Charles Chiccoa: A False Start?

Bruin Report Online Columnist Charles Chiccoa takes a look (or a deserved blow) at UCLA's performance against Kansas State last Saturday, especially targeting the Bruins' defense...

Like posting messages while a game's still in progress, perhaps the best policy in addressing such an awful opener is to draw as few definitive conclusions as possible. There are at least eleven more games to be played, and things do change after all, even at a place like UCLA. But there's no way around it: The Bruins were badly outplayed on both sides of the ball and not nearly as well prepared as Bill Snyder's Kansas State team. But then you knew that.

Though the ground game and the offensive line showed improvement, the Bruins passing game was atrocious, as was the rushing defense and the tackling, generally. But then you knew that, too. Until Kevin Prince's two nice passes to Cory Harkey and Ricky Marvray, the passing game had netted only about 50 yards. Without that 30 second drive inside the last two minutes, the total offense would have registered an embarrassing 250 yards.

Were there some drops? Sure. Were the drops well-thrown balls? Some yes, some no. If you happen to subscribe to the coaching cliché that states, "If you get your hands on it, you've got to catch it," then you might want to put the larger blame on Morrell Presley, Taylor Embree and the receivers. I'm not a subscriber, and the fact of the matter is that Kevin Prince threw a lot of bad balls in this game… late, off target and into coverage… like last year. Granted he looked "rusty," but coaches and the media have a tendency to get defensive in aid of quarterbacks suffering through a bad day, either blaming the offensive line (not an option in this case) or pointing fingers at the receivers, assuming incorrect pass routes, even missing on replays which actually show a pass being tipped away from a covered receiver, not a drop. Why is that? Perhaps because quarterback is an individual position and one of the toughest jobs in all of sports, or the fact he's the one indispensable piece without which most teams have little hope of real success. And, of course, there's lots of old QBs up in the broadcast booths these days, and Brock Huard, on Saturday's telecast, was obviously doing his best for a fellow member of the brethren.

I'm pretty confident in the offensive skills of Josh Smith, Ricky Marvray, Nelson Rosario, Johnathan Franklin, Malcolm Jones, Randall Carroll and Cory Harkey; somewhat less so in Prince.

Then there was that bizarre ending which saw Daniel Thomas pop wide open for the final humiliating nail in the coffin ("and the crowd goes wild!"). Yeah, I understand there's no such thing as a feel-good loss, but I would've felt a tiny bit better if Akeem Ayers, Patrick Larimore or Sean Westgate could've put Thomas on the ground. If perception equals reality in college football, then the "lead" for this game would've read something like KSU/UCLA came down to a two-point conversion. Anyway it's beside the point, since the Bruins will have an immediate chance to work on the perception problem this Saturday night. And it can't come too soon.

On the defensive side of the ball, we now have a whole new set of questions… and one old one, that being whether Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Bullough is ready for prime time. For a guy who has yet to prove he's the bright, aggressive DC we've all been looking for lo these many years, he seems oddly complacent.

A brutal case in point:

After giving up the usual Bullough courtesy score to begin the game (immediately after the usual Bruin courtesy three-and-out), UCLA settles into a shaky, but grateful, 10-7 halftime lead. The offense has contributed little more than Prince's 11-yard, unmolested romp into the end zone following a fumble recovery, but the defense has held its own. Just the sort of low-scoring game most have anticipated. So, first drive of the third quarter, following a ten-yard penalty, KSU is first-and-twenty from their own ten. Instead of trying to press a field position advantage, forcing a punt deep in KSU territory, Chuck sits back in his good ol' comfortable Base D; Carson Coffman, the ‘Cats very average passer, completes a short out, then finds his tight end down the middle. Now it's third and two, and Coffman crisply executes an option pitch to his stud tailback, Daniel Thomas; Akeem Ayers is isolated on the edge and easily bypassed as Thomas cuts through the secondary for 44 yards. Finally, William Powell, KSU's "lightning" to Thomas' "thunder," sprints 28 yards for the score. Whoa! Just like that the Bruins are playing from behind once again. Quick! Somebody wake up Chuck! Since the Bruins are characteristically unable to drive the ball, the D naturally wears down over the course of a hot Midwestern afternoon (KSU holds a decisive 36-to-24-minute advantage in time of possession.).

It was obvious from the beginning that the Wildcats were the quicker team. All this added "good weight" we've all been crowing about is beginning to look a little disabling. I mean, Nate Chandler might be a tackle after all, while Ayers may need to put his hand down at the line of scrimmage. Then again both WILL linebacker, Sean Westgate, and cornerback, Sheldon Price, still look too small for the job. Price, in particular, is still getting tossed around like a rag doll in a wind storm whenever a ball carrier makes it to his level, and Westgate looked especially beaten down late in the game. Glenn Love (or somebody) may need a larger share of the position, if not beat him out for the start. Some other guys didn't seem to register much, either. Of course it's hard to shine when Bullough seems loath to turn his people loose.

Even though this was another blown chance at a winnable road game vs. a respectable opponent, there are still two games at the Rose Bowl before the trip to Texas, which is to say there's still a chance, believe it or not, to work up a little momentum before then.

Presumably Bullough will feel (or be made to feel) some urgency this Saturday to kick up the pressure on a passer like Andrew Luck. Then again Bullough's post-game suggestion that since the D held KSU to 100 yards in the first half, and it was "fatigue" that did his unit in, not to mention a lack of "gap responsibility" by the players, he's neatly fingered both the offense and his own players - which may well have been true - though it would've been a nice gesture to hear him take some responsibility himself. In any case, it's almost unthinkable that the D should sit back in coverage and let Luck pick them apart in some misguided attempt at "containment." If he goes down that discredited road, shame on him and the Bruins.

Among all sorts of explanations for what went down in Manhattan, Rick Neuheisel gets the last word. "That is not UCLA football," he said. "That's not how we play and it's not how we can play if we expect to have any kind of success this year." Unfortunately, it is how the Bruins have played for the longest time, including the past couple of seasons. Hopefully his words will begin to manifest themselves on the field. With a recruiting touch like this guy possesses (hello Brett Hundley!), Radical Cranks would be foolish to want him gone just yet. Best to let the drama play out.

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