It wasn't just surreal because in the first half it looked like one of those old Buffalo Bills games, barely able to see the players through the curtain of snow, and the field only slightly discernable through a white carpet.
It was surreal in so many ways:
-- UCLA reverted pretty much to its pre-Cal/ASU style of play, which, after two weeks, had been put in the back of many UCLA fans' minds as hopefully a forgotten memory.
-- The Bruins didn't revert completely and thoroughly; There were signs, primarily at the beginning of the game, that the new Bruins were still in those uniforms.
-- For UCLA fans, it felt a bit like 2009, when UCLA football and basketball would team up to deliver deeply depressing weekends, with both the football and basketball teams getting beat in ugly ways.
-- And then Arizona State lost to Washington State, manifesting perhaps the most surreal element of all of this – that this completely mediocre UCLA team is essentially in first place in the Pac-12 South and controls its own destiny in making it to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
It's a strange, strange world.
In our running total of whether the team played up to its capability or under-achieved, you clearly have to put this game in the under-achievement column, bringing the Bruins' total for the season to 2-7-1.
The game went just about the way you might have predicted, if you had been able to completely predict the weather. At the outset, if you considered really which team was winning the line of scrimmage battle – on both sides of the field – you'd have to say it was UCLA. UCLA was able to run the ball initially better than Utah, and Kevin Prince certainly looked more capable of completing a pass in the snow than Utah's Jon Hays. Really the biggest edge Utah had was UCLA's penchant for penalties. Take away those (which we know you shouldn't), and just look at which offense was more able to move the ball and, while it wasn't an avalanche in favor of UCLA, the Bruins did have that edge.
You have to chalk that up to UCLA's talent; head to head, when it just comes down to which two players lining up against each other is better, the Bruins had the edge.
But then all that other stuff came into play – like disorganization, sloppiness, mistakes, bad play-calling, etc., and Utah quickly snapped up the edge and the momentum.
And perhaps the biggest element that contributed to UCLA going back to its losing ways was it reverting back to its losing approach. It had legitimately adopted the Burn the Boats mindset in the last two weeks, which was the feeling that their backs were collectively up against the wall and they were playing for their survival. With the boats seemingly burned the last two weeks, against Utah it felt like some boats showed up this week and provided them the option of retreating. The team, the players and coaches, went back to playing not to lose. The coaching approach was highly conservative, and the players looked to lose their focus, two factors that weren't as evident in the last two weeks.
Against Cal and Arizona State UCLA was a bit desperate, but in a good way. Rick Neuheisel actually conceded last week that they did some things in the last two weeks out of necessity, meaning they departed from their usual tact because they were left with no choice. You could see it on the field, with the team – both the players and the coaches -- having more of an approach to go for it, rather than playing it safely. The offensive play-calling was far more creative, and utilized a more elaborate and effective passing attack. The UCLA defense utilized other personnel and threw in more wrinkles -- out of necessity.
Well, the team lost that sense of urgency this week.
It was kind of the perfect storm for it, so to speak. With the weather as it was, and UCLA having won two games in a row and now controlling its own destiny atop the Pac-12 standings, it was the perfect storm for UCLA to revert back to its conservatism. In the last couple of weeks, especially against Arizona State, you had the feeling that UCLA had to an extent abandoned its strategy of Eke-It-Out-Ball, which utilized a ball-possession, field-position approach. There was some recognition in there that that wouldn't get it done, that it needed to go for it. But with seemingly a little bit of perceived breathing room (just like our columnist Charles Chiccoa entitled his piece last week), UCLA reverted.
So the reversion in the Utah game stemmed more from a mindset and style of play that then caused the return to the pre-Cal/ASU quality of play.
And here's the thing. If you were a student of probability, it'd be interesting to know what, plausibly, is more likely to occur. If you were going to statistically analyze UCLA's team this season using a deep database of facts and information on college football, is this UCLA team statistically playing the odds to have adopted this strategy of conservatism? Inherently you tend to think that being conservative is actually playing the odds, that it perhaps gives you the slightest edge in probability. But the thing is, you have to apply UCLA's team and its characteristics into the probability matrix to see if, indeed, playing conservatively for UCLA is playing the odds. UCLA is a sloppy team that has a high occurrence of penalties, and a poor turnover margin. A team with these characteristics playing a ball-control game that demands precision is probably going against the odds. Really, it's probably the riskier way to go and ultimately not conservative.
So, Neuheisel and Co.'s conservatism is actually the risky play.
See, he is the Riverboat Gambler.
It's not a good reflection on the coaching staff that UCLA was clearly better when they made adjustments in terms of playing style and personnel out of necessity. . Neuheisel has a penchant for revealing too much when he gets talking, and he did so in the out-of-necessity statement. He conceded what we all have come to realize – that his team was better in the previous two weeks when they shifted away from his preferred way of doing things. It's not good when you realize that you're better when you do things the way you didn't want to do them. It's inherently admitting that you were initially wrong and going about it incorrectly.
So, then, what does it say when you revert to the old, failing approach, even after you have openly admitted that you had stumbled upon a better approach?
Even though it's interesting to consider all of this, it's probably all an over-analysis of what we've said previously – pre-Cal/ASU: The team isn't well coached.
It's also interesting to see, really, just how good, or bad, some of the teams are in the Pac-12. That Arizona team that defamed the Bruins, as it turns out, really is pretty bad. Colorado, which was presumed to be the worst team in the conference, pretty much ran over them, beating them 48-29. Arizona is 2-8, Colorado is 2-9. As we said, ASU lost to Washington State, and looked bad doing it; The Sun Devils are now 6-4. Cal has fattened up at home in the last two weeks, beating what we see now is a not-good Washington team, and what has turned out to be legitimately the worst team in the conference, Oregon State. Cal is 6-4. What have we learned? There are only three good teams in the conference this season, Oregon, Stanford and USC, and the rest are pretty much a morass of mediocrity. So, really, if you're going to judge a team's performance this season, it should be done by looking at how it did against those three teams. Any of the other teams could beat any of the other teams on any given day and it truly means nothing.
And actually, that's what you need to do whenever you're going to take anything from a win/loss record. You have to consider the opponents. If a team has a winning record but still has an overwhelmingly losing record against good teams it is, by nature, a mediocre team. So, let's look at UCLA under Neuheisel's record from that perspective. This season, really, the only legitimately good teams UCLA has played are Houston and Stanford. You can't count Texas since they're 6-3 and, well, mediocre. So, this season UCLA is 0-2, with a game against a proven good team in USC coming up in two weeks. Now, for argument's sake, let's say UCLA loses to USC, and goes 0-3 this season against its good competition. Then, let's look back over Neuheisel's tenure at how he did against teams that, say, finished with 8 or more wins., which is a pretty low bar, actually. It's shocking: UCLA is 0-12.
So, really, UCLA under Neuheisel has never beaten a good team.
If Neuheisel has a chance to even have an argument that the program is on the right course, he absolutely has to beat Colorado next week and USC in two weeks. If he beats the Trojans, he would be able to claim that he's making headway – beating a good team for the first time in four seasons. Of course, it doesn't erase the fact that the team is still sloppy, disorganized and mistake-ridden, and that the accepted strategy is inherently a losing one. To beat Colorado and USC, he'll need to completely go back to playing out of necessity and Burn the Boats that accumulated in the harbor this week.