The Blues took away quite a bit to be optimistic about, while the Cranks thought it was a wholly unsatisfying victory.
Most rational UCLA fans probably are evenly split themselves. The 2-2 season and all of the questions and "issues" that have arisen from it have made most mainstream UCLA fans schizophrenic. Their Blue personality will surface and it will say, "The offense showed in the second half it's turned the corner." Then the ugly Crank head will rear and spout off with, "The vanilla offense is limited and will never allow this team to win consistently."
So, for UCLA schizos, which voice do you believe?
The schizophrenia does seem to be widdled down to the topic of the offense. There are "issues" every week, as Head Coach Karl Dorrell likes to call them. This week the team recycled the old issue of penalties (hey, we should all recycle). But all in all, the battle lines seem to be drawn predominantly over the UCLA offense.
The Blue Perspective:
The offense improved. It gained 323 yards, the first time it's gone over 300 yards yet this season. It's an indication of continued improvement, having gained in the low 200s the first two weeks and then 271 against Oklahoma. So, it could very well be the case that Dorrell and the players keep emphasizing: They're getting better and it's just a matter of time until the players gel (the most over-used word in sports; it's the sports equivalent of "cute") and the offense is hitting on all cylinders (another good cliché). When the light went on (man, I'm on a sports cliché roll now) for Drew Olson in the second half, he went 7 for 10 for 136 yards and two touchdowns and had his career best day, totaling 258 yards total for the game in passing.
The playbook was expanded. You saw things you hadn't seen in the first three games. The fullbacks went in motion. There was a reverse to Junior Taylor. The ball was thrown downfield more.
The Crank Perspective:
Any signs of life you saw were against a vastly inferior team in San Diego State, so you have to take it all with a grain of salt.
The offense is too conservative and thus won't succeed in the college football environment. Not only are the plays vanilla, the play-calling is really the conservative culprit. Even if UCLA stuck with this limited playbook, the play-calling could be more imaginative and dynamic. The play-calling is conservative overall, but gets horribly conservative at times when it should be more aggressive.
The back-breaker in this game for those who were holding out hope that the offense would be unleashed was in the fourth quarter. The offense had sputtered for most of the game, held back, to be fair, quite often by penalties. Drew Olson then threw a pretty bomb to Craig Bragg for a gain of 54 yards that brought the ball to the San Diego State 19. At this point, many UCLA fans were excited, saying to themselves, "Ha! This is it! The offense has finally gotten unleashed! Now, while San Diego State is reeling, be aggressive. Throw into the endzone and knock ‘em out. It will bring the score to 27-3 and give us the hint of the feeling that UCLA should have against San Diego State. It will put faith in our coaching staff that they were just waiting for the corner-to-be turned in the players' execution to then start calling some aggressive plays!"
At the SDSU 19-yard line, UCLA then ran on first down. Disappointing, but Maurice Drew actually gained six yards. A missed opportunity to be aggressive, but heck, Drew gained six yards. So, on 2nd-and-four, a perfect opportunity to then throw into the end zone, UCLA runs again with Drew for no gain. This is all, mind you, against a SDSU stacked box. So, now on third-and-four, with SDSU's blitzers keying on the pass, UCLA then brings Olson back in a conventional drop. He's sacked, fumbles and SDSU recovers.
Many UCLA fans that I spoke with over the weekend dropped off the offensive bandwagon with this series. If they would have throw into the endzone in this instance, and even had the pass intercepted, many still would have been riding the bandwagon. But, starting from the Aztec 19, and doing the run-twice-throw-on-third conservative routine spoiled the beauty of the 54-yard Olson-to-Bragg hook up. It was one of the most deflating moments of the first four games, especially for the fans who were trying to have faith in the explanations they were hearing from the coaches and players ("we're conservative in situations where we're backed up in our own territory.").
So, in considering both perspectives, the Blue voice and the Crank voice, where should we stand?
It's probably, alas, somewhere in between. It's not hard to concede that the offense looked better against SDSU. But it's also not hard to recognize that the play-calling remains highly conservative. That same claim, that the play-calling is conservative only when the offense is backed up in their own side of the field, isn't true. There were a number of times in this game when UCLA had the ball with either good field position, or certainly not horrible field position, and it called very conservative plays on first and second down. Of course, it matters what you consider "horrible" field position. If starting on your own 20-yard line or near it is considered "horrible" then it looks like there isn't much hope for UCLA to break out of its conservative play-calling. But even so, conceding that your own 20-yard line is starting field position that would dictate a conservative approach, UCLA has gone conservative when it had better field position, and at moments in games when it could be aggressively looking for the kill. Take the second half of the SDSU game. If you throw out the last 3 minutes or so when UCLA was trying to merely run out the clock, UCLA had 10 first downs to work with in the half. The worst field position for all of those first downs was UCLA's 27-yard-line. If running the ball on first down, and/or running the ball on second-and-long is our criteria for conservative play-calling, UCLA did it on seven out of ten opportunities in the second half. On the three it didn't: one was a first-down touchdown pass to Junior Taylor for 41-yards; one was the 54-yard completion to Bragg; and the third was in the series in the third quarter when Olson fumbled – but it was after UCLA was caught for holding and it found itself in a second-and-20. That fumble didn't result in any points for SDSU. So, in the three times UCLA defied its conservative play-calling it got two pass plays for 105 yards and one touchdown. Also, there was one more "series" when UCLA started at the SDSU 23-yard line after C.J. Niusulu's interception where conservative play-calling almost hurt UCLA again. After a SDSU penalty, UCLA had a first down at the 13. On first down, UCLA attempted to throw, but it was incomplete. On second down and ten from the 13, UCLA ran the ball with Drew for 2 yards. Now, on the 11-yard line, UCLA finds itself with a third-and-eight. Luckily, Olson executed and found Ryan Smith in the endzone for the touchdown.
What this illustrates truly is that, in so many situations when UCLA isn't in bad field position, on first and second down it mostly opts for the conservative play call. When it has called aggressive plays on first and second downs it's been very successful, not only in this game but in the previous three also.
So, this raises questions: Is it just a matter that the coaches don't have confidence in their offensive players yet? That doesn't seem completely reasonable since the players have generally executed plays that were called at unpredictable down-and-distance well, while generally only have failed to execute plays when they were in obvious down-and-distance calls, like third-and-longs. So, is it really a matter that the coaches are just very conservative play callers?
If so, the Crankishness starts to seep into some projections for the season. The playbook is pretty vanilla. If the play-calling isn't going to be aggressive and unpredictable, the plays themselves don't offer too much in the way of creativity. Won't Pac-10 defensive coordinators have this straight-ahead, no-frills offense sussed out pretty easily? It would seem likely given, also, the stubbornness of the playcalling, continually trying to run into a stacked box.
So, what can we hope for in trying to beat down our Crankishness?
A few things:
We can hope that the talent on the offense to a great extent overcomes the limited playbook and playcalling. Despite the conservativism in the offense, you get some sense that Craig Bragg, Junior Taylor, Marcedes Lewis, Manuel White and Maurice Drew will make plays, that there is too much talent for the conservative approach to keep down.
We can hope for more play-making capability at the quarterback position. Drew Olson looked unproductive at Oklahoma, but looked like he was beginning to feel more comfortable and knowledgeable against San Diego State. He doesn't have a great natural feel for avoiding the rush, but it's something that can definitely be learned, and he's showing signs he's picking it up. Against SDSU, he made some plays, such as stepping up through the pocket to hit Taylor for the touchdown. And then Matt Moore will return. He does have a better natural ability for making plays than Olson. While attaching all of your Bluish hopes to Moore's return, as many UCLA fans have, is probably putting too much emphasis on it, he does provide UCLA's offense more potential for play-making.
There is also the hope that the UCLA coaches, with the players executing better and the play-making capabilities of the skill positions bubbling over, will expand the repertoire of plays. After the USC/California game, the USC defensive players kept reiterating how the creative Cal offense kept them so off-balance that they never knew what was coming next. In college football today, it's becoming pretty well-accepted that the most productive offenses are those that use unpredictability and diversity. We can hope that, as the coaches get more confident in their players, that they use the offense we've seen so far as their base playbook and continue to install new wrinkles every week, like they did to an extent this week. And even beyond the actual plays themselves, we can hope that if the coaches get more confidence in their players, they'll be more aggressive in their play-calling, and give their players more chances to succeed.