Chiccoa: It's Always Something

Our football columnist Charles Chiccoa digresses a bit into basketball, and gets into the Manfro fray and the Nebraska game...

So a guy sits down to write some notes about UCLA's football opener, and rumors suddenly surface that not only one quarter of the Bruins great basketball freshman class, Shabazz Muhammad, is under investigation by the NCAA, but that two more members of the class have been added to the investigation, and that all this may have "the potential to shake the foundations of the UCLA's men's basketball program… and UCLA's intercollegiate athletic programs… to their core," at least according to one self-proclaimed insider. Next, Dan Guerrero issues a statement branding the reports "misleading and inaccurate," and the new count stands at fifty percent: Tony Parker is now in, Kyle Anderson and Muhammad are still awaiting disposition of their eligibility cases. Initially, this conjured up images of ESPN's odd couple, Bryant Gumble and Frank Deford, knocking on the Morgan Center front door? "Helloooo… Dan? Anybody there?"

I admit it shook me up a bit, but certainly not "to the core." I've been watching UCLA's major sports far too long to expect things to run smoothly, to run as they should. As Rosanne Rosannadana used to say, "It's always something." If it's not Red Sanders dropping dead in a downtown hotel room, with a notorious blond and an aging panderer in attendance, it's Tommy Prothro, who can't bring himself to accept the job as Sanders' natural successor because he's too honorable to bug out of the Oregon State job so soon after having accepted it (Hello Lane Kiffin). Anyway, I wish I'd have started this thing Friday or Saturday. Even if my "core" is still steady, these basketball rumors were enough to at least shake a man's focus.

*****

Deny it if you will, but after those opening minutes of Bruins' shock and awe, were you perhaps on the edge of freaking out when the Bruins hit that extended "lull" from the second quarter through the early minutes of the fourth quarter? (A couple of friends were at our place watching the game, and, during the "lull," the more sensitive of the two got up and quietly said - more in sorrow than in anger - "I'll see you guys later." Guess we were too boisterous, too "negative." Anyway, I do hope he found a good sports bar before his long drive back to Orange County. (And the other guy didn't even know he'd left.)

Whenever this sort of "lull" occurred in the previous dozen years, we all knew where those stories were headed… so more power to the coaching staff for not panicking and the players for showing some poise ‘til they got their "rhythm" back. Until the Bruins finally counterpunched with Brett Hundley's clutch throw to Joseph Fauria, and Johnathan Franklin's subsequent 22-yard sprint for his third TD of the day, this absolute must-win road game was still in doubt. Richard Brehaut's perfectly executed, near-lateral-option-pass to Damien Thigpen (hello, again, Kif) would've been the cherry on top if not for Devin Lucien's unfortunate penalty. I kind of wanted that 56 for an even more stylish finish, since style points count with the media. And Lord knows this program could do with increased media attention. Which now brings us to Nebraska.

The very name of this program still strikes fear in the hearts of some opponent's fans. But please remember, this is not your daddy's Cornhuskers. Tom Osborne is long gone, and Frank Solich was fired despite a .753 winning percentage (together with some embarrassing losses). Bill Callahan lasted only four lackluster seasons before they tied the can to him. Even such a frightening, latter-day presence as Ndomakong Suh is long gone to the NFL.

For the Bruins, this game is shaping up as one more shot at regaining some respectability on the national stage. These kinds of games have come and gone, time after time, with UCLA sinking back into that slough of underachievement, the letter "S" (for soft) still burned into its forehead. This Saturday is shaping up as their best shot at reversing that contemptible rep. Hey, they only opened 4 ½ point dogs.

The Huskers ran and passed on Southern Mississippi in a similar style to the Bruins domination of Rice. Quarterback Taylor Martinez, still only a junior (seems like he's been there longer), is the unquestioned key to slowing down Nebraska. In the past, he's been known for his speed and threat as a runner, certainly not for his arm. But last week he came out firing like Peyton Manning, completing over 70% of his passes, good for 354 yards. But, similar to Rice for the Bruins, it was only Southern Miss. (And it's doubtful they were expecting a Martinez aerial circus.) Apparently he has designs on a pro career as a quarterback, not a running back, wide receiver or defensive back, and he does not want to get "Tebowed," stereotyped as a hopeless passer. But Tracy will undoubtedly have a more detailed scouting report.

For the Bruins part, Brett Hundley will also present a running threat to the Nebraska defense, but he'll have to convert more third downs and sharpen up his throws downfield. Perhaps Noel Mazzone will put more downfield passes in his Nebraska game plan. And the Bruins will obviously need to stay aggressive on both sides of the ball, but at least they've been warned about the new Martinez. Then again, some of Martinez's success was surely due to lack of pressure by Southern Miss. Thank goodness Nebraska wasn't scheduled for the opener.

Certainly there will be increased pressure on the entire team, but particularly on the defense. Any plans Jim Mora and Lou Spanos might have had for stacking the box and rolling up the secondary may have to be adjusted for a more respectful, two-dimensional approach, something like the second half of the Rice game. On the other hand, Martinez will certainly carry the ball more than once, and the Huskers will certainly test the strength and quickness of the defensive front.

After his brief but very impressive introduction in Houston, more of big Ellis McCarthy should be a certainty, hopefully as a starter. In any case, the Bruins shouldn't be taken by surprise by a more balanced Husker's offense, and it's a certainty that Martinez will face more pressure vs. UCLA in the Rose Bowl. We'll surely learn more about rising star, Anthony Barr, not to mention some more experienced personnel.

No early season report would be complete without mention of Steven Manfro, who's become quite a lightning rod around here. I've been a fan of his since his prep video was first posted… then more so as I watched him do the same things on the practice field. He never looked like a two-star to me, and if his currently listed size is close to accurate, he's big enough, quick enough, and doggonit he's easy to like. He had a poor outing at Rice, but if the coaching staff still trusts him and gets him a few more touches, I wouldn't bet against him winning over his detractors. All those Chuck Norris style jokes were just that: jokes. So lighten up, people.


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