ASU Review: The Bigger Picture

Every year there is a game that makes us turn from specific game analysis to bigger-picture analysis. The Arizona State game was definitely this game this season. It brings up the question: What's it going to take this season -- and beyond -- for the UCLA program to turn the corner?

In the future, when UCLA fans look back, they very well could cite the Arizona State game as an immensely pivotal one.

Pivotal for the season, for the program, and for Karl Dorrell.

Losing to Arizona State, 48-42, makes UCLA 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in the Pac-10 with four games remaining.

There's a huge difference between 4-3/2-2, and 5-2/3-1. It's the potential difference between a winning season and a losing one. Between Karl Dorrell turning the corner or still being mired in doubt. It's the difference between being able to recruit elite players and going after sleepers. 

It's not that the team is now definitely going to have an unsuccessful season. But it has a severely lessened margin for error than it did a week ago.  It has definitely put the team and the coaching staff with their backs against the wall.  They have been approaching the crossroad for the last 1 ½ seasons, and they now have arrived there.

UCLA has four games remaining: Next week against Stanford at home, then Washington State at home, Oregon on the road and then USC.

So, realistically, conceding a loss against USC, to definitely be able to put a positive spin on the season, they'd have to sweep Stanford, Washington State and Oregon to go 7-4.  If they win two of the next three games, they're 6-5 and 4-4, they're in a minor bowl game, and it's considered a mediocre season. Only a win in that bowl game could possibly put a partially good, final spin on such a season.

If they lose two of those three, they're 5-6 and well, let's not talk about it.

This situation would definitely constitute your back being up against the wall and being at a crossroad.

It's wild, too, since you would never think that so much could hinge on possibly one, single moment. But you could make a case that, with 7:21 left in the fourth quarter against ASU and leading 42-31, that could be remembered as such a pivotal moment.  You'd have to think that the coaching staff and the entire program would do anything to rewind to that moment to play it over again.

But let's not re-hash the details of the game. 

You know, every year there's a game during the season where we shift our weekly analysis from detailed game analysis to more bigger-picture analysis.

This definitely was the game.

So, looking at it from a bigger-picture perspective, here's something for you to consider, given the crossroads that the team and program are at now in the season: What does Karl Dorrell have to do now to be successful?

Teams in college football win because of three elements: coaching, talent and experience. 

The coaching element is obvious. Look what a good offensive coordinator and offensive line coach has done to turning around UCLA's offense.  Yes, you could say that UCLA's offense is benefitting from more experience, but that wouldn't be enough to attribute the jump in effectiveness from last year to this year.  Offensive coordinator and line coach Tom Cable has to get a great deal of credit for the offensive turnaround. Also, to make the case that coaching makes a huge difference, look at the impact that Jeff Tedford has made at Cal.

Experience is key. Cal is a good example this year, benefitting greatly from a senior-laden team.  Stanford is a program that is always a good example of how experience can be such a huge factor. Stanford is traditionally a football program that, inherently, is limited in getting enough talent to compete consistently at the top of the Pac-10 conference. But every few years, they inadvertently get a bit more talent that they then inadvertently combine with an experienced group of seniors and they have a team that competes for a Pac-10 championship.  

Then there is talent. You have to be able to bring in talent to your program consistently to be a consistently good program. 

Now, in considering Karl Dorrell's UCLA program in relation to those three elements, there are some questions.

First, when it comes to coaching, the jury is still out. Cable has pretty much convinced us that he's the real deal with the offense.  And while we've been defending defensive coordinator Larry Kerr for most of the season, advocating that he's been doing about as much as he could with the talent he has, you'd have to say that it's still undetermined whether the defense is in capable coaching hands.  Last year, of course, the defense was good, but they were stocked with experienced talent that is now playing professionally.  This year was the year Kerr had to prove to us that he could really coach, and it hasn't been proven.  Last year, the offense was 110th among 117 Division 1-A programs, and it got the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach fired. As of right now, UCLA's defense is 108th overall in the nation in total defense after Saturday's game. 

No matter what, in any given year, there is no way UCLA should ever be ranked 108th or 110th in either offense or defense.  In an off year, UCLA should maybe slip to, say, 80th. UCLA can always get enough talent to be better than 110th.

And there just is no way that UCLA should ever have this poor of a rushing defense. A program like Washington State, year in and year out, must have worse recruiting holes in their roster than UCLA has this year on defense, and they've never had a defense this bad against the run. 

So, if you want to let Kerr off the hook, you would then have to attribute it to a bizarre aberration in talent level on defense.  But if you do that, then whose fault is that? Can you really pull out the Bob Toledo card again?  This coaching staff has had the chance to recruit for two years and hasn't brought in a truly big-impact recruit on defense besides possibly Brigham Harwell.  It has been frightfully hurting at linebacker, and there hasn't been an impact linebacker recruited in the last two years. 

And that leads us to the third element of success in college football -- talent.  Looking down the line in the next couple of years, as we wrote earlier in the season, the program doesn't appear to be bringing in a large amount of elite, impact recruits.  There just isn't that many among the young players on the team.  And we have something to gauge it by; back in the recruiting halcyon days when UCLA put together two 10-2 seasons back-to-back in the late 1990s, as a result, UCLA was involved with a huge amount of elite players from around the country and signing a dozen top-100 level recruits. Those guys would come into the program and immediately stand out. Guys like Robert Thomas, DeShaun Foster and Mike Seidman. A player like Freddie Mitchell. Guys who were ranked #1 at their position in the country, or close to it. Guys like Marcedes Lewis.

Even the most even-keeled, objective eye would have to admit that UCLA just isn't involved with that level of recruit anymore.  Their recruiting of the last two years, and of this current recruiting class of 2005, consists more of a couple of impact guys, a bunch of solid prospects, and then a good dose of sleepers. 

Can this level of recruiting get it done in the Pac-10? Can it make UCLA a perennial winner and a top 20 team nationally?

It's tough. Generally you'd have to say no, that this level of talent isn't going to make you a consistent top 20 team and a Pac-10 competitor year in and year out.

What it does is make you, well, Stanford.  You would, every few years, happen to put together a team that is senior-laden, and maybe had a couple of sleepers on it that panned out.  Every few years you'd put together a team that could compete for a Pac-10 championship and be a top 20 national team. But the Stanford Scenario isn't going to fly at UCLA.

Now, it's understandable that Dorrell doesn't have the juice yet to be able to successfully recruit elite, impact players.  He was an unknown commodity coming in as a head coach and he took over a program that was down (Here you can pull the Toledo card), in many different aspects that are too involved to get into here.  It's the age-old Catch-22 - you can't recruit on an elite level until you play on an elite level, and you can't play on an elite level until you recruit on an elite level.

So, how does any new coach get to the point where they can recruit on an elite level?  Either one of a couple of ways. One way is to be a far superior coach and they take an averagely talented team and make them very competitive, and recruits start jumping on board. Or you get lucky. In the coach's first couple of years, he has a senior-laden team, with a couple of sleepers that panned out, and they have a successful season.  And then impact recruits jump on board.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say that Dorrell's staff wouldn't be able to do it the former way. But, it's very likely they'd have the best chance of doing it the latter way.

Sometime in the first three years of a coach's tenure, he has to put together a year when they get at least 8 wins and played solidly on both sides of the field. 

After seeing the offense in fall camp, we all had hopes that it could be this season. We were hoping that, with the injuries to the defensive line, that by mid-season they'd come around. 

But it doesn't look like it's going to happen this season. Now, this isn't a cut-and-dry, black-and-white kind of situation. A season of 7-4 would definitely help in recruiting.  A season, actually, of 6-5 and a win in a bowl game wouldn't damage recruiting.  With how the offense has looked, even going 6-6 could be marketable to recruits. It's easier to sell a team that has a successful offensive scheme. It's just plainly more glamorous. You can always tell defensive recruits, "Hey, we have an offense, but we just need you for defense."

But 5-6 won't work.

Next season looks to be the real chance of scenario #2 happening.  UCLA will have a far more experienced team for the 2005 season.  On offense, it will primarily need some younger wide receivers to step up, but there is probably enough on the roster to be serviceable.  On defense, even though they're not overly talented inherently, you'd have to expect them to be better next season by being more experienced. UCLA also has a pretty favorable schedule.

But putting it together next season, really, isn't enough.  UCLA has to make this season respectable if it hopes to be able to sell itself to recruits.  That's the challenge for the program for the rest of the season.  After last season was put decidedly in the "bad" column, to be able to recruit better, the program needs to be able to put this season in at least the "getting better" column.  But another season in the "bad" column, two in a row, could very well dig a hole for the program too deep for it to climb out of in recruiting.  Even an 8-win season in 2005 might not do it.

There is one more wild card in this: Ben Olson.  The quarterback who graduated from Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High as the #1 prospect in the country, then went to BYU, and then on a Mormon Mission, will return home November 2nd.  He is now a recruitable athlete.

Olson is a difference-maker.  I watched a Fox replay of a T.O.-Westlake game from 2001 and was reminded of exactly how talented he is.  If UCLA gets Ben Olson, it gives them another breath of a chance.  He would not only give you a tremendous boost on the field in being able to be successful, but he'd boost your overall recruiting. He's one of those pied-piper recruits - others want to join him and play with him. If Olson came to UCLA, it would essentially give Dorrell a longer time to turn it around.  By getting Olson, fans, boosters, and the administration would then probably give Dorrell more time to see what he could do with him.  If Olson looked good pretty quickly, the Pied-Piper Effect would then also kick in more substantially.  We saw it happen with Cade McNown dramatically. In fact, any good feelings today's recruits have about UCLA are still a direct result of McNown's impact on the program.

Without Ben Olson, given the just okay talent the program has brought in and is currently recruiting, you couldn't really see it taking off.  At least, taking off beyond the Stanford Scenario, and the Stanford Scenario isn't good enough for a UCLA coach to keep his job. For one, there isn't enough talent at quarterback to do it after Drew Olson leaves.  Pat Cowan, the current true freshman, is better than expected, but it's highly unlikely he's a program-saver.  UCLA's committed high school senior, Osaar Rasshan, is a talented athlete, but a long ways away from being a productive college quarterback.  If it did kick in for Rasshan, say, by his redshirt sophomore year (which would be the 2007 season), Dorrell would probably be a receivers coach in the NFL by then.

So, here are the scenarios:

No matter how UCLA finishes this year, if it gets Ben Olson, you can probably be confident that Dorrell will have job security and the program would potentially have the chance to dramatically improve over the next few years.  It would really help to get 7 wins this year, either in the regular season or with a bowl game, which would help in recruiting and getting Olson some better talent around him in the next several years.  If they go 6-6 or 5-6, really the best chance of turning it around would then be Ben Olson signing a National Letter of Intent. 

If UCLA doesn't get Ben Olson, it would have to win seven games this season, either in the regular season, or 6 regular season games and the bowl game, for Dorrell to be able to sell the program to recruits as having turned a corner. It would have to do that in combination with probably an 8-win season next year. 

If UCLA doesn't get Ben Olson, and it goes 6-6 or worse this season, it's bleak.

Every scenario discussed here puts this week's Stanford game in the absolute must-win column. If UCLA loses to Stanford and falls to 4-4 and 2-3, saying its back is up against the wall would be an understatement.  It would then have to beat both Washington State and Oregon (on the road), and then win its bowl game for it to pull out a season that could be put in the "getting better" column. 

Saturday against ASU, with 7:21 left in the fourth quarter, leading 42-31, it felt like, for a short moment, that the UCLA program under Dorrell had actually turned that corner.  But it actually then, took a decidedly wrong turn.  It's going to have a few more opportunities this season to approach that crossroad this season, on the field, and off (in the recruitment of Ben Olson).  It will be interesting to see which direction the program then turns.

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