Chiccoa: Performance Anxiety?

BRO columnist Charles Chiccoa takes another run at the Houston game and looks ahead...

Goodbye to that respectable road win. So much for a 3-0 start. The Houston trip was just another routine letdown for the old Bruin charm(less) bracelet. I'm thinking to commemorate mine with a tiny blue and gold skateboarder, skating backwards naturally. Not sure I've seen such furious back peddling since, oh… last season.

Once more the Bruins couldn't shake their dismal big game tradition: too passive, too nervous, too wired? Or could they actually have been complacent? Nothing about this program surprises me anymore. Oh well, water under the bridge. I'm moving on to Texas. (Can we safely relax, calm down a little, and take San Jose St. for the scrimmage they represent? I mean, you and I can afford to, since we'll be eating, drinking and partying Saturday night, not playing.)

*****

Once more UCLA spotted a dangerous opponent, playing at home, a two-score lead then briefly rallied only to fall short at crunch time. Not the first time we've seen that. And a virtually new coaching staff - caught with their pants down in Houston – badly needs to find a cure for this sort of thing. Time is running out.

Whether this program truly embodies that contemptible SoCal, slacker stereotype, or whether the opener was just a simple fear of failure - some kind of collective, game day drop in testosterone – the coaching staff and players would be well-advised to take an honest look in the mirror this week… and quit playing like insecure adolescents. Study your tapes, to be sure, but be brutal in your analysis. And for the rest of us, make no mistake: The man at the top, as always, will be the key figure in this latest Bruins crisis. Who knows if this thing can be turned around satisfactorily? Just be grateful there are eleven more games to be played. One way or another change is in the air. This slouching toward Vanderbilt madness cannot be sustained.

*****

Poor Joe Tresey looked shell-shocked immediately after watching his defense get systematically cut to pieces by the extraordinary Case Keenum, his talented receiving corps, and a trio of underrated running backs. In the video interview, shaking his head back and forth, trying to take it all in, getting lost in sports clichés ("headlights in the deer, or whatever"), you couldn't help but feel for the guy. Plus, he seems the most likable coach on the staff.

Like so many failed Bruin DCs before him, he needs to learn there's little payoff in laying back in some kind of slack, two-deep coverage, while depending on your front four to cover the ass of your exposed secondary, particularly when confronted with a surgeon like Keenum. The guy played great, but UCLA made him look like Kurt Warner on a very good day.

It's becoming progressively clear the Bruins are short on quick, quality-cover guys, so-called shut-down corners; also free safeties with superior cover skills. At the moment, only Sheldon Price fits the profile. If not for a couple of their own mistakes, Houston could have easily put up 50 on the Bruins.

We've seen these sloppy tackling exhibitions before, trying to "blow up" the ball carrier instead of "wrapping up." Still, it's a bit early to indict anyone on a charge of "lack of fundamentals." There may also be some lack of speed and quickness throughout the defense, particularly the linebackers, nickel backs, safeties, even defensive ends dropping back in the short zones. Sean Westgate, Dalton Hilliard, Alex Mascarenas, even Patrick Larimore and Tony Dye had disappointing games. This defense might not be quite as fast and athletic as advertised.

*****

Failure to finish off the first half cleanly has become another unwelcome Bruin trait, and the fourteen points Houston hung up in the last two minutes and change of the half was a distressing example of the old "let's just get to the dressing room and regroup" syndrome. Down 31-14 to a hot team, the second half should have been academic, so you have to give the Bruins credit for making the Cougars sweat what should have been an easier win.

*****

Since the object of big time college football is "winning," even Charlie Sheen could've told you that choosing redshirt freshman, Kip Smith, to kick field goals in an important road game was an unnecessarily risky gamble. Sentimentality aside, we all know UCLA, despite their mistakes, could have taken this game into overtime, with some momentum, had they picked up those missing four points. Jeff Locke is no Kai Forbath, but right now he appears to be the best option as field goal kicker. But concern over straining Locke's valuable left leg seems to be driving this decision. Better a long shot chance of a strain than another loss like this one. Of course it wasn't all Smith's fault, but he did blow four points.

*****

It's an open question whether Richard Brehaut would've seen much, if any, action had Kevin Prince not gotten KO'd, and had Prince put up comparable numbers to Brehaut: 17 for 26, 2 TDs, 0 picks, 87 yards rushing with another TD.

I should say up front I'm a Brehaut guy. Richard does tend to make things a bit more "exciting," since he plays more instinctively than Prince, who's more methodical, controlled… some might say, mechanical. This probably doesn't endear Brehaut to Neuheisel. (Rick appears to want Prince to win the job: "Kevin has waited a long time to play and is chomping at the bit," So how exactly does this fairly answer the question of who deserves the next start?)

The play where Richard dribbled the football, kept his head, then found Joseph Fauria for a long completion down the right sideline was vintage Brehaut. Based on what we've seen so far, he may make a few more mistakes than a conservative head coach is comfortable with. But he may also make more plays like that pass to Fauria. And it isn't as if Prince has ever played error-free football.

Like most Bruins fans, I'm open to Prince earning the starting spot based on his play during real games, which has not been impressive thus far, considering the amount of game experience he's banked. However, his brief first quarter in Houston, along with his sore throwing shoulder, should not be enough to get the start vs. San Jose State, especially considering Brehaut did not "play himself out of the position" the last three quarters. In any case, Texas will probably be the decider for who gets the conference start in Corvallis. After that, it's full on weekly pressure for the both of them. But in Westwood World you never know. Coaches, like fans, are human and therefore not above favoring certain players. They just use words like "comfortable" to better disguise their infatuations.

*****

Things don't seem quite as bleak today as they did last Saturday. Houston May prove to be a formidable team as the season unwinds (if not, it's a very bad sign). They look better than rated to me. And the Pac-12 is certainly less scary than in recent seasons. Except for Stanford, everyone thus far seems to have their problems. If we can't have a 3-0 start, there's still a rational hope for 3-1, but the Bruins are going to have to discover their inner alpha male. And quit worrying! This team isn't good enough to play a vanilla game while waiting for the opponent to make mistakes.

The defense cannot be as bad as it showed in Houston. But every time I see those three thin lines of defense strung out wide and deep across the field, with only a four- (or three-) man rush, my heart sinks and I'm infernally transported back to the days of Field, Aliotti, Kerr, Snow, Bullough & Co.

Please, Joe, turn up the pressure. Contest the line of scrimmage with a will. You must know your problems at Houston were not just due to "not playing fast."


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