Like I said, the difference between 3-2 and still in the hunt at 1-0 in the Pac, versus 2-3 and 0-1 in the Pac, having lost the chance to go up a full game on USC in the conference standings after both teams have played one game, is like the difference between a UCLA and a USC education in the ‘80s.
But forget the standings and the comparisons to other programs and all that stuff for just a little while.
The 39-0 second half tsunami UCLA used to wipe out UDub 46-16 just deserves to be savored for a little while. Maybe a whole week of reflection with no prognostication is in order.
Here are my reflections on the game:
- Turning Point #1: There were four pivotal plays in the game. The first was a Craig Bragg special. His completely horizontal lay-out snag of a 41-yard rope from Drew Olson came when UCLA was down 13-0 and was being completely outplayed on both sides of the ball. The throw was a little inside, but Bragg made a great in-flight adjustment and flat-out hauled it in in true Sunday fashion. If the throw is to the 5-yard line and on the hash, it's a TD. But the throw was to the center of the field on the 10. CBra displayed all the concentration, dedication and skill practice-goers have been raving about for a couple of seasons now. His catch put the ball on the 10, and breathed life into a moribund UCLA O at that time. The catch was set-up by a 10-yard run for a 1st down by Tyler Ebell, followed by a 6-yard run on 1st down by Manuel White. Steve Axman took advantage of back-to-back positive running plays to go up top, and Drew Olson, the pass protection and CBra came through in heroic fashion. Without this catch and the TD it set up, UCLA is out of this game by half-time.
- Turning Point #2: Sure enough, a seemingly innocuous (at the time) special teams play turns out to be pivotal, courtesy of Roc (Head) Alexander. His decision to run the second half kick-off out of the end zone, after hesitating a moment, ended up pinning UDub down on their 7, thanks to excellent hustle by the Eric Bieniemy-motivated kick-off coverage team in general and tackler Eric McNeal in particular. Maybe RocHead was smelling blood and going for the jugular after UDub used 9 plays and 1:10 to go 82 yards for a momentum-crushing FG as time expired in the first half to take a 16-7 lead. That FG put UDub up by two scores, meaning, if the Bruins were the Dodgers, ball game over. Maybe RocHead was feeling arrogant and wanted to do to UCLA what Antonio Perkins was able to pull off. Whatever his rationale, his blunderifious decision injected a glimmer of hope into UCLA's spirit and set the stage for…
- Turning Point #3: Now, if Roc was feeling himself a little, imagine the hubris just oozing out of Keith Gilbertson when he chose a play that called for Cody Pickett to go for the home run, using a pump-fake and a sorta half-roll to the right in the shadow of your own goal post. If there's a play call that screams, "You guys are beat and don't have the heart to mount a pass rush anymore, so we're gonna put one in the record book," this was the play. That's your cue, Dave Ball. Enter, stage right. But lose the cape. The helmet and blue skin-tight jersey are action-hero enough for the average football joe. Dave guessed right when he blew to the inside of Khalif Barnes, untouched, and then leveled Cody ("Again with the Cody!") just as Pickett was bringing the ball up. What I don't understand is why Cody didn't hear footsteps? Is Dave that light on his feet? Rodney Leisle was pure class by pointing out that Dave Ball made the play with the fumble-causing sack, but Rod deserves credit by being in the right place at the right time. If not Hot Rod, then Spencer Havner would have covered the pig.
- The Drive: Down 16-14, UCLA gets the ball on its own 9 yard line, pinned back by a holding penalty on a punt return. (Sound familiar?) Up to this point, UCLA has had two 70+ yard TD drives in 4.5 games…and one occurred in the 2nd quarter. Another point that made this drive look not real promising: How often have we seen teams struggle to overcome a big deficit and fall short or apart because they expend too much energy in the process?
However, UCLA had just had a good defensive stop, aided by a fumble by Zach Tuiasosopo, who was so-so on the day, not to mention a near-INT by Justin London. (In fact, I nominate Zach for the "12th Bruin" Award: an almost-recovered fumble, a dropped 3rd down pass, and a bobble-to-INT. Couldn't have done it without, Zach! Thanks, Manu!)
And matters get much, much better when UDub is called for being in the neutral zone on 1st down, to make it 1st and 5 for UCLA. Talk about a gift! UCLA can now run or pass, and are probably assured of getting at least one first down, which means the D is looking at sustaining an effort for about 6 more plays minimum.
The Bruins oblige, running the ball on 3 straight head-cracking plays to get a first down and set up 3rd and 5 on the 27. From the shotgun, the DO drills an 8-yard out to CBra for the 1st down, assist to Maurice Drew for picking up an A gap blitz.
On 1st down, UDub again blitzes, MoD nails the LBer in the knee again, and buys the DO just enough time for him to fall-away a change-up to CBra on the out. This play was the "BRO Timing Pattern of the Game," brought to you by Rolex. The ball arrived just as CBra made his break, and Craig's reflexes were unreal. He had zero time to locate the ball, especially given its unexpected trajectory and velocity, yet somehow he did.
Another 1st down run lands another hook to the body, even though the gain (after a bad spot) was a paltry yard.
At this point, the UDub D is sensing that the UCLA O is slowly taking control of the game. The panic is setting in: "We need a big play to get off the field. What's coming next? Ebell outside? Pass to Bragg? TE drag? Yellow flag?"
UCLA obliges with a great call: Flow left, waggle right, Manny holds his block on Manase Hopoi until the last possible second, then the DO flips him the ball with nothing but green space ahead.
Watching DT #59 Jerome Stevens waddle after the Manster was an indication that the UDub D was getting tired (chalk up another one for Doc Kreis). 15 yards later, a devastating ear-hole by Marcedes Lewis on ILB Tim Galloway, and the Manster laying the wood on SS Evan Benjamin (BONG!), UCLA is on the UDub 37, 1st down.
Watching the tape, no one is real excited about having to tackle Manny on this play: "You tackle him." "No, you get him." "Look, Marc is taking my head off…you'll have to get him." "Damn, okay…(BONG!)"
On 1st down, UCLA decides to throw again. OLB Greg Carothers blitzes from UCLA's left side, and is off-side on the play, but it is not called, he gets an edge on Steve Vieira and head butts him to the turf, continuing forward to wrap up Olson around the knees: 2nd and 14 on the 41 yard line, which is outside Justin Medlock's range. Nervous time.
But true to form, Phil Snow's D played with 7 in the box, and UCLA was able to get 3 yards on a fullback dive to the right side. Still, 3rd and 11 is not a comfortable place to be. Big Play Time: Who ya gonna call?
UW sends 6 rushers…one an ILB on a delayed blitz, who ended up right in the DO's grill as he released the ball, but was bumped aside at the last second by MoD (who is becoming a great pass blocker with his quick, powerful stature!).
The throw to CBra was perfect given that Roc Alexander was running stride for stride with CBra -- little behind and to the outside, but on target. Only Bragg could catch the ball, and he did, leaping, rotating 270 degrees, snagging the ball in his hands, and landing with one foot in. Great players make great plays, and the DO and CBra delivered a great play in a time of dire need. Money. 25 yards, 1st down on the UW 13.
However, the Bruins start to bog down. Manny only gets 2 up the middle, and a miscommunication between the DO and Tyler on a pass play (looks like Ebell didn't settle into an open space when he had the chance) sets up 3rd and 8. The Answer? The staple of the UCLA horizontal passing attack: Find the WR with single coverage and throw him the slant.
UW has 6 on the line (they're coming!), left TE Blane Kezirian runs an inside route to take the safety with him…leaving Ryan Smith all alone with only CB Derrick Johnson to beat to the inside. Rhino does, making a controlled catch of an almost-perfectly thrown ball (low, not too much mustard, although a little behind) and sliding down on the 1. Again, a clutch play at a critical time keeps the drive alive.
With UCLA fans in a near frenzy, delirious with joy at the team's clutch execution, the Manster delivers the goods by cracking the line, getting low, and using all his leverage to find paydirt. Is there anybody better around the goal line?
I got the sense that UW's D wanted to get off the field and lick their wounds. They didn't exactly swarm the ballcarrier on the TD run. Getting the crud kicked out of you does that to a D…chalk up another one for Doc Kreis, and the blunt force trauma offense of Karl Dorrell.
But to add insult to injury, UCLA goes for two. A great angle route from the DO to the Manster makes it look trivial. (Where's that route been in the playbook?) Not only can Manny run and block, but he's got great hands, too. And UCLA is much more creative in the green zone than they've been in recent memory.
14 plays, 81 yards, 5:30 off the clock. On the drive, the DO is 5 of 6 for 70 yards, and is 3 for 3 on 3rd down conversions. CBra has three big catches on the drive, and Steve Axman keeps UW just off-balance enough with his playcalling to keep Phil Snow from getting the big stop.
- Turning Point #4: Okay, I lied. Hot Rod Leisle's INT was another Turning Point. A team is most dangerous after it has lost its lead, and UW came out smoking -- curl to Frederick on the left for 14. Skinny post to Frederick on the right for 21. (Still going after Matt Clark's side.) Havner gets caught inside, London overruns the play, and Rich Alexis bursts for 27 yards to the right before being dragged down from behind by Ben Emanuel. Three huge plays in a row for UDub, UCLA's D is reeling, the O is thinking "Get ready to get the lead back…", can UW keep it up for a fourth consecutive play? No. A blast up the middle draws three Bruins to the ball, loss of 1.
Then Matt Ware made an incredibly smart football play: a pump fake from Pickett caught Ware leaning, but before Reggie Williams could blow by him and snag the TD pass, Matt locked him up. Yes, he drew a flag, but subtract that one from the penalty totals fans will gripe about because that foul saved a TD.
1st and goal from the 10. UW shows some mental weakness by committing a false start penalty, to make it 1st and goal from the 15. UW tries a draw (nice call, screen would have been better), and Rod Leisle makes the play by rushing so hard he drives OG Tusi Sa'au back into Alexis, tripping him up for no gain. Brute strength has its advantages. 2nd and goal from the 15. Tough spot to be in. Need a TD to get the lead back. Pressing?
UW comes out twins right to the TE side. Pickett sends TE Ben Bandel up the seam. Problem, though. Cover guy supreme Spencer Havner is there (I loved the move to SSLB the moment I noticed it in spring ball, and now more and more each game; what was Snow thinking last year?). Pickett can't zip the pass, he has to loft it, and overthrows it in the process. Cody is lucky it wasn't picked off by Ben Emanuel. Bandel is lucky that BE2 didn't take his head off. Ben couldn't seem to make up his mind on that play: Go for the ball or blow up the man. Psssst…blow up the man. Always.
3rd and goal from the 15. The collar is tightening on UW. So close, yet so far. A FG does nothing, because UCLA's O is rolling, and UCLA will net a 4-point gain with their next possession.
UCLA has a 3 DL/4 LB/4 DB line-up on the field, with Dennis Link replacing Ryan Boschetti and playing a shallow centerfield to prevent the slant by blowing up the WR who dares to go over the middle. Pickett takes a 5-step drop, pump fakes, hears footsteps (because the rush is nowhere near him), checks down to Zach So-So for a 2-yard gain max (Havner was all over him for a trivial gain), except Zach forgets to catch the ball. Hot Rod, stymied at the LOS by the three interior OL, sees the ball in the air and displays great athleticism to make a rumbling, tumbling, mind-numbling INT. While Hot Rod might be undersized for an NFL DT, his ability to run is a great off-set.
Cody gave up on the play almost immediately. He saw that Link had Bandel on the seam covered, and that UCLA doubling the outside WRs with CBs and Ss. Hence, the immediate check-down.
- The Aftermath: After UCLA repelled UW's attempt to answer, the floodgates opened. UCLA took 11 plays to go 66 yards to get 3 more points. Then, the play after the ensuing kick-off, Larry Kerr completely out-schemes Gilbertson and Pickett: Havner is sent on a blitz from the O's right side, so Pickett does what he's been taught to do, throw to the receiver left open by the blitzer (the TE, in this case). Unbeknownst to Pickett, Jarrad Page is lying in the weeds, makes a great break on the ball…and the rest is highlight reel.
Frankly, I much preferred Jarrad's Vegas Bowl celebration stylization to the UW special. Given how many flags UCLA had drawn at that point, JP was clearly intimidated by the ‘bras. 32-16 UCLA, ball game over.
And notice: even a senior All-American QB can be tricked, if superior players make superior plays when the opportunity arises.
- The Adjustment: The first 10 minutes of the 1st quarter were excruciating for UCLA fans as Pickett worked the short, outside routes to Reggie Williams with Matt Clark in coverage. But as has been much documented, with 5 minutes left in 1st quarter, Larry Kerr and Gary DeLoach made the "BRO Adjustment of the Game" (brought to you by the Cleveland Chiropractic Clinic). They put Matt Ware on Reggie Williams almost 100% of the time. With Williams neutralized in Pickett's mind, Cody continued to try to pick on Clark with Charles Frederick, which worked sometimes, but Frederick let UW down by failing to catch all the passes he got his hands on. Meanwhile, Phil Snow stubbornly stuck with 7 in the box as UCLA rolled up 180 yards rushing (134 yards net). No Adjustment for you, Husky Fan!
- The Replacement: The "Step Up Player of the Game" award (brought to you by Qual-Craft) goes to Robert Chai. The OL didn't skip a beat when Robert stepped in after Mike McCloskey fractured his ankle. His willingness to go on the Down Low and cut block opened up valuable inside running room for Manny White on a couple of key runs, and it created a pile that cut off pursuit from the backside on others. A successful team/a healthy program is able to overcome the adversity of injuries, and UCLA showed it could do that v. UW.
- The Drops: Last year, UDub dropped about 8 passes that, if caught, would surely have altered the outcome of the game. While the problem wasn't so pronounced this time, UCLA still benefitted mightily from the Huskies' lack of focus and discipline. Charles Frederick was the biggest culprit: ahead 13-0, he ran a fly pattern that Pickett delivered right on the money…only to see the Florida speedster completely stone-hand it. Later, after UCLA had tightened it up to 16-14, Pickett tried to hit Frederick on a slant on 2nd and 2. The ball was delivered right on the numbers, hit him in the hands, but Chuck turned his head just prior to arrival and it fell harmlessly to the ground. The drop led to a change of possession because on 3rd down, UCLA tightened up its CB cushion, Pickett tried to go deep to Frederick, but it was overthrown. Then, of course, there was Zach So-So's contribution…UCLA was not completely devoid of drops, the first two passes of the game looking catchable.
- The Plops: The bewildering array of picked-up flags had fans and each coaching staff begging for mercy. As Casey Stengel said, "Can't nobody here officiate this game?" Something like that. The refs were en fuego at one point, flagging 7 consecutive plays in a row. Regarding the holding calls, the UCLA coaches need to change the technique they're teaching. Time after time, replays show a UCLA player's hands on the outside of the opponent's shoulder pads clutching jersey. No brainer. OL diving at LB and grabbing his leg. No brainer. Regarding the face masks, it's a matter of defenders not moving their feet on D, and playing quick opponents. Re: the PIs -- this is a source of competitive disadvantage for UCLA. The word is out that UCLA's CBs are flag-friendly (while UCLA doesn't get the benefit of the same call). Until UCLA starts to consistently blow teams out, this will be an issue for UCLA.
- The Kick: Both Chris Kluwe and Justin Medlock had great games. Kluwe put three inside the 20, and the punt coverage team was excellent, with Ben Lorier in particular rocking a UW returner's world with a well-placed stick. Medlock is striking the ball with great accuracy, and looks completely composed every time he gets a chance to kick. Medlock, unlike many kickers, seems to have very little hook on his kick…and plenty of distance. I'm ready for Oregon right now, aren't you?
- The Fit: Once again, the Bruins showed very few signs of fatigue. No one left the field with cramps. Even though UW had 77 plays to UCLA's 65, UCLA seemed the fresher team, even when UW was running up and down the field on O. IMO, the single-most important determinant of UCLA's success in November will be its fitness level. Will UCLA be able to sustain this high-level of fitness as a team?
- The Commit(ted): The Bruin players still believe. They demonstrated faith in each other, in their coaches, and in the game plan. They didn't seem to ever panic, even when things looked bleak in the 1st half. It is easy to continue to believe in them as long as they continue to believe in each other.
- The DO: Drew Olson had, overall, another great game, especially in the 2nd half. The first half was a struggle: 0 for 5 on 3rd down, an INT on a badly overthrown seam route to the TE, a couple of sacks, and a 9-point deficit. But by game's end, the DO was 16 of 24 for 258 yards and a bevy of clutch plays. When given time, the DO is relaxing and delivering with accuracy, the most important attribute for a QB to have.
This was the most gratifying win in ages. Coming from behind to blow out a team 39-0 in the 2nd half is unusual for UCLA fans in recent years. UCLA teams of the past have been more likely to run up a 39-0 lead, and then limp home with a 16-7 finish. But one thing that has been hammered into this team from the first practice has been: "Finish!" You want to know how ingrained it is? Watch MoD tote the pig. When he gets tackled, notice how he tries to jump back up and keep running? It is now a habit for him not to head back to the huddle until he has sprinted to the goal line after every touch, a regimen Karl Dorrell installed in spring practice. It is hilarious to see MoD's practice habits carry over to the game. But that's exactly what the coaching staff wants: To play like you practice. To practice with the same intensity as you play. So when the UCLA O keeps firing out play after play, whether they're up by 30 or down by 35, they're just in The Zone the staff has put them in.