Ed O'Bannon always maintained that the UCLA basketball team being upset by Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1994 was one of the biggest factors in the Bruins winning the national championship a year later.
When Head Coach Karl Dorrell was giving his inspirational speech after the win against Oklahoma in the locker room three weeks ago, he talked about what this program had been through in the last two years.
And on that video, you can hear senior tight end Marcedes Lewis, who has been through it all, too, yelling "Adversity. Adversity, baby."
Yep, adversity. It's the old adage: What doesn't kill you will only make you stronger.
Quarterback Drew Olson knows all about it. He could probably teach a class in adversity, toughness and perserverance with Ed O'Bannon. There haven't been too many athletes at UCLA who have been through the adversity Olson has - thrust into playing as a true freshman, watching a coaching staff crash and burn, going through a coaching change, a total of three offensive coordinators, losing the starting job, getting maligned by UCLA fans, tearing an MCL in his knee and recovering from it faster than anyone on record, and always having the stigma that he doesn't have what it takes to win the big games.
But Olson's personality and toughness has set the tone for this team. There is an adversity-tempered feeling of never-say-die to Olson and this team. When they were down in this game by 14 points, then by 13, and then by 12, when Olson and his teammates trot out on to the field they look completely unfazed. In fact, most of the time, Olson has a bit of a smirk on his face, as if he's saying, "Yeah, big deal. Down 12 points in the fourth quarter to the #10-ranked team in the country. That's nothing compared to what I've been through."
When will Drew Olson get some respect? When they introduced the starting lineups before the game over the Rose Bowl P.A. system, Lewis gots a huge ovation. Maurice Drew gots a thunder of applause. But there was almost silence when Olson's name was introduced. I guess he probably just chalks it up to more adversity - and since it can't kill him it can only make him stronger.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, Olson has proven himself, and proven that he at least has the heart and toughness of a champion.
Olson's toughness was again reflected in this team, as it came from behind three times to finally prevail against Cal Saturday night, 47-40, in what was one of the most entertaining UCLA games in recent years.
It's hard to determine just how big of a victory it was for the program, only because you think that possibly you're exaggerating when you try to really put it in perspective. It's a pivotal year for the program in just about every aspect - success on the field, respect, Dorrell's career, recruiting, etc. And the win over Cal brings the team to a 5-0 record and gives it now a very good chance of ultimately having a very successful season, at just the right time. That timeliness could make this the biggest win for the program in many, many years.
While the coaches and players keep repeating that they're only playing one week at a time, we don't have to, and we can irresponsibly look down the schedule and ponder. UCLA, after this win, will be favored in every game until that one December 3rd. While you don't want to jinx it, looking down the line you'd have to say that UCLA should beat its next four opponents - Washington State, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona. That would bring UCLA's record to 9-0 and almost certainly a top-ten national ranking. UCLA would be favored over ASU, even moreso after the Sun Devils lost to Oregon last night.
So, if they hold serve, they should be 10-0 before December 3rd. It would be a game between two top ten teams, playing for the Pac-10 championship.
You almost get a bit light-headed when you start speculating about it too much. Something inside you admonishes you to stop, that it's just too much to imagine. But let's not hold back today, after this game. Really think about the very real possibilities here before this team. They could - and should - be 10-0 before they play USC. While the players and coaches keep talking about being 1-0 every week, we indulgent fans are thinking about 10-0.
And adversity got this team to this point.
Last night in the locker room after the game, Drew Olson said he thought that Maurice Drew had a chip on his shoulder. He said Drew thought he had something to prove because he hadn't been very satisfied with his performances over the last two games. Drew, being just as much of a competitor as Olson, also has shown the heart of a champion. Throw him a little adversity and his competitive fire starts burning.
Drew had one of the most memorable games for a Bruin in recent years, scoring five touchdowns on the night, one on a punt return, while also returning another punt 69 yards. Is there a better punt returner ever? When, on his first touchdown run he goes up the middle for 12 hard-fought yards and then completely levels a Cal tackler at the goal line, you have to wonder if there are many 5-8 athletes on the planet that could compare with him.
Possibly edging his way into that special club of three (Drew, Olson and Lewis) is sophomore wide receiver Marcus Everett. For two weeks in a row, he has made a clutch catch that was the most critical play in UCLA winning the game, this time going up against two Cal defenders to haul in a 38-yard completion with two minutes left in the game. As against Washington, that big play set up UCLA for the game's winning touchdown. And he's now making clutch catches not just at the end of the game, but throughout it.
And if you're talking about game-changing plays, there hasn't been one in recent memory bigger than the fake punt. UCLA is down, 40-28, in the fourth quarter, and their drive sputters as its own 42-yard line, and UCLA executes a fake punt precisely, with Michael Pitre taking the snap and handing the ball to Jarrad Page, who looked good running down the sideline for 38 yards.
There were a few amazing things about this play. While Cal coach Jeff Tedford is considered a very intelligent coach, did he have a brain fart here? Shouldn't he have been in run prevention? If you watch Tivo, you'll see Dorrell acting out his part perfectly, sheepishly sending out the punt team. Has he been acting conservative and sheepish for the last two and a half years just setting us all up for this moment? Bruce Davis is then seen on the sideline throwing a fit about the decision, and it's unknown if Davis was actually in on the call and a great actor. And finally, something constructive came out of fans booing their own team. When Dorrell sent the punt team out on the field and the UCLA faithful booed, it only helped the effect. How foolish did all of you booing fans feel after that play? Take some solace in the fact that you helped with the deception and contributed to a huge UCLA win.
Looking at the team's actual performance, it's good that they now have developed some heart and perserverance, because their actual performances alone might not be good enough to keep winning.
You can't blame the defense. You really can't. We all know what the defense is. They've been starting a true freshman defensive tackle, for goodness sake. The defense isn't playing below expectation, generally.
The performance problem with the team lies with the offense, which at times is playing below expectation. There were some long dry spells where the offense sputtered in this game. They didn't get a first down in the second half until a few minutes into the fourth quarter. Cal used these opportunities to establish those 12- and 13-point leads, the holes UCLA had to climb out of two times to win the game.
In fact, given what the UCLA defense is, you have to give them some credit. They held Cal within the redzone four times, forcing them to kick field goals rather than score touchdowns. There is a huge different between 12 points and 28. The biggest stop came in the 4th quarter, with Cal up 37-28, with a first down at UCLA's 21-yard line. A touchdown here probably seals the deal. While the other redzone stops were helped by Cal penalties, this one was all on the UCLA defense. Key in that stop was sophomore safety Dennis Keyes, who made a big tackle on seemingly unstoppable Marshawn Lynch on first down for a gain of just one. Then, on third down, Keyes blitzes and hurries Cal quarterback Joe Ayoob into an incompletion.
Keyes, while he missed on coverage on a touchdown pass, overall had a very good game, making some critical stops, running down a couple of Cal ball carriers who were headed to the end zone, and actually knowing how to contain while blitzing.
Trey Brown, the sophomore corner, also had a good game. He was called for an iffy holding penalty, but had some nice, open-field tackles. The interception that iced the game at the end wasn't even as big as the break-up he made of an Ayoob pass just a couple of moments earlier, when Cal had a 3rd and 3 with 2:40 left, up 40-35, and were trying to ice the game themselves.
UCLA's veterans didn't play particularly well. It might have been Jarrad Page's worst game in a while, missing tackles and missing gaps, playing out of control much of the time. He looked like an inexperienced rookie when he fell down after giving Cal running back Jason Forsett the edge and a 46-yard running play that led to a Cal field goal and took away UCLA's short-lived lead at 28-27. But then again, Cal running back Marshawn Lynch might make any college player look like an inexperience rookie.
The defense's weakness is not a hard one to discern. Its defensive line is decimated and getting destroyed on just about every down, particularly the interior linemen. Kenneth Lombard, God bless him, started at d-tackle and was pushed back 3-5 yards or pancaked on almost every Cal running play. Again, you can't expect Lombard, an undersized, redshirt freshman, to do anything beyond what he's doing. The fresman d-tackle Chase Moline was more of the same. Walk-on defensive tackle Brian Ruziecki was in on a couple of plays and actually looked fairly good, making the best play by a defensive tackle on a run all night when he got to Marshawn Lynch in the second half. He actually looks like he might be strong enough to have a better chance to hold his ground than the younger d-tackles.
The line lost defensive end Brigham Harwell in this game early to a high-ankle sprain (we haven't heard the status yet, but it's believed he's out for at least a few weeks). In about a year and a half, UCLA has lost six defensive linemen, either to injury or attrition.
The loss is readily apparent on every down from scrimmage. UCLA's interior d-line gets pushed back, and the rest of the defense is scrambling to make up for it, as is Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr. Kerr utilizes just about everything in the playbook, stacking the box, blitzing, stunting, etc., and trying to out-guess the opposing offense on every play. It must be very tiring to call a defensive game for this defense. There isn't a down where you can really just sit back in your base D.
Ultimately, that weakness on the d-line could bite UCLA in the arse. So far this season, it has nipped at it, but hasn't yet taken out a big enough chunk that caused UCLA to lose.
It is truly amazing that UCLA gave up 545 total yards, and an astounding 330 yards on the ground, and won the game. But expect more it to come this season. We've been expecting it all season and, while Oklahoma and Adrian Peterson weren't themselves, you can probably expect the Louis Rankins on the schedule to look more like Adrian Peterson than Peterson did.
It really is tragic, also, when you consider if UCLA had just a few of the guys it's lost, just even its projected starters this year - Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell and Nikola Dragovic - what kind of chance this team could have (and that's not even considering having C.J. Niusulu or Kevin Harbour on the roster).
The best you can expect is the UCLA defense to limit opposing offenses just enough - and keep them to field goals rather than touchdowns enough - to give UCLA's offense the opportunity to win the game.
The problem, at least in the last couple of games, is that the offense has made that winning thing far too dramatic. While you now have faith that Olson and Co. have what it takes to stage the dramatic, come-from-behind win, you know that it will likely catch up with them. The solution: UCLA's offense has to be better - and maitain a sizeable edge in points and time of possession.
It's interesting, too, because what broke down a bit in this game wasn't really the running game, but the passing game. The running game wasn't spectacular, but it still was good, gaining 170 yards on the day. It showed that it could execute and be effective, and UCLA could again possibly rely on it in games against the likes of Stanford, Arizona and even Arizona State. That was a good indication.
The worrisome indication was how the passing game was ineffective for long stretches. Olson can get on a cold streak, and combine that with one bad route or one ball that should have been caught (like Joe Cowan's touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter), or Marcedes Lewis getting shut down, and UCLA's offense can come to a standstill. UCLA's offense sustained only three drives in the game, and that's counting the last, game-winning one that was really based on Everett's 38-yard catch. It was shut down on seven drives in the game. If you think back, UCLA's success offensively in its first three games wasn't as much based on sustained drives, but chipping away at an offense until it can then get off a big play. In the last couple of games, it hasn't done it as much, really only getting two - both from Marcus Everett. The game-breaking offensive plays in the last couple of weeks have been Maurice Drew's punt returns, which have been UCLA's best offense. In this game, they were responsible for 14 points, Drew scoring a touchdown on one, and his return setting up another.
Now, many would cite this as nitpicking, that the offense scored 46 points, gained almost 400 yards and we're complaining. The thing is, UCLA's offense has to carry this team, because of the defensive problems. UCLA's offense will have to continually live up to expectation, or over-achieve, and average 500 yards and 50 points, if it hopes to make it to 10-0 safely.
It's probably too much pressure to ask your passing game to sustain long drives without a consistent running game, though. So it's a very good sign that the offensive line opened up running holes, against a team who was second in the conference in rushing defense coming into the game (the #1 team in rushing defense before this week's game was next week's opponent, Washington State).Perhaps what could really help to sustain some offensive drives is to eliminate the offensive penalties. UCLA was severely hindered in this game by its holding penalties, which helped to snuff out at least a few critical drives and allow Cal's offense -- and UCLA's defense -- back on the field.
Something has to be said about the blown call by the officials on DeSean Jackson's reach for the endzone that led to Cal's first score. Yes, the officials need conclusive evidence to overturn a call, but how much more conclusive could a replay be? It was very conclusive that Jackson fumbled the ball before he reached the goal line with it, and it should have been a touchback. It was either a touchdown or a touchback, that either he did reach the ball over the goal line before he fumbled, or he didn't, but it certainly can't be called down at the one-yard line. Most of the time, all that the replay is doing this season is illustrating how bad the call was on the field since many times the call isn't ultimately either of the two possibilities that the replay is showing us.
So, from here, while the team and the coaches keep repeating their 1-0 mantra every week, we fans will keep repeating ours: "10-0." That's right. We don't play the games, we don't have to keep a healthy mindset. It's not healthy, in itself, to be a fan anyway, sitting on the sofa all day eating steak-lover's pizza and drinking beer, and getting obssessed with 20-year-old boys in spandex pants.
So, keep repeating 10-0, baby. Then on December 3rd, we'll think about going 1-0.
At the very least, this team, led by Drew Olson, has shown that it has the heart, toughness and resilience of any 11-0 team anyway.