Step up and Ride the Rollercoaster

<b>Oregon Game Analysis</b>: The rollercoaster that is the UCLA football program, after taking a unexpected dip last week, unexpectedly took a turn upward this week in beating Oregon, 34-26. Will this be thought of as the game when Karl Dorrell's UCLA program turned the corner?

If you don't like rollercoasters, you can't be a UCLA football fan.

If you are - and do - man, do we have the perfect team and program for you.

UCLA followed up perhaps its most disappointing loss in the last several years with easily the biggest victory of Karl Dorrell's two-year coaching career, beating Oregon, 34-26, and thoroughly out-playing the favored Ducks. 

It was easily the biggest win in the last two seasons in terms of UCLA actually beating a favored team.

And it was easily the biggest win of the last two years in terms of what it means for the program and Karl Dorrell.

UCLA, after the decimating loss to Washington State last week, had its back up against the wall.  Beating Washington State was supposed to be the victory that got this year's Bruins bowl eligible, and gave the program the ability to sell progress to its fans and recruits. But the Bruins blew that opportunity last week. It then faced two more regular season games - against Oregon in Eugene, and against USC - where easily UCLA would be the underdog. 

So, the underdog, with its back shoved up very hard against the wall,  pulled it off. In a dramatic shift, UCLA played with its most passion and energy of the season after its most dismal effort of the season against WSU a week ago.

The victory gives UCLA six wins, making them bowl eligible, and dashes the prospect of a 5-6 season, no bowl, and what many could have characterized as a step backward for Dorrell's program.  Dorrell now can easily point to progress in his program, going from 6-7 a season a year ago to possibly a 7-5 mark (dare we even envision another win?).  Dorrell has done many things to turn around the infrastructure of the program, and the overall attitude and commitment, but he needed it to manifest on the field, the scoreboard and the record books. The win against Oregon more than likely enabled that.

There was also a stigma hanging over the program, one that might have been earned legitimately in the last several years, that it folds down the stretch of the season. Bob Toledo's last few teams had some pretty dramatic late-season collapses and, unfortunately, so did Dorrell's first Bruin team a year ago. This was Dorrell's first win after October, having lost the last five games of last season in November and December, and losing last weekend to Washington State. It definitely helps shake off some of those monkeys.

We've been talking about crossroads and turning corners all season.  UCLA had driven its bus up to the crossroads a couple of times this year, but then run into the ditch. If Dorrell in fact does turn around the program and gets it consistently successful, when you look back, this Oregon game could be the victory that many consider Dorrell's corner turning.

In terms of the game itself, it was almost a microcosm of the rollercoaster-esque, up-and-down Dorrell program.

A quarterback goes from having one of his worst, most disappointing performance a week earlier, to perhaps his best performance as a collegian.

A year ago, the weakest link of the team was its running game, and in this game it proved to ultimately be the element that won and preserved the victory and the season.

While on one hand, it's completely clear how the coaching staff has improved, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. But then it is also perplexing on the other hand how it managed the game on the field.

A defense goes from being pretty bad in its first seven games, to bizarrely very good in one game, back to horrendous in the next game, to then good this week.

The game had very dramatic momentum shifts. UCLA would own it, then sloppily hand it back over to Oregon, to then aggressively wrestle it back again.

Some other specific notes on the game:

-- Drew Olson's passing numbers weren't the most impressive of his career - 12 of 21 for 215 yards and one touchdown pass. But that's why statistics aren't always a reliable gauge for a performance. It was very arguably Olson's best of his UCLA career, playing practically error-free ball, executing well, and making some very big plays scrambling.  In fact, can we just talk about how, particularly on that one third-down scramble in the second quarter, Olson went from looking like his usual Dan-Fouts-type athlete to a Steve-Young type?  Where did those wheels and moves come from?  And it wasn't a fluke. On the day, Olson scrambled for 59 highly critical yards, many that elicited big first downs. He seemed to always make the best decision in opting to run and seemed to know exactly where he had to go to fall over that first down marker.

-- There were quite a few players that qualified for the offensive game ball, but the award probably had to go to Manuel White.  Talking about first downs, he was anointed Mr. First Down on Saturday.  There were so many times when White was carrying the ball on third down, either on a run or a pass, and he got hit five yards before the first-down marker and always fell across that made-for-TV yellow first down line. White definitely ran with some newfound explosiveness and quickness. 

-- Chris Markey, the freshman running back, is not only talented, but has ice waters in the veins. With Maurice Drew out, the 18-year-old stepped in without a flinch, running for 134 yards while taking a pounding and not fumbling. 

-- It's easy to see just how good individually center Mike McCloskey is when you watch the tape of the game closely. But it's almost freaky how much better the offense is when he's in the game. Whether it's coincidental or not, let's not find out anymore.  The offensive line had generally a very good day, sometimes opening up huge running holes against what was considered a very good run defense. While Oregon had three sacks, two of them were coverage sacks. 

-- While many fans in the BRO chat room Saturday were calling for UCLA to not go into an offensive conservative shell in the second half, the choice of the coaching staff to put the ball literally in the hands of its running game proved to ice the victory. In the fourth quarter, up 31-26 with a little over 7 minutes remaining in the game, UCLA took over the ball at its own 28-yard line. Everyone conscious knew UCLA would try to run the ball. And they did. They ran on nine of the next twelve plays and drove the field, taking those precious five minutes off the clock, to put Justin Medlock in position to split the uprights with his 50-yard field goal.  UCLA's offensive line blew open holes in that drive and its ball carriers were running downhill toward the first down marker against a beat Oregon defense. 

-- Justin Medlock is another one with ice in his veins, and some considerable talent in his foot. Earlier in the season, during practice, I watched while Medlock did a little impromptu, individual drill. He first teed up the ball about 10 yards away from the goal post, and kicked the ball and perfectly hit the crossbar. I thought it was just dumb luck. But Medlock proceeded to do it about a dozen times in a row, with uncanny accuracy, nailing the crossbar perfectly every time.  Not to over-use the word, but it's almost freaky that someone can be that accurate in an act so variable as kicking a spheroid. And he, again showed that amazing accuracy on Saturday, hitting two out of three field goals from 50-yards or more, becoming the first UCLA kicker in history to hit two 50+-yarders in one game.

-- On the BRO message board, various posters brought up an amazing fact for the game: If someone would have told you before the game that Craig Bragg, Tab Perry and Marcedes Lewis wouldn't catch a pass would you have been dumb enough to predict a UCLA victory?

-- Also surprising was Oregon's offensive game plan. Was it out of stubbornness that Oregon insisting on throwing the ball?  The Ducks have a very good running game, and they were going up against the worst rushing defense in the conference. So many UCLA opponents before them had proven running against UCLA works, clearly. Did the Oregon coaches somehow lose the tape of every UCLA game so far this season? Oregon rushed for 145 yards on just 29 carries, for 5 yards per carry (which was more productive per rush than UCLA's running game). It was perhaps one of the biggest factors in the outcome of the game, that the Oregon coaches, for whatever reason, chose to try to be "balanced" when they didn't have to be.  

-- The play of the game -- and perhaps the season -- was Junior Taylor's 83-yard touchdown reception toward the end of the third quarter that put UCLA up 31-20.  Oregon had wrestled away the mo. They had scored on their previous two possessions, and UCLA was melting down a bit. UCLA had definitely gone into its run-the-ball-in-the-second-half mode, which many fans question but, you have to admit, has consistently worked this year to ice victories.  It almost appeared that it might not in this game, with Oregon climbing back in at 24-20.  UCLA's offense looked out of sync at the time.  Then Drew Olson threw a pretty dart to Taylor, who caught the ball in stride on a slant pattern, avoided a gambling Oregon safety, and sprinted down the field for the decisive touchdown.  Oregon's tires deflated after that.  They couldn't muster any offense in three succeeding possessions and their defense was on their heels.

-- Because of circumstances ending the first half, if UCLA had lost this game, there was a potential for a meltdown in the UCLA community the likes of which had never been seen.  Nothing Steve Lavin- or Bob Toledo-related might have rivaled it.  UCLA took over possession with 1:28 left in the half from their own 27-yard line. UCLA then got to its own 46, but inexplicably ran down the clock a good 40 seconds to 26 seconds left - before calling a timeout. The offense then advanced the ball to the Oregon 28 but ran out of time, the clock expiring for the half. In Medlock's range, time enough for one more play would have possibly meant, at the very least, three more points. Those 40 seconds, in fact, are probably good for close to six plays, at least, which, with the ball at the Oregon 28-yard-line, is very doable for a potential touchdown.  For close to the next two hours, I mumbled to myself, "Man, if they lose by a field goal, or even a touchdown, the meltdown over the clock management at the end of the half is going to be nuclear."

Luckily it didn't come to that.

And that's how quickly things can change, in a game, a season, and a program. And how amazingly so much can turn on one moment, even one play, seemingly.  UCLA went from visions of a turn-around 8-4 season two weeks ago, to a gloomy apparition of a step-back 5-6 season, to now potentially what the program can sell as a step-forward mark of 7-5. 

It can take your outlook on that rollercoaster ride, at one moment thinking there is no way this team would have a chance at beating USC (in the aftermath of the poor performance against WSU) to then envisioning a competitive game against the Trojans.

And, if you try to channel yourself into the Mind of Ben Olson (the basis of a new movie coming out, done by the filmmakers of "Being John Malkovich"), you can easily see how this win changes things. A week ago, watching UCLA lose at the Rose Bowl against WSU, it would have brought up questions about whether Dorrell's program was moving in a positive direction, which would definitely be a factor for the Mind of Ben Olson. But this win over Oregon salvages the prospect of a positive direction.

So, while it's been amazingly precarious, with your outlook on the program able to seemingly go either way depending on the week, or even the play, the win over Oregon might put down a stronger foundation of a positive outlook. That's not to say the outlook won't shift again. But given this win, and its implications for the season and possibly the recruitment of Ben Olson, it might keep your outlook from swaying too far the other way the next time it goes swaying. 

But to keep consistently with the original analogy, it might not be a matter of swaying back and forth, but of violently going up and down.  Could it actually be that the rollercoaster of the UCLA football program possibly came around the corner in Oregon this weekend and now has mostly tracks going upward ahead of it? 

You never know with this thrill ride.  


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