Washington Commentary: A Sign it Could Happen

UCLA dominated an admittedly over-rated Washington team, but the Bruins are showing signs of being a national championship caliber team. If they could only fix some nagging problems...

This is a sign of how greedy you can get when you become successful.

If anyone would have told you a week ago that UCLA was going to beat Washington 35-13, you would have been ecstatic. But now, with how good the UCLA team actually is, while a typical UCLA fans was quite pleased with the win, there was also a feeling of what could have been. The game could have been 50-something to 13. See, greed has set in.

Plus, you all have to admit: Everyone in the stadium was hoping Manuel White would punch it in in the last minute to make the score 42-13. Greed.

But, before we start piling on accolades, let's focus on the what-might-have-been angle first. And this just isn't a digression into criticism; there is a legitimate reason to analyze what were the things that went wrong in this game. UCLA, it has now shown, has a legitmate chance to make a run at the national championship and analyzing what could be the things that might limit this team getting there is very salient.

There is still the worry of turnovers and an inability to convert in the redzone. In this game, these two Achilles Heels combined harrowingly into one big Heel. UCLA, quite simply, blew three great opportunities when they have the ball in Washington's red zone, two because of fumbles, one because of poor execution. UCLA fumbled one more time within the Washington five, only to be saved by a Washington penalty. In a game that UCLA was clearly the dominant team and should have had a margin of victory in the 30s to 40s, this very well could have been a closer game on the scoreboard because of UCLA's foibles and actually put UCLA in a place where the win could have been threatened.

Special teams is another on the list of foibles, and special teams started out very poorly in this game, with a semi-botched kick-off to start the game and a botched punt return.

Also, Cory Paus is getting criticized as possibly the weak link in this whole national championship drive, throwing for only 128 yards on 9 for 19.

And there is some criticism of play calling. Even some who have said what could limit this team is the limitations in playcalling.

So, let's take each individually…

The problem that garners legitimate concern are the turnovers. UCLA is so good and so much better than their opponents that they've been able to overcome the torrent of turnovers. But if UCLA hopes to run the table and then play for the national championship the turnovers will have to end. Because sometime during this national championship run scenario, UCLA won't be good enough to overcome the turnovers. DeShaun Foster is getting handed the ball quite a bit, without really anyone spelling him, so he might be prone to coughing up the ball. But it's preferable that he carry the ball less and stay more rested than fumbling. Foster has always had a bit of penchant for fumbling, so it might be a case that we have to take the bad with the good when it comes to Foster. Besides Foster, the other primary culprit for turnovers is UCLA's receivers hanging onto the ball when they catch a pass over the middle. Note to UCLA's receivers: When you catch a pass over the middle, brace for a hit. But how do you cure UCLA's fumble-it is? I know the coaches have been going through their checklist on steps to overcome it and there's not much more that you can do.

Special teams improved as the Washington game wore on, actually to the point that you almost had confidence that a punt returner would catch the punt. Coverage on punts and kick-offs have been the best it has been in years. Really the consistent problem has been catching punts, which it seems has been an adventure mostly for Ricky Manning this year. Hopefully with more work and experience, Manning will make better decisions and UCLA will have less and less problems in fielding punts.

The criticism of Cory Paus is almost entirely off-base. Paus threw 21 passes in this game (that's counting those nullified by penalty), and he was on target for 17 of those passes. For how much he threw the long ball, he thew it with great accuracy. For getting criticism for not being accurate throwing the short ball, Paus was accurate on every pass thrown under 20 yards except for one – which was saved by a Washington pass interference anyway. Paus' mistakes were in not throwing the ball away on fourth down within the Washington five-yard line and fumbling the ball on the hand-off that was moot anyway by the Washington penalty. But the plays that UCLA asked Paus to execute, he did. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke should perhaps review the tape of the game before he mouths about Paus not being able to execute the plays UCLA will need to win the national championship. Paus was particularly good in executing the bomb against Washington. In fact, if a couple of receivers hang on to balls that Paus laid in their hands, Paus' stats look more like 11 for 19 for 240 yards and he's not getting any of this undeserved heat. Head Coach Bob Toledo also said that Paus might not be going through his receiver progressions correctly, thus the reason why it seemed UCLA was throwing deep too often against Washington. If true, that's a legitimate criticism, since some drives that would have been game breakers if converted to touchdowns were killed because of the decision to go for a bomb rather than a nice first down-getting 15-yard out. Paus, though, has, overall, played a good game except for a couple of decisions, and threw the ball very accurately. On a team that has been limited by its turnovers, Paus has done his part in not turning the ball over, having not thrown an interception yet this season.

Even though the stats didn't show it, Paus showed in this game that, contrary to what Mr. Plaschke had to say, Paus is showing more and more that he is qualified to be the quarterback to lead this team as far as it can go, and has the capability of making the plays necessary.

The aspect of the offense that was missing from the Washington game was the consistent capability of accomplishing an 8 to 20 yard pass. Whether this is a case of Paus not going through his receive progressions or too many bombs being called, it did hamper the effectivness of the offense. Paus looked good in practice this week at being accurate at the short pass, and he showed in this game that he was very proficient at translating it into the game. Next Saturday's opponent, Cal, has the worst pass defense in the Pac-10 and UCLA should use it as an opportunity to sharpen up on the execution and calling of the critical, mid-range pass completions.

What is almost incomprehensible, though, is to imagine how good this team could be if it even limited some of these flaws. This UCLA team, being 5-0 and being hailed as one of the best in the country, has yet to put together an "A" game. And these aren't flaws that aren't fixable – such as those stemming from limited talent and personnel – but fixes that are entirely reasonable.

We got a glimpse of that "A" team in the first quarter. Foster was running, Paus was completing, the defense was swarming and causing turnovers, and UCLA even got points from its special teams. If UCLA can just put three quarters together a game like the first quarter of the Washington game, there isn't a team in the Pac-10 that can touch it, and probably the country.

So, now generally on to the accolades…

The defense played superbly, and the defensive game plan was just as superb. Being stuffed on the ground, Washington took to the air. UCLA, seeing that it was putting enough pressure on Taylor Barton with merely its front four, didn't need to blitz, and kept its linebackers and DBs in pass coverage, which generally limited big plays and kept Washington from getting back in the game. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has made just about every call correct this season and continued to do so in the Washington game.

Robert Thomas has to be considered one of the few favorites for the Butkus Award. On national television, Thomas had some of the most stunning tackles for loss seen in college football this season. All by the same guy, all in the same game. He is a couple of dropped interceptions away from having one of the best games for a linebacker in UCLA history. Thomas is now the poster child for staying for his senior season.

Rod Leisle played an outstanding game, registering a sack, tackles for loss while causing a fumble. It's frightening to think that he's only a sophomore and should garner some considerable post season honors if he continues to play this way.

The most striking thing about the defense is 1) how they swarm to the ball, 2) the ferocity of the hitting 3) how they rise to occasion. The swarming to the ball is very impressive; an opposing ball carrier or receiver has so little time to try to gain yards before UCLA jerseys are covering him. And the hitting on this defense is incomparable to any defense in recent memory. While Ricky Manning and Jason Stephens get their credit for being hitters, Marques Anderson is a hitting machine. In the second half of the Washington game he had two stunning hits on consecutive plays that effectively stopped a Washington drive and had to send shivers into any future opposing wide receivers. You have to give Taylor Barton credit for being tough and hanging in there and taking the pounding he was getting all game. The first-string defense has allowed only one touchdown in 14 quarters, and they've had their backs up against the wall many times due to UCLA turnovers, but have shut down offenses time and time again in their own red zone.

Matt Ware, the freshman cornerback, is playing well and steadily improving. It is, like Leisle, scary to think how good Ware could be down the line. Heck, by the end of the season.

This was perhaps UCLA's best effort on the offensive line, as a unit, yet this season, which has already had some good performances. Again, using the word scary, it's just that to think how this young line could continue to improve by the end of the year.

Probably the most effective weapon in UCLA's arsenal right now is DeShaun Foster, but it's probably Foster being used as a decoy more than even handing the ball to him. Every time UCLA used Foster on play-action, the play is generally very successful.

Favorite play of the game: The near-Statue of Liberty type play where Paus, after a short drop, hands the ball to Foster coming from the wing. Foster rounded the corner and there wasn't a defender within 15 yards.

Of course, we have to save the accolades for Foster until the end. Foster had the best game of his career, not only from a statistical standpoint, but from a running standpoint. He bounced around to choose holes when it warranted it, and he exploded through holes when it warranted it. He broke his requisite tackles, which is pretty standard fare for Foster. You don't want to get the Heisman hopes up too high but, at this point, Foster has a very, very good shot at winning the award. Currently leading the nation in rushing, the next three teams Foster faces don't have great defenses. Cal's defense is last in the conference. Washington State and Stanford showed this weekend what kind of defense they had when they faced good offenses – porous. Oregon, before this weekend, had the second worst defense in the conference overall, and the seventh against the run. UCLA's last two opponents, USC and Arizona State, before this weekend, were sixth and ninth in the Pac-10 against the run. If Foster can fatten up against Cal, look solid against Stanford, Washington and Oregon, and then have at least one big game against either USC or Arizona State to close out the regular season, it would be hard to untrack him on the way to Heisman, given the lack of any elite competitors in the race.

Now if he could only catch that screen pass.

As stated above, it's now reasonable to project this UCLA team having a legitimate shot at the national championship. It's a bit too early to really get deeply into an analysis of the potential scenarios, but this weekend's game made things look quite a bit brighter for UCLA's chances. Not only did it move up to #2 in the mock BCS and #4 in the AP poll, its future opponents showed some vulnerabilities. Cal got clobbered by Oregon. UCLA will have to post a 50-something-to-6 score against Cal to keep pace. Its next two games after that will be challenging, going on the road against Stanford and Washington State. But both schools, in facing each other, showed they're the types of teams that UCLA matches up well against: ones with strong offenses and weaker defenses. If UCLA stays healthy on defense, its D has shown that it's capable of limiting high-potent offenses – long enough to allow its offense to score enough points to win. Oregon, at the Rose Bowl, could be for the big marbles, but Oregon also falls into the category of a team with a big offense and a fairly porous defense. Arizona State showed the same m.o. this weekend against USC.

Actually, you'd hate to say it, but while USC is only 2-4, it very well could be the hardest match-up left on UCLA's schedule, and could be the hardest road block between UCLA and a berth in the championship game.

But again, probably the most imporant thing: Don't those new home uniforms look great?


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