Caffeine Overload

<b>Wednesday Column</b>: Charles Chiccoa takes a look at the Pac-10 after a few cups of coffee, and notes that the Pac-10 opponents UCLA will face this season might be a bit more formidable than once believed...

I had to laugh when Kevin Modesti, in the Daily News, seemed surprised that USC hadn't learned some humility from their first half scare up on The Farm: "The Trojans strutted off the field as usual… They celebrated in front of their traveling rooting section as if it had been a blowout and then whooped and danced their way to the locker room." So what else is new? I mean what does he think is the secret to their football tradition if not the myth that no mere mortals can stand up to the "mas macho," fearless and "most talented" men of Troy once the pressure meter hits red, once they've finally reduced the game to a battle of wills, their beloved "big man on big man." Thus the second half of the Stanford game, which saw SC slowly strangle the little… uh, chop down the cute little… uh, finally rub out the… ah, the friggin' Cardinal for Godsakes. (Don't you just love the absurdities of political correctness, especially when so perfectly matched to the arch pretensions which fit so comfortably Leland Stanford Jr. University, their "outrageous" band, their whole wretched Marin County vibe. I mean every time I pass through the Bay Area I'm more thankful than ever for not having buckled down in high school. Truly, I don't know which school I hate more, USC or Stanford.) Hmmm… perhaps I should have passed on that fourth cup of coffee; or maybe I'm just hung over with disappointment.

There was an old Disney cartoon I remember seeing as a kid, "Motor Mania." Sort of Donald Duck with road rage. The mild mannered Donald gets behind the wheel of his car and turns into Mr. Hyde. I seem to get a little whack, myself, each Saturday in late summer, early fall. By mid-November I seem to have a little better handle on things because the picture has become clearer. By this time, the Bruins have reached a kind of level; they're already a kind of winner, or loser, or maybe still on the cusp. In any case, I have a rough idea the direction they're headed. They're either meeting expectations, underachieving, or they've already tanked. But now, today, we're still in the manic season. I don't shout much when I'm actually at a game, but it's somehow different watching a game on TV. I shout and brood over the words and images; if anyone else happens to be watching the game with me (I do not talk to myself) things come out of my mouth that may be a bit excessive. "Mean spirited" doesn't begin to describe my unrestrained malevolence.

As soon as SC snuffed Stanford's opening non-drive after a great second half kickoff return, it was only a question of how long it would take the Trojans to dispatch their next victim. In the first half we were treated to an interview with the Trent Edwards clan, while Trent was in the process of completing 20 of 26 passes. Instead of exulting over the kid's extraordinary performance, they seemed circumspect (almost politic), heaping praise on their son's teammates don't you know. You could feel their insecurity. By the end of the game, Pete Carroll was feeling so relieved and magnanimous he had Matt Leinart taking a knee rather than rolling up one more inevitable score on the completely demoralized Cardinal. Stanford was one well done bird… or faded red… whatever. My dark side kept hoping the sideline reporter would run down the Edwards clan again. "36 yards of total offense! What's up with that, huh?"

It sure looked as if Stanford tried to sit on their first half lead after that freakish, last second, 82 yard sprint by J.R. Lemon. Generic coaches will never learn that playing it safe will, more often than not, break your heart. Buddy Teevens (what a perfect name for a Stanford coach) seemed to go soft, pulled in his horns, gave up any kind of initiative he might have exploited in the third quarter and chose to die the death of a thousand cuts. Rather than go full out and try to build on his team's shocking halftime lead, he started running the ball and relying on A.J. Cristof's slack 3-4 defensive front (Why do people continue to hire failed Bruin defensive coaches?). SC pressured the line of scrimmage, rolled up their dbs and blitzed the Cardinal until they came apart like wet newspaper. In the second half, Edwards might as well have been Rob Walker. I used to marvel at the shamelessness of the Bruin coaching staff, during the Donahue years, when they'd constantly be urging their players to "compete, compete" while they, themselves, (like Buddy last Saturday) would so often choose to play it safe, or, in Terry Donahue's favorite locution, "live to fight another day." Some life…

The Pac-10 is beginning to look a lot more formidable than we initially figured. SC, Cal and Arizona St., today, all belong in the top dozen teams, nationally. We won't know where UCLA fits in the conference until at least after the Cal game. Needless to say, their next two home games need to be impressive wins. Washington appears to be the only sick man of the Pac-10 (pray, they don't snag Urban Meyer). There are at the very least a couple of other conference teams, plus Notre Dame, that should give SC more pause for thought than Stanford, whose lines on both sides of the ball seemed less than impressive.

Once you get past brains, talent and quality depth, the most important characteristic of winning football is confidence and aggression (otherwise known as heart). Football is the closest major sport to boxing, and that's why, with the exception of Red Sanders and Dick Vermeil, this lack of a bully mentality has kept UCLA from being a serious national player. Even Tommy Prothro, as good a coach as he was, favored a more abstract, cerebral style of play while indulging in some serious sandbagging (as opposed to standing up and winning from in front). You could see it in his defenses, even in his recruiting. I remember he used to talk about something I believe he called "the hitting position," which seemed to have something to do with taking your man on low, which may be why he recruited so many fireplugs as interior linemen. John McKay used to say Prothro never knew how to block a running play, by which I presume he meant SC's style of blowing your man off the line, overpowering him, pancaking him.

UCLA has talent, some of it outstanding. At the moment, as we all know, there's not much size or experience on the defense, and little useful depth. By November, this could change some with improved health, added experience and some people stepping up. Drew Olson still needs to have a breakout game. He's improved and is obviously more comfortable freed from that pathological offense he had to suffer last year. The missing ingredient, so far this season, is a feared passing threat. Teams will undoubtedly try forcing Olson to beat them over the top, especially with Craig Bragg out, rather than allowing Maurice Drew, Manuel White and the offensive line to shred a conventional alignment up front. More than anything UCLA needs success, needs to handle the stiffs with authority, needs a big win in a big game. Confidence, aggression and winning are the only things that can begin to bury that infernal, loser's myth of the gutty little Bruins.

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