Mid-Term Grade: C

Our resident columnist, <b>Charles Chiccoa</b>, in his weekly Wednesday column, wakes up on the Cranky side of the bed after the Cal game, and gives us his mid-season assessment of the team...

Poor Elliott Smith's final album is coming out this week; just what I needed. I mean Elliott wasn't the happiest guy in the world, and after watching the Bruins get run over in Berkeley, neither am I. But what do I know? Even Cynical Dan and Buzz Bruin were satisfied with 45-28; must be something to do with expectations. Wayne Cook thought it was the Bruins' "best defensive performance of the year." I've never heard a Bruin so bubbly after a 17-point loss.

Sure, the defensive line is young, inexperienced and suffering from injuries and lack of muscle. With Justin Hickman and C.J. Niusulu missing, the defensive front got cut to pieces once again, this time for 290 yards. One only hopes they can hold onto their 115th place in rushing defense. But somehow I can't work up much enthusiasm for a 17-point moral victory, I don't care whom it's against. And the very questionable secondary didn't play much better. Marcus Cassel seems finally to have potentially lost his job (no surprise), but then freshman, Rodney Van, blew the tackle on Geoff McArthur's 80-yard backbreaker. All the same, it was still good to see Van, Trey Brown and Dennis Keyes get on the field, even though they didn't distinguish themselves. Together with Matt Clark, Jarrad Page and Chris Horton, they may bode well (or at least better) for the future. For me, the greatest defensive disappointment came with Larry Kerr.

After once again absorbing the opponent's first punch on Cal's opening touchdown drive, the defensive coordinator then called for significant heat on three consecutive 3rd down passing situations. And all three were successful, forcing three punts. Amazing! I think -- he's got it (or so I thought). Then, on the next drive, third and long, he comes with a three-man rush, dropping Eyoseph Efseaff into coverage. Aaron Rodgers naturally finds a wide open lane up the middle and runs for a first down. From that point on Cal's offense kicks into gear and begins humming.

Let's be absolutely clear: Kerr is a conservative coordinator. He's more comfortable in coverage than blitzing and bringing his secondary up. In fact he indicated that his biggest mistake in the game was in calling a particular blitz. He obviously subscribes to the old school belief of coverage over pressure, in keeping the ball in front of his DBs rather than rolling them up and "bringing the hammer," to use Tom Ramsey's favorite expression. His characteristic two deep look, especially with the likes of "Gentle Ben" Emanuel, takes his safeties almost out of the play. In a way it's a little like the old Woody Hayes offensive dictum ("only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad"). And just because he calls the occasional blitz doesn't mean he's happy about it, and I'm sure every offensive coordinator in the offensively sophisticated Pac-10, knowing that, feels much more secure because of it. Karl Dorrell, like many another head coach, initially paid lip service to installing a "pressure defense." Since he hasn't insisted on a change of philosophy, it's now pretty clear he's satisfied with Kerr's safer, more passive approach. It is his team after all.

Cal looks to be special, and except for their kicking game, they have no apparent weaknesses. If SC runs the table, I'd rather see them have to face the Bears a second time in the Orange Bowl than Oklahoma or any of the other contenders. If I had a vote today, I'd make Cal #2, and I hope they can run their table (the rest of their schedule sets up nicely, and I doubt we'll see any Miami style fiasco when they play their makeup date in Mississippi).

I hate to sound so Cranky, but if I didn't comment on those play calls out of that new tight formation deep in Cal territory (which ended the Bruins' last ounce of momentum), I wouldn't be completely honest. This came after Cal's Damyion Hughes did his best Emanuel impression as Tab Perry carried him, jockey-style, a full 27 yards! (establishing a new NCAA record). After Manny White goes for seven, Tom Cable calls another line plunge with Manny. Third and two, Cable comes out in that bizarre, tight alignment (something like the old Sanders short punt formation) with double tight ends, split backs and the tailback, eight yards deep, lined up directly behind the quarterback. Maurice Drew gets smacked a couple of yards behind the line of scrimmage, but spins off avoiding a loss. Fourth and one, in comes Manny, same formation, here we come again; Cal anticipates, sends the house, and Manny is buried for a loss. A very Conservative call, even arrogant; the "grind" is ground up. Those three plays, particularly the last two, spelled endgame. You notice a certain thread here, a theme perhaps?

KD, like his old college mentor, is conservative. And as good a coordinator as Cable has so far demonstrated, he may be a little too fond of the run, of pounding an opponent, of tipping off his intentions by formation and tendencies and personnel with not a lot of regard for misdirection or deception. Which isn't to say this offense isn't miles better than the Axman abortion of last year. But a team with as many deficiencies as the Bruins currently suffer from due to injuries (what else is new?) and inexperience might need to push the envelope a little more, on both sides of the ball, not to mention in the use of personnel, i.e., Maurice Drew and Manny in the same backfield and a more liberal use of the young DBs.

In the matter of Drew Olson, I think most Bruin fans have become realistic; you know, the Olson is Olson routine. But eight touchdowns in the last two weeks is nothing to turn your nose up at. Drew still doesn't throw well on the run, still doesn't see the field well, and isn't a noticeably accurate touch passer. He will, however, surprise you. The long touchdown to Joe Cowan was a thing of beauty (Leinart and Rodgers would have been proud of that one), as was the slant to Perry and a couple of others. He's getting rid of the ball quicker, his pocket presence is improving, and the Bruins have more things to worry about than Olson.

Though they got worked by the Bears, UCLA still has the second half of the season and the final, Dec. 4th, to redeem itself. The Bruins have beaten four stiffs and gotten embarrassed, defensively, by one decent team and one outstanding team. As long as KD is selling the season as "a learning experience," let's hope he's learned that this team is not going to grind up the opposition, that Mo can't run wild every week off stretch plays and cutbacks (he's a terrifying weapon for any defense to handle, and the increasing use of those little screens and dump-offs is encouraging), and that his defensive coordinator needs to get more aggressive. It's now clear the next four Saturdays will present a huge challenge each and every week. Right now, who can even begin thinking about SC?


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