Defying expectations

In college football, as in life, probably the most important key to keeping fans and supporters happy is managing expectations. Perform better than expected, and even in losing your fans will find hope. But play worse than pundits predict, and even an undefeated team will be plagued by grumblers. <br><br>New Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione has a clear grasp of the point. Asked earlier about Bama's No. 25 ranking, despite coming off a 3-8 campaign, his comment was, "That's just Alabama."

There were plenty of experts predicting a Tide victory Saturday night. Columnists, radio commentators and even the entire ESPN Game Day crew were on record expecting Alabama to deliver their fledgling coach a win. And truthfully, the average Bama fan--desperate for a turnaround after last season's disaster--was all too eager to buy in.

But was that expectation fair?

Almost certainly not.

Given their position as one of only a handful of big-time, big-name programs in talent-rich and talent-deep California, UCLA will always be loaded with athletes. Last season proved that point, as the Bruins handled Bama easily and followed that up with a win over Michigan as well. Yes, UCLA then stumbled to a final 6-6 record, but that didn't diminish their talent. And it was also a veteran squad that Coach Toledo brought into Tuscaloosa.

Coach Fran knew going in that Alabama would have to play very well and probably manufacture a little luck in order to pull out the victory. In many ways, the team did play well--though a few key areas crippled their chances. And in the manufactured-luck category, almost all the key breaks ended up on the Bruin side of the ledger.

Beyond a victory, which is a given for most genuine fan(atics), just what did Bama partisans expect?

A tough defense? Expectation met. The numbers don't lie. For the game a talented and veteran UCLA offense managed only 291 yards--168 on the ground, 123 via the air. Granted, Bama's sack total was lower than expected, but Defensive Coordinator related yesterday that was due to the Bruin quarterback basically throwing immediately to his first read every time. It's hard to get many sacks when the opposing QB utilizes the three-steps-and-chunk-it technique.

Slow down Deshaun Foster (because no one realistically could have expected him to be stopped)? Expectation met. As everyone that watched last year's game knew going in, the Bruin tailback is one of the top runners in the country. Running behind an excellent (and experienced) line, Foster gained 123 yards--good but hardly great numbers. And after last year's multiple-TD performance, he scored nary a single point.

A struggling Bama offense? Expectation confounded. Even rabid Tide fans were worried about Alabama's offensive production. Uncertainty at quarterback coupled with an almost totally new offensive line had everyone concerned--including the Tide coaches. But the final numbers (458 yards of offense and a seven-minute lead in time of possession) speak to a good performance.

Slow down Brian Poli-Dixon? Expectation met overwhelmingly, as the All-America candidate took an ‘Oh-for' on the night. Zero touchdowns, zero receptions, zero impact.

A shaky Bama secondary? Expectation mostly confounded. One broken coverage led to one long pass play and a what turned out to be a crucial Bruin touchdown. But the rest of the night the explosive UCLA passing attack managed only 70 yards in receptions.

Be honest now. If before the game began you had been told the Bama ‘D' would hold UCLA to two touchdowns--one via the pass and one via the run--would you have been unhappy?

It was a close, hard-fought game. Use whatever sports cliché' you prefer, but both teams played well. And had a few breaks gone the other way, the outcome could have been different. And when a cold-eyed look at both rosters leads you to conclude that UCLA had the better overall team, then it's hard to be to disappointed in the outcome.

Dennis Franchione and his staff did an excellent job, identifying the squad's strengths and weaknesses, and then putting together a game plan designed to give their team its best chance to win.

Is there work left to be done? You bet. Starting with correcting the secondary error that led to the long touchdown (something I promise has already begun) and explaining to the offense that foolish mistakes will not be tolerated (another job the coaches began right away).

An upset win on national television over a talented UCLA team would have been terrific. But as Coach Fran pointed out yesterday, UCLA was not the destination--only the beginning of the journey. And so far at least, it's a journey well begun.

Highlights:

  • Gang-tackling by the defense. Hallelujah!
  • Mistake-free play from the quarterback position, including several excellent audibles into the correct play.
  • Watts' incredibly athletic play, in snagging the errant shotgun snap, quickly pump-faking the secondary away from his primary target before firing a beautiful TD pass to AC. (What's one difference between Watts and Zow at quarterback? The receivers can run down Tyler's overthrows, but Andrew's they can't)
  • A rejuvenated Freddie Milons. On several passes he wasn't really that open, but the senior simply went up and got the football.
  • Roberto McBride's leaping tip-away of a sure touchdown pass was SportsCenter highlight material.

Lowlights:

  • Alabama still has a ways to go before they are consistently effective on kickoffs.
  • Penalties, penalties and more penalties. You can complain about UCLA essentially getting off scot free, but that doesn't explain why the Tide committed 15.
  • Zero turnovers. Three times Alabama had a chance to recover fumbled punts, and all of them wound up with the Bruins. When two quality teams play, turnovers almost always spell the difference.

Highlights And Lowlights At The Same Time:

  • Alabama's sometimes long and sometimes short (and low) kickoffs.
  • The offense definitely showed promise, and Franchione clearly knows how to design a scheme to take advantage of his available talent. But as drives wore on, too often a key mistake would cripple the effort. A penalty here, a muffed handoff there and teams like UCLA will beat you every time.
  • The Bruin punter (Nate Fiske) was simply outstanding, providing UCLA with the edge in field position all night long. Too bad he wore the wrong colored jersey.

Random Observations:

  • To describe the atmosphere early on as ‘electric' would be an understatement. The crowd was clearly into it.
  • But during the third quarter when UCLA took control with 13 unanswered points, the noise level and support for the Tide defense could have been better.
  • No offense to anyone involved, but what's the purpose of having a Yell Crew if they do nothing during TV timeouts? The UCLA contingent certainly recognized those as their chance to yell, and they took effective advantage. Again, no offense to anyone involved, but if all you're going to do is wear matching T-shirts and handle the oversized ‘A' flag on the field before the game, I'm not sure I understand the purpose.
  • Make no mistake, this was a very talented Bruin squad. Their speed on defense especially was quite impressive. On several occasions Alabama had a step and looked about to break it long, only to have a Bruin DB fly in to make the tackle.
  • Biggest expectation confounded? Despite steady rains up to game time itself, the field was in excellent condition.

Turning Points:

  • It sounds trite, but one of the biggest for Alabama was when Dennis Franchione put on his headset before the game. Alabama has finally got a professional offensive mind on the staff, who understands how to call a football game. As one press box wag quipped, "Is it legal to set up one play with another? I didn't realize that wasn't against the rules."
  • Bama fans won't like to admit it, but several key drops by Bruin receivers during the game kept Alabama close.
  • Alabama probably lost its best chance when the officials ruled the Tide ‘gunner' interfered with the Bruin punt returner's opportunity to catch the ball. The fumble had been recovered by Bama at midfield. If only…
  • The double-tipped pass/interception ‘thrown' by Tyler Watts led to a Bruin field goal. But the defensive stand by the Tide in keeping them out of the endzone kept UCLA from seizing control of the momentum.
  • Despite 20 unanswered points from UCLA, Alabama was driving and showing plenty of heart at the end of the third quarter. But a poorly executed reverse resulted in a fumble. End of threat.

Coaching:

  • Credit the UCLA coaches. They were obviously schooled in the Franchione option. All night long the Bruins had their defenders in the right place to make the play on the option.
  • Gotta love the old ‘hook and lateral' play. And it was just a few Bruin fingertips away from breaking.

Unsung Heroes:

  • Roberto McBride played very well in his first significant action for Alabama.
  • Brooks Daniels led all Tide tacklers, and has the look of a star.
  • Alonzo Ephraim played far beyond his experience in directing the offensive line.
  • Coming off the bench cold to go 3-for-3, including a long touchdown proved once again that Andrew Zow deserves nothing but respect from Tide fans.

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