Usually I write an initial story after a game, and then go back and watch the tape again and analyze it more closely.
But I hope you all can understand that no one – besides the UCLA coaches – should be forced to watch UCLA get demolished by Oregon, 60-13, a second time.
In fact, no Bruin follower should have to think or dwell on that game for too long.
It's actually not that difficult to give out grades for the game: Straight Fs for every unit and definitely for the coaching staff. And, while we're at it, an F for UCLA's athletic administration and for its academic administration.
Pretty much everyone involved deserves a failing grade.
It's pretty simple, too, to write about actually. I've always tried to be balanced and objective in my analysis compared to a typical fan. On one hand, many fans tend to over-react, panic and condemn far too quickly. On the other, some tend to defend and make excuses no matter what they see in front of them. It's the dichotomy of human nature – with some being overly negative and some unshakeably optimistic. I've prided myself over the years on being able to, for the most part, disentangle myself from both extremes and perceive the truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Being fair and balanced in this one is easy. The UCLA football program, after this debacle, fully deserves every last breath of criticism you can muster.
First, let's get some of the legitimate excuses out of the way. When you looked out on the field Thursday, you saw a very untalented and inexperienced UCLA team. Untalented and inexperienced is pretty much a losing combination in any scenario. In analyzing the defense, sure they are grossly under-manned. There were former walk-ons, undersized D-1 players, career back-ups, and guys who are vastly over-rated taking the field. You know it's not good when the best player on the defense is Tony Dye – a solid player but not a star. So, really, especially on defense, there simply wasn't much talent, and most of the elite talent that is there – and there's not much – is very inexperienced, like freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
But even conceding that UCLA had poor talent on the field Thursday, the coaches deserve all of the blame. First, three years into a program, there isn't much of an excuse for having that degree of lack of talent. Secondly, some of the talent you have that has been in your program for a while – like Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore – don't look very well coached. Thirdly, the scheme and game plan seems to go against all logical sense in trying to put the talent you have in a position to succeed.
That third point is probably the one that makes Thursday so unacceptable. As a balanced observer, we'll concede the first one – that, because of varying circumstances in recruiting and injuries – the program just hasn't been able to put elite talent on the field just yet. We'll let that one slip. But the third point – that the scheme and game plan are so poor – trumps point #1 and #2 regardless. Even with UCLA's lack of talent compared to Oregon, we'd find every excuse in the book for the UCLA defensive coaches if they had at least exhibited an attempt at being dynamic in their scheme and game plan. We're willing to make an excuse if we had seen just a hint of imagination, creativity and aggressiveness.
But that game plan was uncannily conservative – and illogical. There doesn't seem to be any logic to the approach game after game, and especially against Oregon. Oregon has the #1 offense in the country, an offense that could put 50 points on just about any defense. It's illogical for you to go into this game as the UCLA defensive brain trust and be of the opinion that you could even slow them down by playing conservatively. Did the UCLA coaches actually think they could match up? There is no way that any defense can merely bend-and-not-break against Oregon, much less UCLA's average defense. Sitting back and allowing Oregon to run downhill and throw with an incredible amount of time is clearly the absolute worst strategy you could have, no matter how talented your defense is. In fact, you also know that your defensive line is particularly vulnerable and, so far this season, has been getting blown up against the run. They need help at the point of attack – more bodies to fill gaps against the run and to put pressure on the quarterback. It's not rocket science to perceive that UCLA's only chance in this game defensively was to try to disrupt Oregon at the point of attack. But it strategically did the exact opposite. The defensive theory, as it's always been under Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough, is to conservatively allow an opposition's offense to execute its run and short passing game, and keep the ball carriers and receivers in front of you, don't let them beat you on a big play, hope you make a sound tackle, hope they make a mistake like a turnover, and force them to execute well for an entire drive. But this is exactly what Oregon's offense does, it's the best in the country, in fact, at doing it. They're so effective at it most of their "drives" are five plays that go 80 yards in 1:30. So, it makes no logical sense that anyone at UCLA thought it could have chance against Oregon's offense allowing them to do what they do.
With Oregon not a great throwing team, UCLA's only defensive hope in this game was to stack the box against Oregon's run, take away its ground game and then, with those same players crowding the line of scrimmage, put pressure on Thomas when he goes to pass. But UCLA commonly rushed just four guys, and sometimes they looked like they were in a containment rush themselves, not really putting full pressure on the quarterback but trying to just keep him in front of them. And then Bullough put all the trust into his passing defense, that'd they'd be able to contain Oregon's receivers. And he thought this while having to start two back-up cornerbacks.
And I really don't understand at all what the approach was to try to limit Oregon's ground game. It's the #3 rushing attack in the nation, and UCLA's defensive line, particularly its interior DL, has been pushed around against the run. But Bullough didn't stack the box and help out the DL. Washington State stacked the box against Oregon, but that's too risky for UCLA. In fact, when is the last time UCLA actually stacked the box? Even doing that is too risky for the UCLA defensive coordinator.
This is the thing, though: It's not possible for UCLA to change its defensive strategy, because the conservative approach is seemingly all Bullough knows. It's the only way he knows how to run a defense and call a game. What many UCLA fans are hoping for – a complete shift in the defensive coaching approach to a game – in my opinion, isn't possible.
Against Oregon there was never a bigger illustration of what was the only chance of working against the Duck offense – and that's pressure at the line of scrimmage. The only time UCLA even came close to limiting Oregon was when it put more defenders on the line. On one run, UCLA blitzed and forced a three-yard loss. On the next play, it blitzed on a pass play and forced Duck quarterback Darron Thomas to have to get rid of the ball out of bounds. Throughout the game, the only time UCLA came close here and there to limiting the Ducks was when there were more defenders on the line of scrimmage and with blitzes.
Now, there were a couple of times late in the game UCLA blitzed and Oregon adjusted and made a big play from it, and that's the inherent risk. But logically, it makes more sense to take that risk than the one allowing Oregon to do what they do best up and down the field.
It's funny, too, even when UCLA's defense blitzed, it still couldn't do it completely aggressively. Oregon's passing offense is based on short, quick passes, so it makes sense defensively, if you're going to blitz and try to hurry the quarterback even more into a mistake, your defensive backs would need to press their receivers. It makes no logical sense to blitz, dedicate more guys to putting pressure on the quarterback, and then play a 10-yard cushion and allow Thomas to get the ball off quickly to a wide-open receiver. Even when UCLA tried sometimes to be aggressive, it still just can't do it. It's not in the mental make-up of the defensive coordinator.
Even after UCLA was down by five touchdowns, the Bruins barely started blitzing more. If it takes a five-touchdown deficit, on national television, for Bullough to blitz a little more he isn't ever going to do it from the outset of a game and make it real part of his tactical approach.
And the poor coaching just doesn't extend to the conservative approach and poor game plan, but it's pretty clear to see that even the players within the scheme are poorly coached. Even if you have a former walk-on, the sign that he's well-coached, even in a poor scheme, is if he's generally in position most of the game. UCLA's defensive players are so curiously not in position to make plays. Even if they were in position and just blown out man-to-man we'd accept that; but so often a UCLA defender wanders out of position on his own volition and takes himself out of the play. It's either that the players are poorly coached and so undisciplined, or that they're doing what they're being instructed, and if that's true then they coaches are horrendous in their scheming.
Offensively, actually, the coaching is worse. Yes, worse. Even with renowned Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow.
If you want to talk conservative, this is the epitome of it. The UCLA offensive strategy is to run the ball tackle to tackle and see if the defense can stop them.
After that, there isn't much. There are a few token pass plays, and maybe a couple of other wrinkles, like an occasional end around. But from play to play there is a huge lack of imagination and creativity. The UCLA offense is so predictable it's uncanny.
Karl Dorrell's offense was given the conservative, unimaginative label, and deservedly so. If you had been in suspended animation from 2007 until last night, woke up and turned on the television to watch that game, wouldn't you ask: Why is Dorrell still UCLA's head coach?
Chow could be Dorrell's offensive coordinator.
What's funny, too, is that they practice other plays in practice all week. There are end arounds, bubble screens, etc. But somehow they don't get incorporated into the game. Chow goes into a conservative cocoon during a game.
He starts out with a little bit of creativity, because it's mostly scripted. UCLA twice rolled out Richard Brehaut in the first offensive series, and then didn't do it again for most of the game. Late in the game, when UCLA was down by six touchdowns and the conservative play calling had gotten the Bruins into another 3rd and 10, Chow dropped back Brehaut, an inexperienced quarterback without a great feel for the pocket just yet, into a straight, conventional drop – and put him under siege from the obviously blitzing Ducks. That's uncanny (using that word a lot). By the end of the game, Chow is apparently in his cocoon and has forgotten that he can roll out his quarterback, or move the launch point at all.
UCLA came out offensively and was able to run the ball, breaking off good-sized runs consistently. But then Oregon's defensive coaches, as any coaches should do, adjusted. They dedicated more defenders to the line of scrimmage, adjusted a few of their front seven, and took away UCLA's run.
How did UCLA counter punch? It didn't. It continued to run tackle to tackle. Here's a situation that UCLA could exploit with some play-action and a roll-out. But the Bruins continued to hand the ball to its tailback and send them into a stacked line keying on that play on every down.
Also, isn't the widely-accepted scouting report on Oregon's defense that they're smallish but quick, and can tend to over-pursue? So, shouldn't that call for some misdirection in the running game, or some screens and throwbacks in the passing game – and again, more roll-outs?
The offensive game plan was done almost as if UCLA's offense had never seen Oregon's defense. Perhaps all the tapes of Oregon's games were somehow lost or erased in the Morgan Center.
Then, even beyond the very conservative tactics and strategy, there were, again, some head-scratching play calls. In third and one, in the first quarter, Chow calls for a zone read, which is notorious for taking a very long time to execute. One one drive in the first half, UCLA drove the field to get within Oregon's 10-yard line. Eleven of twelve plays in the drive were runs, and there were nine consecutive runs to get UCLA into a second-and-five at Oregon's nine-yard line. Everyone in the building, and the miliions watching on TV, knew that Oregon would tighten up against the run. At this point, wouldn't a play-action pass be a good thing to pull out of the repertoire? You spent the last 11 plays setting it up. But no, UCLA continues to run straight ahead, Oregon tightens up and then stops them.
It all goes back to being conservative.
At halftime, with UCLA down 32-3, it seemed like it would be a good time to open up things a bit. Not just because you needed to throw to possibly get back into the game, but really, because you had no chance of coming back and you might has well use the next 30 minutes of game time to see if you can get your offense some rhythm in passing, and also maybe attempt some misdirection in the running game. But while UCLA passed the ball a bit more often, it still really didn't attempt anything too risky. There wasn't one end around, which the team had practiced during the week. There was only one bubble screen, in the first half, and it was successful. There was only one quick throw to a running back, in the first half, and it was successful. No more roll-outs. They practiced a throw-back wheel route in practice, but that got lost in the play book.
Here's the epitomie of conservative: In the third quarter, down 39-3, UCLA has strung together a few effective plays to get to the Oregon 36 yard line. Oregon gets called for offside and UCLA has a first-and-five at the Oregon 31. It's basically a free play. You're down by 36 points. Maybe try something imaginative here? Chow calls a run up the middle and Johnathan Franklin is swarmed by a keying Oregon defense and loses one yard.
It's time to call it as it is. UCLA football is on its worst stretch in its history. When you look at the wall at Spaulding Field, you see all the conference championships listed in the ‘90s and ‘80s, the one in the ‘70s, the two in the ‘60s, the football heyday in the ‘50s, even a conference championship in the ‘40s and one in the ‘30s, and you realize UCLA has never gone a decade without winning a conference championship until the 2000s. UCLA football is on a horrendous streak from the end of the Bob Toledo era, through the Karl Dorrell era, and now in the first three years of the Rick Neuheisel era.
Many fans think it's time for the UCLA administration, after this Oregon game, to finally realize that it can't go about business as usual. UCLA has two things going against it – not being able to afford high-end coaches and a higher-standard of admissions than the average college football program. If it continues with these two policies – business as usual – in this era of college football, its football program will have a good chance of being perpetually mediocre.
Even given that, I fully believe Neuheisel will turn around the program in the next couple of years, just merely based on the talent he's brought in the last three years and the recruits who are verbally committed in the 2011 senior class. Neuheisel, whether he's a good coach or not, is a very good recruiter, and the talent he'll be able to put on the field in the next couple of years – finally with some experience under their belt -- is going to be better than most of the teams UCLA faces. It's logical to assume that he'll win more games than he'll lose and there will be a couple of seasons where he'll win 8 or 9 games. That will be enough to sustain him as UCLA's head coach for a while. With his recruiting abilities, he'll probably be able to parlay that success on the field into even better recruiting, which will probably sustain his program even longer.
And that, probably, will allow the UCLA powers-that-be to stay with their M.O., which will always limit the UCLA football program.
I'm not in any way advocating that I hope Neuheisel crashes and burns, so that maybe the message would be received by the UCLA administration that the way they do business in their football program is pre-designing it to fail, or at the most, be mediocre to decent in the long-term. I'm not advocating it merely because, even if Neuheisel crashed and burned, it'd be highly unlikely that the UCLA administration would get the message.
No, our best bet for UCLA to establish the best foundation for a winning program is for Neuheisel to succeed. If he does, he'll get more power to go along with his exceptional people skills, which will perhaps give him a chance to change the UCLA football culture. The question consistently is if Neuheisel is the right guy to head up UCLA's football program, and it's a legitimate question. My opinion is, regardless of whether he's a good football coach, he's probably the best existing candidate. He knows the UCLA culture, and if he gets more powerful he, above just about anyone else, would have a chance to manipulate and change it to benefit UCLA's football program. Could you imagine a big-named football coach who is an outsider trying to manage and navigate the waters of the UCLA football culture? Why would he want to?
Whether Neuheisel does this over the next several years with the same offensive and defensive coordinator is anyone's guess. It would really be a relief, if while Neuheisel is building his program through recruiting, he could put a dynamic product on the field – not even one that necessarily wins all the time, but at least looks like it's aggressive and imaginative. Neuheisel has done a great job of selling in recruiting, but it's getting to the point that he needs something more dynamic to sell to recruits and to Bruin fans.