Stanford Commentary: What Could Have Been?

Knowing what was on the line, it's surprising that UCLA was uninspired Saturday and outplayed thoroughly by Stanford...

This was a team loss. You can't really atttribute it to any one thing. Contributing to the loss were the defense, the offensive line, the coaches, the quarterbacks, DeShaun Foster and even the referees. Not one of them is more to blame, but all have to shoulder part of the responsibility for the loss.

Stanford fans and players might not agree with this next statement, and consider it UCLA homerism: UCLA is a better team than Stanford. With more overall talent and a better overall team. But Stanford out-played UCLA on just about every level, and Stanford is good enough in many aspects that it was enough for them to win.

All year, UCLA has been making mistakes that they've been able to mask because they were simply superior to their opponents. This week they faced a Stanford team that was easily the best team UCLA has faced all season, and there wasn't enough room for UCLA to make the same mistakes it's made and still win.

DeShaun Foster has to take some of the responsibility for the loss. In a crucial stretch of the game during the first half, he made some blunders that severely hampered UCLA's chances of winning. His fumble within UCLA's own 30-yard line hurt considerably, since Stanford then scored on the next play to go up 21-7. But a few plays later, with UCLA in possession and looking like it might mount its first drive of the game, Foster gets called for a personal foul when he shoves a defender. Yes, it probably was a personal foul on Coy Wire as he ran Foster too far out of bounds, but Foster is an experienced senior and should know that commonly the flag is thrown for the retaliation not the initial foul. UCLA then could have been 2nd and 2 in that situation rather than 1st and 25, which led to UCLA having to throw deep and Cory Paus being intercepted near the goal line.

This is probably a good place to talk about the officiating. Let's concede the fact that UCLA was jobbed on many calls, including that interception when it was clearly pass interference on Stanford. And there were numerous other very poor calls throughout the game that definitely hurt UCLA. But again, it goes back to the theme of the game: When you play a team that's good, you have to play well enough to ensure against the things you can't control beating you, like officiating. That's what championship teams do.

And UCLA surely didn't come out and play that way, like a champion. The Bruins looked sluggish, to say the least, in the first half , in the aspects of the game that decide it the most – defense, offensive line and quarterback. Stanford's offensive line was easily the best UCLA's vaunted defensive line had faced all season, and Stanford's OL definitely had UCLA's DL on its heels. Even when a Stanford running back was stopped, he was stopped for three yards, evidence that Stanford's OL was getting the push on UCLA's DL. But UCLA's DL didn't seem to be up for the challenge, and looked almost shocked at how effective Stanford's offense moved the ball on them. When UCLA dug in and really began to play aggressively, pursue to the ball and wrap up in its tackling like it did in the second half, Stanford wasn't very effective offensively. It's a hard quantity to measure, but it did look like UCLA's defense was not ready to play in the first half.

UCLA's offensive line made some critical mistakes in this game that had a major impact on its outcome. Allowing a couple of big sacks was particularly damaging. Probably the one with the biggest impact was in the second half with about 11 minutes to play, and UCLA down, 31-21. McEwan had faked pumped to Foster and the defender had bit. Foster had the defender beat when McEwan was sacked and fumbled. Left tackle Bryce Bohlander was clearly beat by his man, who made the sack. A touchdown at this point in the game rather than a fumble might have been the deciding factor that would have won the game for UCLA. Then, at about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, with UCLA trailing 31-28 but with the ball, McEwan was sacked again by a Cardinal lineman that tossed guard Steve Vieira to the side far too easily. It set up a tough situation to get a first down, which led to UCLA not getting a first down and losing the ball on downs. Again, UCLA has had a problem with allowing sacks this year. When you play a good team, you can't allow the margin for error to be small enough that your errors defeat you.

At quarterback, it's pretty clear that Cory Paus wasn't sharp at all, in just about every facet of his game, in the first half. Paus wasn't throwing the ball very well, missing receivers a number of times, which kept UCLA from driving. Paus also struggled to read the defense and find the open receiver. Backup Scott McEwan replaced Paus in the second half, due to a thumb injury for Paus, and it was very clear just how better McEwan commands the offense than Paus. McEwan showed Saturday that, in games (rather than in practice) he's more efficient at completing the basic pass; he's better at reading defenses and finding the open receiver; and McEwan definitely brings more of a threat that he could scramble for yards than Paus. It's ridiculous to assert that the UCLA coaches should have recognized all along that McEwan is more effective, like some critics have said; Paus, in practice, is clearly the better quarterback. It might be a case that, in games, McEwan has more composure and that results in more effectiveness. And this was just one game, and McEwan was coming off the bench, which alleviates pressure. And it's way too early to throw Paus aside completely, when he's shown flashes of great effectiveness this season. But McEwan has clearly shown now that he might overall be more effective at executing the position, and that it will definitely be an issue for the remaining games of the season, who among Paus or McEwan should be the #1 quarterback. Depending on the injury situation, Paus (thumb) and McEwan (ankle), the decision might be made for the UCLA coaches.

When it comes to coaching, the UCLA coaches really can't win. When they run Foster a lot, they get maligned for being too conservative and run-oriented. When they throw the ball a lot, they get criticized for not running the ball enough. I think most of the time it's a case that, if you call a play and it works, everyone loves the play calling. If you call a play and it doesn't, fans will criticize the play-calling. Plus, they are many reasons why coaches do things that the fans just aren't privy to. UCLA coaches believed that they had a pretty dominant player in DeShaun Foster and gave him the ball quite a bit in the first half of the season to set up the passing game in the second half of the season. Defenses in the second half of the season would stack the box, key on Foster, UCLA would use play-action and pass over the stacked box and move the ball. It's a sound strategy. From one perspective, you have to respect the fact that the coaches want to win more than they want to get their Heisman Trophy candidate yards, and are willing to use him as a way to set up their passing attack. The snag here is that the UCLA passing attack simply wasn't proficient enough to carry it off. With Paus, there have been flashes, but not sustained effectiveness. McEwan showed in the second half of the Stanford game he might be able to pull it off better, but there still is a question of just how good the UCLA passing game is and whether it's good enough to carry the load.

It's pretty clear, though, that the game plan has shifted to throw first and run second, rather than the run-first, run-second-and-maybe-pass-sometime game plan of the first half of the season. It bit UCLA in the butt in this game, and it's easy to say, in retrospect, that run-in-the-first-half-of-the-season-to-set-up-the-pass-in-the-second-half-of-the-season plan failed in the Stanford game. It particularly failed when UCLA had the ball with about 4 minutes to go, the momentum, the best running back in the country in its backfield, and a Stanford defense that had to be tiring since it had been on the field the entire second half. But, while it might have failed, you have to still respect the game plan, and the overall theory of it.

Inadvertently, though, UCLA might have missed its calling this year. Running DeShaun Foster again and again, and looking conservative and boring – but winning – might be the ticket. After the Stanford defense had been tenderized a bit, the UCLA running game was beginning to be effective. It's always easy to have 20-20 hindsight, but it would have been interesting to see what might have been if UCLA had used the same run-first, pass-second game plan it had earlier in the season – whether UCLA's running game would have busted open the Stanford defense and also, as a result, kept the Stanford offense off the field.

Props have to be given to a couple of players. UCLA has found it's go-to wide receiver in Ryan Smith. His performance was even more impressive having found out that he played most of the second half with a separated shoulder. With sure hands, deceptive speed and smarts, he is a very effective weapon. And the catch he made along the sideline was definitely a catch, dragging his one foot in bounds. Matt Ware is really playing well, and even moreso when you keep reminding yourself he's a true freshman. The touchdown throw against him probably would have been an interception if he hadn't gotten his feet caught with the receiver's when going up for the ball. Marques Anderson, while missing a few tackles in the first half, still bring so much to the defense with his ability to pursue and his hitting.

So, where does UCLA go from here? First, they have to regroup and find out who's healthy (we'll know more after the Toledo press conference today). While UCLA more than likely lost its chance to play for the national championship in the Rose Bowl, the team is still 6-1 and has a chance to be one of the most successful in recent Bruin history and in Toledo's tenure as head coach. How well the team responds to the Stanford loss will be a test of the team's character and the coaches' ability to motivate. And there is plenty to learn from the game, too, which could benefit the remainder of the season. 1) The UCLA defense is good, but if it doesn't come to play every game, they can easily get beaten 2) There could be a solution to the inconsistency at the quarterback position with Scott McEwan's ability to execute, and 3) DeShaun Foster should probably be given the ball until the opposing defense has solidly stopped him.

And a note on the BCS: Now that UCLA has experienced the phenomenon of being a possible candidate to play in the national championship game and more than likely getting knocked out of that contention in late October, it's plain that the BCS is a highly-flawed formula for determining the national champion. It's late October and more than likely there are two teams left in the BCS elimination process. It's as if college basketball played the first couple of rounds of the NCAA Tournament in January, eliminated some top ten teams at that time from ever reaching the championship game but the teams kept playing their remaining schedule. It effectively impacts the interest from fans in the teams that have been eliminated, which undoubtedly affects ticket sales, television revenue, etc. If there was a 8-team playoff system in place, UCLA fans – as well as fans from Florida, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Oregon, Stanford, Virginia Tech and even Washington, Maryland, Washington State, Purdue and Illinois -- would still be psyched about the the possibility of putting it together for the remainder of the season, getting into that 8-team field and, with an experienced, talented team as this one, peaking in the playoffs and winning the national championship.

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