USC Game: A True Moral Victory

While UCLA didn't pull off the win over its Trojan rivals Saturday, 29-24, the game felt quite a bit differently than any other typical loss to the Trojans. With UCLA out-playing USC for most of the game, it gave the UCLA program tangible proof that it's turned the corner...

It doesn't feel right to rant and complain about that game.

If you wanted to rant and complain, there are so many points that could be made about the specifics of the game.

There are, first, the missed opportunities by UCLA. Most of those could be included in two distinct categories – blown passes and officiating.

Yes, quarterback Drew Olson blew some passes. And yes the officials blew some calls. Perhaps the most disheartening was the clear fumble committed by USC's Reggie Bush toward the end of the first half. Spencer Havner picked it up and had clear sailing to the endzone. It would have made the score, at the time, 17-17, rather than 20-10. It was a 10-point swing and, now, with remarkable hindsight, could very well have been the deciding points in the game.

There were a number of these kinds of moments in the game that conjure "what-ifs." Some were common bad breaks. Others were glaringly and excessively bad calls by the officials, and others were excessively bad throws – all of which could have easily turned this game and made UCLA the victor.

Mentioning here the one bad call on Bush's fumble seems required for this article. But laundry listing the other missed opportunities gets monotonous and sets an inappropriate and inconsistent tone for what this article should be. Plus, why should I complain about every issue of the game when I have all the Bruin Report Online readers to do it for me in such better detail and excessiveness on the BRO Premium Football Message Board?

The game-specific takeaways I want to point out were these: UCLA was the only team to out-score USC in the second half all season. It was the first time USC's quarterback Matt Leinart didn't throw a touchdown pass in a game all season, and was made to look particularly ordinary and un-Heisman worthy. UCLA was only one among two teams that had a chance to beat USC within the last two minutes of a game this season, the other being 4th-ranked Cal. UCLA's defense, much maligned all season and probably deservedly so, stepped up, and despite two Reggie Bush runs, out-played USC's offense. UCLA defensive coordinator Larry Kerr called a great defensive game and prepared the defense well. The UCLA coaches clearly out-coached USC's staff overall, in on-field strategy and in preparation (with hindsight, you can probably now assert that having three weeks off was a positive). When was the last time that could be said? Head Coach Karl Dorrell, the man who had been criticized for being so stoic in his two years, burst with emotion at times in this game, almost as a representative of the emotions of all Bruin fans – all those pent-up emotions for so many years.

After the game, spending time listening to the post-game press conference by Dorrell, feeling the atmosphere in the locker room and with so many recruits in attendance, it just wouldn't be right to complain about the missed opportunities.

Because the tone in Karl Dorrell's voice, the feeling in the locker room, and in the eyes of some of the recruits who were there was far too expectant and hopeful. It would be like, after your child scored their first goal ever in soccer, you ranted about how he/she should have crossed the ball better, or how the soccer ref had blown that offsides call that cost your child's team the game (you can tell I have experience in this, can't you?).

So, even though most of the time, I remain very objective in my post-game analysis, and compel myself to write about the details of the game that so many fans want to see complained about, it's not going to happen this time. This time, I've been taken over by that post-game feeling in the UCLA locker room. After being very objective for many years, during UCLA's worst period in its football and basketball programs in history, I can't do it right now. UCLA hasn't had a clearly successful season, one in which UCLA fans could really get behind its team and coach, in probably seven years, dating back to the 1997 football team, the first year of the back-to-back, 10-2 seasons. That was the last time a UCLA football or basketball team finished the season with a superior record and on a good note (the 1997 football team beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl that year). It was the last time, in either football or basketball, a team didn't under-achieve. It's been two years since a football or basketball team has even been ranked in the top 25 (the basketball team was ranked 14th in late November, 2002). It's been seven years of Steve Lavin, Steve Lavin's aftermath, Bob Toledo's demise, Bob Toledo's aftermath, the lack of credibility and criticism of Karl Dorrell, and then impatience with Ben Howland.

See, it's been a long seven years. And I can't take it anymore. As a UCLA fan, with UCLA almost beating the #1-ranked Trojans Saturday, 29-24, and out-playing them, it's time that I, and I think UCLA fans everywhere, let go of their objectivity and angst (again, if you need an outlet, you have the message board), and basked a bit in the hopefulness of the football program. At least for now.

And you wouldn't be doing it out of some baseless desperation to be optimistic. It would be based on some tangible evidence. If UCLA wins its bowl game and finishes 7-5, it's not an overly impressive mark to those just looking at the numbers. But for those who know UCLA sports, they'll look at that 7-5 record and recognize it as the first season in seven years where a UCLA team didn't under-achieve, played up to its capability, and did so with class.

So, really, even though UCLA lost to its hated rival, USC, the game was a kind of epiphany. It's the kind of game that you can hang a program on. Football and college sports are emotional propositions. So much of it is mental, and about attitude and confidence. This USC game is the kind of game that programs have turned a corner with in terms of attitude and confidence. It's the kind of game that, as a result, players gain respect for and confidence in their young, unproven coach.

Yes, we said turned a corner. We had been saying all year long that UCLA was approaching that crossroad, and you can easily make a case that this game could be the corner-turner.

Helping the UCLA football bus around the bend would be a commitment from quarterback Ben Olson, of course. What would also propel it would be if UCLA, as a result of this game, made in-roads with elite prospects like linebacker Ryan Reynolds and defensive end Raymond Henderson, who were both on their official visits and milling around, smiling, as the UCLA band played the fight song outside of the locker room after the game. Reynolds looked good wearing his UCLA jacket.

While you don't want a coach to sound happy after a loss, you could see in his post-game press conference that the biggest task for Karl Dorrell was containing his elation about the game. He knows that this game was something he can definitely build on, and sell to recruits. He's been telling recruits that his program is getting there, and now he has tangible proof of it.

Standing on the field after the game, yes, it was disappointing. USC fans, of course, were being their classless selves, throwing oranges on the field, the USC rooting section punctuating their band's Fleetwood Mac theme of "Tusk" by chanting "U-C-L-A sucks!" But standing on that field, in the midst of it, I have to say, the loss felt quite a bit differently than the last two years, and all the bitter losses to USC in the past. It was a feeling that many have been telling me since yesterday they felt, too. It's a feeling of great hope, and just not baseless hope, but one based on tangible accomplishment. It wasn't only that it looked like UCLA was starting to bridge the gap in talent on the field, but it had made great strides in attitude, heart and toughness. The teams from the last two seasons folded in those games, when faced with a superior USC team. Those teams would have probably folded after the first couple of minutes of this game, when Bush broke off his first touchdown run. But this team, with the heart it's shown, out-played the Trojans for the rest of the game. So, it's a feeling based on having the beginnings of a football program that the UCLA community can be quite proud of. It's now having a football staff that UCLA fans can truly respect – that the players and everyone in the athletic department respects -- that are trying to do things the right way. In the seven years since I've been covering the football program I've never respected the players on any UCLA team as much as I do this year's team. They are, by far, the classiest and most dedicated group of players UCLA has seen in many years. And you have to give a great deal of credit to Dorrell and his coaching staff, for establishing the right type of atmosphere and attitude within the program.

Yes, UCLA lost to USC. But in so many ways, it felt differently than any other loss in recent memory to the Trojans. Even if you're a USC fan (and probably just a bandwagon jumper as so many of their fans are), you'd have to admit that it was quite evident there was a different aura to the UCLA team this year. It was an aura of a program going in the right direction, doing things the right way (And actually, that's something USC fans might not recognize). Really, if UCLA had actually scored in the last minute yesterday and beaten USC, what would have been the most significant impact? The biggest impact would have been to USC, not to UCLA. Yes, UCLA's record would be 7-4 rather than 6-5, but that, right now, doesn't seem that significant. In losing the way it did, UCLA played its game well enough to possibly still receive the impact it needed.

This might sound completely nutty, but it's now a good time to be a UCLA fan. For the first time in a very long time you have the football and basketball programs going in the right direction -- with coaching staffs that can be respected. If you're a Crank, you should take a little time off from the Crankiness and put on the Blue-colored glasses. Come on, it feels good. At least for just a moment.

At least until the bowl game.

But for now, everything looks good with that Blue tinge, doesn't it? Wearing the Blue glasses that game made you put on, it's now easy to see a future where Dorrell's teams steadily improve and become a major player in college football. If UCLA were a stock, it'd be one with a BUY on it. And it's not too hard to envision a college football world, in a few years, where Norm Chow and even Pete Carroll have moved on from USC, and UCLA, under Dorrell, has become a college football power. That, just a couple months ago, wasn't possible to envision.

So, while many don't put much stock in moral victories, this was one moral victory, UCLA fans, you should put stock in. While it went down in the record books as a loss, in the future it very well could be remembered in the minds and hearts of UCLA fans as a true victory.

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