Chiccoa: Whew!

BRO's columnist Charles Chiccoa expresses the collective relief of Bruin Nation after UCLA dominated Houston last Saturday, and provides some realistic parameters for potential success in Austin...

So I'm opening the Sunday Times and what do I see but a huge five-column photo of four dancing Trojans celebrating a touchdown below a row of bored Minnesota fans casually eating and drinking, no doubt contemplating another forgettable Gopher season. Then I flip below the fold and there's a little shot of Sean Westgate sacking ex-Heisman candidate, Case Keenum… and a note referring me to the Times' website for the Bruins story. I understand why, but it's nevertheless irritating. Anyway, who cares? Nobody takes the Times seriously anymore.

After the disappointment of Kansas State and the shock of Stanford, the Houston game had become an absolute, back-to-the-wall must-win. And none of us knew whether the Cougars were truly dangerous (another potential Boise St. or TCU), or whether they were BCS pretenders who would wilt in the presence of superior Pac-10 strength, talent and depth. Fortunately they turned out to be the latter, which doesn't necessarily diminish the Bruin victory. We were all starved for a win. They won by eighteen points. And the margin could easily have been more.

In times like these it may be helpful to remind ourselves that all you and I have to do is tailgate, sit up in the stands, or kick back on our collective Barcalounger and enjoy, or not enjoy, the show. That's our job. The job of the players and coaches is to worry, sweat, bleed and prepare to take a weekly test, so to speak, on an actual playing field while we, "the peeps," analyze, criticize, cheer, bitch or moan according to our sensibilities. Which is not to say that players and coaches should be immune from criticism and analysis, particularly in comparison with their peers in other programs. But between the two groups there's no doubt which one has the more challenging, not to mention rewarding, job. I'm just say'n.

*****

It didn't take long to figure out which was the better team on Saturday night, or which team was most taken by surprise. After winning the coin toss, Houston made the unorthodox choice to receive, presumably because they thought their NCAA leading offense was a good bet to march down the field and take a quick lead. Then again, knowing what we know about the Bruins, and first quarters, maybe it wasn't so unorthodox after all. They would later make another curious decision with a pooched kickoff, setting up the Bruins at midfield for an easy scoring drive. In any case, when the Cougars went three-and-out on that first drive, you could feel the blood rising on the Bruin bench and all over the Rose Bowl.

After Cory Harkey killed UCLA's first drive, dropping an easy first down throw, the Bruins soon took the game by the throat. If it wasn't Johnathan Franklin churning out huge chunks of yardage, proving he's the man for the starting tailback spot, it was Kevin Prince keeping the ball on option reads, hitting some short passes, churning out 60 important yards rushing while showing pretty good straight-ahead speed, once even throwing a little move on a isolated DB, then overpowering him at the goal line. By halftime it was the Bruins game to lose. By the end of the third quarter it was over.

It was also great seeing Ricky Marvray make the catch of the season, skying for a Prince overthrow, taking it away from two DBs, and turning it up field for additional yards. This is the sort of thing Ricky seemed to do on a daily basis at the practices I attended. Along with Josh Smith, who has yet to see significant action, he's the most physically gifted Bruin receiver and easily the most fun to watch.

Malcolm Jones, of course, had a night to forget, killing two drives with fumbles, while producing little on ten additional carries. He looked surprisingly indecisive whenever he ran the ball wide. Hopefully it was just one of those "learning experiences" for a true freshman (though I hate using that sort of excuse). Makes me even more curious about Jordon James.

Defensively, this game once again demonstrated the value of playmakers. Both Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore contributed game-changing plays. Ayers has the softest hands and keenest instincts for anticipating and making point-blank picks of any player I've ever seen. It's uncanny how he keeps producing these things. And whether Moore is the luckiest safety in America or a "ballhawk" of extraordinary proportions, he continues to be in the right place at the right time for tipped balls down the middle. Seems as if half his picks are on plays like this. (Note to Petros: It's more than a little premature to start comparing Rahim to Kenny Easley and Don Rogers.)

It was nice to see two of BRO's whipping boys, Westgate and Andrew Abbott, have such good games. It should also be said that Chuck Bullough's nickel approach, thanks particularly to Abbott, was very effective. Take away the gimmick halfback pass and they hold the Cougars to something like 150 yards in the air. Take away Case Kennum's 3rd-and-long, 45-yard scramble and they hold the Cougars to something like 60 yards rushing. Both halfbacks, Beall and Hayes, were held completely in check.

Though Houston's overall material is not up to Pac-10 standards, I thought their skill players were impressive. (How Houston will fare losing their top two quarterbacks for the season we can't say for sure, but we've got a pretty good idea. Their freshman QB did look promising, though. And isn't it a shame what's happening to Keenum and Jake Locker with respect to their sagging draft prospects? Players need to think long and hard before gambling away potential millions for old State U.)

On the debit side, Bullough's 3rd-and-longs are still killers to have to watch. Whether it's execution, inexperience or the scheme itself, something needs to change. Considering how many 3rd-and-long conversions the Bruins have given up over the years, you'd think they'd use it less or refine it more… or, like the "victory formation," save it for when the game is won.

*****

The Texas game might as well be thought of as the midterm. We've all had this one circled for a while. Had the Bruins either lost or played poorly vs. Houston, this game would have pretty much lost its buzz. But now that the Bruins seem to have found an "identity" and, more importantly, some confidence… now that they're finally showing some fire, there may be hope after all, at least for a respectable showing, perhaps even a respectable season. They're still understandably heavy underdogs, but these particular Longhorns don't look as intimidating as the days of Vince Young and Colt McCoy. In any case, we should get a more definitive read on just how physical and talented these Bruins may be. They have gotten quicker, defensively, since Kansas State, but the same two questions we've had from the start are still in play: namely Prince and Bullough.

The Bruins aren't going to bully Texas like they did Houston, which isn't to say they can't run on the Longhorns. But without Prince completing some passes downfield, thus threatening their secondary… or without his receivers holding on to catchable balls, they'll either be stalemated or outnumbered at the line of scrimmage, something that could lead to much ugliness. The pressure on Prince for this game will be greater than ever (seems as if we say this every week). Thus far he hasn't shown many signs of handling pressure well, which is probably why so many of his throws are either high or late. His movements still seem tight, mechanical and certainly not fluid. Perhaps he'll get off to a good start and loosen up. Though you can't help pulling for him, time is running out for Prince to show something in a big game. And though the Bruins were able to pressure the Houston passing game, they still didn't do much blitzing. In passing situations, you'd have to think Bullough would need to send more than his usual four or five at the Texas QB… and certainly never three.

                                                                                                     ****

Though it's little talked about, there is such a thing as athletic class, by which I do not mean that Boy Scout stuff: being a good winner, a good loser, glorifying the opposition, being "honored to shake the hand" of the opposing coach. No matter how you feel about that sort of thing it is something easy, almost rote, often times not even sincere. What I'm talking about is physical and psychological strength: holding your own, even dominating, against a formidable opponent with comparable skills in an unfriendly environment.

The roller-coaster effect with which we've become so familiar is perhaps the likeliest symbol for this program. Over the years UCLA has not often played well vs. good teams, or - on the road - even mediocre teams. That elusive "corner," always at least two steps away, and that we all hope to see turned one fine day, never seems to get within easy reach. Thus 13-9 is followed by 27 - 44 to a poor Florida St. team. A thrilling eight-game winning streak is flushed in the wake of two humiliating losses at Arizona and at SC. A six-game winning streak to open the season is followed by a four-game losing streak, crowned by 0-27 in the Coliseum. Even the 20-game win streak is bookended with a matched pair of winnable losses… and that's just since '97.

Even at 1-2, the Texas game presents at least a chance for the Bruins to play competitively. It was not for no reason that JRW placed "Competitive Greatness" at the pinnacle of his "Pyramid." As we've said, this team is not without talent, so here's hoping we see some mental toughness together with superior performances by both players and coaches… win or lose.



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