Reality Rules

A day before spring football starts, columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> puts last season -- and what's riding on next season -- in perspective. Throw in a stiff dose of objectivity, a dose of justified optimism, and you have Chiccoa's dose of reality...

It's probably fitting that I came down with flu just after the Fresno St. humiliation, and also, like these woebegone days we're living through, that the bug hung on so long. But I feel fine today and expect to feel even better tomorrow. In my mind, it's very simple, and life rarely is: Either Karl Dorrell's newly-reconfigured staff, featuring Tom Cable, will improve play dramatically - and this means the quarterback problem, the O-line problems, the play calling and the perceived design problems in the offense will somehow be resolved and KD's Denver style WCO will finally present opponents with a legitimate challenge - or KD will go down with his offense The odds on accomplishing all this may look pretty long today, but bigger upsets occur every year.

For Bruin fans, the worst part of the earthquake is over. We've registered aftershocks in the form of transfers, ineligibilities and recruiting disappointments. We've digested the overall damage but haven't yet begun to think about the future in entirely rational terms. And while we're digging out from under, our neighbors to the southeast are giddy with their own good fortune and another five-star recruiting class, while snickering at our frenzied contortions and our "sleeper" class. Contrary to some rather Victorian assumptions, "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around." This is college football, LA style: serious business, war without end, no prisoners taken. Everything one school does in the two major sports impacts the other. John Wooden killed off SC basketball in the mid-sixties, something from which it still hasn't recovered. But Bruin football is not analogous to Trojan basketball, at least not yet. However, keeping in mind that winning is the only thing, that they were literally #1 last year, and that Bruin football has become something like the collegiate version of "the Bungles," UCLA is going to have to turn it around in short order, or risk falling so far behind SC that Bruin football might indeed take on some of the characteristics of Trojan basketball, including diminished crowds. Trojans talk about how insufferable we were during the eight-game streak and I‘m sure we were. Now it's our turn to bitch and whine. So it goes...UCLA settled for "City Championships" from ‘91-‘98 - even hung a banner to that effect on the practice field (shades of the infamous NIT banner). Right now SC owns the Bruins in football and they've added yet another National Championship trophy for Heritage Hall. Advantage SC. But this is still a marathon match, and it's still on.

Recently, the two major Bruin sports have become something like those faceless victims that used to pass through Pauley on weekends during the Golden Age, sacrificed for our viewing pleasure: Thanks for coming guys, here's your check and your tee shirt (I WENT TO PAULEY PAVILION AND ALL I GOT WAS A CRUMMY BEATING). Buh-bye, and come again soon. You're always welcome. Remember that huge nasty sandwich Joker's "Stars and Stripes" C.O. describes in "Full Metal Jacket"? Step up BROs and take a bite. Am I perhaps high on rhetoric? I hope that's all it is.

There's no whitewashing what went down last year, and, to his credit, KD hasn't attempted anything of the sort. Last season was as about as bad as could have been imagined. To some extent even Blues sensed that KD was a gamble, and some of us, willfully, against our better judgment, chose to become "naive, myopic optimists." Amongst all sorts of other hopeful stuff, some of chose to believe that San Diego St. had passed on KD because they favored a homeboy (it happens, right?). Then, after spring practice, many of us came away with the usual rosy springtime glow (my friend, Cynical Dan, likes to say one big game tells you more than any twenty practices). We couldn't wait for the season to start. An optimistic, rather nice-sized contingent (for UCLA) made the trip to Boulder. And from that opening kickoff, with the single exception of one second-half performance, it all came apart.

I don't need to rehearse the gory details. By now we're intimately familiar with them. It's enough to say that both Bruin quarterbacks looked lost out there, and that the offense looked like a textbook example of the hard way to play football. When Keith Carter was unable to return, it basically ceded the position to Marcedes Lewis; and when Matt Moore, after recovering from his knee injury, was benched, it basically ceded the position to Drew Olson. Both Marc and Olson badly needed to be challenged. Sitting in the stands, week after week, watching this offense go three and out actually made you nostalgic for the days of Cory Paus. The offensive line, once again, couldn't wedge out those stacked fronts, nor handle those endless blitz packages, which the opposition has been running with impunity ever since Cade McNown left.

That the Bruins seemed to favor a conservative, max protection approach rather than a chancier, more aggressive style didn't help matters. The offense looked so elementary it set me to wondering if the WW II teams - or even the primordial beginnings of the Spaulding era - ever felt anything like this. Each week we'd enviously watch other teams on TV handle pressure with routine efficiency. And they didn't need a Joe Montana to do it.

The Bruin O, greatly aided by the D (and much good fortune), was barely sufficient vs. the stiffs, and positively futile vs. quality opponents. The D could dominate the stiffs, but was undistinguished vs. quality opponents. Larry Kerr's unit never solved its weakness in the middle of the secondary, there was little blitzing, the safeties played deep and, for the most part, were not very effective in coverage and late in run support, often taking bad angles, particularly Ben Emanuel. As usual, the by-now traditional Bruin cushions on the corners seemed way too generous, particularly Matt Clark's. There was little depth in the defensive front, which was forced to work overtime due to the stalled offense. Even this talented unit, at season's end, got badly chewed up.

The offensive line, as usual, remains our designated whipping boy. They'll always be an easy target since it's easier to call out a unit than it is to call out individuals (and, anyway, who wants to break down and analyze tape of the blocking schemes except, of course, old offensive linemen, who can then tell us anything). I may be wrong, but what I saw was this: far too often the Bruins were outnumbered and beaten at the point of attack. Too many plays were dead on delivery, and the coaching staff obviously had little confidence in the passing game or in their quarterback's ability to get them out of bad plays, which were abundant. Mark Weber's firing became as inevitable as the sunset. The feeling today seems to be that Cable should make a substantial difference here. We'll see...

KD's offense differed from Bob Toledo's post-Cade editions, but with even worse results: fewer scores, fewer sustained drives, fewer first downs, and a record number of punts (Chris Kluwe must have lead the nation in punts attempted). Blasts, stretch plays and incompletions... that seemed to be the drill. Until the Bruins would fall dangerously behind, rarely would you see two consecutive pass plays. On running plays it was edifying to pause the tape and count heads at the point of attack: usually the defense had, at the very least, one more guy in "the hole." In the passing game, receivers were consistently blanketed, often doubled, and even on those rare occasions when Olson escaped the rush he almost never found a receiver, open or not. You may say the O line was slow, weak, uncoordinated, badly coached, and to some extent this was likely true. You may say the receivers - other than Craig Bragg - couldn't gain separation, dropped too many passes, were on the soft side (especially with all the chicken fighting officials now allow), and to some extent this was likely true. You may say that Olson couldn't see the field and had little pocket presence, and to some extent this was certainly true. But the plain fact of the matter was that the defense knew what was coming, anticipated with impunity, and had more defenders in the area than any personnel should be expected to handle. In effect the opposition could "pin their ears back" on nearly every play with little risk of being burned. And nothing ever changed.

Despite protestations to the contrary, I have the feeling KD had no real conception of the hornets nest he was walking into, following directly, as he was, on seven years of BT, preceded by the last seven of Terry Donahue's twenty seasons of mediocre .665 ball, not to mention the lingering scent around UCLA of the immortal Lav. Bruin fans were (and are) deeply angry and understandably out of patience, which facts KD now appears fully to understand and may even have played into his odd, though apparently sincere, gesture in turning down the Bruins standard rollover offer. Upon hiring, KD gave the impression it was all good. Maybe he felt too much at home, especially for a relatively obscure first-year head coach, no matter his Bruin heritage. In any case, he was comfortable enough to close practices, hold off the media and cancel "Bruin Walk" before his team had even played a game. Perhaps all those old Bruins who had whooped him up gave him a false sense of security. Today he's got more than just "work" cut out for him, and, as BROther Wolfcastle noted some time back on the BRO message board, it's going to take more than just "grinding away" at the issues. Some ruthless self-criticism was in order, and, to some extent, seems to have actually occurred. One hopes with a new offensive coordinator - one with whom KD feels in tune with - we might see some newfound imagination, some subtleties and misdirection, something, in short, to make a defense think instead of just react - and to make them pay for reacting wrongly. One also hopes KD orders up more heat in Kerr‘s defense. Team speed, there, should improve, and the defensive front looks to provide more quickness as a compensation for the loss of Dave Ball and Rodney Leisle. It would also be nice if David Koral could push Olson by the fall, since we've seen what "job security" was worth at the end of last season. If not - and if Olson goes down - the results are horrifying to contemplate. As usual, the quarterback position holds the key to on-field success or failure.

SC obviously earned their recruiting class. The Bruins, on the other hand, should consider themselves lucky to have landed Harwell, Tevaga, Van, the Louisiana contingent, Villafuerte and the other JCs. Other than Harwell, how many true freshmen will make the two-deep this coming season? KD doesn't seem optimistic; hopefully it's just "coachspeak." It does look as if the players who suffered through last year, along with the red-shirts who had to watch, will be doing the heavy lifting if things are to be turned around this year. The conventional wisdom is against it, and not for no reasons. But events in college football always surprise. Certainly UCLA's cursed football heritage is due for a good bounce.

Oddly enough, SC's championship season, contrasted with the Bruins impotence, might actually work to UCLA's advantage in the sense that it even increases the familiar rolling boil under the football program. It works against any half-measures, any easy accommodations, if next season isn't an improvement. December should bring something good for Bruin fans. Win or lose, it very well could be a win-win situation.

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