Another Bad Day Up North

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa bemoans another big-game loss, and puts Brett Hundley more in perspective...

I used to lose sleep over these big game losses. Now I swallow them as easily as a couple of Excedrins washed down with an ice cold Stella. UCLA football (post Sanders/Prothro/Vermeil) has become like a problem child you badly want to keep believing in… but just as you're beginning to relax and quit worrying, things inevitably go off track. This season, Utah in Salt Lake City and Cal at home had given off hints of trouble ahead, but Utah represented a respectable road win, and Cal became a 27 -point loser. So what went wrong this time? Let me recount the ways.

ABC showed up, and that's usually a bad omen. It's as if the Bruins come down with stage fright every time the college football world, east of the Rockies, begins to take notice. In this case, what may have looked like "stage fright" was just the product of being too amped and losing some focus on the task at hand. There is such a thing as being too emotionally high. Listen to Jordan Zumwalt: "We're going to look at this one, how we came in thinking there's no way we were going to lose. We came in all high strung, all high and mighty. We were going to come in and kick some butt." A simple case of hubris. They were too big and bad for Stanford, a team that had beaten them twice last year. And this may have been what happened to Brett Hundley and an obviously stuttering offense. Yeah, I know, sounds crazy. But jocks are a breed apart.

Hundley played poorly from first to last and was pretty reckless with his downfield throws, including two damaging picks. He and the offense never found "a rhythm," which is to say momentum, and as is his habit, he held onto the ball too long; he threw to too many covered receivers; he appeared unable to get his team out of bad plays; and he continued to lock onto his primaries… all of this leading to one lonely touchdown in addition to seven punts (which, as we all know, is not winning). And UCLA's one successful drive was due more to David Shaw's determination to play it conservative and bleed the clock than to anything the Bruins did. Of course the guys in the network booth, as is their habit, put most of the blame on the offensive line or Brett's receivers. But it seemed to me Brett was visibly uncomfortable whether or not he had adequate time to find a receiver. Sixteen first downs, only 66 plays, a meager 266 net yards, 24 of 39 passing for only 192 yards made for the most pitiful showing since last year's Cal game.

Perhaps I'm just burned out on all the superlatives that have been swirling around Hundley… all this business of Heisman talk, first-round draft choice and the like. And almost all of it can be chalked up to the national media being about a month late to what's been going on around here. At best this sort of talk is wildly premature. I mean, Hundley's been outplayed by Kevin Hogan three times in less than a year, and if things don't change I'm not even sure he's among the top four quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Like any Bruin fan I wish all the superlatives were true, but I'm afraid a lot of it is just the result of "stat hunting." All those easy swing passes and wide receiver screens do begin to add up in yards passing, and passing percentage, particularly when factored into Johnathan Franklin's extraordinary contribution last season, not to mention Damien Thigpen's. Now that he's healthy, I would hope Thigpen gets a shot at becoming the featured back next Saturday.

In fairness, I should mention that I've been finding it progressively irritating when Hundley begins talking about his "legacy" and how he "was born to play in big games." If so, he has yet to demonstrate it with any consistency. He possesses a strong arm, but he's limited in throwing the ball since he's rapidly becoming a mere "fast baller" with little touch on his throws and precious little instinct for seeing the field, thus crucially missing too many open receivers. (He's beginning to remind me of Keith Price.) I'd love to see him have a good game at Oregon, even if, as it now appears, the team is likely to be in for the usual Autzen Stadium woodshedding. Self-belief can be a great thing, but Hundley may be mainlining on it and might be better served working out some fundamental changes in his approach to leading this team.

*****

It seems as if Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone may have squeezed as much juice out of his zone read as this offense can reasonably execute given the personnel and the curious predicament of a quarterback who nearly always makes the handoff and seems reluctant to keep the ball. If you and I can anticipate this action, surely an opposing team can do it. The inside handoff is becoming as ubiquitous as Karl Dorrell's "stretch play" and Rick Neuheisel's futile "Pistol." If you don't want Hundley to expose himself to the possibility of injury, or Hundley has become too fond of reading only one option, then why waste so many plays running into a stacked box, which then leads to a third-and-five or longer? Being consistently outnumbered at the point of attack is no way to play football, particularly vs. a formidable defense. The curious way the Bruins run the play leaves them with no element of deception or misdirection, which is a dream for any defense.

*****

Jim Mora may doubt "any one game really defines you, whether you've arrived or you're not very good, or you are very good," though not all his players would agree. "These are games you want to win so badly, so badly," said Hundley. (The kid hasn't yet mastered coach-speak.) Of course you want to beat Stanford worse than you want to beat New Mexico State. When he reviews film of the game, in addition to learning from his own mistakes, perhaps Hundley will notice the way Stanford goes about their business. Stanford was like a superior tennis player moving his opponent around the court on a string. They didn't play a perfect game, nobody does, but they played with poise, intelligence and skill. See especially Kodi Whitfield's incredible, one-handed, cupped reception on that 30-yard touchdown pass, once again illustrating the superiority of bigger, faster, more skillful. But the greatest mismatch may have been the one between the coaching staffs. If it was silly to compare Brett Hundley to Cade McNown, Troy Aikman and Gary Beban, it's just as silly, today, to compare Mora to Tommy Prothro or Dick Vermeil, let alone Red Sanders. At least, not yet.

*****

At least SC lost to Notre Dame, which had to play much of the game with a poor man's Kevin Craft at quarterback; I don't think I've ever seen a worse demonstration of passing. Listening to Jeff from Tarzana crowing about a great Trojan rebirth under the new, happy-go-lucky Ed Orgeron would have been truly revolting.

So what are we to make of this wretched date with the Ducks? Can the Bruins possibly escape with some honor? And is that line right? UCLA +21. Just like old home week. At least the Bruins should be playing loose. I'd be content with a respectable showing, stay with the Ducks for a half, perhaps rally from behind to make them sweat, something like that. And if they do this, there follows a five-game stretch of Colorado, at Arizona, Washington, Arizona State and at SC. I'd more than settle for 10-2, perhaps even 9-3. At this point, who wouldn't?


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