Chiccoa: The Big Exhale

Our columnist Charles Chiccoa painfully relives the Washington game, and once again reinforces that it's still uncertain just how good this team is -- until this weekend...

Don't tell me you weren't holding your breath and your heart wasn't pounding out of your chest on that fourth down and a long one.  And don't tell me you weren't contemplating a stiff drink and the season spiraling down the drain if the first down wasn't converted.  Thank the gods, thank Drew Olson and Andrew Baumgartner, and thank Marcus Everett (his ever-expanding, sideline magic should provide opposing cornerbacks a few sleepless nights).  Losing the conference opener to a distressed program like Washington would've been devastating.  The Bruin tourists (bless their hearts) who came out after the Oklahoma win would've been right back in front of their TVs for Cal.  And the Bruins would've been right back on the slow treadmill to respectability.  As poorly as UCLA played last Saturday, that game-winning drive may be remembered as a kind of turning point… if the Bruins have the sort of success some of us are looking for (dreaming about?).

Let's talk about expectations.  The conventional wisdom was that UCLA would open up 3-1.  Oklahoma had too much class, too much Adrian Peterson, and they had the right Stoops.  SC, of course, was (is?) out of the question, an automatic loss.  Cal was now presumed a "national power," at least until Jeff Tedford moved on to the 49ers or wherever; chalk up another loss.  Then somewhere, perhaps Arizona State, perhaps at Washington St., lurked another likely loss.  8-3 was the hopeful deal, with a cupcake win tacked on in a minor bowl (the Bruins having finally learned their lesson about winning the last game, their bowl game, any bowl game, no matter how trifling).  9-3, woo-hoo!  Well, the Sooners have been disposed of and the Bruins opened a couple of points over the Bears.  It would appear outsiders have a higher opinion of the Bruins than we do.  Why shouldn't expectations still be higher than they were in pre-season, despite the crippling loss of Kevin Brown and the injury setback to Ben Olson?  I mean, Drew Olson has exceeded our wildest dreams, and even though he reverted back to "Old Drew" in the first half of the Washington game, you have to give him some credit for summoning up "New Drew" for the last quarter and a half, which was more than he'd been able to do in the previous three years.  Things could be worse...

You must have noticed how subdued the post-game, "Mighty Bruins" sing-along seemed compared to the Oklahoma game.  None of the players or coaches seemed anything but disappointed in the Washington performance.  They all knew they dodged a bullet… and they were grateful. 

I don't exactly understand how athletes can take for granted performing before 50,000, 70,000, 100,000 people a dozen times a year… or even if, in fact, they do.  We all talk loosely about players being "up and down," "flat" or "ready."  When I played basketball in JC, we'd break the huddle with a rousing "We come to play!"  Huh?  Why else would we be there?  I can never remember being "flat" for any kind of organized game, indeed even for any competitive pick-up game.  But then I was undersized…not what you'd call "elite."  Maybe it was that.  And yet I suspect a lot of this talk is jockspeak in the aftermath of taking an embarrassing whipping.  All sorts of things factor into the outcome of college football games, more than we can readily process.  When two fairly evenly matched teams collide it's sometimes like a freeway crash.  I mean every crash is subtly different.  Why did this happen and not that?  The last thing an "elite" athlete wants to admit is that the other guy, the other team, is better, "more talented."  Thus, "we were flat."  Wow, I think I'm giving myself a headache. 

                                               ***  

This was my first game ever bringing the whole family, which included our new son-in-law, who's True Blue to the bone.  The game may not have been pretty, but it was certainly hard to beat for drama.  It ought to keep the tourists coming back, at least for another week.

The Bruins came out aggressive.  Brigham Harwell, rapidly becoming a force in the middle, made a tackle for loss on the opening play.  There's no question that, at the moment, the only way this defensive front can bring significant pressure is for them to strongly contest the line of scrimmage. 

On the Bruins' first drive, Drew Olson rolls left and finds Brandon Breazell running free across the middle at the Husky 40.  Throwing long, across his body, he misses his receiver by, uh… by a lot.  Isaiah Stanback, on the other hand, throws long twice in the first eight minutes, completing both, though one was called back.  After missing, long, to Cowan, Olson then tries to force one into Baumgartner, a la Brett Favre. (Drew's getting positively cocky.  Later on, he'll do a Cade McNown flip near the goal line.)  No nerves anymore, but he is starting to play a little loose.  Better that than tight… 

Opening the second quarter, Washington scores the first touchdown on a 20-yard run through a wide open alley when the tight end stands up Bruce Davis, a wide receiver muscles Marcus Cassel, and Jarrad Page overruns the play: a textbook example of a running play (and a textbook example of how not to play the run).  Sonny Sixkiller, still looking good and quite entertaining on the telecast, goes "wow."  You can almost read the old quarterback's mind: "what have we here?" 

A comedy of errors ensues.  Drew Olson is still looking like "old Drew," and the naïve among us begin wondering about the presence of Ben Olson and whether we might finally see him tonight; no, not unless Drew breaks something.  It now appears that the Oklahoma game has validated Drew's ticket for the season.  I think for Ben to see important minutes, Drew would have to be really, really bad for an extended period of time.  Aaron Perez badly shanks a punt, Washington gives the ball back at midfield, Olson doesn't account for a linebacker coming across underneath and throws a pick, and a holding penalty kills a Husky drive.  Can't anybody here play this game? 

With less than five minutes to the half, Perez gets off a great kick and Michael Norris runs under it, catching it at the Washington two-yard line.  The "racketJaws" let loose and on third down, Stanback almost hands the Bruins a touchdown when William Snead falls back into coverage and Isaiah fails to read it and throws it to him.  Alas, William is a defensive end, and if he had great hands he'd probably be playing offense…but a nice play, nevertheless, as Snead forces a punt from deep in the Washington endzone.  Maurice Jones-Drew (what a mouthful) does it once again, bringing back another punt for a score.  But it's one of those games, and Rodney Van is nailed for a blatant block in the back.  Maybe the Bruins need to start double teaming the gunners, because they always seem to be trailing them downfield, drawing the inevitable penalty.

Olson then waits for Marcedes Lewis to clear, gives a couple of tap-taps to the ball, gets his arm hit and waffles a little duck, which the Huskies pick off.  This is definitely beginning to feel like Washington St. last year.  But a Husky receiver drops a perfectly thrown bullet right between the numbers.  After Stanback inexplicably spikes the ball on third down with half a minute to play, setting up a doomed 56-yard field goal try, the Bruins take over at their own 38 with 25 seconds left.  And, down 10-0 to a three-ouchdown dog, with three timeouts in their pocket and a great long distance field goal kicker… the Bruins take a knee… and the boos descend.  I mean,we've seen this scene before.  It's become characteristic of the methodical nature of this coaching staff: you know, like, let's get off the field, talk about it, and then get to work in the second half.  Yeah, it's maddening.  And yes, booing is bad form and good Bruins don't do it.  But face it: The truth is that when something like this happens, fans are going to boo their own team.  Just like when the quarterback is throwing into coverage, and throwing picks, and failing to move the team and put points on the board.  It's as American as apple pie.  Oh well, another one of those unpleasant, antsy halftimes.  It's enough to start you smoking again (college football can be hazardous to your health).

Markey opens the second half with a nice kickoff return, but it's nullified by yet another special teams' penalty.  Finally Anthony Russo opens the door for the Bruins, fumbling a punt inside the Washington 30.  Olson immediately hits Joe Cowan on a nice deep out at the Husky four, then follows it, rolling right, with a touchdown pass to Marc in the back of the endzone. 

After Justin Medlock kicks off out of bounds and Cassel gets away with interference, hooking a receiver's arm on a long sideline pass, Louis Rankin cuts back on Dennis Keyes and Cassel and takes the ball 50 yards, where the Bruins force the Huskies to settle for an easy field goal try, which Knudson barely misses wide left. (Why don't they extend the uprights another twenty or thirty feet higher rather than so completely depend on the official's judgment?  The less these guys have to judge, the better.) 

The next score is truly amazing, and you know what I'm referring to.  The most depressing thing about instant replay is that the same guys who are blowing calls on the field in real time are equally adept at blowing them while staring at a slow motion video screen.  As we all saw, either the disputed play is a touchdown or it's a fumble; it can't be anything else.  The ball clearly comes out before the runner's knee hits as he's trying to squirm across the goal line.  The only question is whether he breaks the plane, which is debatable.  Since the replay official rules the ball didn't break the plane, it must be a fumble.  So what was he thinking?  I can only guess he "saw" the runner's knee hit down, which it clearly did not.  What can you do but throw up your hands.  But it's still better than having no replay.

Three minutes and change left in the third quarter and it's 7-17.  Things are getting serious.  Olson then drives the Bruins 80 yards with some short and intermediate completions and one good run by Markey.  He hits Michael Petrie circling out the backfield for the score.

Referring to Washington's poor fourth quarter performances, Sixkiller mentions how the Huskies have yet to learn how "you've got to finish it."  Guess that's a lesson for another day.  Washington wastes a long pass completion on Cassel, then Stanback badly overthrows a receiver in the endzone as the officials are forced to pick up the flag on interference by Trey Brown (uncatchable).  Come on, Spiderman couldn't have caught it.                     
After punting the Bruins dead on the two-yard line, the Huskies can do nothing from midfield after the Bruins are forced to punt.  The punter shanks it short and the Bruins start the last drive from their 27.  You know the rest.  And kudos to Bruce Davis, William Sneed, Justin Hickman and Jarrad Page for not letting Stanback put us through more hell in the final minute.

If Cal doesn't get UCLA's best game, something's wrong.  I don't care what the depth chart says, I think we'll see more of Wesley Walker and less of Cassel.  With Nikola Dragovic gone for the year, Sneed and Davis shouldn't miss a beat.  Nikola's loss seems more a question of depth on an already thin and questionable unit.  And wouldn't it have been nice to have gotten Chris Horton back by now.  Oh well, everyone has injuries (but in your heart you know the Bruins have more).

It's agony just thinking and writing about this game.  Earlier last Saturday I played a double-header with my softball buddies.  Got a lot of hits, including my first homer of the season.  Did a lot of base running.  But sitting through this game was twice as exhausting as that double-header.  The Bruins can't be as bad as they played last Saturday.  Cal should tell us even more than Oklahoma did in this "year of living dangerously."  Anybody who thinks they have this team figured out should guess again.


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