For years we've been watching UCLA teams lose to teams with inferior talent. We've been watching teams under-achieve, make crucial mistakes, and operate an uninspired offense.
So, it's difficult coming off years of this type of frustration to then watch Saturday's game against Colorado in Karl Dorrell's debut and not want to completely rant. It would be easy, with those years of frustration and the new-hire optimism making our fuses very short.
But Karl Dorrell and his new coaching staff deserve to have their honeymoon period sustained a while. It's not time to claim the sky is falling.
It was, though, an excruciating game to watch. The bone-headed mistakes, the killer penalties, the seeming lack of organization from the sideline – the general undisciplined feel of the team was tough to bear.
I don't think in recent memory there was a UCLA game where there were more what you would generally throw under the heading of "mistakes." Both the players and the coaches have to take some of the blame for it. For two stints, one in the first quarter and one in the third, it felt like UCLA couldn't go two plays without committing a crucial error. They came in all varieties -- mistakes in penalties, coaching decisions, execution, and performance.
But instead of detailing out each error and belaboring them, the game and the mistakes themselves brought up some bigger issues and concerns about the team overall.
-- The biggest question that needs to be answered: Were these just first-game jitters – for the players and the coaches? You'd have to think it mostly was. Because if not, and this team doesn't settle down and the season consists of the type of mistakes we saw in this game, it's going to be unwatchable. The amount of penalties due to mental player mistakes – and particularly those at crucial moments – were incredibly disheartening. Some of the delay of game penalties, though, looked to be a result of bad preparation from the sideline also. There were a couple of time-outs taken because of a lack of the proper personnel in the game or inability to get the play relayed in time to the quarterback.
In UCLA's first handful of possessions, the offense was finding that playing against itself and its own mistakes was tougher than Colorado's defense. UCLA had great field position, starting almost every first-half series in Colorado's side of the field or close. On UCLA's first series, there was Junior Taylor's drop of a touchdown pass, and on the next play, an illegal shift that negated a first down on a throw from Matt Moore to Tyler Ebell. On UCLA's next possession, there was a delay of game and then Maurice Drew's fumble. On its fourth possession, Olson completed a pass to Marcedes Lewis for a first down at the Colorado ten, but it was called back because of a hold, followed by a timeout because of improper personnel on the field.
It's pretty easy to rationalize the mistakes of the players as first-game jitters. But for the coaches -- what is it? Was it all a matter of Dorrell's inexperience on the sideline? While we know how he is a guy who works hard and emphasizes preparation, it could very simply be that, no matter how much you prepare, you can't be fully prepared for something you haven't done before. He's never been a head coach, and you'd have to believe there will be a learning curve for Dorrell about how to manage a game. Hopefully the Colorado game was most of the learning curve.
-- Decision-making. There were huge moments in this game when decisions were seemingly blundered. It was highlighted by Maurice Drew, a true freshman, who had already showed a good case of the jitters in fumbling a hand-off from scrimmage, being tapped to handle the kick-off return with two minutes left in the game.
-- Play-calling. Ah, our old friend. There seems to be a few really obvious questions. How do you expect the running game to be effective with such a limited variety of running plays? There wasn't one pitch or sweep the entire game – just Tyler Ebell running tackle to tackle. And if that's your preference for a running game – how can you keep calling Ebell's number, who is a far better runner around the corner and who tends to go down pretty easily after one hit, when you have 6-2, 240-lb. Manuel White available? How could Manuel White, who could be among the top three offensive weapons on the team, not touch the ball the entire game?
It also seems like the offense doesn't have a lot of opportunities to exploit its #1 playmaker, wide receiver Craig Bragg. During the three weeks of fall practice, Bragg looked good in the one-on-one drills, but didn't have the opportunities in the scrimmages to truly make plays. In the Colorado game, it seemed similar. He seems relegated to out patterns and then post patterns. Bragg is best when given the opportunity to create – receiver screens, end-arounds, etc., where he has the ball, some blockers and is looking up field.
And on the defensive side of the ball, there were at least three incredibly crucial third downs where, then, UCLA's cornerbacks provided a big enough cushion for Colorado's receivers to run routes that pretty easily got them enough yardage for the first down. In the second quarter, on a third-and-three, Matt Clark was giving up a 7-yard cushion. In the 4th quarter, while leading 14-10 and Colorado trying to mount a drive to win the game, there was a huge third-and-eight where UCLA's DBs were playing, well, a good eight yards off the line of scrimmage, and Colorado got the first down.
Again, these are just a few instances that bring up questions. It's almost not healthy to bring up all of them.
There were some positives in the game. UCLA's defense looked very good, only allowing two scoring drives the entire game. The defense definitely looked more vulnerable when the first-stringers were getting a breather, with Colorado's two drives coming mostly against UCLA's second-team defensive line. But generally the defense looked strong. Rodney Leisle and Dave Ball had exceptional games, as did linebacker Brandon Chillar. Nnamdi Ohaeri also had a couple of good moments when he was in at nickel back and on special teams.
On offense, easily the biggest positive note was the play of Marcedes Lewis. He appears to be nearly unguardable when in the defensive backfield. With Matt Moore out, Drew Olson played well, making a couple of big throws, and running for a couple of first downs (Question, though: On one third-down scramble, did he not realize that he had to run for the yard marker? Only with a very generous spot by the officials did he get the first down). He only made a couple of bad decisions, and looked completely in command. Bragg seemed to have a couple of steps on his defensive backs the entire game; if Moore and Olson hit him on a couple of posts where he had steps on the coverage, it's a different game.
It's truly disappointing for UCLA fans that have been waiting for nine months since Karl Dorrell's hiring to then get the problem-plagued Colorado game as their reward. Overall, though, it seems like most UCLA fans want to do the judicious thing and give Dorrell time to grow into the head coaching role. The problem is, though, Dorrell might be hurt by the talent he has on his own team. With so much talent, there are some deserved expectations. If Dorrell had come into a situation where the cupboard was scarce, new-coach jitters and growing pains would be far more easily dismissed. But with this amount of talent, where it's obvious that UCLA is better than a team like Colorado, Dorrell is out there and vulnerable.
Many are going to be prematurely questioning the hire of Dorrell, and questioning whether he's worthy of the head coaching position. Well, coaches and players always insist that the biggest improvement is seen between the first and second games of the season. Since Dorrell is known as a guy who works hard, is precise and prepares, you'd think (and hope) that he himself would have perhaps the biggest learning jump on the team between the first and second games. Against Illinois next Saturday, at the Rose Bowl in front of UCLA fans who are generally trying to be patient given how much under-achieving they've had to witness in recent years, Dorrell has a great opportunity to quiet all of the quick critics.