Chiccoa: One Down, No Answers Yet

Our columnist Charles Chiccoa deliver his first game column of the season, reviewing the San Diego State game, but he concedes that there is still quite a bit to learn about the Bruins of 2005...

Do you feel as if you've got a handle on this team? I don't. The quality of the opposition is always a wild card, especially in an opener: So how good (or bad) are the Aztecs? Their young quarterback, Kevin O'Connell, looked very quick, especially for his size (Justin London must have been impressed)… and very cocky, hence his two back-breaking picks. But in addition to his mobility, his 19-for-26 wasn't bad either. Lynell Hamilton was as good as advertised - big, quick, powerful. Jeff Webb was a nice wide receiver and one of their linebackers, Freddy Keiaho, looked very quick. They pressed the line of scrimmage and were never intimidated, which was no surprise. We'll have to see how it goes for them when they visit Air Force and Ohio State in the next two weeks.

UCLA's two great playmakers, Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis, made statements that should be heard nationally. Mo continues to astound and Marc had the best game of his career. I'm sure Marc believes he could have done this all along, but he's truly more confident and sound, catching the ball now, than he's ever been before. He's also become a more formidable blocker.

Mo is fast becoming my favorite Bruin of all time. If he stays healthy - and even if he doesn't stay around another year - he's on his way to becoming the greatest runner in Bruin history, certainly the greatest since Freeman McNeil; he's comparable to Reggie Bush in everything but arrogance. Speaking of those other guys, Chris Markey is beginning to resemble a pocket Lendale White. Not as big, of course, but powerful all the same, and more elusive.

The offensive line seemed to play respectably, especially considering San Diego State's aggressive defensive alignments, something, incidentally, we don't often see from Larry Kerr. About the Bruin defense, there seems to be a division of opinion almost along the lines of Karl Dorrell's supporters and detractors. Is the problem player personnel, is it the style of play, or some combination of both? Those still in Kerr's corner cite his lack of material with which to work, especially the front four, especially the tackles. Those who question the coordinator's schemes, his characteristic way of attacking an offense, cite his conservative, predictable approach. I mean, you won't often catch Larry stacking the box. Even if your forces are suspect, why is playing it safe and predictable, and spreading your defenders deep, better than concentrating them up close and forcing pressure? (the Rocky Long approach.)

I want to cover my eyes whenever the opposition comes out third and long, and I see Kerr dialing up that three and four man front, with the linebackers five yards off, the corners safely in their "cushions," and the safeties deep, deeeep. (It's the warm underbelly of the two-deep zone, and you can almost hear the quarterback's heart beating faster as he takes the snap; thank you Bruins.) In the middle of this slack zone, London is back-peddling so fast he looks like Lance Armstrong hot dogging it. It's cost the Bruins dearly, time and again, and not only with Kerr. Immediately following Justin Hickman's sack, O'Connell salvaged a 3rd and 17 on the Aztec's first touchdown drive. This seems to me something like handcuffing your defensive unit. Am I mistaken, or is this decidedly old school, a species of over-coaching… you know, Gene Mauchish. No matter how aggressively the secondary plays in spring and pre-season, comes the regular season, you can count on "the cushion" and that slack zone. For an aggressive defender, it must feel unnatural. Even with someone like Dave Ball, setting sack records like no other Bruin, this defense has never scared anyone.

Call me a "blind, myopic optimist," but I'm still not worrying about the wide receivers. Junior Taylor showed enough late last season, and in subsequent practices, to convince me he can still consistently threaten a defensive secondary. Marcus Everett won't be out forever and only needs to see the field to make everyone relax a little. And between Brandon Breazell, the frustrated (and frustrating) Joe Cowan, Matt Slater (when he, too, returns) and, perhaps most promising of all, 6' 4," true freshman Gavin Ketchum, someone will emerge to actually catch big passes in a real game.

Drew Olson, if he wasn't exactly "the same old Drew," was no revelation either. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for him to begin hitting receivers "in stride," but Bruin receivers, by now, should be more than used to adjusting to the ball. (Hey, what other quarterback could give them such opportunities of making the highlight shows?) He's marginally crisper in his movements, more decisive in getting the ball off, managing the offense, all of which is to be expected of a three-year starter. The question, of course, is how do you measure Drew's experience against Ben Olson's superior tools and instincts? Only when Ben begins seeing the field this year will we have anything like a definitive answer. None of us can truly know what a quarterback sees, or doesn't see, downfield (John McKay used to discount a lot of this talk of "surveying the field" and 3rd and 4th options, particularly with college quarterbacks). But in San Diego it didn't appear Drew saw a lot more than number 19. To be fair, he only threw 15 times, and 10 of those were to good effect, and checking Marc is never a bad thing (you know, like handing it to Mo). Drew still doesn't appear to audible much, but then how much of that is the coaching staff and how much of it is Drew? It did look as if he audibilized to that failed option play late in the game. Maybe he ought to start thinking about audibilizing to more pass plays; maybe being a good soldier isn't entirely a good thing.

Until the day Ben Olson finally gets significant playing time, we won't know for sure how attached Tom Cable is to "the grind." Right now I'd say he's pretty much attached; the old O lineman and line coach loves the run (3rd and 15 and he did it again). In the red zone, again, he rammed it straight ahead… here we come. Some of it, no doubt, was lack of respect for the Aztec D. As for saving the play book for Oklahoma and Cal, the anticipation of those games would have paled beside the outrage of taking the Bruins' first ever loss to San Diego State.

This week, against Rice, we'll all be looking (and hoping) for improvement in the defensive front seven and more pressure from the secondary. Everything (except the loss of Kevin Brown) seems to be breaking nicely for the Bruins. Mo and Marc should put the fear of God into all forthcoming defensive coordinators. Oklahoma and Cal look to be coming into the Rose Bowl with handicapped quarterbacks (a condition Bruin fans have become all too familiar with), and the road to 5-0 looks more and more encouraging. But then we've been down this road before…

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