Football is a continuum, game to game, year to year. Fans like us live in the present, believe we can see the future, then - even the most knowledgeable - get brought up short, sometimes happily, but... not lately. For myself, all I believe is what I see between the lines each Saturday, and what I've seen so far is disappointing. UCLA, right now, is a team without an effective quarterback, and what appears to be an extremely conservative coaching approach, which is something Bruin fans have become very sensitive to, at least since Cade McNown left. It seems to some a recipe for mediocrity. The first quarter of the season has not been encouraging, and only that one "W" is anything to be thankful for.
The Problems, So Far
Obviously they start with the offense, but are by no means limited just to that. No doubt Matt Moore will make some difference when he returns. But how much of a difference? Anyone who assumes anything, this year, is making a huge leap of faith ("Fool me once, shame on you..." and so on). Karl Dorrell shows no sign of changing his system, or even making significant adjustments. He seems determined to will this thing into working. Being a Bruin fan, I sincerely hope he succeeds. Perhaps he knows something we don't know, sees things we we've missed. As usual, time will tell.
Ryan Smith had the quote of the week after the Oklahoma game: "This isn't what the Broncos do, that's for sure." Of course you can't make any offense work if the quarterbacking is ineffective, and right now that's the case. Think of all the high profile football programs over the years that have failed - by their own standards - and the majority of them have failed because the quarterback couldn't kick the offense into gear. Maybe Drew Olson will begin getting the ball off, accurately, and on time, to the right receivers. But it's something we've yet to see. At least he won't be facing the Stoops' family defense this week. But he will be facing another stacked box with as much pressure as the Aztecs can muster. Perhaps Manny, Mo and Tyler will be able to crack their front and lessen the pressure. Dorrell - off these first three games - seems to believe that "execution" needs little in the way of deception and misdirection in order to work. Ever since I first laid eyes on those blue and orange atrocities, I haven't followed the Broncos much, but I suspect Ryan Smith is right. And even if he's not, these young guys are not pros whom you can work out for as long as you need to in order to make the damn thing work. I wish KD's model was closer to Miami or Oklahoma, but that‘s just me. How much could a little deception hurt?
I hate to say it, but the defense has some chinks in its armor, too. Brent Musberger started out the Sooners telecast saying something like, "The UCLA defense is just like the Tampa Bay Bucs." Uh... no it's not Brent. They may line up like the Bucs, but it doesn't work like the Bucs, mainly because the Bruins don't have anything like the Bucs' talent to make it work, which, of course, is understandable. We all seem to think the Bruin D is a huge strength. And it is good, but not, I think, as good as we're assuming. Just as the offense invites pressure due to its structure, predictability and talent, so the defense can't really apply pressure consistently for the same reasons. And pressure, it seems to me, is the most important element in football. Call this defense whatever current jargon you wish, it's basically designed to stop the run and is very vulnerable to the pass. Whenever I see them in that 4-5-2 alignment on a passing down my stomach immediately tightens. Because it provides for an inadequate four man pass rush, which, only occasionally, morphs into a not very intimidating five-or-six-man rush. And because the calculus of the college passing game works more to the benefit of the offense (since the receivers are even a bigger mismatch vs. the DBs than in the pros), pressure on the secondary usually wins the day. In other words, it's better to go after the passer than fall back in coverage. College DBs will inevitably get toasted if the quarterback has time to throw. And the Bruin secondary, as we've seen, is not notably quick in coverage. Like everybody else on this team, their assignments within the structure of the whole appears to make them play conservatively, which flies in the face of what we‘ve been hearing from the players, i.e., that they're free to turn loose their talents. Renaldo Works' first quarter touchdown for Oklahoma is a good example. Instead of forcing the play, Matt Ware seemed more concerned to contain, and Works cut right between him and Jarrad Page. Maybe the coaches would say he didn't "execute" his assignment properly, but that's not what it looked like. It looked as if he was thinking more "assignment" than busting up the play. System trumps instinct.
Some Blues, I've noticed, have been taking comfort in stats. Numero Uno only put up 354 yards total offense on the Bruins. It's cold comfort, BROs. What did you think? The Sooners were going to go three and out all three of those possessions Antonio Perkins cancelled by taking those punts to the house (all the while touching up the Bruins' image as Southern California chumps)? And what is Chris Kluwe supposed to do? Start sacrificing 50 yard punts because the punt coverage can't do its job? Directional punting my ass. Check some of the numbers on the backs of the punt return team on your video tape. You notice a lot of speed and athleticism out there? You think some personnel changes might be in order?
Everything we've come to know about KD says structure, order, discipline, calm. It's a more abstract, intellectual approach to a game that rewards a more instinctive, aggressive approach. KD seems more "gentleman" than "bully." But the consistent national powers today are all bullies who love to play balls-to-the-wall football and go for the jugular every chance they get. And they smell passiveness like a shark smells blood. Football isn't chess, and it isn't bridge. It's chancier, messier, more like a kind of toy war. It rewards heat and penalizes cool.
Is There Hope?
There's always hope. Even, I would assume, in the heart's of the most radical cranks. None of us knows what's going on in KD's head right now. We always talk about "the light going on" with players. Why not with coaches? Particularly young, ambitious ones who've just landed their "dream job." Maybe he'll gradually become less stiff, less wedded to systems. Maybe someone on his staff will help loosen him up. (There's a great Tavernier film, "A Sunday in the Country," wherein this old, academic painter, left behind by Impressionism, finally opens his windows and begins painting differently.) Hey, maybe he'll even make this offense work the way he conceived it to work. In any case, he'll have to win because there's already an unfriendly critical mass developing, which may or may not be fair at this point. Even he admitted, "Obviously I'm not getting it done yet." It's his best quote to date. Radical cranks never liked the hire, and ordinary cranks have begun to desert. And with each passing defeat, or "moral defeat," his Blue constituency grows thinner. But all Bruin fans, save the most obdurate, are capable of getting back on the bus if this thing begins to turn around. Attendance, the rest of the year, will be a huge indicator, almost a kind of referendum on the state of Bruin football. You'd have to think that the Colorado loss cost something around ten thousand for the Illinois game, and the Oklahoma loss might cost another five to ten thousand for San Diego St. You can be sure Dan Guerrero is fully aware of these "business" aspects.
So how do the rest of us cope? We might start by recognizing that it's futile trying to discourage public criticism. College football really is akin to religion, love, sex, war. Reason is never much of a factor. We go for what we know. Not even the players, who "don't get paid" (if you want to ignore a free, first class education) are exempt from criticism, so why should we expect coaches to avoid the sh!t storm when things go bad? Howling at the-powers-that-be is as American as apple pie.
Personally I'm still engaged. I'm trying to look at this as drama, a thriller where the hero finds himself in hot water and spends the rest of the story trying to get out of it. I want to see what happens next. I want to see how many yards Manny gains, how Mo Drew busts out. I want to see if "Mighty Mouse" can shake off his indifferent start to answer his critics. I'm anxious to see Craig Bragg, Marcedes Lewis, and Junior Taylor begin to start catching and running. I want to see if Olson can become some kind of passing threat before Matt Moore returns. Will the defense, especially the secondary, bounce back and make some adjustments after that unimpressive showing in Norman? Certainly the defensive front is fun to watch. Last but not least, I hope "Baba Flay" isn't so pissed off that he puts away his magic smoker for the season and goes fly fishing, and I have to go back to eating "Subways" on Rose Bowl Saturdays.