Were you shocked by what went down in Austin? Why wouldn't you be? It certainly looked like Mack Brown and his defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, were. I mean, the Houston bounceback was rewarding, but it could hardly have erased the memory of Kansas State and, most of all, the Stanford debacle. But the Texas experience really changes things.
Number one, it tells us that what people had seen pre-season, on Spaulding Field, wasn't entirely an illusion. This team should be competitive. It does have quality personnel. And for those who believed The Pistol was an "experiment," that the coaching staff wasn't "all in," you may need to become more skeptical in future about what comes out of the mouths of coaches. These guys can be as slippery, as disingenuous, as a Bell city council member. (A player could have a bone sticking out of his leg and Erin Andrews might have problems getting a straight injury report.)
As far as could be seen, spring and pre-season combined, UCLA was running The Pistol 99 and 44/100th percent of the time. It does not follow that coaches would spend that much practice time on a new offense and still be uncommitted. And the reason was, and has now become, crystal clear. Because the QB is an ever-present threat to run, therefore making it more difficult for the defense to out-number the offense at the point of attack, and because of the various other options and benefits available, it causes the defensive front to flinch, to hesitate just that split second which, as we've seen, can make all the difference. I think Rick Neuheisel may have seriously been on to something when he suspected one reason Pete Carroll left for the NFL was because, as a defensive coach, he didn't want to deal with the kind of challenges this sort of offense presented.
In the recent past, UCLA has been one of the easiest offenses to defend against. If the Bruins couldn't beat you on sheer talent (and they often couldn't), they left you a huge opening based on the strength and resourcefulness of your schemes. Any decent coach stood a good chance of beating your average Bruin team even with inferior personnel. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that were to become a thing of the past?
UCLA got off to its usual sleepy start vs. Texas. Playing soft on the edges and in the secondary, Texas naturally took what was being offered: three easy first downs. Quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, would go on to complete his first eight passes… like candy from a baby. So here we go again? Not so fast, my friend. Chuck Bullough may feel uncomfortable with all-out blitzes, but he is starting to stunt more, become less predictable, not rely so heavily on his base defense. When you have reliable linebacking and secondary play, it makes things easier, particularly with the likes of Akeem Ayers and Patrick Larimore. Even the lightly regarded Sean Westgate has become a surprising thorn in the opposition's side.
Once Dalton Hilliard made that perfect-form tackle, burying his face in a receiver's chest on a little flat pass, and Akeem Ayers followed with a nice tackle in space to force a pooch punt, you began getting the feeling the Bruin D could play with these guys. (The players, it seems, never had a doubt.) Ayers, as we all know - and the nation is now learning - is a quarterback's worst nightmare, either causing havoc off the edge or with his uncanny instincts and anticipation in pass coverage. (He's beginning to remind me, dare I say, of Jerry Robinson, only he's bigger). Texas got a full dose of Ayers in the first half. Thus it became a low-scoring, offensive abomination, as the Bruin offense could muster little benefit out of all the Longhorns' turnovers. The Bruins did, however, manage a two-yard touchdown drive.
The feeling was now growing that Texas's #7 ranking may have had something to do with the coattails of Colt McCoy and Vince Young - football becomes a much easier proposition with guys like that leading your offense. Then there was the media's usual lazy take, in this case the fact Texas was leading the nation in rushing defense despite having played only three unimpressive spread offenses which ran the ball about as much as the Bruins passed it. By halftime, Texas had gained just 129 yards, while UCLA had miraculously managed to keep Texas in the game by gaining only 77, including a ridiculous 6 yards passing.
Stopping for a quick chat on his way to the locker room, Mack Brown looked so angry you feared for his health. Normally, coaches in his position would gladly juke, or run over, the sideline reporter getting off the field… if that reporter wasn't inevitably a woman and he wasn't required to give her a few seconds of not-so-sweet-nothings.
With only a 13-3 lead and UCLA receiving, the opening drive of the second half would be crucial. Mack Brown knew it. Neuheisel knew it. You and I knew it. And what a beauty it was: eighty yards in eight plays, all but one on the ground… most featuring Johnathan Franklin skipping through, spinning around, shedding tacklers… then finishing the drive with an 11-yard run up the middle. Today, it's conceivable he could be headed for All-Conference honors. Of the four running backs in the '08 class, Franklin has proved the best and most durable.
Later in the third quarter Texas had to settle for a field goal when Tony Dye tipped away a potential interference call in the endzone which could've pulled Texas within ten heading into the fourth quarter. And it was at this point that UCLA sucked all the air out of the Texas faithful while simultaneously setting off the traveling Bruin faithful dancing in the isles.
Josh "Not-Just-A-Return-Man" Smith started the party with yet another good return to midfield. Three plays later it's Matt Millen shouting, "Sean, they bit the cheese!" as Prince breaks clean for a 38-yard score behind a good enough block by Anthony Barr. Counting Smith's return, that's 4 plays for 95 yards in a little over a minute. Chip Kelly wouldn't have thrown that drive back. (I must say Millen makes a much better color man than NFL General Manager.)
A full quarter left and once again it's the Bruins game to lose, which they not only don't do, but actually finish off in style. Ole! When Neuheisel later spoke about "wanting Derrick [Coleman] to slide," thereby showing sympathy for one's opponent, I was hoping he was kidding; alas, he was serious. It does seem to me that so long as you're not putting the ball in the air, or pulling sucker plays out of your ass, a'la Pete, there's nothing wrong in letting your team finish off a big win with straight handoffs. Let the players play. But then I've never been a good scout.
I was glad to hear Rick repeat that "hope isn't a very good strategy," thereby kissing off any "gutty little" notions about this win, about this team. And with the Sick Man of the Pac-10 staggering into town this Saturday, it provides you and me with a little R&R while watching the Bruins nail things down for the upcoming conference tests… because the conference prizes are up for grabs. (Too bad UCLA will be laboring under a 0-1 handicap, but then that's generally been the Bruin way.)
Always the relentless optimist, Rick told us after Stanford how sweet it would feel when the Bruins climbed up off the floor after such a blow as 0-35, and damned if he wasn't right. Feels great, doesn't it?
One would now think Rick and Norm Chow might let Prince and the passing game out for some badly needed work, not to mention answering some lingering questions. Forget the "rust," forget last season and the season before that. (Unless, of course, Rick and Norm are planning an assault on the old Pepper-Rodgers, wishbone rushing records. I mean, you can't likely go back to the future. Even Woody and Bo would be putting the ball up more than the Bruins.)
I realize some of this Thundering Herd business is circumstantial, but come on… this is way over the top. And for all you "grinders," remember that Rick also said, "We're going to have to throw the ball with some measure of success." No better time than the present.
Chiccoa: Maybe We Were Mistaken
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