Playing Not to Lose

UCLA went very conservative in beating Oregon State Saturday, and even though it's a win, playing not to lose is essentially a loss to fans -- and probably players...

I hate to be a parade rainer, because this was a win, at least on the scoreboard.

But UCLA is now 0-4 on the season.

It's now 0 games when the team played up to or beyond its capability.

And it's 4 games in which it under-achieved.

This was a tougher one, though, in which to draw that conclusion. In UCLA's first three games of the season it was clear the Bruins under-achieved. In this game, with UCLA beating Oregon State by a not-decisive 27-19, you could very well conclude that UCLA did play up to its capability; the Bruins might only be barely better than a bad Oregon State team.

Or it might be that the under-achievement in this game was mostly by the UCLA coaches and not the players, like it had been in the first three games. And that still counts as a loss in the Under-Achievement Column.

Instead of getting into a detailed analysis of the game, there was really one impression of it that really jumped out.

UCLA Was Playing Not to Lose.

The offense was horrifically conservative – intendedly so. Yeah, we understand the game plan was for UCLA's rushing attack to dominate and own the game, and it was probably the decisive element of the game, with UCLA rushing for 211 yards. But it wasn't dominating. It was just good enough to win. That's what UCLA was in this one – just good enough to win. It executed its conservative game plan well enough, and that was to use the ground game to eke out a win. Okay, so digest this: UCLA had to do what it could to eke out a win against what is probably the worst team in the Pac-12. By running the ball 49 times and passing just 12 times it made the decision to shorten the game, keep the score down and eke it out. Forget home runs and quick scores. Well, if one of the running plays busted it that'd be fortunate. But UCLA only planned to throw the ball down the field a couple of times during the entire course of the 60 minutes.

Digest more of this. Instead of intending to do what the better teams do – even the teams that aspire to be better do – and that's score a lot of points, UCLA clearly conceived of winning this game by scoring as few as points as possible, but in that same vein, not give a bad OSU offense an opportunity to score many points. So, the approach is: We'll limit your offense from getting chances to score since we'll possess the ball so much by running it and we'll score just enough to win.

Now, I can see that approach – from a clear underdog. A team that clearly recognizes it's not as good as its opponent would attempt this. But, wait, really step back and look at the talent on paper. Isn't UCLA clearly the more talented team? Oregon State is playing walk-ons.

This says so much. The UCLA coaches clearly think UCLA is a barely better football team than OSU. They seem to think that, when clearly UCLA has more talent and more experience.

Don't you love the teams – regardless of how talented they are -- that come out on offense and have the attitude that they're going to cut right through you, run downhill, and put the defense on its heels? The best teams do this. Heck, even some bad teams come out with that approach to project the feeling of a winner so that everyone – most importantly its own players – buy in and believe.

To not do this, and do what UCLA did Saturday is, inadvertently, self-incriminating. It's admitting that there isn't much difference between UCLA and OSU because, well, UCLA handicaps itself. And how does it do that? Through a lack of discipline, mistakes, sloppiness, and ineffective schemes.

Basically through coaching.

At this point, this is a coach, Rick Neuheisel, trying to eke out a winning record. And that's what he's being obtuse about in understanding how to become a winning program. If you play not to lose, and you win the game you're really not winning; you're not losing. Not Losing. There are a few fans who would take a season record of 7-5 with the team winning those games by playing not to lose. But there are quite a few more fans who would far more readily take 5-7 and a team that's playing to win. And I'm not just talking winning over just the hearts of fans, but the hearts of everyone, the players included.

I know when Neuheisel said, "Punting is winning," it was said tongue-in-cheek, but it's eerily reflective of what this program has come to embody in three and a half seasons.

What's really a bit frightening is, if you play not to lose, most of the time you're one play away from doing just that. Your margin for error narrows considerably. In fact, the luck of the bouncing ball becomes so much more prevalent in deciding the game. UCLA was very fortunate against OSU, getting 14 points from Beaver turnovers.

This is not the way to make UCLA a winning program – four years into your tenure. This is perhaps what you do in the first season, when the cupboard's bare and you're re-building. We can't really characterize the program as still rebuilding, can we? 2011 was the year when the talent, those three top-10 national recruiting classes, combined with experience.

For four years, leading up to just about every game week, we hear the coaches are going to open it up. "We didn't really open the playbook for last week's opponent because we didn't want to let anyone see it, but this week it's going to be wide open." That's been said time and time again. Every spring we hear how the offense is going to throw down the field, expand the playbook, even use an occasional bubble screen, and the defense is going to be sending pressure from so many different points on the field. And we end up seeing run-run-throw and three-man rushes.

You wonder how a coach, a good person and likeable guy like Neuheisel, can lose the support and hearts of his players? It's not difficult, after years of telling them you're going to open up things, and the players are aching to do so. Each week, when we interview the players, they enthusiastically tell us the game plan is getting more aggressive. They even work on plays in practice that they never use in the game. How deflating it must be for the players, to get their hopes up each week that the corners are going to press and the quarterback is actually going to roll out and throw down the field – only to run tackle-to-tackle and play bend-and-not-break.

And it's just not opening up the offense in terms of throwing down field. But opening up the variety of plays that are called. Where are the bubble screens? Any screens? The throws to running backs? How about the UCLA offense taking advantage of the other team's 7-yard cushion? The option to the F-back that they used in fall camp. Don't even throw the ball down the field. Heck, just throw it five yards to playmakers like Josh Smith or Shaquelle Evans and see if they can gain some YAC. Just substitute one of those play calls in place of one of 8 running plays. How about throwing the ball just a few times to Joseph Fauria – after he had that breakout game against Houston? Heck, even after 49 running plays, how about play-action?

I watched the Cal/Washington game and was almost taken aback by the play-calling. It was dynamic and utilized a variety of plays. Washington utilized a spread, an I formation and even a Pistol, and used the zone read out of it. You can't tell me that Washington, which was 0-12 just a few years ago, is more talented than UCLA at this point on offense, and is further along in its rebuilding. Why can Washington's offense, and a Cal team that is no more talented than UCLA on offense man to man, both be able to utilize such variety of play-calling on offense? Neither of their quarterbacks have more experience than two of UCLA's quarterbacks. Neither of their receivers, collectively, have more experience or talent than UCLA's. You can't make the case that Cal or Washington's offensive line is doing clearly better than UCLA's. You can't say that Cal or Washington have an advantage at tailback over the Bruins. What is it, then, that allows those two offenses to execute a massive playbook like they do? You can't make the case that UCLA's offensive players aren't as smart since, well, this is UCLA, right? You have a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception in four games; Richard Brehaut, at this point, has earned some confidence in throwing the ball.

The difference has to be the coaching, and the Play-Not-To-Lose mindset.

And what's crazy is that, no matter who the Offensive Coordinator is, it's still the same issue at UCLA. You have to infer that the one common denominator here has been Neuheisel. I've been told that Neuheisel isn't dictating the conservative play-calling, but remember every week we're told the playbook will open up, too. At this point, despite what they tell you, whether it was Norm Chow or Mike Johnson, it has to be Neuheisel setting the tone and the approach. If not, it's just too amazingly coincidental.

Where's Rick the Riverboat Gambler? That's the guy we knew and loved. If Neuheisel wants to win our hearts, and I think the hearts of his players, he should go out swinging. Show confidence in in his team that they can do it, instead of reeking of trepidation with every call. Take the field with a game plan that's going to make the players want to play to win, not play not to lose.

At this point, the season is still salvageable, in terms of wins and losses. It's the hearts of the program, the players, the fans and the entire UCLA community that might not be.

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