Our boy on the BRO message boards, "Hititlong," nailed one right down the middle with his recent post: "Dorrell & Co. have made an epic mistake." Referring to all the changes he's seen this year, "Scoops" curses the coaching staff for turning him into "a blind, myopic optimist," then declares he'll "become hostile and bitter if UCLA loses to anyone but OU, and I won't be too happy with that one either." Anyone who's watched this team from spring through the last of the open practices can understand this sentiment, especially when contrasted with the horror show we witnessed in the last days of Toledo. For too many seasons now, Bruin fans have gone into September hoping the talent on the field would overcome any shortcomings on the sidelines (something to the effect of "IF ------DOESN'T ---- IT UP"). And I'm referring, here, to more than the last seven years.
Sure, it's easy to be optimistic when a played-out old coaching staff gets swept away, and a new, young ex-Bruin comes in with a mandate to produce a national profile and beat SC. The fresh scent of the unknown is always preferable to the stale smell of mediocrity and failure. Hey, most of us welcomed Big Bob with open arms when he replaced Terry Donahue. Although Karl Dorrell is following the most reviled Bruin football coach within memory, it does look as if this young ex-Bruin will be something entirely different, not only from Toledo, but from his conservative, "suspenders and belt" college coach, too. Rather than a young gun, TD always struck me more as a young fogy.
I suspect KD didn't bowl over Dan Guerrero by coming on as a personable, user-friendly, organization man. I also suspect Donahue is not his major coaching influence. KD looks to have a much sharper edge, which seems to be reflected in his staff. Of course he comes in at a time when his chief adversary across town has a successful two-year head start on him, along with a recruiting advantage. Say what you will about Pete Carroll‘s apparent ruthlessness, he was able to retain his immensely valuable "co-head coach," Norm Chow, he was able to banish that 6-6 season from his team's consciousness, and he was able to bounce back from a 1-2 start to finish up as the most feared team in the country (much as the Bruins had in ‘97). Say what you will, you simply can't get this guy down, which is one of the chief requirements for success in any competitive sport, especially college football. It cannot be repeated too often: Belief and will (even myth) plays hugely into the equation of any first class athletic program. This stuff is the spiritual mortar that holds a team together and keeps it from going south at the first sign of adversity. Once you get past the "phenoms" and the playmakers you still have a lot of guys left on the field, soldiers if you will, who will have to step up and make plays confidently, aggressively, if the team is to succeed. It's no coincidence that football culture resembles military culture. Or don't you think "Doc" Kreis bears some resemblance to "Sgt. Hartman," and coaches Bieniemy, DeLoach, and Embree some resemblance to platoon sergeants you may have heard or read about, or even known.
Brains and game planning are for the off-season, for weekdays and the practice field. Saturday is no place for objectivity and doubt. Hamlet couldn't have cut it as a coach, even in the Ivy League. Year after year, the very best teams in America line up on game day, apply relentless pressure, and fearlessly make you beat them with your best. One of TD's favorite cliches was "live to fight another day," and so he kept plugging along through 20 seasons, receipting for 74 losses and 8 ties, scoring lots of points and giving up a lot and never creating a consistent national impression. He was never good enough for the hardcore. Not surprisingly, the dreaded "soft" label originated with his teams. Ultimately, KD will have to lose that soft image, and he's going to have to better that .665 winning percentage.
Big Bob once said that at UCLA he finally had some bullets in his gun. Thank goodness he left in time for his successor to put them to good use. Is it unfair to say that KD has more bullets to fire this year than Carroll had in his first year? I don't think so. Except for the offensive line, which doesn't appear either overly talented or deep, KD has all kinds of ammunition. Only the most abused Bruin fans could worry about the ball carriers and pass receivers. If anyone has three better backs than Manny, Mo and Tyler I'd like to see them. And how about a fab five composed of Bragg, Marc, Junior, Ryan Smith and Idris (who looks like the second coming of Jim McElroy). Certainly SC, with Mike Williams, Colbert and Steve Smith (who looks like the second coming of Lynn Swann!) can match the Bruins top three... but four and five?
About the quarterbacks: Call me crazy, but I've finally quit worrying. Once Drew Olson let it be known he was a stand-up kid, ready to play even if he had to back up, I finally exhaled. It may be true that offensive lines need depth because of the frequency of injuries there, but to go into a season with only one reliable quarterback is the most nerve wracking prospect of all. Matt Moore looks better, his throws and reads look stronger with each passing day, to the point where the obvious comparison with Tommy Maddox begins to look more and more credible. Olson didn't so much lose the battle to start as Moore just seized the job as his own. Olson is also improving apace, and may be the best backup quarterback in the conference.
My hopes for the offensive line being okay are based mostly on the belief that they've been scrimmaging against one of the better defensive fronts in the nation (not the first to note this). Boschetti looks every bit as effective as Leisle, and if Mat Ball can hold off the likes of Asi, I have to think he's going to make an effective pair with his higher profile brother. And the way the schemes alternate with quick defensive ends coming up the gut can only make for more sleepless nights for the opposition. The linebacking trio of Havner, Chiller and London is an obvious strength (Havner, in particular, has extraordinary instincts).
Defensive backs, everywhere, are generally overmatched, born to be toasted. With the exception of people like Matt Ware, they're usually giving up size, speed, and skills to the opposition's receivers, which might explain their notoriously bad attitudes (except for sociopaths like Jack Tatum, you can hardly blame them). Every defensive backfield can be burned, can cost their team victory, even Oklahoma's. The really startling upsets are seldom accomplished on the ground. Defensive back has to be the most unrewarding position on the football field. But the new zone schemes the Bruins have installed look different from what we're used to seeing. They seem to bracket receivers downfield more closely, and, together with the linebackers, they seem to be causing more havoc in the shallow zones. We all agree that quarterback and the offensive line are the chief concerns, but we seem pretty sanguine in regard to the secondary, particularly since it looks as if the defensive front will finally be able to apply consistent pressure. My hope is that this team can't be beaten on the ground, not even by Oklahoma, and certainly not by SC. The defensive backfield looks aggressive and tight as a unit. They have talent and some depth. I think the big games are going to be riding on these guys.
Try as I might, I can't even work up any anxiety over the kicking game and special teams. It's obvious Dorrell's staff takes special teams very seriously. They spend so much time on the kicking game, I once wandered over to the Cooperage, ordered a burger, onion rings and a drink, ate it there, returned to the practice field, and there was Bieniemy still shouting his lungs out, still working the kickoff team. We all know Chris Kluwe has an ungodly strong leg, probably the stongest since Kirk Wilson back in the fifties (49 yard average!), but he has been known to shank a few. Our BRO poster "DejaBlue" had to shinny up a tree, behind the bleachers the other day, trying to retrieve one of his mighty shanks. But those sixty yarders are starting to come more consistently. He's also 6-5, with some hops, which may come in handy breaking in a new long snapper. Justin Medlock has just as strong a leg as Nate Fikse, his kickoffs consistently reach the endzone, and his field goal accuracy has improved since the spring. This guy is so intense, he works so hard, you worry he might develop a tired leg. He's got a great opportunity to lock down place kicking for the next four years. Punt returns, of course, are in the steady hands of Craig Bragg, who should be the best in the conference again. I don't know who's going to return kickoffs, probably Matt Clark and Akil Harris, but I do know Maurice Drew looks incredible at finding seams, and I'm sure if they wanted to risk Ebell, he could find some too.
...Which, I guess, brings me to the schedule, to the upcoming season we're all so anxious to kick off. I'm not a big fan of "gurus," betting touts or "pigskin professors" on the order of Bob Oates (is he still alive and sentient?), or S.I.'s "Dr. Z." (do they still feature him?), who, not satisfied with picking a winner and telling us why, used to bore us with their detailed narratives of how Super Bowls (and such) would unfold, drive by drive, quarter by quarter. Talk about hubris! My eyes also glaze over whenever I hear the expression "breaking it down." That being said, we all have opinions and intuitions (gut feelings) about "our" teams. Very general stuff. Very speculative. I'm always curious about that sort of thing. Hope you are too.
My feeling is that the Colorado game is overwhelmingly important, and not just because it will introduce us to reality and the new regime. The problem, for me, is that it's a road game. If this game was at the Rose Bowl, I'd hop on my Yamaha, ride it up to my spot 50 yards from Brandon Huffman's tailgate, say hello to the BROs, have a snack, then find my seat in the stands with only the slightest feeling of butterflies. Good teams win at home, and I'll be surprised if the Bruins are not a good team this year. I don't think many of us believe Colorado has superior personnel. But things like officiating, the effect of the crowd on twenty year olds when momentum seems to be going against them, these sort of things worry me. They can get in the way of what might ordinarily be an easier game. Boulder is not San Diego. And Gary Barnett, though no "genius," is no chump either. This game could set the table for the Oklahoma game, which could be one of the most important inter-sectionals the Bruins have ever played. Our message board denizen MBA has lectured me on the talents of Jon Beutjer, but it's still Illinois, at home, possibly coming off a nice road win, and no Donahue or Toledo to worry about blowing the game by running predictable, vanilla schemes. In other words, my dream scenario for '03 is to go into Norman 2-0, turn the talent loose, and see how they measure up to the best program in America (I'm not a big Miami fan).
San Diego St., Cal and Oregon (unless they've found a new Joey Harrington) should be easier games than Washington and Arizona St., primarily because they lack a Cody Pickett, Reggie Williams or Andrew Walter. However, if the Bruins become a very good team they should sweep their home schedule, even despite the quality passing games of Washington and Arizona St.
...That leaves the road games. Arizona and Stanford are not, let us say, scary. Washington St. returns only five offensive starters, none of them named Gesser, and I don't look for them to be a defensive juggernaut, so this could be a likely win. What am I trying to say here? Just this: A win vs. Colorado is the prerequisite for a successful season and a better shot at the two apparently strongest teams on the schedule, Oklahoma and SC. Today, I have no idea what may happen in those two games, but take care of business in the other games and who knows how strong the Sooners and Trojans really are. Just like the Bruins, their true strength remains to be seen.
At this point I can't help but be reminded of the tagline for the poster, Regul8in (?): "Don't believe everything you think." But isn't it always instructional to look back and see how reality kicked us in the teeth?