Rick's watchword for this year's Cal week was, "Can we handle prosperity?" (Some coaches wouldn't even consider the question, but that discussion is for another day.) And, just like last year's game the answer came quickly, only it was even worse: Cal, 28-0 at the half.
The Bears called their shot by electing to receive the opening kickoff and, after carving up Chuck Bullough's first-quarter defense, you had that familiar sinking feeling… again. Going to be another unhappy day.
Typically the Bruin D either stones the play or gives up a big gainer. There's rarely much consistency… and always, always problems with misdirection, problems on third down. A perfect example of the former was Isi Sofele's long run out of the Wildcat: a simple jab step to his left and the Bruins all flew left like soldiers in close-order drill, which left only Aaron Hester to make the play, which he could not. (Cal's only score in the second half would also come on misdirection, this time on a reverse you could see coming from Tightwad Hill. "Flying to the ball" is not always a virtue, but it has seemingly always been a Bruin trademark.)
Now it's UCLA's turn to answer, but they show nothing but a holding penalty and four running calls, including a 3rd-and-19 draw play. Punting time again. ("Live to fight another day." If nothing else, Bruin football is forever patient. They play as if there's all the time in the world.)
Next up is the Johnathan Franklin fumble. (You know, it's time to consider the possibility that Johnathan is something like the second coming of Wendell Tyler, and the Bruins are either going to have to live with it or find another quick, breakaway back. Who knows, perhaps it's the freshman, the one that's red shirting.) At least we get some humor as Petros misinterprets the close-up of Wayne Moses and Franklin on the sideline. Actually, the coach is not trying to "calm the young man down." He's lighting him up.
Cal now demonstrates how to run the fly sweep, something the Bruins - still stuck in "Pistol 101" - have yet to master. Then Shane Vereen demonstrates the art of the straight arm on the Bruins' "physical" corner, Hester. 14-0, Cal.
Josh Smith sets up the offense at midfield with another nice kickoff return; the Bruins barely squeeze out a first down, then Kevin Prince is blasted on a corner blitz. Third and long. But instead of coming with a three-man rush, Cal comes with a delayed blitz up the middle and Prince barely gets off his attempt. Punting time… (The Bruins would punt nine times.)
The defense gets a sack, forces a Cal punt, and the Bruins are set up near midfield. Franklin breaks off UCLA's only memorable play of the day, a nice 31-yard run to the Cal 26. First and ten with a legit chance to climb back in the game. But uh, oh… an obvious hold on Darius Savage (he grabs a fistful of jersey), so make that first and 20.
Prince drops "the cheese," and with no Bear within nine yards of the ball - instead of picking the thing up, keeping the play alive and at least throwing it away - he simply falls on it for a huge loss.
Second and 31. Cal blows up a botched screen pass for a loss of four.
Third and 35. Incomplete pass. The Bruins have once again driven the ball backwards and even out of Kai Forbath's formidable range. How's the kid going to break John Lee's record with this kind of play.
Cal now proceeds to drive the ball something like 140 yards (due to a handful of penalties), but their Kevin [Riley] finally puts an end to Bruin frustrations with the sort of instinctive, athletic play that our Kevin cannot make. He moves effectively in the pocket, improvises to buy time, then delivers a perfectly placed short ball for the score. 21-0… and the crowd goes wild.
After Cal linebacker Michael Kendricks makes the hit of the day, picking up Derrick Coleman and slamming him into the turf like Chief Osceola planting the "burning spear," UCLA must… punt again.
Now Cal drives the nail in the coffin aided again by Hester "The Molester," as I like to think of him - pass interference in the end zone. (I don't think I've ever seen a practice where Hester didn't commit multiple PIs. He simply can't keep his hands off receivers. The coaches should have cleaned this up months ago.) Riley then makes another athletic play at the goal line and it's 28-0. Game over.
Talked to a couple of Bruin buddies yesterday, one of them an ex-starting player, and they both brought up, in separate conversations, their wish that Neuheisel would, uh, how should I say… perhaps cut his press conferences a bit shorter. Which is to say they're getting tired of listening to his repetitious remarks. Of course he has to acknowledge the media, answer their questions, spar a few rounds with T.J., but does he have to go on at such length. One of us, I don't remember who, said of Rick, "He makes a better critic than he does a football coach." If worse ever comes to worst, he'll always find a home on some sports network.
The mid season record may be about what a lot of fans anticipated, but certainly not the particular way those games went down. Kansas State, in Manhattan, figured to be a tossup, and of course the Bruins lost that coin flip (perhaps more decisively than anticipated). The two Texas games went better than anticipated, and the Stanford and Cal games much, much worse. And today, with the Oregon trip and player suspensions, the immediate future is not inviting. Furthermore, the two hangover issues from last season were, and are, still unanswered:
1) Chuck Bullough's inability to produce a decent pass rush, therefore leading to problems in stopping third down conversions (and 140 yard drives) and…
2) Prince's inability to make teams respect the pass, therefore making it more difficult to sustain drives and score touchdowns.
Yes, there are problems with player personnel, but that neither explains what we saw last year, and what we've seen so far this year. In short, the Bruins have underachieved, and I doubt I'm alone in thinking that.
The deal with Bullough is pretty straightforward: A scheme is of little help if you can't "execute" it, and please do not tell me that "execution" is not, to a large extent, a coaching responsibility. And when the "E Word" becomes a euphemism in aid of covering one's ass, it needs to be noted. As we should all know by now, a secondary has enough problems with their natural, physical disadvantages vs. wide receivers. Without a serious push up front, including blitzes of every kind, disguised or otherwise, off the edges or up the middle, college DBs will generally have more on their plate than they can easily digest. Year in, year out, this seems especially true of UCLA.
The quarterback situation basically amounts to the problems with Prince. Richard Brehaut hasn't yet played enough to be fairly judged. It could be that Brehaut's not the answer, and that Prince might, in fact, give the Bruins "the best chance to win." But we can't know that until we see more of him. And it's certainly not as if Prince has set the bar high.
Prince started a lot of games last year, and he got to throw a season's worth of passes. He was not okay, at least to my eyes and a lot of others. His numbers were poor and he was something like the eighth-best quarterback of the eighth-place conference team. This year he's been worse.
I don't doubt he may have had impressive days in practices, and I'm speaking here of 11-on-11 scrimmages, very few of which he was able to play in. And if he was notably impressive, I'm not sure what that says about him given what we've seen of him in games. Then, of course, there's the question of injuries.
If the "oblique" muscle strain (along with subsequent injuries) was troubling enough to hamper his physical performance then he probably shouldn't have been starting. But, except for Washington State, the line has been that he was in good enough shape to play, that the injuries wouldn't hamper his performance, the adrenaline would kick in, etc. Given all that, Prince has still been inadequate. He hasn't been able to drive the team, and though there are obvious issues with pass blocking, pass receiving and Norm Chow's conservative play calling, Prince is still a large part of the offense's failure, very likely the biggest part. Is he young? Sure. But he's no true freshman, he's a red shirt soph, a co-captain… he apparently understands the offense and he can answer Chow intelligently in the film room. So his problems may be more fundamental.
Prince wasn't an elite prep prospect, and he's had little success at UCLA. He didn't finish last season strong, and in the SC and Temple games he was not appreciably better than Kevin Craft. If he plays tight, seems to lack confidence, there may be good reasons. Basically, we're being asked to take Chow's word on faith, i.e., that Prince has the "it factor," even though the evidence of our eyes tells us something vastly different. And if your answer is to trust the coach, I respectfully decline. Coaches make mistakes just like auto mechanics, accountants and heads of state. Time will tell whether Prince can cut it as a Pac-10 quarterback. And if he does it will be a feel-good story nearly on the level of John Barnes. But all these comparisons with the young Drew Olson and Cade McNown need to stop. Olson and McNown may indeed have radically improved, but they both played as true freshmen, and seldom looked as lost and awkward as Prince. They never entered games with less pocket presence, accuracy and instinct for the position as Prince. Indeed, the best hope for Kevin is the fact he's had so little competitive quarterbacking experience.
I was going to briefly consider the second half of the schedule, but I don't have the energy. God knows what's going to happen in Eugene (who knows, maybe something good? But nothing like Austin). Have I mentioned that writing about this program is no fun? Cranking out this stuff is hard work. I'm sure many of you are as relieved as me to be getting a week off from Bruins football. Enjoy yourselves, recharge and come back in even better shape for another round of this seemingly endless, one-off spectacle.