Like some of you, I chose to take the apparently rational, wait-and-see view of Karl Dorrell. Was our new young coach almost forty? Maybe he'd been overlooked. Was he completely untested as a head coach? Maybe he hadn't been given a real shot. And he was a Bruin, after all. He understood what was expected, understood "the rivalry." And once we heard that ambitious talk of returning UCLA to its rightful place as a national player, a perennial Pac-10 power, some of us rolled right over. It did sound good... the hope and all.
By November 22nd, however, KD had finished up his first regular season as a head coach sadly philosophical and reminiscent of his old college coach: "We have to use this [47-22] as a measuring stick for our program, and right now we have a lot of work to do." Sound familiar? Remember lowered expectations? Oddly enough, this "measuring stick" business sounded exactly like something KD said before the SC kickoff, when he told Chris Roberts, "If we end up not so good, we know how far we have to go." He then went on to sound the old message of "being productive within the plays that we call," ticking off such season long "issues" as "protection, catching the ball, blocking, fundamentals." In explaining his general approach and the importance of playing to your own standards, he said this: "Wins and losses don't matter." John Wooden often talks like this, but he's long since earned the right, what with all those wins, all those championships. KD's worst day of the season seemed filled to overflowing with such naive, complacent remarks. This lack of edge, this sort of unwanted sentimentality has been all too familiar in UCLA's athletic culture. All so very Westside, don‘t you know.
So was this game bad enough, in itself, to justify "strike two" in Tracy's formulation? UCLA football defines itself two ways: (1) its Pac-10 and national profile, and (2) its relationship to its hated crosstown rival, primarily because of recruiting, both in the fertile ground of California high schools and nationally. Absent any significant contemporary pool of coaching "geniuses," recruiting becomes the lynchpin of most successful programs. Forget the Pete Carroll/Norm Chow powerhouse; what Pac-10 programs are the Bruins realistically superior to? Stanford, Washington, the Arizona schools? And the U of A has already moved on that question with the hiring of Mike Stoops.
How bad, exactly, was this season, and could it have been even worse? Sure. Arizona, Cal and Arizona St. could easily have been losses. After blowing the opener, the Bruins tipped us off as to what was coming with that ugly 6-3 win vs. Illinois, got trampled by the Sooners, edged out the hopeless, Dlugolecki-lead Aztecs, then proceeded to play their only good game (rather half) of the year vs. Washington. Unable to exploit that momentum, they staggered through three more ugly wins before finishing up (Toledo style) with four straight losses, each one progressively worse. Today most Bruins are either angry, embarrassed or resigned, with only the odd Blue, here and there, lecturing us on the meaning of true loyalty. The players, meanwhile, were reduced to being asked the classic chump's question after the SC ass-kicking: Since you've been steam-rolled by both Oklahoma and SC, and are "uniquely qualified to comment," who do you think is gonna win the national championship? (The Ball brothers are going with Oklahoma. Dave rates them "A plus," slightly behind SC's "solid A." Alas, no one had the heart to ask him to grade the Bruins. Matt Clark's going with the Sooners, too. That's good to know.)
So was it the talent on the field or some lack of it on the sidelines? Another chicken and egg question? I don't think so, because the talent on the field was not that bad. SC and Oklahoma do have superior personnel, but how about Colorado, Stanford, Oregon and Washington St? I doubt their personnel is superior, but if it makes you feel better... believe it. This question has become a bone of contention between Blues and Cranks and has already been beaten to death.
As to the offense, I think we can all agree it's about the ugliest, most ineffective offense within memory: simple, predictable, sloppily executed. And all this talk of what percentage of this thing KD has actually "installed" misses the point. Either he knowingly put in a mere "foundation," thereby sacrificing his initial season (and whatever unearned goodwill naturally flowed to him as Bob Toledo's successor), or what we've seen is roughly what we're going to get. But this can't go on, right? Changes must be made, right? A new offensive coordinator, new O line coach, possibly a new recruiting coordinator? But what of KD? This offense is his baby. How will it be different in kind? There's no indication he's going to dump it, and I wouldn't bet on any radical changes either. If the quarterback play improves, the play calling should also improve, but what guarantee is there of any new design for the passing game, or more deception, counters, misdirection. If KD really believed in these sort of components, he could've made slight adjustments in their direction this season. Or was he, prehaps, so methodically intent on his plan that he couldn't permit himself to proceed to point B until his team had mastered point A?
And let me just note this about the defense: Though obviously more effective than the O, the D was nearly as inflexible. From Colorado through SC that "cover two" zone had a black hole in the middle, along with a standard cushion on each flank, which every effective quarterback, save Cody Pickett, easily exploited. The Bruins' strong defensive front ultimately couldn't save an ineffective secondary, and Larry Kerr seems to favor coverage over consistent pressure on the quarterback, which fact was never more obvious than during the first quarter of the most important game of the year.
How about player personnel? KD, in a typically odd locution, said after the SC game, "Their team was well-personnelled. To a large extent we could not keep up." Yeah, to a large extent he was right. But 30-2 at halftime! A ten to one disadvantage in total yards. More penalty yards than total offense. Come on... you cannot spin those numbers. What's next, the old Donahue phrase, "recruiting mistakes." Of course SC was the better team, but nothing like the way it went down in the first half. What we saw there was the logical fulfillment of everything we'd seen since Colorado.
Let's get specific about player personnel since there were also shortcomings on the field. Though consistently outnumbered and out-schemed, we can all agree that the offensive line is going to need help in the way of added talent, depth and better technique. The secondary was once again a weakness; passive coverage is becoming a Bruin trademark. It looked as if Matt Clark was encouraged to give up almost anything in front of him so as not to be beaten deep, and I continue to believe Matt Ware could be better used at free safety than corner. Nnamdi Ohaeri didn't see the field enough to make a fair assessment of his talents, and Keith Short was probably under used. Maurice Drew's talents were no surprise, though his fumbling was. Manuel White's injury (again) was a huge loss, but Tyler Ebell's unique talents were never exploited. He was constantly run on and off the field all year and more or less wasted in a running attack featuring almost nothing beyond blasts up the middle and stretch plays. (So what if he gets caught from behind on 50, 60, 80 yard runs? I'll gladly take the yardage and I hope he returns). Junior Taylor, Idris Moss and Joe Cowan were all probably under used, while upper classman, Ryan Smith, may have been over used. We all understand how well the front seven played, but with only the return of Spencer Havner and Justin London, it's goodbye to that unit. Next season we should at least see more blitzing, which is all to the good. Finally, while the return of Keith Carter would be a huge bonus, Marcedes Lewis might want to develop a bit more attitude.
What can you say about the most important position on the football field? I have the feeling we may have seen enough of Drew Olson to at least make a preliminary judgement. It certainly took Cade McNown longer to develop than what we've seen of Olson, so far, but Cade, at a comparable stage (when he did not look like the answer), showed much more in the way of mobility, instincts and accuracy. Yeah, Olson's resilient, but is he a Pac-10 quarterback? Matt Moore, considering all the talk of his athleticism and arm strength, has been a disappointment. But I'm not sure we've seen enough of him yet to make even a preliminary judgement on his Pac-10 fitness (and I hope he, too, sticks around).
Say what you will about the L.A. Times coverage, their photo choices throughout the year have been first rate. They told the story accurately and dramatically: Moore, in the Stanford game, slumped over, head in hands; Olson, looking like a drowning man, dragged down for another sack; Olson, slumped over, hands on knees, after missing a wide open receiver in the end zone; Bragg laying out for another great catch; Manny splitting a pair of Arizona DBs; any number of Ball sacks; all the various shots of the inscrutable coach. But the photo of the year had to be that shot of huge Mike Williams, wrapped over and around little Matt Clark in the end zone, looking for all the world like an anaconda at feeding time. But that wasn't the biggest mismatch we witnessed November 22nd.