When a program is sunk in the doldrums, as the Bruins have been, its fans seem never to consider the opposition in anything other than excessive, almost idealized, terms. As hyper-critical as Cranks can be toward their own team, they seem to abandon their critical sense when considering the opposition. I mean all that energy spent studying their own team's videos doesn't leave much time for anything else.
This year's Sooners never figured to be as scary as the usual Bob Stoops production (even last year's impressive team had an obvious Achilles Heel in its secondary). This is a team that, week in and week out, sells out at the line of scrimmage. Stuffing the run and putting the fear of God in the quarterback is meat and drink to Oklahoma. It's the Stoops way to play football. This is what all that semi-mystical, reverential talk of "toughness" is about; it's putting superior athletes and overpowering numbers up front. But… if you can throw and catch, and if you have a sophisticated, quick-hitting passing design, and if your O-line is athletic and can protect, and if your quarterback can remain poised and upright, this team is absolutely beatable and every major power should have taken notice, certainly after the Orange Bowl debacle. But, of course, knowing it and doing it are two different things.
This Bruin offense is very good, and Drew Olson has officially become a revelation (knock on wood). The O-line seems better than last year, the running game (the Mo and Markey Show) must be accounted for, and the receivers have proven to have more depth of talent than most of us suspected. UCLA's now lost their top three wide receivers from last year and yet we've quit stressing over this unit. Mostly what these guys lacked was opportunity.
Winning from in front has never been a Bruin football tradition. "Lying in the weeds" is more like it. Only in the Red Sanders era has UCLA consistently carried that aura of intimidation (what we now call swagger), the thing that Miami and Florida St. and Oklahoma used to have, that Florida may be developing, and that SC, unfortunately, has in spades. The Bruin style has been the way of the "darkhorse," full of question marks and the word "if." Which is why SC's recent Hawaii and Arkansas games were such "awesome demonstrations of power," while the Bruins' San Diego St. and Rice games were virtually meaningless, since the opposition was so trifling, almost "high school" caliber. The media is usually late, not to mention slaves to fashion and celebrity. It's half the reason we're afflicted with such sorry films and pop music. It's half the reason we take pre-season polls seriously (In case you're wondering, the other half is us.)
Consider the general perception of the Bruins: Either UCLA enters the season as a respectable regional power with pretensions to something better (but never quite make the first table) or seemingly, inexplicably, come out of nowhere to smack down some highly-rated national power. Which may be why so many Bruin fans exhibit such bi-polar tendencies. It's enough to drive anyone nuts.
In '67 the Bruins are a pre-season power coming off a top-5 ranking from the previous year, then finish up with a blown national championship to SC, followed, a week later, by a Bebanless 18 point loss to nowhere Syracuse. In '84 and '86 the Bruins are top 5, pre-season, but are blown away by #1 ranked Nebraska and Oklahoma, respectively. In '87 they open #3, but #2 Nebraska clocks them 42-31. They then roll off 8 straight but blow the Rose Bowl in a loss to SC and wind up in the aptly named Aloha Bowl. In '88 they open top 5, administer a payback blowout to #2 Nebraska, finally make it to #1, only to blow the infamous Washington St. game, followed by a loss to SC and wind up in the rickety, old Cotton Bowl. In '89 (believe it or not), they open top 10, then completely implode to 3-7-1 as Terry Donahue foolishly consents to gild Greg Robinson's resume by turning over his offense to a career-long defensive coach. Of course we're all familiar with '97 and '98 – the 20 game win streak sandwiched between 2 losses each at the beginning and end of the streak. Close, but no prize.
Then we have such inexplicable occurrences as Bill Barnes' 4-6, ‘62 team upsetting #1 Ohio St. in the opener; or, again, Pepper Rodgers' upset of #1 Nebraska in the '72 opener; or shutting out the #2 Buckeyes, 17-0, in Columbus in ‘80; or the unranked ‘83 Bruins blowing out #4 Illinois, 45-9, in the Rose Bowl game; or the underdog '85 Bruins blowing out #4 Iowa, 45-28, in the Rose Bowl game; or the '90 upset, in Seattle, of the #2 Huskies by the 5-6 Bruins (a game which may have ushered in the beginning of the end of the Don James era). What the hell, I could go on but you get the idea:
A rollercoaster world of upsets and chokes,
Fun for some, but maddening to most.
When the extraordinary odds shift in the Oklahoma game occurred, some Bruin fans had a hard time handling the simultaneous shift in pressure; from 7 down to 7 up in just a couple of weeks changed the emotional atmosphere completely. This had now turned into a "must win" game, rather than one of those "have a shot" or even just "play them respectable" games. The pressure to perform was now squarely on UCLA and the passion to prove oneself anew… to say it isn't so, was with the Sooners. I mean, a coach like Stoops could've fired up Brian Poli-Dixon, so we all knew Oklahoma would come in crazy/ready to rumble.
Heartland homers like Craig James and Kirk Herbstreit, who know very little of Pac-10 football beyond SC, naturally stayed with Oklahoma and, even if it went unsaid, you sensed the "s" word was not far from their lips. They were chomping at the bit to say I told you so (especially the mindless James). Fortunately, the Bruin players and coaches shrugged off the pressure… perhaps didn't even feel any. Look at the tape.
From the opening kickoff, the Bruins looked like a team that knew they could win, knew they were the better team. The offense played relaxed, focused and efficiently. Olson, Marcedes Lewis, Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell, Joe Cowan and Andrew Baumgartner went about their business, burning the Sooners' secondary "all day" (AD). Meanwhile, Oklahoma's AD, Adrian Peterson, was losing his cool… shades of the Huskies' Reggie Williams a couple of years ago. His play became progressively more reckless as the Bruins became more confident they could handle him. When Justin Medlock narrowly missed that easy, early field goal attempt, when that Sooner reverse worked to perfection for the first score of the game, the Bruins simply put it behind them and played on.
Make no mistake, UCLA was the better team last Saturday… and the better coached team. Oklahoma, unmistakably, showed contempt for the Bruins' offense… and they paid the price. And they must have been surprised by the toughness of the Bruins' defense; I know the rest of us were. It would seem UCLA has finally served notice that they must be respected. Teams that only want to stack the box or run such one-dimensional defenses as Oklahoma… that insist on "making Drew Olson beat them" do so at their own risk, most with inferior defensive personnel to the Sooners. The Bruins will see better offenses down the road, but may not see a more aggressive defense. Before last Saturday I would have said that was a good thing. Now I'm not so sure.