Even after Rice, we're still in week-to-week mode, but, with Oklahoma coming to town, things should begin to clear up. After their home opening loss to mighty TCU, followed by their hard-fought, come-from-behind victory over the ‘Canes (the Golden ones, not the real ones), the Sooners, oddly, are still ranked. Though the odds-makers have installed the Bruins as favorites, UCLA is still unranked, which likely means we'll be hearing the dreaded "s" word (soft) hung around the Bruins' neck by at least one of the clowns on "Game Day." Well, at least the Bruins will rate a mention. Talk about flying under the radar - forget "dark horse," UCLA has become America's stealth team. Only the locals have seen these first two night games (I assume any vagrant Aztecs and Owls would have lost interest shortly before halftime of each game). Truly, these are the wages of mediocrity.
By now it must be generally understood the Bruins are more formidable than most of the hardcore had anticipated. And yet… Bruin fans are still one tough crowd. Hey, I understand. We're not on edge for no reason. Brer' Bruin is not out of the briar patch yet, not to mention the ever-present "big, long, dark shadow" of you-know-who. But respect comes to those who win big games, which is what the Oklahoma game is about.
We all know Rice wasn't a good team. I mean, any school that has the word "Institute" in their name, much less an enrollment under 5,000, is not dreaming of gridiron glory. But come on… an offensive showing like the Bruins put on vs. Rice would be impressive against the scout team… or most scout teams, anyway. The media's blasé reaction was not surprising. These people are nothing if not glib; journalists must be second only to lawyers in their "sophistication" and sense of self-importance. The Bruin O may not have impressed most of the local scribes, but I'll bet it impressed Bob Stoops. The Sooners will still be targeting Drew Olson, but with a little more concern than before Rice.
Olson, absolutely, was impressive - un-Drew like, if you will. His pocket presence, his foot work, the timing of his throws… all of it was impressive. He commanded the pocket, he stepped into his throws and he was accurate. We've become so Drew-obsessed, we're measuring his passes with mental micrometers. If he hits Brandon Breazell for a touchdown on his rear shoulder instead of his leading shoulder we bitch. If a receiver turns to make a two-handed catch instead of taking it over his shoulder we bitch. I counted at least a dozen completions which seemed to me bitch proof, but I'm not about to lecture anyone else on Drew studies. The guy played a terrific game, the best, by far, that he's ever played. Instead of approaching his next performance with… apprehension, I'm anxious to see what kind of damage he can do (you know, just like a regular quarterback). I'm not anxious, however, to see David Koral as the backup. One can only hope Ben Olson will be cleared to play this week or that Patrick Cowan moves up the depth chart.
Justin Hickman's shoulder was easily the biggest concern coming out of the Rice game, especially with Adrian Peterson up next. Unit play, the way the entire defensive front plays, is more important than any individual, but Hickman's loss, on top of Kevin Brown's, is terrifying to contemplate. You don't want to run the risk of losing someone as valuable as Hickman for any length of time, especially in such an inexperienced, undersized unit as the front four… but you may want to give it a shot in such an important game as this. With the Bruins' luck, I expect he'll still be limited and, if so, it's even more imperative that Larry Kerr stacks the line of scrimmage, putting his faith in mass rather than balance. He has recently indicated some flexibility in his thinking, particularly in stacking the box vs. a running team like Rice. Yeah, I know Rice isn't Oklahoma, but the Sooners have become, since the failure of their passing game, preeminently a running team. We all know the drill: make the quarterback beat you. I'm sure Kerr has heard it, too.
Remember Mack Brown's first Texas team, when he brought Ricky Williams into the Rose Bowl… the year after "Route 66"? The Bruins took an unbeatable lead into halftime. They were on fire, Freddie Mitchell was all over the field, and it had the look of another Longhorn slaughter. But Texas came out in the second half, controlled the ball, Ricky started getting the corners, and they outscored the Bruins, 28 – 14, making the final respectable. That, incidentally, was an early warning of the Bruins forthcoming defensive woes and the return of the damnable "soft" image, which Rocky Long had put to rest. This is the sort of thing that fiercely emotional (read hard-assed) coaches routinely pull off. Bob Stoops has lost some of his aura, particularly after the Passion of the Orange Bowl, but his team, down though they seem, may be as dangerous as a wounded water buffalo. Nothing would surprise me, including trick plays and even some early downfield passing.
There seems little doubt UCLA has the more dangerous offense. The Bruins have more weapons and even their O line looks stronger. Maurice Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Chris Markey, a quick, brutal fullback, and now the wide receivers have joined the party. For the Bruin offense, the question remains whether Drew Olson can sustain his new-found level of play against a class program like Oklahoma… and whether the Bruins, as a team, can sustain their aggressive, confident play in such a clutch game. Turnovers are often a sign of tightness in games like this. How many times in the past have we seen a team unravel coming into a spotlight they were unused to, getting off to a bad start they couldn't quite overcome. I'm sure the players are more confident than the rest of us, and I would hope the Sooners are beginning to feel some insecurity. The key to the game, the most interesting aspect, is likely a doubtful Bruin defense facing a slumping Sooner offense. If the Bruins don't get some early stops, if Peterson begins to induce flashbacks of Vernand Morency, it's time to worry. I don't care about Bob Toledo's preference; I'd hate to see some kind of offensive shootout.
How many of these crossroads games have we endured since Miami? And how many have been unhappy? It's past time the Bruins finally grabbed the brass ring, and this chance - favored at home vs. a "national power" with a bad case of the quarterback blues - looks to be… kind of bright. If only Kevin Brown hadn't gone down. If only Hickman was a sure thing. But good teams find a way to win, regardless… a way to play ‘em as they lay and still come out on top. Here we go again.