Illinois Game: Wake Up the Echoes

UCLA had one of its best games in recent memory at Illinois last Saturday with the new, great offensive line combining with quarterback Drew Olson's best day as a Bruin. So, after the Illinois game, how do the Bruins stack up against Washington?

The UCLA Bruins laid their most potent offensive performance on the Illinois Fightin' Illini since the 1997 shellacking of the Washington Huskies to bring home a going-away 35-17 victory in the second game of the 2004 season.

The Bruins combined a devastating "Thunder and Lightning" rushing attack with Drew Olson's best game as a Bruin to completely dominate the Illini from the first offensive series (6 plays, 96 yards, 7 points) to the last (6 plays, all runs, 28 yards, 2 first downs, and the final 2:22 of the game).

It seems every Bruin on O played an excellent game as the Bruins improved by a quantum leap in offensive precision from game one to game two.

The accolades have to start with the offensive line. Simply put, the OL has exceeded all early season expectations. Ed Blanton, Robert Cleary, Mike McCloskey, Steven Vieira and Paul Mociler (along with Marcedes Lewis and Michael Pitre) have gelled into an earth-moving machine. The Bruin OL repeatedly cut, bulldozed and mauled the Illini front seven for a net 273 yards rushing. Coming on the heels of an excellent performance against Oklahoma State, and factoring in that Drew Olson hasn't come close to being sacked, and it's safe to say that confidence is higher in this unit that Tom Cable has molded than in any Bruin OL since 1997.

Mociler and Cleary deserve special mention because of their perseverance. Highly touted (heck, hugely touted), coming out of high school, both have struggled to make a name for themselves at UCLA. Mociler, considered one of the nation's best HS tackles, at first had to battle an ACL injury that cut short his senior HS season. Subsequently, he was moved inside and saw much action at center and OG for the Bruins, but didn't become a pillar of strength the last two years. But sometime after Cable arrived as the Off. Coord. and OL coach, Mociler was moved to strongside OT and has played the best football of his Bruin career the last two games.

Bob Cleary, also a superstar HS OT, was best known to BRO as part of the multi-warhead bomb that landed on signing day 2000: the Bruins' of Bob Toledo closed the 2000 recruiting season whimpering, but the 2001 season starting bangin' as still-juniors Matt Ware, Cleary and the infamous Marvin Simmons made verbal commitments to UCLA.

After toiling behind Blanton and Vieira on the depth chart at tackle, Cable made another great move to move the 6-7, 305 lb. Cleary to the weak guard spot after Eyoseph Efseaff suffered a groin pull. Cleary has played so well that Efseaff has been effectively Wally Pipped…but that's okay. Yo will probably dig playing NG as much if not more, and the Bruins can certainly use him there.

Another guy who deserves rave reviews for his play is Mike McCloskey. McCloskey's blocking technique is completely different from last year. This year, he's allowed to use his quick feet and superior agility to get his body between the NG and the ball carrier. Last year, he was asked to blow the NG off the line…but too often the NG was able to slip off the block and get to the running back. This year, in comparison, MM will actually give a little ground, let the NG have a push, but then use his quicks to pivot on his man and get between him and the rocket gashing through the middle. Keeping the block, and pivoting in synchronization with the running back's advancement, has enabled the Bruins to run the ball up the middle better than they have in years.

It's easy to tell who benefits most directly from the OL's stellar play: Manny, Mo and Jack, errrrr, Drew. The Pep Boys. Well, opposing Ds might start calling Manny and Mo the "Pop Boys" judging by the way heads snap back when Manuel White Jr. lowers the boom and Maurice Drew follows his blocks to the outside.v Maurice Drew, like all the Bruins on O, must have had a great week in the film room and a great week of coaching from Eric Bienemy. MoD frankly missed some holes v. OSU last week. He impatiently cut back when he should have flowed with his OL and personal escort, Ironhead Pitre, to the edge. It is hard to find any fault with MoD's running decisions v. the Illini, however. He consistently hit the hole and gashed the Illini over and over for 5+ yard gains. Of course, his 47-yard run for six was classic MoD: the Pocket Rocket bolted forward, cut it back slightly, ran through a few hand and arm-tackles, and outraced everybody to the house.

My favorite MoD run occurred during the first TD drive, however. Facing 2nd and 14 from the UCLA 38 after losing 4 yards on a first down attempt to the left side that the Illini effectively bottled up and then pierced, UCLA did the unthinkable. First, Cable called a run on 2nd and 14. That was shocking enough. But second, after 14 games of the FB always leading the TB through the hole, UCLA resorted to some serious trickeration. Are you sitting down? UCLA sent the FB to the left…and then handed MoD the ball going to the right! Unbelievable! Where's the defibrillator? Poor Matt Sinclair, one-time UCLA recruit and current Illini MLB, was as unprepared for this as I was. Luckily, Matt wasn't holding a steaming mug of coffee above his crotch at the time (like I was). Sure, he got clocked, but do you have any idea how much skin grafts cost?

Anyway, MoD had nothing but gaping, green grass as he gashed Illinois for 21 yards and another first down. (And special thanks to Tab Perry for his vicious cut block on the IL safety; props to Dino Babers and his attention to WR blocking, as well.) OSU ran this play to great effect against UCLA, and maybe Cable liked what he saw. Yes, the call to run was totally unexpected, but the best thing about the call is that it sowed a seed of doubt into the minds of Illinois' LBs for the rest of the game. Their coaches told them they could always follow the FB to the ball. But their coaches were wrong. Oops. What now? You could almost hear the LBs think, "What else are the coaches wrong about? What else has UCLA prepared that we haven't seen on film?"

Finally, a serious chess game victory for the Bruin braintrust. So how does UCLA follow up on this advantage? A time out, natch. Hey, we're the Bruins, right?

But maybe there's a method to the madness. Because coming out of the time out, after gashing IL for huge chunks of yardage, after moving out from the shadow of their own goal post, after demoralizing the Lurid Orange after they came oh-so-close to a TD of their own, Cable must have figured the IL D's head was spinning. A perfect time for a deep strike play action pass. And with Marcedes Lewis running a post to suck the safety inside, Craig Bragg ran a perfect route and Drew Olson made a perfect pass to one of UCLA's all-time best for six. Last week, I whined, "Did we see one instance of the DO about to execute the hand-off for the stretch play, but then pull the ball back a la Peyton Manning and fire a bomb to CBra running all alone up the seam after an inside release?" The answer now is "Yes."

Drew Olson had an extremely impressive performance. The first play from scrimmage pass to Marc Lewis (out of the end zone, no less!) was absolutely perfect in accuracy and touch. What a great call. The bomb to CBra was dead on. (The weight room work has clearly made him more accurate on the 40 yard pass because his range is so improved.) But maybe his most impressive throw to me was the drop by Marc: there was no wind-up, just a smooth, easy release that delivered a highly catchable ball, not the bullets the DO was firing at times v. OSU. It seems that UCLA can get the ball to Lewis any time they want. Want, Cable, want!!!

However, the swing passes to MoD and the Manster were the most important plays Olson made. Some seemed to be by design, but others were safety valves. The results were devastating, though. The swing passes allowed UCLA to get play makers on the edge, dealing with CBs and LBs, with the DL nowhere in sight. Just when the IL DL thought they were going to get rewarded for their pass rush…the DO would swing it wide, MoD would pinball through some tackles, and gain good yardage. Who needs a toss sweep that allows the D to immediately flow to the ball when a swing pass is almost as safe but with more deception and therefore upside?

Yes, the Manster had to again show his insane hands on a scoop off his shoetops to make the swing work. And CBra made a great body-adjusting catch on the boot. But out of 21 throws, the DO only had 2 or 3 poor ones. That'll DO. And I loved the QB draw call! If nothing else, it gives Tab Perry a chance to earhole a LB. And all is forgiven on that 4th and goal misfire… The only discordant note in the performance was that Junior Taylor failed yet again to strive for the ball at its highest point on a bomb. Junior did make an outstanding, fully outstretched catch for a huge gain, but his failure to go after the ball with his hands on bombs has hurt the Bruins already this year, not to mention last year. Given the Bruins' depth at WR, it will be interesting to see if adjustments in the rotation will be made.

At this point, the Bruin O is clicking in a way not seen since 1997. Running plays on 3rd and long are getting first downs. The 1998 team wasn't nearly as effective at running the ball as the 2004 team is so far, nor was the 2001 team (which was too dependent on DeShaun Foster). Of course, the 2001 team never established a consistent passing attack. Only the 1997 team in recent memory combines the ability to run the ball big time, courtesy of Skip Hicks and a great OL, with a ravaging play-action passing attack, complete with much boot and roll-out action. The O clearly improved on the game one performance, which is such an encouraging (and unexpected on my part) sign. They took care of the ball, they played with ruthless efficiency and focus, and Tom Cable schemed and called a great game, even if the Bruins didn't call a draw or make a screen work. I haven't had this much fun watching the Bruins on O in years.

On the defensive side of the ball, sure enough the Bruins improved. Unfortunately, the Bruins still allowed over 200 yards rushing, a surprising total. The Illini didn't seem to have nearly enough big runs to generate 208 yards on the ground. But the numbers don't lie: the Illini averaged over 5 yards per rush. Brad Bower's 39 yards on scrambles certainly didn't help. But the Bruins successfully employed a "bend-but-don't-break" mindset that limited IL to 17 points, albeit a lot of yards.

Besides Spencer Havner, not many defensive players had particularly outstanding days. The secondary gave up three big pass plays, one for a TD, and one the result of a blown coverage/failed blitz attempt. Marcus Cassel and Matt Clark have yet to play exceptionally well after two games. Some radio pundits love to denigrate Matt Ware, but many now appreciate even more what a lock-down and run-supporting corner can do. Clark drew another flag, and Cassel should have. The Bruin corners will continue to be in the spotlight because the size/speed/strength ratios just aren't in their favor at this point in their careers.

Seeing CJ Niusulu on the field was a shocking surprise! Sure enough, CJ shredded a few double-teams. Unfortunately, all he could do was wave an arm at the running back as he sped by. Sorta like Justin London, at times. But it was great to see them not get re-injured, and play as well as they did.

Justin Hickman might have made the play of the game with his hit on a scramble that took Jon Beutjer out of the game for good. Chris Horton made a huge INT with his diving catch. Ben Emmanuel seems to love making tackles up around the ball carriers neck; pssst! Ben! It doesn't work…Yeah, the whole neck-tie thing is nice in theory; however, it doesn't compare to a solid shot to the solar plexsus from your face mask. Kevin Brown got driven 15 yards off the ball on one play, and then turned around the next play to blow by the OG and almost sack the QB. Kenneth Lombard got bowled over by double-teams a few times, but, like all the Bruins, he kept coming back with maximum effort on the next play.

And say what you will about the Bruin D at this point, but just say that they are playing with reckless abandon. Once the anchors in the middle get established (Brown, Niusulu and Effseaff), hopefully UCLA will put more teams into 3rd and long, a situation they've handled well so far. Improved health on D can't come soon enough. It will be nice to see Larry Kerr operate the D as well as Tom Cable is operating the O.

Brian Schneider's special teams are continuing to make big plays, and not give up big plays. Spencer Havner's blocked FG was a game-changer. Ben Lorier's deflected punt was a sign of things to come. Punt coverage has been good, UCLA has yet to be Perkins-ed. So far, so good.

Looking forward to Saturday, I expect the Bruins to roll over the Washington Huskies.

The Bruins have had the Huskies' number the last few years. The Bruins just seem to have a comfort level playing the purple and gold. Furthermore, the trend is upwards for UCLA right now, which is not the case at UW. The Huskies' head coach is in the cross-hairs, the program is still recovering from L'Affaire de Neu, they just got thumped by Fresno State, and there's a QB controversy to boot. (Sound familiar?)

The Bruins again seem to benefit from match-ups that work in UCLA's favor.

The Huskies really struggled on O v. FSU, but that might have a lot to do with Fresno's D. Bottom line, they didn't run the ball well, and both Casey Paus and Isiah Stanback struggled at QB. If the Bruins can again avoid the big play and hope that UW's lack of discipline results in turnovers, the D will have accomplished their mission. The return of Justin London and CJ Niusulu to the starting line-up will be nice to see, and I'm sure many eyes will be evaluating the performance of Aaron Whittington, Ben Emanuel, and the corners, Marcus Cassel and Matt Clark. The novelty of Eyoseph Effseaff at NG hasn't worn off for me, and it will be interesting to see how much progress he shows in game two.

On O, the Bruins are rolling. There was significant improvement, just as Bruindom hoped. Not only did execution improve (see the DO's mechanics, MoD's running decisions), but the play calling improved, too. The game planning improved. The Bruins have a full playbook this year, and Cable isn't afraid to delve into it. If the DO continues to spread it around and Bruin WRs go and get the ball, rather than trying to trap it, we could see some big numbers. The 335 lb Jordan Frisbee-White, a true FR NG for UW, will present a great challenge in the middle for Mike McCloskey. The Huskie D is aggressive and talented. And Phil Snow will run his patented cover 2 and blitz on 3rd and long. Expect to see draws, screens and swings on those situations, which may become huge game breakers.

Even with inclement weather, the Bruins will still gain about 450 yards total, with the DO throwing for over 300. Expect the Bruins to pin the Huskies' ears back, 42 to 10.

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