Strap Yourself In

Last week we thought the Bruins had grown up, but it's back to the familiar roller coaster for the season...

Looks like it’s back to the rollercoaster for us, which is never a happy sign… either that or something like those circular, rotating tea cups which, if you’re susceptible to dizziness, can be positively barf-provoking. I’ve never understood that business about, “What a great game that was” even though it was a loss. Seems like you’re trying to make yourself feel better or perhaps you’re not completely invested in your team. All losses suck, and most wins can be improved upon in the following weeks.

I didn’t see this loss coming, and neither, very likely, did you. Coming off that spectacular 62-27 track meet vs. Arizona State, the Utes seemed kind of like a respectable preliminary to Big Game Oregon, particularly facing an average quarterback like Travis Wilson - not much of a running threat and known to throw picks. So after a couple of empty Utah drives, up pops another 2nd string- killer-quarterback in the form of Kendal Thompson, a transfer from Oklahoma, who proceeds to throw for 95 yards, on 10 of 13, while rushing for an additional 83 yards on 19 carries. Thompson was easily the most effective quarterback on the field, not to mention a surprise sub so early in the game. And the Bruins never really adjusted. (Ute coach Kyle Whittingham should be congratulated for going against the coach’s handbook in bringing such an early hook for his starter, something rarely seen on game days.) Add in running back Devontae Booker’s 156 yards on 33 carries and you have an effective, error-free offense to go with the Ute’s 10 sacks. (Will the Bruins become known as “Sack U.?”)

Once Brett Hundley threw yet another head-scratching pick-six, and Thompson tossed up that mortar shot to Flipper Anderson’s son, Dres, who outfought the Bruins for possession and the score, you knew this was going to be yet another excruciating, nail-biting, come-from-behind exercise. Call it UCLA’s Hard Way to Play Football. When you keep tempting fate like this, sooner or later you’ll be reduced to a 50-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds by a kicker who does not yet feel comfortable from distance. But without the pick-six, the Bruins could have gone home with a win, albeit another ugly one. Oh well…

This wasn’t the first time Hundley looked confused and uncomfortable in the opening minutes of a game… as if things were moving too fast. Like most of us, I felt like he’d found himself with that great performance at Arizona State. Looking back, it appears his pass protection greatly enabled him to find receivers open all over the field… something like SC’s quarterbacks in the Pete Carroll days. Utah was determined to speed him up and did so with ease. Bret’s talent is in his arm strength, in his ability to throw hard… also his growing accuracy with the long ball. Obviously he can run, but he’s so slow to commit. We’ve all seen this going on two and half years. I’m still not sure he’s a natural quarterback. (Perhaps that’s one reason he can’t learn to slide.) Ultimately the Ute’s rushing game cancelled out UCLA’s passing game.

The Utes’ excellent rugby style punter was another pain in the ass, averaging almost 50 yards on eight kicks, thus taking Ishmael Adams effectively out of the return game. I could be wrong, but wouldn’t it make sense to put two punt receivers back to receive? Considering the low, line-drive trajectory of these punts, there would be more time for either receiver to field the kick and find an initial opening. At least there would be a chance for someone to get a decent return instead of just watching the ball roll and roll and roll.

The ball carriers and receivers played well enough, namely Paul Perkins, Jordon James, Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, Eldridge Massington and Devin Lucien, but both the offensive and defensive lines were badly abused. And nothing noteworthy came out of the secondary.

After that two-touchdown deficit, did you ever believe the Bruins had it in them for the final push? I didn’t… because whenever they’d score, the Utes would counter. UCLA did make a serious move with two spectacular long passes, even took that two point lead. But it never felt like victory.

*****


This week there’s going to be lots of pressure on the coaching staff and player personnel to finally beat a beatable Oregon team, particularly on Mora, Hundley, Jeff Ulbrich and Noel Mazzone. It’ll be particularly interesting to watch the duel between Hundley and Marcus Mariota.

The Bruins badly need some deception, some counters, some misdirection, something extra, perhaps even new. The Bruins can’t possibly still believe in their “Here we come…, we don’t need no stinkin’ gimmicks to beat you” routine. Even Alabama can’t make that stuff work today. We all know UCLA can’t keep throwing away valuable downs with the zone read if Hundley won’t make them pay with his feet. And it goes without saying their offensive line is going to have to play over their heads. (Other team’s weakest units play over their heads against the Bruins). I doubt the defense can play “contain” with a guy like Mariota. They must at least try to overpower his protection, make it hot in the pocket, get him down on the ground. They need all eleven players to be involved in a much more aggressive style. Above all they can’t put their faith in a “safety first” approach. This game will not be won by defensive backs (certainly not the Bruins’ DBs). Big games seldom are.

Mora said recently, “First and foremost, we came after [Utah] and played darn good defense for the most part.” But he added, “Anytime you qualify a statement with ‘for the most part’ you’re looking at problems. We played hard, fast and physical, but in the second half we struggled to stop the run. It was positioning, tackling and trying to do too much sometimes.” Whatever it was it needs to change.

It’s time now for getting it done, not just talking about getting it done. We’ve heard too much of that over the years. Thank goodness they’re playing this one at the Rose Bowl. You’ve got to take your advantages where you find them. Anyway, we’ll soon know whether this season was a boom! or something more modest. I mean, clarity has its virtues.


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