Chiccoa: Breathless, Speechless, Madness

Our resident columnist Charles Chiccoa takes us back through the breathtaking comeback against Stanford last Saturday, while he -- like all of us have -- hypothesizes on why UCLA has to mount these comebacks...

Because I'd long since given up hope, this game didn't raise my heartbeat until the 4th-and-a-long-yard. I'd resigned myself to the end of a memorable run. It wasn't until that last drive in regulation, when the miracle was easily within reach, that my pulse began racing. At this point it would have been unbearable if Drew Olson and Joe Cowan hadn't hooked up on that 4th down completion near the goal line (shades of the Andrew Baumgartner catch). Once that was accomplished, you felt the Bruins were finally over the hump and only one more installment of "the curse" (like a low snap on the extra point) could stop them now. Beginning the overtime, an ESPN guy described it best, citing Sean Connery in The Untouchables: "Stanford was like a guy who brings a knife to a gunfight."

Justin Hickman and the defense quickly disposed of Trent Edwards, forcing a field goal, then before you could register surprise over Petros's comment ("UCLA has to be careful"), Brandon Breazell beat his man and Olson lofted that 23-yard beauty softly into his receiver's hands (remember when we thought Drew couldn't find the left side of a football field). Come to think of it, that pass looked as safe as if they were handling a baby, and was almost identical to the 31-yarder Olson had dropped into Joe Cowan's hands three minutes earlier.

Something like what we saw at Stanford - like we've seen four times in this magical October - can't help but bring pop music titles to mind, at least for me. Off the top of my head, "Take Me to the Pilot" (for control) and "Rocketman" is for the two Drews; "Roll with It" and "Stop Crying Your Heart Out" is for the losers, Washington, Cal, Wazzu and Stanford; and, naturally, "We Are the Champions" (of the week) is for the team. Imagine if these guys were playing in the east, the Midwest or the southeast. They might be the new "America's Team."

Even more than usual, you could see there was something wrong with the Bruins in the opening possessions: a loss, a sack, a conservative draw play, and a punt. Stanford then did the opponent's usual number and drove for the opening touchdown on a time-consuming drive. On the second possession, Olson gave genuine cause for concern with a couple of very poor throws and another quick three and out. The defense, on the other hand, gave some cause for hope on their next series when good plays from Justin Hickman and Dennis Keyes moved Stanford out of field goal range and forced a punt, which set the style of the day for bad Bruin field position, due mostly to its constipated offense. On the Bruins' third straight three-and-out, Olson was lucky he wasn't picked, and a lot of us were flashing back to "bad Drew" of the previous seasons. What was going on down there?

When the Bruins finally woke up on a 66-yard drive, they still had to settle for a field goal when the wonderfully named nose-tackle, Babatunde Oshinowo, stuffed a conservative third-down run.

The score was 3-7 at the half, and lucky to be that close.

This time it appeared the adjustments would have to be made by the offense. The D, however, was nothing special, despite only giving up the one touchdown. I remember one Stanford running play where the hole, literally, was wider than my big-assed TV screen. Trent Edwards, off the SC game last year and the two Bruin games I've seen him play, doesn't seem comfortable throwing downfield. Losing Mark Bradford certainly contributed to the Cardinal's reluctance to throw long, but Edwards' game looks to be strong 10-, 15-, 20-yard darts, which makes him not the toughest quarterback to defend against (roll your secondary up closer).

As the Bruins came out for the second half, Karl Dorrell used such familiar coach's language as "miscommunication," "out of sync," and, of course, "everything is fine." It sure didn't feel "fine," especially as the Bruins kept stumbling, bumbling and, now, even fumbling. First, Maurice Drew dropped the ball, then Marcus Everett, while absurdly trying to spike the ball past the first down yardage when he was a good two yards short. (This new spiking fashion will continue to cost teams and probably won't be actively discouraged until somebody blows a high-profile bowl game.) Stanford was having great success with cutback runs and center screens to J.R. Lemon and big Nick Frank -- lighter on his feet than you'd think and looking like a throwback to Larry Csonka. Just what the Bruins needed, an agile, 260-pound tailback running over them.

When the score reached 3-24, halfway through the fourth quarter, it was ballgame, lights out, long flight home, long weekend for the BROs. Stanford defensive end, Julian Jenkins, summed it up: "Their running game was shut down. Their passing game wasn't working. They had to work just to get first downs." As the impending Bruin collapse played itself out, did Petros seem just a bit anxious, perhaps fearing the sleeping giant might awake? "I promise you," he said, "It's going to happen eventually… If Drew Olson can bring them back from here, he'll have miraculous, legendary status." Carnak Papadakis!

Walt Harris, like almost every other football coach in this situation, started to run the clock, and who's to say he was wrong. Initially, the strategy was sound. Stanford was having success on the ground, just like every other Bruin opponent. Frank was battering along at a consistent five yards a clip. But now the Bruins were anticipating the run, and good plays by Spencer Havner, Brigham Harwell, Marcus Cassel and the rest of the D made reaching overtime at least a possibility.

On the Bruins first touchdown drive, Tom Hayes (the only ex-Bruin defensive coordinator not to be booted out the door) played it a little passively, but after that UCLA had to earn their scores against the same defense that had been causing them trouble the first three quarters. But now the Bruin O shucked off their Clark Kent disguise and turned back into the Super O we've become familiar with. The slowly building roar on the field and in the stands was like the approach of a category five tornado. Faster than John Madden could say "boom, boom, boom," the Bruins started shredding the Cardinal D as if it were a bad scout team, and Olson kicked up his already amazing fourth-quarter act even a notch or two. It was like a bad feel-good movie. It made the corny "Friday Night Lights" look like a Front Line documentary. Screen passes to Mo, Marcedes Lewis up the seam, Everett catching and running, redeeming his fumble, and always, always, Olson in charge, as relaxed as if he were playing a video game. This was truly shock and awe. The only comparable feeling to those last eight minutes, twenty three seconds was SC's second half comeback in the famous Notre Dame game when they scored -- what? -- seven or eight straight touchdowns? And basically retired Ara Parsigian. You can put 8:23 right up there with Tyus Edney's 4.8 dash.

Poor Walt Harris. In the post-game press conference, he looked like a condemned man giving his final interview before being strapped to the gurney and given the needle: institutional setting, head down, barely audible, groping for words, completely washed out, depleted, whipped. We, too, have lived through unendurable losses, but this… On some level you had to feel for the guy.

So what's it all about, BROs? We all know this can't continue. Cats do not have nine lives, and the Bruins are past using up all of theirs. They need to straighten up and play right, from first quarter to last. Who knows, for sure, what's causing these miserable starts. We do know they are nothing new. They've been characteristic, at least, of the last three years. I think once push comes to shove and UCLA has their back to the wall, they start playing loose, and the coaching staff, out of necessity, is forced to become more aggressive; the ball starts moving down the field, the defense becomes more focused, they begin to apply more pressure, and the opponent is forced to "make plays" rather than benefit from a "bending" D. Do the Bruins force the run, particularly early in games? If we speak of players taking opponents lightly, why is it so hard to imagine coaches might also become a bit cocky, believing they can muscle up on middling opponents, ride the talents of a running back like Mo, take on a stacked defense and beat it straight up, wear it down with "execution"? The jewel of all football clichés is "take what they give you." If a defense overloads the line of scrimmage, why not pass more, pass earlier? Tom Cable hasn't seemed comfortable calling a series of pass plays. Balance has always been sacred in Bruin football going all the way back to Tommy Prothro. Only Red Sanders and Pepper Rodgers played unbalanced offenses. Both relied on a precisely executed ground game. The problem with Pepper is that he couldn't coach defense and Red, preeminently, could (of course where Red might've reminded you of, say, Earl "Red" Blaik, Pepper, in retrospect, puts you more in mind of Rupert Pupkin. A cheap shot, but irresistible).

Back in the day, Sanders could routinely muscle anyone, yet he valued counters, misdirection and deception. It made running the ball easier. This coaching staff seems to value these things somewhat less. Their staple, the stretch play, allows the tailback freedom to find daylight either upfield, outside or cutting it back. It's comparable to John McKay's old blast plays, though run at more oblique angles. But when an opponent has an unusually strong defensive front, the best counter, for the Bruins, might be more and earlier passing: play action, three step, five step drops, roll outs, waggles, screens, wheel routes, throw backs, whatever. Which now happens to be what this team does best.

If what we saw at Stanford, in the first three quarters, was the last of "bad Drew," the next two opponents are going to have to respect "the Do," which should then help the running game. And if and when they don't, it would be sweet if Drew could feel free to throw the ball all over the field. He's got the confidence, the arm, the receivers, the offensive design to put defenses on their heels. Mo and magic and "rope-a-dope" are all fine, but with a still questionable defense this offense needs to come out scoring, not feeling out and softening up an opponent. The Bruins need to be the first team to forty… not thirty.

Worrying about the Rose Bowl and the BCS is way premature. The Arizona schools, in addition to being serious tests with huge payoffs, are also opportunities to sharpen up on both sides of the ball. Doesn't KD keep saying this team can be so much better? And isn't some improvement absolutely a prerequisite for December 3rd?

Bruin Report Online Top Stories