Editorial: Temporary Relief

WEDNESDAY COLUMN: Our resident columnist Charles Chiccoa takes a crack at the Illinois game and the present state of the UCLA fan's jostled psyche...

I don't know about the rest of you, but I didn't exhale until Chris Horton ("No hands Horton" as, apparently, he's affectionately known) made that pretty diving pick at the Illinois 15. And when Tom Cable followed it up with that first-down kill shot, Drew Olson to Marcedes Lewis, Ole!, my weekend was made. How many times, over the years, have we squirmed in our seats watching the Bruins blow yet another fourth quarter lead to an inferior opponent? In fact the Bruins could have put this game away much earlier, but in this case, "all's well that ends well." I mean, things have become very precarious around here. Relax for a minute and the season could go up in smoke just like everything since that black day in Miami. Make no mistake, UCLA is still walking a September tightrope, and the home opening loss has only ratcheted up the pressure. We're certainly not out of this latest Dark Age.

The road to Berkeley, October 16, now appears to be wide open; one road game down, one to go. The Bruins should be favored in Seattle, and, if they keep building and don't lose their poise, they'll return home to a much needed bye week and a couple of very winnable games. 5-0 would have been heaven, but 4-1, considering the circumstances, would be more than acceptable. In the meantime, Jeff Tedford has to go to Southern Mississippi, Oregon St. and then face… (cue the "Jaws" music) S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N… C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, Southern… Califooorrrnia, surely the greatest college dynasty since Knute Rockne. Who could possibly survive (other than Va. Tech) the Five-Star laden, Heisman-front-running Matt Leinart Show, featuring Lendale & Reggie. (Yes, Norm Chow's offense is scarier than Pete Carroll's defense. And don't you just love how the mindless network cameras always track the "charismatic" head coach as he stalks the sidelines after yet another Trojan touchdown, headset in place, lips moving. What do you suppose he's saying? My guess is, "Nice call, Norm.") Perhaps the Mighty Golden Bear will be so horribly wounded it will simply cancel the rest of its schedule in honor of its noble Coliseum offering on the alter of college football.

Like so many recent Bruin games, 35-17 started with UCLA taking the first punch in the form of a 46 yard bomb over Ben Emanuel and Eric McNeal. Then Kenneth Lombard (not Kevin Brown) jumped off sides. But when Jarrad Page and Horton met the Illini tailback over the top on the fourth-down, goal-line stand, then watched the offense go the length of the field in four huge chunks, culminating in Olson's perfect 41-yard pass to Craig Bragg, Illini fans may have had that old sinking feeling. After the blocked punt by Ben Lorier (Bruin blocked punts always ricochet at least 20 yards forward), Maurice Drew blew into the Illinois secondary, cut back, then turned on the jets for a 47-yard touchdown. 14-0 with five minutes still remaining in the first quarter (shades of Rout 66!).

After giving up a healthy kickoff return, the Bruins got away with one when Marcus Cassell obviously interfered on a long pass; Page then stripped the Illini ball carrier, and the Bruins were set up for the early TKO. But they went three and out, then Matt Clark kept an Illinois drive alive with a third-down holding penalty. When Emanuel left a receiver all alone in the back of the end zone, the Illini were back in the game.

With Jon Beutjer having been knocked out of the game by Justin Hickman, you hoped the Bruins would finally close this thing out when they took the second-half kickoff and drove for a touchdown on Manuel White's classic, 2-yard smash and spin to put the Bruins up 21. But nothing comes easy to the Bruins. Beutjer's backup, Brad Bower, looked better than Beutjer: he could both run and pass, and he brought them back to 28-17 and started us all sweating again until Horton's pick.

We can't really know Illinois' true strength, just as we don't know Oklahoma State's. That will become clearer as the season unwinds. I'm pretty sure the Cowboys are no dog and I'm not prepared to declare the Illini a dog either, despite the fact they were a dog last year. Or haven't you been watching the opening weeks of the new season. Do Michigan, Miami, Oregon, Ohio State, Florida State, Kansas State, Fresno State, Boise State, and God knows what other States look the same to you as last year. You think maybe Chris Rix and Brock Berlin might need to be re-evaluated… way down? (Can you say Rick Mirer.) I mean isn't that the charm of college football, the fact teams can and do change dramatically from year to year. Only we fans remain the same, always fighting the last war. Yeah, I know there's a certain feeling of continuum, but nothing in college football is inevitable, least of all the musings of certified network gurus (or internet geniuses).

Last week, some Cranks were talking about Mo Drew as if he was some kind of Keith Brown: couldn't hold on to the ball, didn't have any moves, was just a straight ahead runner. And Olson still wasn't even adequate. And the defense was headed to a #117 in Div. 1A. Just as Blues tend towards sentimentality, Cranks suffer under the handicap of recurring, or intermittent, hysteria. Sometimes the sky does fall on a football program; most times it's curable, and it's never terminal. Especially for the traditional powers, which, flash!, UCLA must, historically, be reckoned among.

Yeah, the defensive front once again scared me, too, but Hickman, and especially Brigham Harwell, give hope for a better next week, and the next one… and the next one... Justin London, if he can avoid re-injury, won't be slowed forever; same for C.J. Niusulu (though his health isn't as good a bet). Horton is set to move Emanuel out any day now. It must be plain to everyone that Ben, despite great size for his position, is no hitter. He may be fast (I don't know his forty time), but he's not quick. And for all his experience, he seems to be getting beat more than ever. Is this harsh? Football, even high school football, is a harsh game. I'm not about to call him Ben "Poli-Dixon," but if he's going to redeem himself he needs to do it off the bench. UCLA has enough defensive problems without worrying about offending upper classmen.

What else? Chris Kluwe needs to start bombing some of those mortar shots we see on the practice field when it really counts. Now that Gary DeLoach and Larry Kerr have started alternating Horton, McNeal and Dennis Keyes at the safety positions, why not alternate one or two of the young corners and see what they can do? The timeouts are still problematic; they're not being saved for late offensive drives, then when a time-out was truly needed (it was obvious the signal from the sideline was late or unclear), no time out was called… and the hurried play was botched and a huge scoring chance was lost. Finally, for whatever it's worth, it's beginning to look like Cable, for all his virtues as an offensive coordinator, tends toward the conservative in his play calling, and appears partial to the running game (understandable in an O-line coach). Whether that's good or not, time will tell.

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