Chiccoa: Another Tipping Point

Our football columnist returns, at an opportune time, as UCLA football approaches another key game, against Nebraska in Lincoln September 14th...

Saturday night at the Rose Bowl had to be a wake-up slap to Battered Bruins everywhere, along with all the cynics who continue to believe the past must be prologue, which is not to say the Bruins are a sure thing for a BCS bowl bid… rather you should not be shocked if they receive one.

Now, before you start howling over the quality of Nevada, please consider that The Wolfpack is not Buffalo, Nicholls State, Toledo, Temple, Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Lafayette, Directional Michigan, Directional North Carolina, Massachusetts, Austin Peay, Murray St., William & Mary, Wofford (who?), Elon (who?), Hawaii and Directional Washington. (Shame on Oregon State. Anyone still think nice guy Mike Riley is just the fella to get us movin' on Up to a DEluxe apartment in the Top Ten?)

Since I don't really drink and don't talk a lot of shite, I generally prefer taking in Bruins games in front of my TV with all the comforts of a backyard tailgate if I'm in the mood. But with West Valley temperatures in the 100s, along with swamp-like humidity, I thought this game would be a good chance to introduce my 12-year-old grandson to the UCLA Rose Bowl Experience. He entered a rather casual SC fan, but left a little shaken after that second-half explosion. Today, I believe him to be a "silent commit" to UCLA. (Like so many L.A. kids, he's a natural bandwagoner.)

*****

Jay Mohr was raving this morning about UCLA's depth of talent, especially the running backs and receivers - he was certainly not wrong. It's no great stretch to compare the numbers and quality of this roster with that of the returning 1953 personnel, which would go on to win the Bruins' one and lonely National Championship. (Rosters were comparatively smaller then, while recruiting was much more provincial.) But when Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller and Shaq Evans are being backed up by Darius Bell, and freshmen like Eldridge Massington, Thomas Duarte, Jalen Ortiz and Darren Andrews… you know you're deeeep at receiver. And when Jordon James, Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones are set to collectively fill the shoes of arguably UCLA's most effective tailback ever, you know you're deeeep at running back, and that's not counting Damien Thigpen and Craig Lee who are available. (Thigpen is recovering from a knee injury and expected to play soon, Lee is redshirting as a freshman).

With the sudden rise of freshman Alex Redmond, Adrian Klemm's offensive line is looking a little less worrisome, certainly in terms of depth. And who cannot be struck with the craftsman-like (I almost said artistic) way Xavier Su'a-Filo goes about knocking people out of the way. He may go down in Bruin lore right behind the incomparable Jonathan Ogden.

Nothing more needs be said about the defensive front other than it performed even better than expected. Only nose tackle seems to me "a work in progress." Someone needs to aggressively own that position. There's certainly no lack of candidates. Keenan Graham looked good and Eddie Vanderdoes was just as expected: a compact, 300-pound acrobat with attitude. (I wonder what Steve Emptman looked like as a freshman? Don't know, just asking.) Cassius Marsh didn't show very well and played more like a freshman than Vanderdoes. One can almost understand Brian Kelly's bad behavior upon losing a talent like Eddie.

The linebacking was even more impressive than the front three. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt, Aaron Wallace and yes, Myles Jack, are all known quantities, worthy of "All" consideration. And, of course, Isaac Savaiinaea and Deon Hollins (no surprise) looked hugely promising. Funny that on a night when Barr looked just okay, the rest of the unit picked up the slack and you barely noticed the difference.

Defensive backs have always been my bête noire, my bug bear, which is why I hate it when the Bruins must face a quarterback like Cody Farjado – strong, fast, heady, equally adept running or passing; he single-handedly kept Nevada in the game until the Bruin hordes finally broke through in the second half. Granted, after quarterback, there's no position more difficult to play than corner back. Play too passively and risk getting beat underneath; too aggressively and risk getting beat over the top. Running backwards, turning and flipping your hips while trying to keep up with bigger, faster, stronger wide receivers is the most hellish job on the field; no wonder they play with such a vicious edge. Sadly, for the last four seasons, Bruin fans have been witness to the fact that neither Sheldon Price nor Aaron Hester could ever master coverage skills, were rarely able to find the ball while it was in the air, nor were they likely to make the big game-changing tackle. I'm sure they're both fine young men, but they were never high-level Pac-12 corners. Even sight unseen, their young replacements should prove superior.

I liked Sean Covington's punting in San Bernardino and during pre-game warm-ups. Since Nevada never forced a punt, we'll have to wait ‘til Nebraska to see him work under pressure. Ka'imi Fairbairn once again missed a long field goal try. His leg seems stronger, and it was only one kick, but these continued misses from distance are getting worrisome since field goal kicking can (sometimes) be winning.

How should I say this: I'm not quite as enamored of Brett Hundley's talents and future greatness as most Bruin fans and the media. His numbers are hard, if not impossible, to argue with. However, something around 1,000 passing yards came on screen passes which his receivers advanced mostly on their own. Unquestionably he looks sharper and more decisive than last season, and I hope he'll threaten the deep zones more often and with greater accuracy. His release is quicker, though Nevada, because of his protection, never really got close to him. I expect him to have a very good year, hopefully a great one, with the added bonus of returning for an additional year. In his single season he's gained something like a lifetime of experience, and we've seen him demonstrate improved mastery of the offense. In any case, he may have to win some games by out-dueling some very dangerous quarterbacks, starting with Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. Hundley's growth should spell the difference between a good and a great season.

*****

Despite those three painful losses closing out last season, the "turning" has been accomplished, but typical of UCLA football, the Bruins couldn't manage the thing cleanly. At least one win over Stanford, along with a much better showing vs. an underrated Baylor team, would have assured UCLA double-digit wins and a happier off-season. So, here we are today focused on a new season, striving for possible "elite" status and genuine national respect. With the impressive Nevada performance, UCLA no longer appears to be a mere "dark horse," a dangerous team with unknown but suspected strengths.

The Bruins came out of preseason practices relatively healthy, with a legit top-five recruiting class unintimidated and ready to "express themselves." They may even be better than anticipated, which is saying a lot. After swallowing hard, contemplating a seemingly difficult schedule, most people around here seemed comfortable with a 9-3, 8-4 regular season. But after the impressive Nevada showing, expectations have been kicked up a notch to the point where 9-3 seems almost pedestrian and 8-4 seems downright disappointing.

What we may have coming up with Nebraska is yet another tipping point, something like the 14-12 loss to SC in '52; the 21-20 loss at Stanford in '53; the 7-0 loss at Maryland in '55; the 16-3 loss at Washington in '66 (plus the ugly Rose Bowl vote, also by UDub); the 21-20 loss to SC in '67; the 14-12 loss to SC in '69; the 24-14 loss to SC in '76; the 23-17 loss at Arizona in '80; the 10-7 loss at Washington in '82; the 17-13 loss to SC in '87; the 34-30 loss to Washington St. in '88; and of course the never-to-be-forgotten "Black Saturday" in Miami in '98. All of these were huge tipping points that could have changed, or greatly enhanced, UCLA football history. Obviously, this is a sad, sad story, so won't you please, sir, cut us a break in Lincoln before we get onto the next tipping point.


Bruin Report Online Top Stories