It Feels Different

It might not be that corner-turner, but UCLA beating Nebraska, 36-30, Saturday, had a completely different feeling to it than in any other UCLA game in recent memory...

We are far too experienced to call that game a corner-turner.

But if there's been any game in the last 10 years or so that qualifies as one for the UCLA football program, that could be it.

When UCLA beat #16-ranked Nebraska Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, 36-30, in Jim Mora's second game on the job, it certainly felt differently than any UCLA game in recent memory.

First off, and very simply: That game was fun.

UCLA football is fun again. It's fun to watch. The offense is spectacular – easily the best UCLA offense since Cade McNown strode the Rose Bowl field – and that makes the experience completely different.

Then, on defense, even though the Bruins have given up good chunks of yards in its first two games, it still feels differently. If the defense isn't doing well, you don't blame the scheme, for one thing. In the past you always used to watch the defensive scheme and play-calling, wonder and scratch your head. You're not doing that now. The defensive approach makes sense, even if they sometimes don't have the talent or experience just yet to execute it.

But see, Bruin Football Gods. That's all we ever wanted. On both offense and defense. We weren't ever asking for much. Just a coaching staff that attempted to do things that made sense, even if they failed to execute it.

That's why this is different. It might not be a corner-turner, but it's easy to say that it's a completely new era in UCLA football.

Mora took to the podium to face the media after the game, and you would barely know that he had just beaten the #16-ranked team in the country and registered a signature win in just his second game of his college football coaching career. You actually believe him when he rambles off some coach-speak, essentially saying it's just another game, and they'll be back to work today preparing for Houston. There was no post-game addressing of the fans, no gushing about his players, nothing that you could sense was hyperbole. In fact, it was more on the other side of the spectrum – extreme understatement. This guy's here to coach football, not do stump speeches or win beauty contests.

Houston, UCLA has a football coach.

Make note, college football world.

That offense, doing what it did against Nebraska, is no fluke. Yes, there will be times it hiccups this season. I'm going to go out on a limb and break some big news to you right now: Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, sometime this season, is going to throw another interception. Tailback Johnathan Franklin might not run for 200 yards in a game this season. The offensive line might actually provide some poor pass protection in a game this season.

But regardless, and this is the point: That is a killer scheme. In 1998, former USC coach John Robinson called UCLA's offense the best he had ever seen in college football. Now, the offense of Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone has a great deal of competition for that type of acclaim, but at least UCLA's offense is in the running for that title. After two weeks of play, UCLA's offense is third in the nation, averaging 649 yards per game, second in rushing (343) and 23rd in passing (306). But even without the gaudy statistics, the offense, even if it didn't execute like it has in its first two games, is doing the logical thing. Even when it fails, what it attempted made sense. There were maybe only two, possible three, play calls in that game that you might question, and that's definitely well in the acceptability side of the spectrum. And with how the play-calling is operating at about a 98% clip you tend to not dwell on those two or three at all. But it's not just the play-calling, it's the entire intention of the scheme -- to spread the field, make the defense have to defend vertically and horizontally, get some playmakers in space and put the ball in their hands. It makes it easy for a redshirt freshman quarterback (albeit a talented one). Its concept can be understood in one play: three wides on the right, tight end Joseph Fauria in tight on the left. The running back goes in motion left. So, this makes the defense have to stretch to defend the three wides on the right and the running back going in motion on the left. That's a lot of defenders, now stretched horizontally across the field. Fauria does a simple 8-yard down-and-out to the right, just like we've all been doing in our sandlot, pick-up game all of our lives, into the big hole created by those wideouts taking their man into another portion of the field. Not many linebackers are going to be able to keep Fauria from catching an easy pass. Hundley makes an easy throw, gets it off quickly, before the rush can even come close to him, making Hundley look good, when even just about 50% of the people in the Rose Bowl stands could make that pass. And it makes the offensive line look good, because they are only pass protecting for two and a half seconds. And about 50% of the Rose Bowl crowd could pass protect in that circumstance.

If his head coach won't heap him with praise, Bruin Report Online certainly will do so for Hundley. We have been so conditioned to expect an inexperienced quarterback to look shaky, most of the time, especially in something like the second start of his career. How is it possible that Hundley was able to throw for 305 yards, going 21 of 33, and 4 touchdowns? You had to keep rubbing your eyes in disbelief. It was positively stunning, that Hundley played the type of game he did, in his first game in the Rose Bowl. Now, yeah, he was completing some pretty high-percentage throws, but that 49-yard beauty to Steven Manfro was one that .0001% of the Rose Bowl crowd could complete. That was the throw of the game, the one that was so uncannily beautiful, in scheme and execution, that it gave you chills. Again, you have to give a great deal of credit to the scheme, that forces a defense to defend the field and not be able to blitz from the 8 guys in the box (which we've seen for year against UCLA). But Hundley's composure in the pocket -- in just his second college game -- was almost eery. He's a redshirt freshman, and you can't even begin to imagine what type of quarterback he could be when he gets some experience, like as a redshirt sophomore or junior.

It's, of course, vastly premature, but UCLA's Sports Information Department needs to unlock that one room in the Morgan Center that's been closed down and boarded up for 14 years -- the one that has all the materials on how to run a Heisman Trophy Campaign. They might need to update some things, since it was so long ago that UCLA had such a player that they need to update the protocol because there are now things like Facebook and Twitter. Jonathan Franklin, after two 200+-yard games, has earned at least a few billboards around Westwood, don't you think? Yes, of course, Franklin is benefitting, too, from the scheme. It's a great deal easier to run when four would-be tacklers are stretched out 40 yards away from you on the other side of the field having to defend your teammates. But what's so impressive about Franklin is that he has clearly gotten better. He is stronger than he was previously, and is able to break tackles and run in traffic so much better. He was always good at it, but how he's particularly exceptional at it.

Not to discount the accomplishments of Franklin and Hundley but, again, The Scheme's the Thing. It's the Scheme, Stupid.

Last night, after the game, I walked through a crowd of recruits outside of the locker room, waiting to be let in, and there was a palpable buzz. You could just feel the excitement. We heard from a few recruits and their families after the game, and they said the general feeling is that the recruits last night were jacked up, and said they wanted to be apart of it all, and were excited to play in the scheme they saw on the field. Heck, if you're a wide receiver recruit, why wouldn't you?

Not to dwell on the past, but the scheme makes you - again -- ask: Why did no one ever utilize a scheme like this at UCLA any time in the last 12 years? We know Mazzone is an exceptional OC and, right now, UCLA fans wouldn't trade him for anyone in the nation, either in college or in the NFL. But there are a number of OCs who have a similar type of offense. It's not like Mazzone is the Stephen Hawking of the offensive coordinators and no one else is smart enough or talented enough to have this kind of offense. It's like going into the AT&T store for the last decade, and seeing all of those smart phones for sale, and only costing about $50 (with an extended calling plan, of course), but you insist on sticking with that flip phone from 1996.

Why, Football Gods, why?

Rick Neuheisel is a smart guy, that's plainly evident. Heck, he's doing a great job on the Pac-12 Network, just yesterday predicting a number of major upsets in college football. He clearly is sharp and knows college football. Why, Rick, why? Why wouldn't you have adopted this offensive scheme and philosophy five years ago when you took the job and saved us all a great deal of pain?

I guess we can't dwell on the painful past. When you have something like UCLA does now in Mazzone's offense, you don't want to sound entitled or anything but completely grateful.

And the college football world is taking note. There were a number of links posted on the BRO Message Board to message boards of other teams, like Cal and Washington. Their fans are bemoaning their team's coaching, and pointing at UCLA as an example of the type of coaching and scheme they'd like to have. They are blatantly using the word jealous.

How's that feel, Bruin fans?

It's difficult to remember, probably, for many UCLA fans, it's been such a long time. But remember that feeling, when UCLA was actually the envy of the block in terms of scheme? Remember when UCLA, that football uniform and those four letters, represented intelligence, innovation and cutting-edge in terms of what it was doing on the football field? When its football team lived up to its world-class education? For the last fourteen years, UCLA football has represented more of a Keystone Cops football image. Heck, my 14-year-old son has never really witnessed UCLA being good in football in his lifetime. He doesn't believe me when I tell him that, when I went to UCLA, the Bruins won the Pac-10, went to two Rose Bowls in a row and dominated their Big Ten opponent (beating #4-ranked Illinois Illini, 45-9, in one of them), were ranked in the top 10 and were a college football power. He thinks I'm telling fairy tales.

Well, it's not just the ramblings of a delusional old man anymore, there, my son. You can now wear your UCLA gear proudly to school (even though, being a good kid, he always did anyway).

Yes, the UCLA football program still has a long ways to go, clearly. We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. Mora's stern answers to the media after the game last night brings us back to Earth. But after 12 long years of more-or-less futility, it's incredibly liberating and rejuvenating to actually watch the UCLA football team look good, and attempt to do the right thing.

It makes it fun again.

It's not a corner-turner, per se, but UCLA fans woke up Sunday morning, wondering if it was a dream, and feeling differently than on any Sunday in the last fourteen years. It's like being the equivalent of a college football Rumplestiltskin.

It's not a dream, UCLA fans.

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