Two Yards from Meltdown

<B>WEDNESDAY COLUMN: </B> The Bruins, after their win against Washington, still teeter precariously between success and scariness. Can the defense turn it around? Call me a Blue, but they can't be this bad...

Come to think of it, all is very much not well that ends well. Not that I'd ever gainsay a Pac-10 road win, especially at this point, especially in Seattle (I don't care who their coach is). The Bruins are in desperate straits defensively, yet they've staggered through a couple of pressure-packed, must wins and come wobbling home, still viable, to a well-earned bye week. The pressure on this team, especially the coaching staff, is enormous, and if the Bruins would have blown this one to the Huskies it might well have signaled the beginning of the end. It wouldn't have been Miami, but it would have been the next thing to it. Imagine the echoes bouncing off all those empty seats at the Rose Bowl for San Diego State had Charles Frederick been able to advance that last catch just one more body length. Aztec fans might have outnumbered Bruin fans.

So what happened on the misfired "freeze play" when the Bruins were obviously trying to draw the Huskies offside? The Washington lineman looked like he bobbed his head into the neutral zone, the line judge (who had been making questionable spots all game) either choked or did a homer, but the upshot was that Washington had life where there should have been all but none. And how many times have we seen this before (not closing out an opponent has become one more unwanted Bruin tradition). I believe UCLA either invented or resurrected the "freeze play;" in any case it's consistent with their finesse image. On the face of it, it was an obvious call, the conventional call in fact, and looked as if it had worked. But this play has been known to misfire, the defensive player jumps back before the center snaps the ball and the quarterback has to take the knee since the offensive line cannot move, cannot block, in order to force the officials to penalize the only team that has movement. Nine more seconds would've run off the clock had the Bruins come out in punt formation, which, after the punt play, would have left something around 25 seconds for the Dawgs to go at least 80 yards with no time outs and a Paus at quarterback. You make the call.

Nationally, most of this has been buried in the wake of Maurice Drew's extraordinary performance (he looked "mahvelous"). At the very least Mo was able to register the Bruins on the national consciousness, or at least put himself there, which is all to the good. One hopes all BROs are now sufficiently clued in to just how valuable this little jet-propelled pinball really is. He's UCLA's greatest running back recruit since Freeman McNeil came out of Banning High nearly thirty years ago. He's certainly the best reason to come out to the Rose Bowl since Cade. Enjoy him while you can.

If any of us were unsure how overwhelmingly important coaching is, the turnaround in the offensive line should be the clincher. Same guys… different coach, different blocking schemes, different offensive design, different play calling, different results. As I never tire of preaching, these guys are always the scapegoats when an offense goes south with a generic O-line coach, bum coordinators and a run of inexperienced, mediocre quarterbacks. And don't even try the "one year older" gambit. These guys likely always had it from a physical standpoint, they just needed help in the form of leadership and imagination, which is what Tom Cable is paid to provide, and what Mark Weber and Steve Axman failed to deliver. This is not to say they'll always have the kind of days they've known so far this season, but it is to say they're absolutely not the stiffs and underachievers they've been accused of being. Even this spring, with that little, walk-on, redshirt freshman center, Brian Rubenstein, this O-line looked unlike what we saw last year. And all this talk about "grinding," the "way of the grind," "embrace the grind," whatever it is, you can actually see it! Did you notice the way the O-line was breaking the huddle, even on the last drive? Coming to the line of scrimmage, they looked brisk, fresh, almost frisky. They were pretty obviously confident and having fun.

So, what's up with the defense? They're not having much fun at all. Can they really be this bad? Call me crazy, but I still doubt it. A number of things seem to be ailing them, not all of them injuries and youth. First and foremost, it ought to be understood that Larry Kerr is a "Conservative" coordinator. All his instincts tend toward pinching the run, keeping the ball in front of his defensive backs, playing his safeties deep, dropping his linebackers in coverage as much as possible. Does this mean he won't blitz and press? Or break his base defense? No. But he'd much rather not. He'd rather contain than attack. He's old school. Indeed, he begins to remind me of Dana Carvey's Grumpy Old Man (and if his defense doesn't begin turning around, he's going to get a lot grumpier). I would guess he's around the same age as Pete Carroll, but he looks and acts a lot older. Call him the anti-Carroll… Uncle Larry. Pete's all dash and daring. Uncle Larry doesn't seem to like change a lot, avoids gambling, prefers the safe, percentage play. He's still a step up from the last three lemons but wouldn't you like to see a little more juice?

Beyond all of that, it can't be hopeless. Spencer Havner is big enough, he's fast enough, and, doggone it, people have to gameplan around him. Kevin Brown is beginning to round into shape after his injury, and at least C.J. Niusulu didn't re-injure himself. One hopes Justin London will be kept off the field until at least the big test in Berkeley. The bye week, then the next two home games, should tell us a lot. Wesley Walker made a few plays inside. There's speed and instincts (if not much size) with Bruce Davis and Aaron Whittington. Ben Lorier made a couple of plays. Matt Clark seems a bit harder this year, a bit more aggressive. Brigham Harwell didn't seem to get enough plays (and if not, why?). Jarrad Page looked okay; he hasn't suddenly become chopped liver. Kyle Morgan didn't look ready. Casey Paus seemed more comfortable throwing at Marcus Cassel, who needs to be challenged at his corner. Finally, inevitably, there's the problem of Ben Emanuel. In pre-season, you heard talk about replacing him with Chris Horton if he kept making mistakes, if he kept getting beaten. Well? From the first play of the game, when he whiffed on the tailback, who then went for 15 yards, to his, uh… bizarre attempt on the pick which would have ended the game one play earlier, he had another poor game. Other than a little woofing and posturing, I don't know what it is he does well… At least he helped Clark bring down Frederick on that last play.

It seems to me what this defense needs, especially the defensive front, is stability, some decisiveness from the coaching staff. Quit experimenting; quit mixing and matching; forget those infernal hockey line-changes. Find your most effective guys during the bye week, pare down the rotations, begin to create a unit that can work together. Karl Dorrell has been hinting at this sort of thing, but we've yet to see him insist on it. And if that fails, we'll all just pray the offense quits turning the ball over and starts putting up 40 points a game. But then who wants to sit through a flip side of last year. Bob Toledo may enjoy this kind of football, but, for the rest of us, this stuff is not fun.


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