA had the ball up 27-24 and finally found a way to make Utah pay for its blitzing. On a third and six, UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone recognized an overload blitz coming from both edges and checked to a QB draw up the middle. The result was a 36 yard touchdown run for Hundley and a 10 point lead with 3:33 remaining.

Wilson made a couple nice throws to lead a field goal drive that cut the lead to seven which led to sheer craziness. After making the 37 yard kick to cut the lead to one score, kicker Andy Phillips made a perfect onside kick that Trevor Reilly punched out of Shaq Evans' hands for a Utah recovery. It sure looked like Evans established possession of the ball with his knee on the ground but the call on the field was a Utah recovery and there was not enough evidence to overturn the call. By the way, in addition to being perfect on field goals and PATs, Phillips is still perfect on onside kick attempts as Utah has recovered both onside kicks that Phillips has attempted this season. Utah's final desperation drive almost failed to get out of the blocks as they immediately found themselves backed up to a 4th and 12 but an offside penalty on Anthony Barr (who had an otherwise spectacular night) and a completion over the middle to Anderson moved the chains. A 13 yard completion to Fitzgerald put Utah at the UCLA 23 yard line and made it feel for all the world that Utah was going to tie the game. But, Utah was backed into another 4th down and this time Wilson's pass was tipped and intercepted by Myles Jack to seal the victory for UCLA.

A few things are evident following this game. First of all, there might not be anyone better in the nation at making halftime defensive adjustments than Jim Mora. Between UCLA's second half performances against Nebraska and now Utah I can't think of any other team that has looked so bad in first halves and so completely unbreakable in second halves. The second is that UCLA does have an Achilles heel but it is not their secondary as many have theorized. UCLA's offensive line struggled all night against Utah and looked like they had never seen a blitz package before. Note to all defensive coordinators still to play the Bruins, you should probably add a few new blitzes to your game plan because chances are the Bruins won't be able to block it. Finally, and this won't ease their heart break but Utah fans need to hear this and know it, Utah does belong in the Pac-12. Two lackluster years in the conference had many wondering why Larry Scott ever invited Utah to join this conference but despite being 0-2 in Pac-12 play, Utah finally looks like a Pac-12 team. Utah is going to figure out how to close games in this conference before the end of the year. Make no mistake about it, this Utah team is miles ahead of where it was last year and the Utes will not be an easy out for anyone.

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