Review of the Stanford Game

We'll bring you a more detailed analysis later today, but here's a quick overall assessment of why UCLA looked so bad in its loss to Stanford Saturday, 35-0. It's a lack of discipline and, well, we have to go back to the "C-word"...

UCLA's loss to Stanford at the Rose Bowl, 35-0, is the lowest point in the coaching tenure of Rick Neuheisel.

Pretty simple.

It's easily worse than the 59-0 drubbing at BYU. That was Neuheisel's second game at UCLA, and everyone gave him a pass.

Plus, in that game, you had the sense that UCLA was completely over-matched, in every facet.

In the Stanford game, you can see that UCLA is easily talented enough to match up against Stanford, but failed in just about every facet.

I said during fall camp that UCLA under Neuheisel had yet to really over-achieve, but hadn't under-achieved either, that they had pretty much lived up to expectation, given the circumstances.

This game easily goes under the classification of gross under-achievement.

And definitely qualifies as not living up to expectation.

And it's difficult not to lay the vast majority of the blame on the coaching staff.

For one thing, remember, the players are kids, and amateurs, and mostly doing their best given the talent they have. There probably aren't too many cases of a football player at UCLA not giving an effort to perform as well as he can.

But the coaches are professionals and, while they might also be giving a supreme effort, we can clearly fault them for their failure with a clear conscience.

And there is quite a bit of fault to claim.

If you're Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough, the first quarter of this game isn't exactly on your highlight reel. That's not the kind of thing you put on your resume. And the rest of the game wasn't much better.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is UCLA's seeming lack of discipline and management. It's definitely represented in the defense's inability to get the proper personnel on the field. Neuheisel provided an explanation for the double time-out fiasco in his post-game comments, and while it sounds reasonable, it's not acceptable. There were also a number of times that UCLA's defense is doing wholesale subbing while Stanford's offense was at the line of scrimmage and about to hike the ball, and it created one penalty and a couple of other plays where the defense was in disarray, not aligned properly and vulnerable. Neuheisel, in those same post-game comments, provided another reasonable explanation, but it is also not acceptable.

Other teams and coaching staffs deal with the same issues and the same rules, but they aren't experiencing these gaffes. It's difficult to assess the exact blame for it, but if it's something that UCLA is attempting to do that other programs don't, it might be un-doable, and the coaching staff should realize it. If it is something that other coaching staffs are doing far more seamlessly than it is the fault of the coaching staff.

Either way it goes to a lack of discipline in the program.

And bottom line: It's at the feet of the coaching staff.

And that's just the defensive coaches' game management, we haven't even started to talk about what happened in this game when the team got on the field.

But, really, the blame of what happened on the field in this game looked to be mostly the fault of those on the sideline.

It was extremely lucky, actually, that Andrew Luck wasn't sharp Saturday night. He missed a number of easy throws when he wasn't pressured. It very well could have been worse that 35-0.

The defensive play-calling has gotten curiouser and curiouser. Bullough is far more conservative in the two games this season than he was last season, his first as a defensive coordinator, which is significant since the knock on him was how un-risky he was last season. Perhaps it's a lack of confidence in such a young defense as this year's version.

But that leads to the one under-lying motif or theme of UCLA's mediocre eight-year run in football: Conservatism.

If there's something that has been a unifying thread from 2003 until this season it's a highly conservative approach to the game, on both sides of the ball, in both the Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel regimes. The Bruins have earned a reputation as non-risk-takers. In just about every circumstance, whether it's going with a base defense for a majority of a game and allowing a talented quarterback to methodically pick you apart because of it, the "bend not break" approach, or it's running the ball tackle-to-tackle without a pitch or misdirection, or if it's never going for it on fourth down, or running out the clock before halftime, it's been the defining characteristic of UCLA football for quite a while.

Let's give Bob Toledo some credit. At least when he went down in flames from 1999 to 2002, he didn't do it conservatively.

But Dorrell and Neuheisel are Terry Donahue disciples. And while we appreciate what a quality coach Donahue was at UCLA, he was defined by an over-riding sense of conservatism.

One of the best things about college football is that there are always coaches who are trying to innovate, or attempt something new, probably more so than in any other sport. They're trying to find that spark, but also trying to define themselves. It's done in schemes, both offensive and defensive, but it's also done by risk-taking. Boise State defined itself in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when it beat Oklahoma, 43-42, in probably the most memorable game in recent college football history. BSU's head coach Chris Petersen defined himself as a risk taker by calling three high-risk but ultimately successful plays in critical times – the last being the game-winner in overtime, a Statue of Liberty on a two-point conversion to win the game.

Everywhere you look in college football there is risk-taking: new, innovative schemes, teams going for it on fourth down, etc.

What many programs – and coaches – get, is that there is always a good chance that they'll fail. Of course. But maybe you'd rather fail by attempting something fresh and creative. If you do, then at least you'll have the explanation that you attempted something with imagination. Most conservative coaches believe they're playing percentages, and doing the wise thing, for instance, not to blitz too often against a talented quarterback as Luck. But there is a trend in college football to try for the big result – such as getting pressure on the quarterback -- and risk getting burned rather than sitting back and suffering a slow death. UCLA is not part of the trend. UCLA has been saddled with rampant conservatism for quite a long time. It's such a sticking point that a couple of years ago a UCLA sports information representative asked me, jokingly, if I was going to continue to use the "C word."

No matter if it's part of his inherent make-up, or if he is getting it mandated to him, or if he's gotten it through osmosis, Bullough is a conservative DC.

I haven't looked at the Stanford game tape closely yet, but in a first swipe, on the field the defense looked to have many of the same issues it did last week against Kansas State – missed assignments, bad positioning, bad angles and bad decisions. While you can blame the players and, of course, they do get some of the blame for their performance, UCLA's defense is so pervasively sloppy that it has to go back to the top.

Pretty much the defense this season is a microcosm of the problems with UCLA's program over the last decade. What plagues UCLA's defense is what has plagued the program overall – lack of discipline and a crippling sense of conservatism.

And that leads us to the offense.

In the Kansas State game, there was a crack of hope with the Pistol. There were signs that the scheme would provide some opportunities. It clearly aided the running game.

But, if you're talking crippling conservatism, the offensive play-calling in the Stanford game pretty much rendered whatever hope there was with the Pistol in the KSU game inconsequential.

I will never be able to rationalize, on a third and two, throwing the ball on a flat route along the line of scrimmage, behind the first-down marker. I can't understand going to the same go route numerous times in one game, and that's the only passing attempt over 8 yards. Where are the slants, the bubble screens, a deep dig, even a short post, etc? Anything with some imagination? Does the offense not have have a tight end anymore? What is the point of the F-back if he's not going to be utilized?

Personnel choices, too, are highly conservative. Going with more experienced – but slower – wide receivers; opting for a running back that clearly isn't as talented as the two behind him…it's all a bit perplexing at this point.

I didn't think Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow was conservative before he got to UCLA, but there must be something in the water at the Morgan Center.

Again, we'll break down the game in more detail later today, but overall, it's the same explanation – lack of discipline and pervasive conservatism.

The biggest, most amazing irony in all of this is the offensive line. They have easily done the best of any unit on the team, the unit that going into the season was perhaps the most suspect. Again, before the season, if you had said that UCLA would get good production from its offensive line in its first two games you would have predicted far more competitive results.

Overall, the loss at Stanford is a considerable blow, not just to the season, but potentially to the long-term well-being of Neuheisel's program. We have said since the end of last season that the 2010 was the year – Neuheisel's third – when he had to prove it on the field, provide recruits more of a tangible product and not just sell promises. Of course, the season isn't over; UCLA still has 10 regular-season games remaining, which is plenty of time to right the ship. But the game was a blow to that overall effort, making it a tougher ship to salvage.


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