Performance on the road, especially in the college game, especially vs. a respectable program, will always define athletic "class." The Bruins standard for this sort of thing is still "Rout 66,"though Texas, at the time, was vastly overrated and UCLA vastly underrated. But the style of this wipeout was breathtaking, and it announced UCLA as an awakened giant, a legitimate player on the national scene. Unfortunately, it had more to do with the presence of Cade McNown than the health of the program and proved to be another false dawn. Perhaps we should combine the Utah and Nebraska performances, then measure this team by how strongly they finish and how well they carry it over to the next season.
For UCLA, the standard for excellence and national respect is the heart of the Red Sanders era, '52-'55. During that time the Bruins went 34-5, the five losses by a combined 10 points. In the national polls, UCLA finished #6, #4, tie for #1 and #4. The only comparable period would be Tommy Prothro's first three seasons, '65, ‘66 and '67, in which they went 24-5-2. In the national polls, Prothro's teams finished #4, #5 and #10. (The difference between a #1 and a #10 ranking was the backbreaking, 21-20 "O. J. loss" to SC, the enormous letdown the following week, Gary Beban sitting out due to the physical beating he absorbed in the SC game, and the half empty Coliseum for a thoroughly meaningless loss to Syracuse. (I've always thought Prothro's run of bad luck at UCLA must have somehow influenced his jump to the Los Angeles Rams.) I don't mean to compare this year's Bruins with those Sanders and Prothro teams, but…if they manage a split at Stanford and Oregon, and otherwise don't stumble, then win a BCS bowl game, we can truly begin dreaming of A Great Awakening, especially considering the youth and unquestionable talent on this roster, not to mention the likelihood (at this time) of Brett Hundley returning for his redshirt junior year.
I count at least four candidates for "All" honors: Anthony Barr, Xavier Su'a Filo, Hundley and Myles Jack, who seems to me, even at this early stage, perhaps the greatest athletic talent here since Kenny Easley. Behind them I'd rank Cassius Marsh, Eddie Vanderdoes, Shaq Evans, Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Jordan Payton, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Jefferson, Randall Goforth, Ismael Adams and Jordan Zumwalt (when he sees the field). Throw in Owamagbe Odighizuwa (next year), Priest Willis (when he returns), Devin Lucien (if he settles down), Damien Thigpen, Keenan Graham, Jake Brendel, Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch, Deon Hollins, Fabian Moreau and the much improved Ka'imi Fairbairn. And we haven't even mentioned a large group of potentially talented young guys, among them Thomas Duarte, Jalen Ortiz, Darren Andrews, Craig Lee, Eldridge Massington, Johnny Johnson, Tahaan Goodman, Nate Iese, Kenny Orjioke, Isaac Savaiinaea, Kylie Fitts and Kenneth Clark, who either haven't played much or who find themselves behind older more proven guys. (I don't know what to make of Ellis McCarthy yet, though I do like the idea of shifting him to the O line.) That's a good bit of prime talent on which to build, more than I've ever seen here. The extreme youth on this roster also bodes well for continued growth the rest of this year.
Some early season observations:
• Compared to some other teams I've seen, the Bruins read-option still looks a little ragged, still needs to be executed more sharply…probably something to do with the extraordinary value of Hundley, the fear of injury to him and some lack of confidence in Jerry Neuheisel's arm strength. (I'd like to see more of Neuheisel, hopefully in one or two late-game blowouts…throwing the ball, not just handing it off.)
• I'm still looking for more consistency out of Hundley, which still makes me hesitate to think of him as "the savior," at least for now. I put this down to some natural awkwardness, particularly in the pocket, mostly due to his relative inexperience playing quarterback. He doesn't look as smooth, as instinctive as some of his peers, nor is he as accurate a passer downfield, particularly down the middle. I recall a game last year when he leaped over a defender in the open field and landed on the same leg he took off of. Don't think I ever saw that before. Hundley seems the opposite of someone like Kevin Hogan, whose unobtrusive play seems almost errorless, but whose physical skills seem of a more subtle nature. Hundley's a bit thicker, looks stronger, faster, generally more dangerous, though I'm not sure he actually is. Relax a little and Hogan will drop the perfect game-breaking pass on you like he did to Washington. In any case, we'll all get a fresh read on this question October 19th. If all goes well with Cal, this should be the most significant conference game of the year to that point. Another thing I find striking is Hundley's supreme confidence. In this he reminds me of Rodney Peete, though without Hundley's size and strength. I thought it was telling when Tracy Pierson asked Brett a question about the difference in the Bruins performance at Utah between the first quarter and the second and third quarters, the inference being Brett's difficulty driving the team. Hundley did a quick step, as if he hadn't even heard the question.
• It would be nice if either Paul Perkins or Jordon James (or Damien Thigpen, if he's ready) seized the starting job instead of the Bruins merely alternating running backs. Like similar situations, a genuine starter needs to be on the field as much as circumstances and his conditioning allows. Where his sub might take the ball five, eight, ten yards downfield, the more talented guy might have taken it to the house.
• As the Pistol, spread formations, tempo offenses, etc. increase, it does produce an unusual number of playmaking receivers, quarterbacks and more daring offensive coordinators. The "old school" doesn't like hearing it, but defending the pass - provided a competent 300 pound offensive line to work behind – is the biggest threat to any defense. This is not to diminish the importance of an effective ground game, only to suggest that most secondaries are at a distinct disadvantage vs. most receivers: receivers are bigger, faster, better skilled. Speaking of which, Jordan Payton looks to become a corner's worst nightmare.
• With the surprising showing of the Bruins secondary, it now appears the center of the defensive front is UCLA's most vulnerable unit. Kendricks, as good as he is, is more effective chasing sideline to sideline than backing up the middle for which he's a bit light. I was happy to see Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos show a more aggressive front in the second half vs. Utah. Since I'm not a great believer in secondary coverage without benefit of selective, well-disguised blitzing, this was a welcome relief. One doesn't care how pressure is applied, so long as it's enough to frustrate the passing game and force punts. I always cringe when I see a three-man rush. When facing teams like Cal, I wouldn't mind looking at the occasional four-man front composed of Barr, Marsh, Vanderdoes and Keenan Graham. Oh how the Bruins could use Owa.
• Finally, the Bruins drew the short straw, and there waiting for them in Salt Lake City was the terrifying specter of Jay Stricker, aka "The Dreaded Glasses." (First zebra to a hundred yards in penalties eats free after the game.) And the bitch of it is: he wasn't even the worst official on the field. That honor went to the out-of-control side judge who seemed bound and determined to wipe out Anthony Jefferson's pick on an obvious tipped ball by Miles Jack. It took Jim Mora a lifetime to sort out these clowns. Maybe, after Larry Scott yells "Uncle" to Direct TV, perhaps he can engineer a trade of the "Glasses Crew" to the Ivy League where they couldn't cause so much angst. I mean, aren't the Ivies above such vulgar notions as rooting for your school's football team? And who knows, perhaps Cornell or Dartmouth could secure a fat grant to study the effects of the Peter Principle when applied to Ivy League Saturday afternoons in the fall.