I mean, who doesn't look forward to a nice cookout with friends and family in late summer/early fall? And how pleasant an environment is a football Saturday in the Arroyo Seco. But when it comes time to break down the tailgate and head for the stadium, you're inevitably struck by the primary object of the outing. And, most game days, the Bruins are either coming off a loss, a bad loss, or perhaps trying to sustain some small momentum from the previous week, maybe even a rare road win vs. a respectable opponent. And how many times do you wind up leaving early, that familiar sour taste in your mouth; that or staying through the bitter end out of some perverse curiosity, perhaps to hear your latest head coach apologize for the team's performance, plead for more patience and promise that things will get better next week?
As I've said before, these game days don't get me down like they used to. Bad fan that I am, I first quit going to the Rose Bowl so regularly; this season I've quit going entirely. I watch all the games at home, a little domestic tailgate, if you will. And my total financial outlay this season? Five dollars for a game program a friend of mine brought back.
Pre-game, Rick Neuheisel noted, "The crowd will be checking to see where we are as a program. Hopefully we get off to a great start." Which sounds to me like he's beginning to feel the heat. Also, later on, we were shown a listing of the key Bruin injuries, supplied, no doubt, by UCLA's Sports Information Department at the behest of the coaching staff. I remember one other politically inclined Bruin coach arranging something similar before a televised road game in the northwest. You can't, after all, rely on the network to get your story out. Not properly.
Nick Foles' caddy, Matt Scott, gets the start at quarterback even though Foles appears healthy enough to play. Mike Stoops would never admit it, but he's likely saving Foles for more dangerous opponents down the line.
Rick's hope to get off to "a great start" is immediately dashed as Scott, who would go on to account for nearly 400 yards, leads the Wildcats smartly downfield, culminating in a 41-yard, rollout pass play to Juron Criner running diagonally, all by his lonesome, through a slack Bruin zone. UCLA's zone schemes always seem beyond the abilities of their personnel to "execute." Year after year after year.
The Bruin offense answers with a 45-yard kickoff return by Damian Thigpen and a couple of promising completions by Richard Brehaut, the drive culminating in an 11-yard run to the short side behind two nice pulling blocks by Ryan Taylor and Eddie Williams. Well, that's encouraging, even more so when the Bruin defense forces a three-and-out. Brehaut makes a strong throw to Taylor Embree, but the drive ends on an ill-conceived, poorly thrown sideline fade route perfectly covered by an Arizona cornerback. This is a high-risk play in conception, depending as it does on a taller offensive receiver over-powering a smaller cornerback. It calls for a delicate touch which no Bruin quarterback, practically within memory, has demonstrated. The rest of the half is Bruin punts, Bruin defensive whiffs (Sean Westgate, Andrew Abbott, Keenan Graham, Akeem Ayers and others), a nicely "executed" bubble screen by the ‘Cats, a lot of well-cushioned, pretty awful coverage by the Bruin secondary, and a couple of Arizona field goals by yet another Zendejas. The ‘Cats would appear to be on pace for a plus-650 yard day.
But the second half suddenly resurrects memories of Bruin days-gone-by with the introduction of two, long, beautifully thrown bombs by Brehaut to his two fastest receivers, sprint star Randall Carroll and Josh Smith, who was doing this sort of thing regularly during the spring. I think I can speak for all of us when I say: Where the hell have these guys been? And wouldn't it be sweet to see Josh returning punts… you know like he did so successfully at Colorado? (Hope he doesn't have to wait for Embree to get injured.)
Unfortunately, Brehaut had earlier missed a wide-open Embree down the left sideline, badly overthrowing him on what might have been a 73-yard score. Brehaut appeared a bit amped all afternoon, which will happen with an inexperienced quarterback (And wouldn't it have been nice to have given him some additional playing time these last twenty one games, especially since he wasn't exactly playing behind an effective starter?)
Now that the Bruins are back in the game, Arizona keeps answering to protect its lead, one particularly ballsy call when they successfully execute a fake punt from their own 27-yard line, tipping the field position in their favor. Funny how so many opponents can "execute" well, or at least passably, while the Bruins have so much trouble in that department: for instance, a botched reverse following a lucky break after Christian Ramirez catches an Embree fumble in the air, further advancing into Arizona territory. Second and 20? Let's surprise them with a run; so much for that drive. Just when the Bruins are handed a chance to go ahead or tie, they're typically not up for the job.
As for Rick's decision to go for the 4th and long with two minutes left and timeouts in his pocket? It speaks volumes about his lack of confidence in Chuck Bullough's defense.
Did I actually hear some Bruin coach resurrect that old coaching chestnut, "It's not just Xs and Os, but your Jimmies and Joes?" Rick has been tip-toeing around this sort of thing ever since the Stanford fiasco: increasing talk of injuries, inexperience and "execution." And though he always puts in the standard disclaimer about the coaches having to do a better job, it's really secondary to this message: "I'm short-handed, and these kids can't run the plays right… or at least consistently right." Yeah, that's true, but not the whole truth.
And does it not seem that an inordinate amount of Bruin injuries are sustained on the practice field? Is it possible the Bruins scrimmage "live" too much - first team vs. first team? I don't know, I'm just asking. I certainly don't remember past Bruin coaches (with the exception of Karl Dorrell) scrimmaging "live" this much. Ever since the KD days, it seems as if UCLA has been desperately trying to shed that damned "soft" reputation. And tough, head-banging scrimmages may have appeared to be the macho way to get rid of that label. If so, it may have caused more trouble than it was worth.
We've discussed "execution" to the point we might as well start calling it the "the E word." But to repeat, "execution" is not an all-purpose euphemism for blaming the players. Of course they're not innocent, but to the extent that teams consistently demonstrate a lack of discipline, simple fundamentals and basic smarts, does it not reflect poorly on the coaching staff as teachers? And particularly when the lack of these qualities extends back year after year, not to mention the failed regimes that preceded it.
It's not just Xs and Os, it's also technique and discipline. Take Aaron Hester for example. As we've said before, he's been committing pass interference on a daily basis for as long as he's been here. Therefore, it should have come as no great surprise he's leading the team (and likely the conference, perhaps the nation) in PIs. Whether or not he can play corner without manhandling receivers is, I hope, still an open question. But the problem should have been dealt with from the first week he walked onto Spaulding Field. Instead we were told what a great prospect he was, primarily because of his "physical play." And how has that worked out?
Experience vs. talent is a question all college programs have to wrestle with. And since your generic coach tends toward the conservative, they are correspondingly less comfortable with rookies who, by definition, are less familiar with "the system" than upperclassmen of possibly less talents. In other words system often trumps talent. The safer, more comfortable play is to go with experience; the riskier play is to trust talent and "coach ‘em up." And how many instances have we seen of less talented upperclassmen seemingly receiving inordinate practice reps and game minutes vis-a-vis more talented freshmen and red shirt freshmen. Of course this doesn't just happen at UCLA; it happens in the great wide world of college football (though that world does seem increasingly old school). And when the younger talent does assert itself, how often do we hear, "Yes, he's earned his minutes. But he wasn't really ready until now"? If you're okay with that line of thought then good luck to you.
As we've said before, it's now a survival game. From this point on every win is extra precious and every loss can be life changing - if not this year, then certainly in the next couple of years. This regime stumbled badly out of the gate and has never recovered. Dan Guerrero has clearly stated his expectations for the program, and Neuheisel has stated his. And what we've seen isn't even close.
Norm Chow, a man of few words (and those mumbled), probably said it best: "If you don't win, they get rid of you." Too true, even at such a "mysterious" place as UCLA.