The best-case scenario for the No. 19 UCLA Bruins would have been to go into Saturday's game against Houston and play lights out defense while the offense laid a severe beating on the Cougars. All things considered, that's almost what they did. The defense was the show in the 37-6 win, forcing six turnovers, allowing only three drives of more than six plays, only four drives of over 30 yards and holding Houston scoreless for all but the last five minutes of the game. The offense was more than present - 567 total yards, including 110 rushing yards for NCAA leader Johnathan Franklin - but with five turnovers of their own, the Bruins demonstrated that the team still has a lot of room for improvement. In the end, the bottom line is this: UCLA posted a strong win over an unranked opponent, and they climbed to No. 19 in the rankings.
The game started as well as anyone could hope for, with Houston quarterback David Piland making a backward pass that was dropped, and freshman Ryan Jackson simply leaving it there. UCLA sophomore linebacker Eric Kendricks scooped it up, heeding the advice of the people on the sideline who were screaming that it was a live ball, and took it 23 yards for UCLA's first score. That was just the beginning of UCLA making Piland's night miserable. They settled in to force a punt on the next seven Houston drives, and snatched five interceptions on the seven drives after that. Senior cornerback Sheldon Price had three of them, enough to tie him for third in the NCAA.
UCLA won the time of possession battle by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Houston's explosive, high-tempo offense was almost completely shut down. PIland broke off an 86 yard run in garbage time, giving the Cougars their only score. Head coach Jim Mora took notice: "We played outstanding defense tonight except for one play," he told the press. If that's what Mora is going to focus on for the next week that bodes very well for the defense. The defense was exceptional, but far from perfect. Penalties were an issue, including an astounding stretch where Torian White managed to pick up three penalties on three consecutive plays. The defense was flagged six times for 47 yards, the vast majority of the team's 8-for-62 yards total. Things like this will have to be corrected if the defense wants to excell down the line. I like how Mora handled this. White was pulled from the game after his third flag, a message to him and everyone else that they're accountable for their play.
Brett Hundley's final line on the night was 27-for-42 for 320 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble. With Jonathan Franklin contributing 110 yards on 25 carries, that was more than enough to blow Houston away. Hundley made mistakes, though, staring down his receivers or failing to protect the ball. He's a freshman, mistakes are going to happen, and the defense was playing well enough to cover for him: Three of the five turnovers were immediately followed by Houston punting or committing a turnover of their own. That won't always be the case. Here, too, Mora handled things well.
Hundley and the offense hit a rough stretch in the second quarter with receivers fumbling on consecutive drives and Hundley throwing near-interceptions. The next drive opened with three straight runs. Going back to simple, reliable plays is a smart move. It lets everyone settle in and keeps the team moving in the right direction. Later, when Hundley threw his second interception, Mora put backup Kevin Price into the game. This has the dual impact of stressing accountability and preventing Hundley from getting rattled and making more mistakes, or from overcompensating and doing the same. All in all, a smart move from the coaching staff.
Going into the game as 18-point favorites, UCLA did exactly what they were supposed to do: they posted a dominant win over a lesser team. They're doing a lot of things right, working on the things they're not doing right, and convincing more and more people that it really is a new era at UCLA. Oregon State is next week, and Bruins fans have plenty of reason to be excited.