Stanford: At the Crossroads

There are some more qualified football minds that think UCLA fans are naive. But to most of us unsophisticated observers, the UCLA offense plainly isn't working. It has brought UCLA to a crossroads in Karl Dorrell's first year as head coach...

Criticism of this game's performance is close to being cruel. It's almost like bullies on the playground making fun of the handicapped kid.

So there's a real impulse to just circumvent it – steer right around it and don't partake.

But, it's the job of this site to write an analysis in the face of adversity. See, many UCLA fans think how great a job it would be to publish this site, but they have the luxury of being able to turn away when the car crash is ugly. We at the site have to look at the crash – and write about it.

So, for all of those masochistic UCLA fans that are actually turning on their computers and clicking on this site to read this, we'll have to write something. But let it be known that my strong impulse is to steer right around the crash and not look. So, I'm doing this for all of you.

There were a number of moments in this game that really captured what is wrong with the team this year, moments that really epitomized it. Among those moments, there was one, though, that some might not think was really the quintessential epitomizing moment, but in a very small way it was truly the emblem, the mascot for the problems plaguing this season.

In the second quarter, Luke Powell had just returned a punt for a touchdown, slicing through UCLA's punt return team without being touched, in a very typical return-team breakdown that has hurt UCLA this year. So, with UCLA trailing 14-7, with 2:22 left in the half, UCLA takes over from its own 29-yard line. The offense, for one of the few times this season, goes to a legit 2-minute drill type of offense, which is significant only because you noted how few times you've seen the 2-minute drill this year. UCLA, though, had already been sacked twice so far in the game, and Stanford's blitzing defense had been putting on constant pressure. So, couple that with the fact that Stanford realized UCLA was in a two-minute drill offense and would be passing, everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew that Stanford would be blitzing. Moore completes a couple of passes with short drops, which makes sense, then also scrambles for a good gain. They then have a first down at the Stanford 40. At the very least, you want to be able to get some points out of this, and at least get to about Stanford's 25-yard line for field goal range. But then, Moore, taking a snap from center (no shotgun), takes a conventional five-step drop and has absolutely no time to throw and is sacked. Okay, not a smart move. After Moore had been pressured out of the pocket for the scramble and Stanford wanted to push UCLA out of field-goal range, it was pretty easy to surmise that Stanford would really be looking to pressure the quarterback. But you can maybe understand UCLA attempting it, that one time. But what you can't understand is then what happened. UCLA calls time out to regroup. A good move at this point. You'd think, though, that maybe there was some self-realization that might have happened during the time out. But there was no discernable adjustment for what had proven to be formidable Stanford pressure. Perhaps it might have been smart to operate from the shotgun, or move the "launch point" of the quarterback, roll him out, or throw a screen or a quick swing pass to a back to counter the pressure. But on 2nd and 16, Moore takes another five-step, conventional drop, has no time to throw the ball and is sacked. You have to wonder: You take a time-out to regroup, analyze the situation fully – and then get sacked one more time? Again, there wasn't any kind of adjustment to get Moore away from the pressure to set up to throw. Now, this is mind-boggling enough. But one little aspect of the next play was the whopper. It's 3rd and 21. UCLA comes out in an I formation, with Moore taking the snap under center (again, no shotgun). And not only does he take a conventional, five-step drop, he does so off play action. Play action. Why would you run play action in this situation? Play action is to freeze the defense for a moment while you threaten to run, and then pass, but it takes a couple of more seconds to execute, which seems ridiculous given the fact that your quarterback was just sacked. And why would Stanford think – or care -- if you ran in this situation? Moore threw incomplete down the field to Taylor.

So, that's the small little clue to the mystery of this team that sums up the season. In this situation, why would a play be called with play action? It's a clue, but it's not an answer. It just epitomized, in that one sequence, in that one moment, what has been mind-boggling about the play-calling – and the team -- all year.

There really is nothing much else to talk about in this game but the offense. Yes, the team overall was flat. The punt return team was slack. The offensive line gave up eight sacks to a team that had only 11 for the season up until this game. Maurice Drew and Tyler Ebell were extremely poor pass blockers, emphasizing the impact of the loss of Manuel White. Matt Moore didn't play well.

Okay, we got the other negative points out of the way. But 99% of the point here is play-calling.

The play-calling should compensate for the fact that the offensive line is mediocre. It should compensate for the loss of White. The offense should compensate for the youth and inexperience of either Moore or Drew Olson.

During the game, the TV analyst, former UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey, laughed at the notion that fans were critical of the play-calling, strongly indicating that fans don't know football and they shouldn't presume to second-guess coaches. This type of condescension from Ramsey is the same that you hear from all coaches or ex-players, in any sport. Yeah, I'll concede that I'm among the "fans" that don't know more beyond high school football Xs and Os. But even if you concede that the stubbornness of the play-calling is because of some higher knowledge and awareness of offensive football that only coaches and ex-quarterbacks possess, how does it explain the seemingly obtuseness behind play action on 3rd-and-22? How does it explain calling for a pass on 3rd-and-nine in the Cal game in the fourth quarter from Cal's 29-yard-line when all that was needed was to run and set up a much-needed field goal?

How does it explain that UCLA's offense is ranked among the worst in Division 1 football?

Please, someone, explain this to us ignorant football masses.

You don't even have to explain why Moore wasn't used in a shotgun, why plays magically disappear from week to week, why there are so few roll-outs, short drops, and passes to the running backs, why there are only seemingly two running plays in the playbook, and why the offense, for most of the season was run-run-throw (or sack).

Just explain to us why anyone would choose to run play action on third-and-22.

And explain to us why UCLA's offense is among the worst in Division 1.

You have to give credit to UCLA's players. The defense has been superb. And all year any success the offense has had was due mostly to the talent of the players overcoming the offense. Their talent, effort and determination created opportunities for them to succeed, despite the fact that the offense didn't. But again, that's just me as an ignorant fan giving credit to the players. What do I know?

But while, as a fan, I watch UCLA's offense, it's not hard to see that it plainly isn't working. Now, a coach (or an ex-quarterback), who has that gift of awareness, might actually see indications that the offense has a chance to work, if there was improved personnel with more experience. He might also be stubborn and believe that it could work based on no indications, just that it's the girl he brought to the dance and he has to dance with her.

But just so everyone knows where the naive fans are on the subject: We don't think this offense can work in college ball. Now, let's throw in a little more information to support our ignorant fan stance. It has been said that the West Coast offense, or any derivatives thereof, can't succeed on the college level. The WCO requires too much precision, the degree of which only NFL veterans can provide. The theory is that a college program can never yield the experience in its players to execute it, or have the time to work with its players to even come close. Now, that's a theory from a few experienced coaches and ex-players that this ignorant fan has adopted as making sense.

But, then again, all this does is set up the UCLA coaches for looking like geniuses when, next year, this offense takes off.

But this year, right now, it's not about what Ramsey said in the telecast. He said UCLA fans were disgruntled about the offense not being pretty or exciting. No, that's not the cause of the disgruntlement. It's about being bad. It's about being the 105th best offense in the country among 117 teams. If the offense was ugly and boring, but in the top ten in yards per game in the country and putting up enough points to win each game, that'd be fine. It's just hard to believe that, given the talent on the team, and the talent UCLA should conventionally have on its offense in any given year, that UCLA should ever be among the worst offenses in college football. Even in the first year of a new head coach.

It's almost masochistic, again, to think about what the talent on this team could do in another offensive scheme, like Boise State's imaginative scheme. Or that of Utah, or Cal. If you watched the early morning game on EPSN Saturday, you would have noticed that even traditionally stodgy Big Ten teams like Northwestern and Purdue have gone to a more open, dynamic scheme. It feels like the college football offense has passed UCLA by. But again, that's just the ignorance of a fan talking.

We said at the beginning of the season that this offense will either have to have a break-through, or a breaking point. Obviously it'd be very difficult, even if you determined that the Stanford game was a breaking point, to scrap this offense halfway through the season. It is the girl we brought to the dance, at least for this season. But if you don't have a break-through, and experience a potentially significant step toward a breaking point, when do you break up with the girl? It will be interesting to see if it's the same girl we're dating next season.

UCLA, as we've said, had been living off luck, defense and playmakers during its five-game winning stretch. The playmakers didn't make the plays this time. The defense was just okay.

And the luck ran out.

We had hoped that the formula could keep pulling out wins. Logically and rationally, we all knew it was a matter of time and odds before the formula didn't produce. But there was a lingering hope among all that logic and rationality that the formula would keep improbably winning.

Now, given the Stanford game, the remaining games on the schedule look like a potentially bumpy road. But it doesn't necessarily mean the formula can't get right back up on its horse named Lucky and pull off a few more wins. To be optimistic, the Stanford game might have been the breaking point that made UCLA realize it needs to seriously tweak its offense, not just get better at it. It very well might have been the chance to see that Matt Moore's physical gifts and potential aren't significant enough to overcome that Drew Olson might be the better quarterback right now. And that Olson, potentially getting more time over the remaining games, could come from a confident mindset given this season's quarterback history, and be able to produce.

So, looking down that potentially bumpy road, we see really that UCLA is at a crossroads, as is the lasting opinion of Karl Dorrell's first season. The simple fact that the team isn't 3-6, but 6-3, is something to be very mindful about and has to temper any sky-is-falling sentiment. Yes, it could end up 6-6, but it could also win, say, two of its last three games and end up a respectable 8-4 for the season. 6-6 would clearly be under-achieving for this team, given its talent, even compensating for the kinks it had to work out being in its first year under a new head coach. Many of us clearer-eyed fans realize that this team finishing 8-4 is probably under-achieving a bit also. But it's not significant under-achievement, maybe just a Colorado or Stanford game away from ultimately being at the level of proper achievement given the team's talent, something you might be able to concede to a first-year head coach.

Especially if that coach brings another girl to the dance next year...


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