Charles Chiccoa: Method Men

Columnist Charles Chiccoa does what everyone has done this week: Pondered why UCLA has had to stage three comebacks in its last three victories. Is it possibly related to the coaching staff's approach to the game?

I started coming down with flu on Friday and by Saturday morning it had taken hold. Feeling miserable, I then had to watch Matt Leinart pull a miracle win out of his jock (credit Reggie Bush with a huge assist, putting both hands in Leinart's chest, literally pushing him into Trojan immortality). Meanwhile, in Pullman, UCLA was in the process of immortalizing yet another opponent's tailback, Jerome Harrison (again!). This ever-expanding "200 Plus Club" also includes such memorable names as Edggerin James, Ron Dayne, Vernand Morency and J.J. Arrington (that's just off the top of my head). And you might as well throw in "Lendale Bush" and "Marshawn Forsett," too, since they ran for 279 and 288 yards, respectively, in less carries than Harrison needed last Saturday.

We all know these Bruins have heart, but how many of you non-Blues mentally ticked this one off as a devastating defeat when it was 0-21, 7-28, and finally 21-38? I watched the whole thing, but not with much hope, at least until the Bruins forced that last punt and got the ball back with almost five minutes left, at which point I figured Wazzu would be lucky to keep the game from going into overtime. Anyway, thanks, Bruins, for another happy heart stopper. And please quit doing this!

So what exactly is the problem with the defense, and how will it impact the rest of the season? We've all become intimately familiar with the Bruins' routine slow starts, particularly in big games or road games. In 2003 UCLA trailed Oklahoma by 18 at half, fell behind Washington by 13 (before coming back to crucify them), trailed Arizona State and Stanford at the half, trailed Wazzu by 22, Oregon by 25, and SC by 31, all at the half… then trailed Fresno State by 10 at the half of that miserable, little bowl game. Last season UCLA fell behind Oklahoma State by 14, Washington by 17, Arizona State by 11, Washington State by 11 and SC by 10… then spotted Wyoming 10 in the first quarter of another miserable, little bowl game. And if the coaching staff says they're stumped for an explanation, why should any of us have the answer? I mean it's all just theories. Take your pick. Write your own. Your guess is as good as mine.

In the meantime, rejoice over the offense and the Bruins' newfound fourth-quarter heroics, which have featured everyone from Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis (no surprise) to Drew Olson, Marcus Everett and Gavin Ketchum (somewhat more surprising). The offense has become practically a given. Every opponent has lined up with the object of stuffing Mo and making Olson beat them; and Mo has yet to be stuffed, while Olson has remained unbeaten. So far, so good. Halfway home, the Bruins have achieved their bottom-line goal: a respectable national ranking. "Gameday," along with the rest of the national media, now regularly mention the Bruins, even if it's only as "LA's other team." Unhappily, but notoriously, stereotypically, the Bruins' Achilles Heel is once again their famously "soft" defense. This is the second worst word any Bruin fan wants to hear in connection with his team (I have in mind the word Pete Carroll uses).

Certainly the Bruins cannot continue spotting opponents three touchdown leads and huge deficits entering the fourth quarter. UCLA has already received three straight, last-minute reprieves. Fair warning, wouldn't you say? End the madness! There must be an answer, a new approach. It would be almost criminal not to change up, or at least try something new.

Have you noticed how the Bruin D tends to surprise vs. the better teams, and disappoints vs. lesser teams? Even with Reggie Bush running wild last year, the Bruins held Leinart and Norm Chow to something like 1 for 14 on third down conversions. And the Cal game this year… all those tackles for loss, forcing Joe Ayoob into passing situations on third and long. I hate the term "letdown," but there is something to the notion that a team tends to play at a higher level when the opponent is more highly rated: anticipation… that extra added adrenaline rush, the sharper focus that fear and great opportunity presents in the form of a big game. Only a John Wooden or a Vince Lombardi has seemed able to keep a team consistently running at its optimum level. But shouldn't knowing the dangers of "letdown" be enough to guard against something as awful as the first half of that Washington State game.

I don't believe in any "rope a dope theory," and I'm constitutionally incapable of just sitting back and enjoying the ride, confident in the knowledge that everything's going to be all right. The former is a bit too literary and only manifests after the fact, and the latter is… "like way too blissed out, man."

If the defensive front is undersized and inexperienced, doesn't that argue in favor of a more radical approach? Which is to say, the base defense hasn't been able to get it done. And the base wasn't even all that good when it had Dave Ball and Rodney Leisle. To my unprofessional eye, when the Bruins bring their linebackers and a safety up closer and press the wide receivers, good things seem to follow: pressure in the pocket, incompletions, picks, fumbles, tackles for loss, three-and-outs. I understand you can't come with that kind of pressure all the time, but certainly more than Larry Kerr tends to dial up early in games. In short, the Bruins need to come out more aggressive, quit trying to feel out an opponent, quit taking the first punch, which is what so many of these games have looked like.

Call me naïve, but I'm still holding out some hope for the defense. No one expected them to lead the conference, but they absolutely should not be #114, or whatever, against the run. At least Brigham Harwell got through last Saturday without re-injury; Eric McNeal and Wesley Walker seemed to add some aggressiveness; and Chris Horton should see the field this week.

You could make a case for the Bruins being the most conservative program in the Pac-10. Perhaps a better word is methodical. Karl Dorrell, Tom Cable and Larry Kerr are preeminently system guys. Not for them such stuff as Pete Carroll's shrugs and grins, his profiling for the TV cameras, sideline fakes (?) for spiking the ball. Or how about the quarterback turning to the tailback, on the road, in South Bend, before 80,000 screaming Irish fans, in the biggest game of the year… and asking, "Should I go for it?" Not gonna happen in KD's world.

To the extent that he's more administrator and overseer, as opposed to a hands-on coordinator, KD is a child of the Terry Donahue school. And why shouldn't he be, since he played under Donahue during Terry's best years. We've seen how Kerr favors a more balanced, less radical defensive approach. And Cable, even though he's turned loose the passing game this year, still hasn't shown much in the way of counters, or any kind of deception, particularly in the design of the running game. The holy word in Westwood (as it is in so many other football programs) is "execution." These guys would seem to believe that if you can just "execute" the system you don't need much deception or improvisation. These guys run a tight, buttoned-down ship. They keep at things… relentlessly. They "grind" away. They think things out methodically. They take their time… hence their use of timeouts, their habit of "just getting off the field" before the half, then re-order things in the calm of the dressing room rather than the confusion of the sidelines.

…So much for theorizing. The Bruins will probably come out doing wild and crazy things this Saturday, and you can put down most of the above to an overdose of flu medication. Actually I'm feeling better. Hope I can make it out this Saturday. Because one really needs to be at full strength, in the very best of health, to make it through these hair-breath finishes. What wouldn't we give for a blowout… perhaps even a first look at Ben Olson?


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