24-29; What Was That?

Our columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> tries to inject a little bit of cautiousness into currently optimistic Bruin Football Nation with a look back at the USC game, and a little look ahead...

I don't like raining on another man's parade, and as much as I enjoy Christopher Hitchens' point blank style, I don't have much time for contrarians, whose characteristic narcissism and cock-sureness he seems blind toward. Like so much we hold dear, things like love, money, style and aesthetics, surely the strangest, most mysterious thing of all is our loyalty to our favorite sports teams. Beyond old school ties, this stuff is hugely subjective, a prejudice, and rarely involves anything like cool, objective analysis. Here on BRO, loyalties are further split among true believers and critics, and takes the form of a nasty, particularly repetitious game:

When the Bruins bomb,
The Cranks come out and play,
When something good comes about,
The Blues chase the Cranks away.

Today, I don't quite feel Bruin football has turned the corner. It still seems premature to me. I can't quite see the straight-away. It also feels like a vastly unpopular position. The very respectable showing vs. SC has unquestionably lit a spark of optimism in the beaten down Bruin Nation, which is entirely understandable. And with such an overwhelmingly important recruit hanging in the balance, it's easy to draw fire, at the moment, in response to any criticism of the program. This makes discussion of the SC game a bit difficult… so bear with me, anyway, while I give it a try. But first, in regards to Ben Olson, let it be understood that yes, he could be the best quarterback in camp by the close of next year's pre-season camp. I mean he wouldn't be competing against a Matt Leinart, an Aaron Rodgers, an Andrew Walter, or even a Cory Paus. Drew Olson, beyond being a good soldier, likely doesn't have a lot more to show us. Does he have a strong arm? Is he accurate? Does he see the field well? Does he have a strong pocket presence? Is he athletic? Is he instinctive (or rather too mechanical)? Does he inspire confidence (at least in the 'stands)? Does he feel like a winner? And, most importantly, has he had enough time to prove himself? You tell me. Barring some kind of miracle transformation in Drew, and considering Ben would have the entire spring, then the pre-season, in which to learn the offense, and then not an especially difficult opener… If Ben couldn't beat out Drew, he's either not the player everyone seems sure that he is, or the coaching staff is even more conservative than I can imagine.

                                           ***

The Bruins opened "the biggest game" with Justin Medlock's little pop up, pooch kickoff ("I just do what the coaches tell me."  Since Medlock can't consistently kickoff deep, one wonders whether the bigger, more powerful Chris Kluwe might have been a better choice for kickoffs all along.)  Norm Chow opens with triplets flanked all in a row, but Trey Brown foils it with a nice tackle on Steve Smith.  Then Reggie Bush sets the tone for the rest of the day with his electric 65-yard touchdown, punctuated by a front flip, which the networks will be re-running for God knows how long.  On the play, Spencer Havner comes up fast but takes himself out of the play, then Ben Emanuel and Trey Brown have him trapped at midfield, but whiff.  Two plays and the Bruins are off to their usual start.  Like clockwork, you can always count on them coming out in their generic base defense.

After Chris Markey returns the kickoff 50 yards, to the Trojan 43, Olson hits Marcedes Lewis for no gain, then it's Michael Pitre up the middle, then Olson leads Junior Taylor out of bounds on a long pass.  Three and out.  Not even a field goal try.  After Kluwe beautifully punts SC to their own two-yard line, Leinart makes the sort of play only the best quarterbacks make: Second and long; Kevin Brown in his face; he knows his primary should have separation because Matt Clark has cheated back before the snap. Leinart puts the ball in the air and on target before his receiver even turns to look.  First down, SC's out of the hole, and they drive for a field goal.  10 - 0.

The Bruins are down two scores and they need to answer.  Run, run, holding penalty, and they're 3rd and 22.  Just what the offense needs.  Shaun Cody then tips away Olson's pass.  Three and out again. 

After Eric McNeal stops Dominic Byrd on a third down play short of the first, the Bruins force a punt.  This also sets a tone for the rest of the game, as the Bruins' defense will amazingly hold Leinart and Chow to practically nothing on third-down conversions. 

The Bruins answer with a sweep right (shades of Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.  You don't see a lot of that anymore.)  Looks like another three and out, but Karl Dorrell rolls the dice on an incredible gamble and calls for a fake punt, 4th and 5 from his own 17.  Had the gamble failed… we all could have relaxed, taken a break, gone out for a $10.00 Rose Bowl Special (a Bruin dog and a coke).  But of course it worked beautifully, and the Bruins score their initial first down.  Dan Fouts thinks UCLA wouldn't have been that badly off even if the play had failed.  Now Reggie's great and all, but I don't think his punt return average is 45 yards.  Oh well, it's just color commentary.  Olson and the offense then fail to capitalize, but Craig Bragg breathes real life into the Bruin faithful with his school record, 96-yard punt return; two moves and he's gone.  Nobody, not even Pete Carroll, brags about SC's special-teams play. 

When SC is again forced to punt, Chris Horton comes up the middle and cleanly blocks it; this time the damn thing finally bounces backwards.  But the punter <i>luckily</i> stays upright, alertly gets to the ball first, and the Bruins are denied the chance of running it in for 6 (more evidence of the curse).  Another huge chance for Tom Cable, Olson and the offense.  But no go yet again: it's three and a field goal attempt after SC gets away with an obvious interference when Eric Wright grabs Junior Taylor's arm.  Just another bad call in favor of the Trojans in a long, long tradition.  Medlock can't match Ryan Killeen's short field goal as he pushes it way left.

With SC first and 13 after a penalty, the Bruins again open the field with their passive, contain, base defense (also three 2nd teamers up front) and Reggie makes them pay with an 81-yarder this time, aided greatly by Steve Smith's hold on Havner (hey, it's SC, you can't call that).  But this collection of zebra clowns is just getting warmed up.

Down by 10 again, the Bruin offense finally moves the ball as Olson completes a couple of long passes, but they then go run, run, bad pass and have to settle for a Medlock field goal.  Each time in this game, when the Bruins needed to immediately answer an SC score with a touchdown drive, the offense stalled. 

Desmond Reed then burns the Bruins short kickoff ploy with a 50-yard return to the UCLA 40. And soon after comes the play. We all saw the fumble, everyone, that is, but the middle-aged clowns in striped shirts, and they (again) changed the whole complexion of the game. Bush dropped it, Havner picked it up and had a running start with a clear path to the end zone. The zebras tried covering their striped asses with some cop-out about the whistle blowing, but the network replay, with sound, put paid to that excuse. Isn't it odd how these back-breaking calls so often favor the higher profile team, or the home team, and so often come at the most crucial moment? Now I'm not a conspiracy buff, I don't believe the fix is in. Tthe NCAA, the conferences, and these middle-aged zebras have neither the subtlety nor the talents to pull off such a nervy swindle. They're simply too old , too slow-thinking, too slow to react to be given so much power over a game that moves as fast as modern football. They're not competent enough to consistently make judgment calls, yet they're all opposed to any sort of instant replay, and the football culture foolishly indulges them on the principle that we've always had bad calls, we still have bad calls, and we'll always have bad calls. Bad officiating has become, as they like to say, "part of the game." Hey, these are the people that brought us the BCS. And they call this higher education? Anyway, Killeen kicks another field goal and it's 20 - 10, just another routine 10 point swing in SC's favor.

The Bruins, of course, are noted for falling behind, but 72 yards of total offense for the half? One yard rushing? And Reggie Bush… uh, I mean SC, 268 yards. After all kinds of bad offense from both teams, including Leinart missing Steve Smith for an easy touchdown and Olson failing to move the Bruins, fumbling a snap, throwing into double coverage to a receiver out of bounds, SC finally puts up a field goal and it's 23 - 10. The Bruins answer with run, blocked pass, then a pass well short of the first down. Punting time again. Then Justin London gets a pick at SC's 40… but fumble!

Late in the 3th quarter, Olson throws a couple of nice passes, once to Tab Perry, catching the Trojans in a corner blitz, Tab throwing a nice straight arm in Jason Leach's face. Then Olson throws three bad passes in a row, the third of which Junior Taylor picks off his rear shoulder pad for a first down at the Trojan nine. Manuel White then follows Steve Vieira for an easy stand up touchdown and the Bruins are only down 6.

SC makes it 26 - 17 after a drive for a field goal. Olson then negates a nice pass to Bragg when he passes the line of scrimmage with the chain marker staring him in the face. The drive soon dies, and SC is poised for the finishing blow when Reggie takes a center screen for 50 yards to the Bruin 27. But now Chow finally proves that he's human when he comes out in a tight formation, fourth and a long yard, then motions right at the point of attack with the Bruins in a goal line D. Harwell and Kevin Brown stuff Lendale White and UCLA is still breathing. Lendale comes off the field shaking his head but time is getting short.

After a fouled up reverse to Brendan Breazell, Olson throws a grotesque pick, locking onto Marc but hitting Tatupu, sitting back in his zone, with a perfect pass. The Bruins are dead now… Not quite. The D shows remarkable character, and on third and long Havner makes a great play, laterally, catching Reggie in the open field. Killeen kicks his fifth field goal and it's 29-17 and we're down to the nub.

Carroll then gets about as "prevent" as he ever does and Olson completes a couple of passes to Junior and Marc to midfield. Then Olson breaks containment, rolls left, and throws long across his body: a classic wounded duck. But Junior adjusts to make a fabulous diving catch… then on fourth and goal from the two Olson hits Marc, coming in motion, on a perfectly designed and executed little fade, isolating and blocking out a gutty little Trojan corner: 29 - 24 and still breathing.

The onsides kick doesn't work, even though Jarrad Page rocks Matt Cassell. Then Reggie gets the right end and takes it down the sideline, inside the red-zone, and slides down in bounds to keep the clock running (all that talent and Reggie's smart, too). Two minutes left, the Bruins have one time-out remaining, but KD lets a full minute run off the clock. Even Keith Jackson wonders what's happening. Why let the clock run? I have an idea about that, but I'll leave it up to you to come to your own conclusion. Then it happens again. Reggie incredibly puts the ball on the ground, and the ever-alert Havner jumps on it. And the zebras allow it! Bruin ball, but there's less than a minute left. Olson is pressured, he throws up another duck, SC picks it off, but they fumble! Alas, the Trojans recover it. And so it goes…

                                            ***

You'd like to believe the series has now become competitive, that the corner has been well and truly turned.  The defense showed much heart in this game, and the front four is beginning to hint at real possibilities.  Brigham Harwell should finally get his rightful place in front of the invisible man, Kyle Morgan, with Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis at the other end.  Then there's also Kevin Harbour to consider (it would be nice to see him play in Vegas).  Kevin Brown and C.J. Niusulu are quality tackles, and Kevin had something very much like a breakout game here.  The question here is developing some depth behind the starters.  If Havner returns and London stays healthy the linebacking should be a strength.  Clark, of course, will be missed in the secondary, and we all hope Page also returns, but then Emanuel has finally used up his eligibility and that feels like an even tradeoff to me. 

If Marcedes Lewis returns, the offense should still be fine despite losing Bragg, Manny, Tab and a couple of offensive linemen.  Maurice Drew and Chris Markey make a great pair of tailbacks (Mo was severely missed in this game), and Junior Taylor has gotten nothing but better each week and should have an outstanding senior year.  I continue to believe Joe Cowan is capable of much more than he's shown.  And some from among Breazell, Marcus Everett, Ryan Graves and Matt Slater, should be able to emerge.  The Bruins are rarely short of pass catching talent.

One hope's there'll be an end to such curious personnel moves as playing Hickman, Harwell and Bruce Davis, their three best defensive ends, all at the same position… or going with experience over talent at the corner opposite Clark (until desperation finally forced the move).  And, most curious of all, playing Emanuel when you have genuine younger talents like Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes available.

The more I think about next year, the better I feel.  And all I really want for Christmas is a Ben Olson commitment.  Give us a break, Ben.  Pull the trigger and come on down.


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