But the UCLA Bruins 31-13-loss to the Washington State Cougars smacked of self-sabotage.
Coming off a fug-o-riffic showing vs. Stanford in which QB Matt Moore got addled by the Cardinal's pass rush and the protection unit got humiliated, the O seemed very tentative coming out of the gate, as if they were almost unsure about their ability to play man up against the vaunted "Damage, Inc." D of Battlin' Bill Doba.
Sure enough, the first two series were filled with errors, losing two yards on a 3rd and 3 chance in the first series, and then committing a false start penalty on 3rd and 7 to make converting a 3rd down against the conference's best 3rd down D (only 22% allowed) even more difficult.
Think the Cougs were expecting pass? D.D. Acholonu (gesundheit) sure was. And UCLA complied. One shed of OT Steve Vieira and one strip later, and Sneezy had basically confirmed that it was going to be a long day for UCLA. Sure, it could have been worse, Jason David (who dominated the game from his LCB spot) could have recovered it, but no matter.
Because the message had been sent to the O that WSU D's was faster, stronger and more aggressive, and the UCLA D may have lost a little heart knowing the burden was largely on them.
Wanting to send a message of its own, the Coug O decided to attack UCLA's D at one of its points of vulnerability: the outside. After taking over near midfield on Chris Kluwe's punt, Coug walking-wounded QB Matt Kegel, operating on only five of eight major joints, made a long, horizontal hand-off to RB Jonathon Smith (who delivered on his secret weapon status), who received great blocking on Matt Clark and LB Spencer Havner, and burst through the gap for a 47-yard gain.
Teams that consistently try to run between the tackles vs. UCLA this year have struggled to do so effectively. However, get UCLA's D on the edge, where the heft and force of the DL can't be leveraged, and the chances of success are much higher.
On its heels, and with very sparse coverage of the middle of the line with DTs, the D seemed to basically concede the TD to the Cougs as Smith vaulted over the top of the pile, except there was no pile, and there was no resistance. Good thing he didn't land awkwardly and turn an ankle.
UCLA's spin with vertigo continued when Maurice Drew fumbled on the very next play from scrimmage with a little help from FS Erik Coleman, and this time Jason David was able to stay in bounds for the recovery on UCLA's 35. Looking grim.
Time to send another message: WSU knows that UCLA's D is vulnerable on the edge. But a cover two team is also vulnerable up the seam using the TE. On 3rd and 7, WSU runs a somewhat busted play: slot receiver Scott Lunde runs a post from the left, and so does TE Troy Bienemann. SS Jarrad Page stays deeper than the deeper of the two receivers (Lunde), which enables Bienemann to make an uncontested catch. (Bienemann should drag Lunde around as his downfield escort more often; he created a nice void for Bienemann to occupy. That couldn't have been on purpose, could it?) Anyway, the natural thing for Page to do once Bienemann caught the ball was to level Lunde with a vicious pop, but unfortunately blowing up the blocker only really works downfield if you knock him back into the ball carrier. Jarrad missed on this occasion, and Bienemann scampered in for six.
Two TDs, six plays, 1:10 off the clock. Ball game essentially over.
After that, once Dave Ball blindsided Kegel and convinced the WSU coaching staff that this game was well-enough in hand to win without the starting QB, the Cougs O went into hibernation. (My daughter says I have my mountain mammals confused.) Lots of runs by Jonathon Smith, lots of ugly incompletions by Josh Swogger, seven turnovers by WSU…but UCLA was never really a threat to do anything with the gifts from the football gods. The Bruins only converted the seven turnovers into six points all game long.
This game had Lakers/Clippers written all over it. The Lakes (Cougs) assert themselves and blow out to a quick double-digit lead, tread water for a while, toy with the hapless Clips, exert themselves when needed, and wait for the Clips to shoot themselves in the crotch at the worst possible time.
UCLA was only too ready to oblige. After converting two of the eventual turnovers into the two Justin Medlock (money) field goals to get within 14-6, the Bruins made a solid defensive stand deep in WSU territory, courtesy of a Dave Ball sack of Swogger, a sack which gave Goof Ball the single-season (13.5) and career record (27.5) for sacks by a Bruin. (Hopefully those numbers will push north with a few more games to play.)
The stage was set for a big play in the kicking game. As the punting game goes, so go the Bruins. The line drive punt directly to Craig Bragg on WSU's side of the field could not have been more perfect for UCLA. Faster than you could say, "Keenan Howry would return this one up the middle for six against UCLA…," Bragg was returning it up the middle on his way for six for UCLA...
Except a funny thing happened on the way to the Premium Football Forum to exult with fellow BROs ("We're back in this, baby!!!! Should we go for two?"): fum-bull. It's like the anti-Viagra.
But wait, there's more: not only does Wazzu recover the ball, but they're returning the fumble! Do my eyes deceive? Is this some sick, twisted, cosmic joke? Is that really Jeremy Bohannon running down that far sideline with my heart in his hands, pulsing and bleeding and spurting? For goodness sakes, Ben, do that Dennis-Johnson-reach-around-and-flick-the-dribble-away-thing to him like they keep doing to us! Pop that spurting organ free! Alas, Mr. Bohannon is having trouble out-running his punter, so he wisely crash lands with my body pump firmly in his possession at UCLA's 12, a 14-point swing. (Never a doubt that WSU was going to score six, and they did, on the very next play.)
Kids, never carry your six-shooter jammed into the front of your pants. That ‘desperado' look is so five minutes ago. At least put the safety on…and don't say I didn't warn ya.
Like any Laker/Clipper contest, there was plenty of garbage time, with the accompanying stats. The Bruins had a nice rushing total, because Karl Dorrell and Crew stuck with the running game, as much to keep QBs Matt Moore and (later) Drew Olson intact as anything. But any time WSU needed a defensive stand, the Wazzu DTs (Jeremy Williams and Tai Tupai) would re-establish the LOS about a yard deep into UCLA's backfield, effectively crushing any chance of sustained excellence on the ground. The smallish DEs for Wazzu were easier for the Bruins to attack with run.
However, if UCLA really does have "top 25 in the nation" talent along the OL, ideally we would see more of a bubble created by the OL's push off the ball. Whether it is raw ability or coaching technique, eventually our sumo wrestlers have to be able to drive their sumo wrestlers backwards. Playing OL is hard enough, but on rollerskates it is almost impossible. Trust me, I've tried…figuratively.
The pass protection was better than against Stanford, in part because the shotgun formation gave the QBs a little more time to see the field (when that time wasn't consumed fair catching the snap). The halved sack count was not without increases in holding and leg whipping calls, however.
But the QB play was certainly less than "top 25 in the nation" caliber on this day. As sharp as Moore was to start the Stanford game, he was that dull all game long vs. Wazzu. Moore wasn't helped on the day by Wazzu's ability to get away with numerous PI non-calls, nor was Marcedes Lewis and Ryan Smith's annoying habit of trying to catch bombs with Willie Mays' basket-catch technique helpful. I've heard something about "highest point," but it's been so long since I've seen it…wait, Craig Bragg did it against ASU, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway, it needs to happen across the board, not just one guy.
Moore's passes weren't as accurate as usual, nor were his reads high quality, it appeared. Granted, Wazzu's secondary is stellar. Jason David is a very strong shut-down corner who can aggressively take away the short route and run with whomever you send deep. UCLA tested him quite a bit (far more than I would have guessed, frankly), and didn't have much to show for it. And Erik Coleman was able to recover and provide help to the CBs so quickly that it looked like Moore was throwing into double-coverage. I can't recall seeing a FS this year make that play as well as Coleman did a couple of times in this game.
Aggressive, super quick DBs have a way of playing with a QB's mind; he'll try to muscle up on the pig, get a few more mph on it, and the result is a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. On this day, the game just seemed too fast for Matt Moore and the limited amount of time he's had in the saddle. Maybe if he had started against Arizona and Cal in addition to ASU and Stanford, he would have been ready for this baptism by fire. But we'll never know.
Was the offensive system UCLA displayed the "tremendous game plan" Dorrell promised? It was a little different than previous weeks. Some more shotgun, even a draw from that formation. But still lots of inside runs, and even some play-action pass on 3rd down. As the season progresses, the Bruins' ability to throw the ball is receding like a 40-something's hairline. And no amount of comb-over magic is going to bring the "Fun n' Gun" through that door…nor hide that glaring bald spot in the Bruins' game.
Sure enough, the Bruins are 0-2 in November, with two very challenging games ahead. Looking ahead is anathema for a player or coach, but it's what we do on BRO, so mentioning how critically important it is for UCLA to make it to a bowl game, any bowl game, so that the Bruins get the benefit of a second spring practice is apropos. Hopefully, to allay a sponsor's concerns about filling the stadium, Bruin fans who can will buy tickets and then donate them to youth groups in the bowl game's area (at a minimum) if holiday plans preclude attendance.
But the biggest concern is earning a way into a bowl game. Part One of Dorrell's season-ending triology is in the books. It was a tale of woe and strife and anguish. Bitter, bitter frustration and cold toes if you were in the stands and forgot your thermal socks. But Part Two will be upon him before the echoes of the grilling T..J Simers can apply have faded from my ears…