SALT LAKE CITY--UCLA showed up a Rice-Eccles Stadium in first place in the Pac-12 South division and with a chance to gain bowl eligibility, but it turned out a game with so much riding on it made the Bruins a bit jumpy.
UCLA had 12 penalties for 91 yards in the game -- six of them false start penalties -- routinely putting the Bruins behind the eight ball in terms of down and distance and sapping the ability to get the run game going.
And the penalties started early Saturday, a false start on third and one on the third play of the game. It set an ominous tone as Derrick Coleman ran for five yards on the ensuing third and six and UCLA then had to punt. Three other false starts set up first and 15 situations, which is not exactly a recipe for success in UCLA’s ball-control, grind-it-out offense, especially against a Utah defense that ranked No. 10 in the nation against the run coming in to the game.
“It was hard to put yourself in a situation where you are trying to move a very, very stout defensive line and make first and 15s,” coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Many of the early jumping penalties came as a result of what Neuheisel called “stemming.” Utah defensive players were moving around a lot before the snap and calling out their formation changes after the offense was set.
“Defensive linemen are lined up and all of a sudden they make a call ‘move’ and everybody moves to another position,” Neuheisel said. “When you say ‘move’ it can sound a lot like ‘Hut.’ “It can sometimes kind of sound like the quarterback and there were probably three or four of those.”
The inability to avoid those penalties was even more surprising considering that UCLA was fully prepared for Utah’s stemming. They worked on it all week in practice, even using silent counts in an effort to avoid such penalties, yet still routinely moved before the snap.
“We practiced it all week,” tight end Joe Fauria said. “We didn’t have any count the whole week, we just had the silent count and we were ready for it and some guys just maybe got a little flustered.”
The Bruins had 10 penalties for 76 yards in the first half, and had 115 yards of total offense. They trailed, 7-3, at the half, but who knows how things might have turned out had the Bruins avoided shooting themselves in the foot so often.
“It’s just penalties that we can’t have in the beginning of the game when you need momentum,” Fauria said. “You need to start fast and that’s what we didn’t do. You can’t be taking steps backwards. That’s not how you win games.”
Certainly the snowfall swirling around the stadium didn’t help the focus issues for the team from Southern California. And when you add in the factor of playing in a loud, hostile road environment, the offensive line of scrimmage got out of sorts early in the game.
“The crowd noise kind of got us off the way we like to do our cadence,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “They were able to time up their blitzes because they knew when we were going to snap the ball so it made it tougher in that sense.”
But penalties are nothing new to the Bruins: They are No. 23 on the list of most penalized teams in the nation with 70 penalties for 614 yards this season. And the correlation between penalties and winning is pretty clear. In UCLA's five wins, the Bruins have 28 penalties for 263 yards. In their five losses, they've been penalized 42 times for 351 yards.
It adds up to a pretty clear trend that says if the Bruins are focused and disciplined, they win. When they are not, they lose. And with a season-high 12 penalties Saturday, it was pretty easy to predict which side of the scoreboard would have more points at game's end.
“Looking back, you look at the team we weren’t as ready as we thought we were,” Neuheisel said after Saturday's loss. “I believe we practiced hard. I thought we were focused. There was nothing in the way of lack of anything that I can point to. We have to grow up and be able to play in those environments.”