Chiccoa: Waiting and Winning

After watching the new UCLA play against Nebraska, our football columnist Charles Chiccoa aptly describes the new mindset of the UCLA fan...

By the end of the first half of Nebraska, you knew the Bruins could trade punches with a pretty strong Cornhuskers team. They may not have been your daddy's Huskers, but they were certainly better than I had expected. Taylor Martinez could actually do more than run the ball, and those reports of his off-season remake into a two-dimensional threat proved credible (though his lack of passing instincts may have been responsible for burying his team's last chance to pull out a win).

After Datone Jones blew up Martinez for a safety on the same play that he had earlier sprinted to a 92-yard touchdown, Martinez threw up a duck that Andrew Abbott returned deep into Nebraska territory to set up Johnathan Franklin's 9-yard pass reception for the all-important two-score cushion late in the fourth quarter. You could hear the great Gus Johnson's voice rising as the pass hung in the air while Gus was anticipating the game-breaking pick. (Chris Roberts was probably in his standard three-second delay.) Pre-game, Gus and his partner, Charles Davis, were not shy about mentioning UCLA's nationally known rep for being "soft." Fair enough, since they would later declare the Bruins soft no more.

You could see UCLA had no fear whatsoever of the big, bad Huskers -- not Jim Mora, his coaching staff or his players. They took the field like they owned it. They played aggressively throughout, except for going passive at the end of the first half, an unfortunate carryover we're all intimately familiar with. Overall, the Bruins played like a ranked team expects to play at home. And as long as they keep winning and playing well, I wouldn't worry about what it will take for UCLA to move up in the polls. Since there's no way of knowing which higher ranked teams will drop (or when), it's an unnecessary worry. Wait, win, and good things will follow.

No Bruin was more responsible for this signature (perhaps watershed) win than Johnathan Franklin. Like Derrick Coleman last year, Franklin has become twice the threat he was in previous seasons. He's always been fast, but this year he's stronger, more fluid, and runs with more confidence and determination. Surely, this has something to do with regime change. Rice was one thing, the "blackshirts" are another. Franklin accounted for 276 total yards, his four receptions coming on swing passes and yards-after-catch. If UCLA's sleepy Sports Information Department is shy about advertising Johnathan's Heisman bonafides, his play on the field certainly is not. Franklin's backfield mates, Jordon James, Damien Thigpen and Steven Manfro, continue to give indications they'll be significant contributors, running and receiving. Thigpen seems to be improving at warp speed. This guy is no "track star" dabbling with football.

Brett Hundley looked much better to me upon re-watching than he did live. Poor passes off-target, late, or to well-covered receivers, tend to stick in my mind more than well-thrown passes, with of course the exception of stuff like that 49-yard beauty to Manfro. And Hundley doesn't have the advantage of throwing to Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, though he is throwing to Devin Lucien. Now I'm not saying Lucien is in the class of those two guys… I'm jus sayin'. (One day at practice, I noticed Lucien was the first receiver Keshawn Johnson seemed interested in talking to.)

So, how ‘bout that offensive line? Maybe they're not "the weak link" after all. Isn't it amazing what an effective, state-of-the-art offensive system can accomplish… together with a line coach who can effectively implement his teachings? The "five-fingered fist" lived up to its motto and dominated the Nebraska defensive front.

After giving up a ton of yardage in the first half, Lou Spanos's defense settled down to hold the Huskers' offense to just 103 yards in the second half, and it now looks like UCLA has three defensive stars in line for post-season honors: Anthony Barr, Datone Jones and Jordan Zumwalt.

If not for miscues and 126 yards in penalties (which badly needs to be addressed), this win could have stood alongside the 41-28 Nebraska thumping in 1988. Containing the likes of Martinez, tailback Ameer Abdullah, and wide receiver Kenny Bell was not easy, even if only for a half.

After Southern Miss ran for 185 yards on the Huskers, Coach Bo Pelini said, "We were a little sloppy with our tackling. It was our first game." After the Bruins mauled them, linebacker and team leader Will Compton said, "You've got to give [UCLA] credit," whereupon he quickly withdrew it, adding… "We didn't come to play tonight." Right, Will. You guys just came for the fireworks and the shopping in Pasadena. Despite all that pregame jumping around, we could tell you didn't "come to play." And why would you "come to play" when 20,000 or so Big Red fans paid their way to LA to support you. Stuff like this always hands me a laugh; and jocks think we're delusional. Remember how, after sucking on 13-9 and losing a shot at the National Championship Game, some SC players actually claimed they came out flat. I think Pete even inferred something similar once he came out of shock.

Of course every Bruin fan and local media outlet are warning the Bruins against losing focus on Houston. As if Mora was likely to let that happen. This guy is obviously a throwback in the best sense of the word, and if the players are smart, they'll play at least as hard, and hopefully smarter, than they did last Saturday. Even though the Cougars are 0-2, things should be interesting. I'm not sure I've ever seen a team throw 77 passes in a game, complete 53, and still lose. And I hope Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price can "flip their hips" and keep their hands to themselves. (I feel better about Andrew Abbott and Tevin McDonald.)

*****

What will constitute "The Turning?" Beneath the glow of the Nebraska win, thoughts of that nearly mythical event have actually begun lurking, if you will, flickering brighter than ever. One feels it's starving for attention, dying to be recognized. But, of course, we all know why it must be stifled for the time being: namely, the angst caused by the headache of the last twelve years. And I don't have to tell you what BBS stands for. With the exception of 13-9 and five games in one magical October, what's left of those times? Nothing but memories of a few favorite players: Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Bruce Davis, Brian Price, maybe a couple of others. The Nebraska game must at least mark the end of the longest Dark Age in Bruins football history. But what of "The Turning?" Forget SC for the moment. (No matter what happens this year, Barkley will finally have to move on.) What about the rest of the conference, BCS bowls, the top ten?

How gratifying must it be for those fans who were less ready to jump off the nearest bridge when Chris Petersen turned UCLA down; who were genuinely curious about Mora when he was hired; who watched him proceed without once stepping wrong; who were able to watch the team in spring and preseason and were comparatively less surprised with their performances in the first two games. This is a 180-degree turnaround we're witnessing. But I would think even that crowd isn't prepared to declare the corner turned just yet. It's like the football polls: wait, win, and The Turning will follow.


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