Chiccoa: It's All About Aggressiveness

Our columnist, <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> chimes in with his weekly Wednesday column, getting back on topic -- <i>the</i> topic: the USC game. He calls for this team to set their own style of aggressiveness, starting this week...

We all know, of course, it's not all about anything, but the phrase is a handy rhetorical device and we know what it signifies: in this case that football is a game that rewards aggressiveness and penalizes playing it safe. Say what you will about the Bruins' hated rival, SC football hasn't been known for playing it safe. Sadly that can't be said about UCLA. "Going for it" hasn't always been the Bruin way. To make it absolutely clear, we're talking here about the old attack vs. conservative paradigm.

Since it's hard to find anything substantial concerning local sports history, most of our opinions of Bruin football are confined to what we've seen, what we remember from first-hand knowledge. Everything else is from secondary sources, if you will, basically what we glean from the media (and therefore superficial). My own primary knowledge of Bruin football doesn't extend further back than the Red Sanders era, and not even the very beginning of that. I don't really remember "Tiny Teddy Narleski" and 39-0, but I do remember, distinctly, the guy who took Narleski's job, Paul Cameron; as a kid I did a fair impression of his run/pass tailback moves. So I can't tell you whether Bert LaBrucherie's impressive post-WW II team played it safe, let alone the old Bill Spaulding teams, but I can say that Red Sanders went after an opponent aggressively, was not overly concerned with adjusting to his opponent's game or anything else that might have worked against stepping on the opposition early, keeping him down and demoralized. Dick Vermeil and Tommy Prothro were somewhat similar, but a little less so. Sanders' teams had the same sort of swagger and relaxed confidence as John McKay's teams, and, of course, John Wooden's teams of the sixties and seventies. And something not ordinarily mentioned is that Sanders was only a few years older than Wooden, yet, because of his early death, most Bruin fans, in my experience, are pretty unfamiliar with the Sanders style, but are, of course, very familiar with the Wooden style, and thus the living legend, himself. Sanders, unfortunately for Bruin sports history, drank too deeply of the good life, squeezed out a bit more life than he could handle. Had he been more Wooden-like, we'd likely not have had the McKay era, and therefore the whole modern era of SC football, however you wish to regard it. After Sanders, UCLA football has tended to be associated with the careful, conservative style of Terry Donahue. Only Cade McNown and Rocky Long briefly contradicted the "softer" perception of UCLA football, the poor-mouthing "gutty little Bruins," especially as opposed to the big, bad Trojans across town. And that perception dogs Bruin football to this day.

What does it mean, in concrete terms, to not play conservatively? I remember a Wooden team of the late fifties playing an Ohio State championship team, Jerry Lucas and those guys, at the Sports Arena in the old Los Angeles Classic. Even then Wooden played the style we're all familiar with, only he was short the outstanding talent on the floor he would later earn. The Bruins surprisingly stayed with the Buckeyes in the first half, then collapsed under the weight of Ohio State's excellence in the second half and lost by 20 or so. But Wooden stayed with his style, didn't slow it down, or sit on the ball, or run clock. He played it out, wanted to see what would happen without compromising the way he believed his team should play. He, too, made little concession to the opposition, no matter the apparent mismatch. John McKay did the same thing when he went for a last-second, two-point conversion and the win vs. a favored, highly-ranked Iowa team in the Coliseum… and the play failed. Wooden, McKay, Sanders - the three greatest college coaches in SoCal history.

You may disagree, but what I like to see out of a team is aggressiveness and imagination, with slight regard for character building moral victories, keeping it close, or anything in the gentlemanly, good-loser, Ivy-League book of etiquette. This Saturday I'd like to see the Bruins break their careful tendencies, occasionally run more than four or five people at Matt Leinart, keep their best, most effective players on the field as long as possible, throw more than they have all year early in the game (fear of picks be damned) in order to see what might open up on the ground with "the grind." Despite the Notre Dame horror-show, SC is not unbeatable (Cal proved that). UCLA has better personnel, overall, than The Irish (though not better than Cal). But, if circumstances combine and the planets align and the pressure perhaps builds… who knows? This is college football, and three touchdown ‘dogs have been known to pull upsets. Sure, I'd like to see a "respectable showing," but I'd much rather it be based on Bruins making plays than Trojans making mistakes, stopping themselves or, worse yet, having to listen to post game, jock-speak about SC coming out "flat," then getting it together in the second half. In order for anything good to happen Saturday, the Bruin defense will have to show something we haven't seen all year: strength and aggressiveness. Not likely you say? Well these things are relative; let's amend that to more strength and aggressivness.

The Bruins are not without talent, even defensively: Spencer Havner, Justin London, Matt Clark, Kevin Brown, C.J. Niusulu, Brigham Harwell and Jarrad Page are good football players. And if some among Justin Hickman, Bruce Davis, Trey Brown, Wesley Walker, William Snead, Aaron Whittington, Eric McNeal, Dennis Keyes or Ben Lorier step up and show us something… who knows? If John Barnes, why not one of them? And this isn't the best two out of three series; it's one game on your home field. Other than Reggie Bush in the open field, my biggest worry isn't any match-up on the field of play, it's the one between Norm Chow and Larry Kerr. If Kerr doesn't come out with some aggressiveness to offset Chow, then it should be another demoralizing SC Saturday (hell, it might even be that anyway).

Tom Cable and the Bruin offense vs. Pete Carroll's defense seems the most intriguing match-up. If I had my coaching druthers, I'd pick Chow over Carroll. He's the key element in SC's newfound national profile (and this damn-well better be the last time we see him). If Cable doesn't take the macho bait of coming out banging on SC's defensive front, we might see some interesting early developments. Though if the Bruins do open up with "the grind" - and it's successful! - we might be looking at something even more interesting. Notre Dame's early ground success was surprising, to say the least, especially since SC had little to fear in the way of ND's passing game. I don't believe the startling upgrade in the O line is entirely due to Cable's handling; these poor guys were simply underserved by the previous coaching staffs. And there are plenty of riches in the offensive skill positions: Maurice Drew, Chris Markey, Manuel White, Craig Bragg, Marcedes Lewis, Junior Taylor, Tab Perry, Joe Cowan, etc. And believe what you will about Drew Olson, I'd take him over Brady Quinn (It's funny, but as much as we've seen of Olson, I keep expecting him to show us something new.)

Like most of you, I'm certainly not expecting a win (though I can imagine how one might happen). At least the players won't go into this game with the same doubts as you and me. They believe they can play with SC; hopefully the coaches believe as much (even if it turns out not to be so). Sure, any coaching staff has to be concerned with Leinart, Bush, Lendale White and Steve Smith, but not to the point where you put your players in some kind of stop, look and listen mode. I'd love to see an attack mentality on both sides of the ball. My heart tells me perhaps, but my head says… believe it when you see it. When your team finds itself in dire straits, all sorts of either/or scenarios occur to you; then something comes out of the blue, completely unforeseen. Thank goodness for the games.

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