WSU: Will it Be a Strike of a Season?

In one of the ugliest, most unwatchable games in recent memory, UCLA lost to Washington State Saturday. At 6-4 and struggling, can the year be salvaged? And if it can't, how big of a strike will it be against Karl Dorrell?

Last week I said it was only the masochistic Bruins who wanted to re-hash the Stanford game.

I don't know what that makes the Bruin fans who want to analyze the Washington State game.

Getting into detail about the game is truly self-maiming, but there are some general aspects of the game that need to be pointed out to perpetuate the issues concerning this team and program.

For so many weeks this team was winning improbably, and many UCLA fans thought that the balloon had to come down – and when it did it'd look like the Hindenberg.

That was the Hindenberg yesterday.

So many things that have plagued the team all season were represented in that game: The penalties, the breakdowns, bad decisions, a bad offense, bad play-calling, poor execution, and the drops, coupled with what we could have easily anticipated would be an outgrowth of the team we've seen this season – turnovers. Throw in a horrible day for the officials, and you have one of the worst and most unwatchable games ever in the history of Bruindom. Heck, ever in the history of ABC. You could almost hear Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts physically cringing.

And there was still even an element of luck to this. If not for Washington State's turnovers and quarterback Matt Kegel's injury this might have been within the realm of Oklahoma/Texas A&M. It certainly started that way and was going that way until Kegel got knocked out of the game.

It's plain, too, that what we asserted very early on in this season is beginning to be the case: The defense is starting to wear down. Of course, it was playing with a few of its significant parts out or hobbled, but there is still a pretty obvious element now that the defense is starting to wear down due to a season where it's held up the team and literally won games by itself because of a lack of offense and the straight twelve-week schedule without a bye. This has been one of the better Bruin defenses in the last twenty years and it deserves a great deal of credit. Where would this season be right now if the defense hadn't pretty much won the Illinois, San Diego State, Arizona, California and Arizona State games? Well, 2-8.

But analyzing the specifics of the game isn't healthy --- and it's redundant. We've discussed all of these same specific mistakes in previous games this season.

The bigger picture is really the one where we should be looking. We said it earlier this season, after the1-2 start, that Karl Dorrell has a unique situation as a first-year head coach. Most head coaches are hired after the program has been run into the ground, had gone 3-9 or worse, and the cupboard left bare. A typical new head coach probably has the first year to institute his new systems, show in the second year that the new systems are working and the team has improved, and then in the third year, post a successful season with an influx of better talent that he's recruited. That's pretty much the situation that the other new Bruin Head Coach, Ben Howland, has over in the basketball offices.

But Dorrell came into a completely different scenario. The team went 8-5 last season. While the cupboard isn't particularly over-flowing, it certainly isn't bare, and you could make an argument that the team is more talented this year than last. While there is that first year to institute the systems, with the talent that the team has this season, we should have, realistically, seen better execution and production of the offense this season. It wasn't necessarily asking for the team to play far above expectation, but given the roster, play to its level of talent.

(And while we're on the talent issue: Saying that this team has talent isn't asserting that it's top-five-in-the-country talented. But looking around the Pac-10, it's not difficult to see that UCLA is one of the more talented teams in the league. It has more talent than anyone in the league besides USC, and probably just less experienced talent than Washington State. Watching the WSU game, can you safely say that the Cougars are clearly more talented than UCLA? Regardless, UCLA definitely has top-25-in-the-country talent.)

In the three-year plan for a new head coach, the biggest key, though, is not to under-achieve. While you're going through the three-year scenario, you have to live up to reasonable expectations in every year, given the unique situation you'll have in each of those years. In each of the first three years a coach has to do what you could reasonably expect with the talent he has.

While you do have to give a new coach time to get his system in place, by 10 games into his first season, with solid talent, the offense by now should look better than it has. Also, even giving Dorrell some leeway in running the program because it's his first year, you'd have to say that the organizational and managerial aspects of the team haven't been satisfactory.

So, a question is: When you're on this new-head-coach-three-year-scenario track, how much does an underachieving season cut into that honeymoon? You'd have to think that an under-achieving season in any of the first three years tightens the pressure on Dorrell to succeed that much more in the other two.

But then, projecting his next two years, the presssure tightens even more. Dorrell's margin for error and window of opportunity also, as we said earlier this year, is unique in that he'll probably have more talent in his first two re-building years than he will in his third realization year. Or at least as much. Usually the way the scenario works is that, by his third year, he's now recruited three seasons and has added enough talent to that which was already there to have upgraded the team's talent level. But projecting to the 2005 season, that's definitely a question. Gone by then will be Rodney Leisle, Dave Ball, Brandon Chillar, Ryan Boschetti, Craig Bragg, Manuel White, Matt Ware, Tab Perry, and Ben Emanuel, each potentially all-Pac-10 performers, if not more. Even though you might not think it's significant, three starters from the offensive line will be gone, with very little talent on the roster at OL to plug in. The drop-off will be significant, unless names like Matt Slater, Joe Cowan, Eric McNeal, Milvon James, Alex Potasi and Marc Villafuerte can step in and be as good, if not better.

And just how much better will next year's team be? The offense, even with this system, you'd have to expect would be improved. The offensive personnel will be more experienced and everyone returns except for back-up offensive lineman Shane Lehmann. You can probably project that the defense might not be quite as good. Even though you return the defensive backfield intact, and two-thirds of a great linebacking unit, you lose the entire starting defensive line and Brandon Chillar. So, all in all, there's a question if next year's team will be much better overall than this year's.

The schedule for next year, too, looks to be about as difficult as this year's. The non-conference schedule looks to be easier, but the Pac-10 schedule looks more difficult.

It's pretty clear: If this season continues to tailspin, Dorrell is facing an ever-increasing difficult situation. There is much speculation that he'll have to hire new coaches, and possibly scrap the offensive system, or at least re-vamp it extensively. That's a considerable amount of change and scape-goating to happen after your first year as head coach.

But even if he does make some considerable changes, and alters the offense, he's lost that one year, that first year, where he gets some degree of a honeymoon in instituting his system. Next year, if he does decide to institute a new offensive system or alter it significantly, he'll have to do it while also having to live up to expectations of being productive in that second year. That's a huge task.

So, again, as we said earlier this season, the future might very well be now – if not very soon -- for Karl Dorrell.

Of course, this possible scenario could all be turned around and the year salvaged if UCLA beats Oregon and USC, or at least just beats USC.

But then again, it could sink even deeper if UCLA loses to Oregon and gets blown by USC. Or even beats Oregon and gets killed by USC.

As of today, the season has begot a 6-4 record, an inept and ineffective offense, and some questionable managerial issues. Even if you're among the more level-headed Bruin fans that believe Dorrell is going to be given ample time to prove himself, you'd have to concede that, for this season to not to be considered a failure, Dorrell will have to beat USC. If not, given what has transpired so far this season, if he loses to USC, the season will go in the strike column against him. And in that three-year new coach scenario, he probably only has three strikes. If that much.

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