Chiccoa's Column: Perception Plus Reality = ?

Our columnist Charles Chiccoa takes us through a balanced, rational mindset of any Bruin fan heading into Saturday's game against #1 USC, and shudders to think: What happens when perception meets reality -- on national television?

It's Monday morning and I click on the radio in the kitchen while making coffee. Because it's SC week, I tune in ESPN radio for a bit longer than my usual fifteen minutes, and the arch, condescending voice of Colin Cowherd is well into his continuing lecture series. This morning he's riding two of his favorite hobby horses, Notre Dame and SC. So it's one more passionate embrace of Charlie Weis, Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush, not to mention an implied blown kiss to the natural superiority of NFL coaches in the college game.

He tells us UCLA is now a 22 point ‘dog to SC (Pre-season they opened… what? 23 point ‘dogs? Not much of a bump on the perception meter, especially for a 9-1 team, though, admittedly, this isn't your usual 9-1 team). He then brings on some "professional" analyst, and asks the guy if the Bruins have any shot against the Trojans. The guy answers, "Yeah, they have a puncher's chance," and he reminds Colin that Drew Olson and Maurice Drew (he fails to mention Marcedes Lewis) aren't exactly chopped liver, and that SC's defense doesn't remind anyone of Buddy Ryan's old Chicago Bears outfit. So this is what a chronically lame defense, a lot of hair-breath escapes vs. poor opposition and an embarrassing road choke, such as the "hiccup" in Tucson, has wrought…especially if that team comes from the "no D" Pac-10, and especially if that team is already a well-known symbol of laid-back, Westside, surfer-boy softness. Unfair? Sure. Understandable? Uh… Let's call it unsurprising.

We all know reality trumps perception. The problem, for the Bruins, is the nightmarish scenario of perception, stereotype and reality all coming together this Saturday, with the whole college football world watching. Which is exactly why the Bruins can't afford to get blown out. And according to the conventional wisdom (the betting line), this nightmare is more probability than possibility. We've all heard the buzz, the doomsday predictions: SC should score in the 50s without breaking a sweat; Fresno State is "tougher" than the Bruins; Reggie Bush is "the best that ever was;" Lendale White is superior to Maurice Drew; and Matt Leinart (forget the numbers) is far superior to the mysterious, unexplainable fluke that is Drew Olson. I don't buy any of it, but that's "the word on the street," and a reality none of us want to wake up to on Sunday morning.

I mean, we here, we happy/nervous few, know things are getting better compared to the living hell of "Miami" – 2004. But to the college football world, something like 28-56 will still leave the perception of UCLA as the baby blue chumps getting manhandled, once again, by the big, bad Trojans, "the best that ever was." And damn the label that will not die: "the Gutty Little Bruins."

Can it happen? Can the Bruins get run out of the Coliseum? Of course they can. This is college football, after all, where even such improbable things as a 22 point ‘dog beating "the best that ever was" is possible. Blues like to remember last year's SC game when the Bruins had the ball last with a chance to win before "bad" Drew threw that horrible pick. But that game never really felt that close… I mean what with Bush running wild for over 200 yards from scrimmage, a three-to-one ratio in rushing yards, Leinart playing his poorest game of the season and Olson completing less than 50% on 38 throws for only 200 yards, a touchdown and two picks. Yeah, we all remember Reggie's "fumble" that, naturally, the zebras botched, yet did you ever have the feeling UCLA was going to get the job done? This year with "good" Drew, and the real Mo Drew, a vastly improved Marc Lewis, and the most effective passing game in Bruin history, I feel there's at least a greater chance of playing well. The problem, of course, the elephant in the ointment, is the distressed, discounted Bruin D vs. "the best offense in the history of college football." Deny it if you will, but don't you dread the moment that defense first takes the field against that offense?

This is a big game for Larry Kerr. If history is anything to go on then we shouldn't expect many surprises in the Bruins' defensive alignments and scheming. It's become obvious now that Kerr doesn't like deviating from basic concepts unless forced to the wall by system-failure and/or late game desperation: remember his refusal to start Matt Ware on either Reggie or Mike Williams, and his oft-noted habit of coming out vanilla and absorbing the first punch. This is a guy who believes in contain and coverage over consistent pressure, which seems… uh, undesirable, particularly when facing an offense like SC's, and particularly when you're undermanned. He apparently believes in patience and a few third-down stops, which is likely why so many opponents like to gamble on fourth-down tries. In short, Kerr doesn't put the fear in the opposition. They don't normally have to worry about such things as where his players are going to line up, or where they'll be coming from. One hopes he realizes this isn't going to be a normal game.

And for those of us who want to see some surprises, at least defensively, Karl Dorrell's comments last week were not encouraging. "You are what you are," he said. "You can't change for the 11th game." Either he's seen something the rest of us have missed, or he's relying on the offense to indeed put up great numbers. Perhaps he's just a "realist," even something of a fatalist. After all, he did spend five years as a player under Terry Donahue, with an additional year on Spaulding Field as a graduate assistant. As we've said before… "method men." Hopefully, Justin London will be running on adrenaline and Chris Horton is ready to be a factor. Then again, maybe KD's just playing the sly dog. He has been known to withhold information. We'll see.

For Bruin fans, the most interesting aspect of the game will be the Bruin O vs. the Trojan D. Less a defensive revelation on the order of Drew Olson's transformation into a legitimate player of the year candidate, here, obviously, is the Bruins' best chance, their best opportunity to gain national respect. This offense may well be superior to Notre Dame's, it's likely superior to Fresno State's and Oregon's, and it's certainly superior to Arizona State's. I can't imagine Tom Cable not turning Olson loose this Saturday, right from the opening drive. If it wasn't obvious before, it surely is now: UCLA is a passing team, and if Pete Carroll tries to bully Olson and Cable with tight fronts, lots of press coverage and lots of blitzing, which he's been known to favor, especially against the… uh, "pussycat" Bruins, this could work to the Bruins advantage. And wouldn't it be nice to see SC, at some point in a glorious "shootout," back off the line of scrimmage and Mo or Chris Markey break off a couple of long runs? And despite KD's comments about not changing, I certainly expect to see Mo, in addition to returning punts, returning kickoffs, of which there should be plenty, just as Bush will be returning Bruin kickoffs, of which I pray there'll also be plenty. To not fully exploit a weapon like Mo in a game like this would be inexcusable. SC's been risking their bread and butter all year; UCLA can at least risk theirs for one game.

Like some Bruin fans, I was feeling better about this game before the Reggie explosion vs. Fresno State. I only saw the second half, and when I heard the 500-yards deal, and saw highlights of the first half, my heart began to weaken. But once you consider that 160 or so of those 500 yards came on kickoff returns (where you expect a "free" 20 on each return), you can knock that 500 figure down to a more earthly 340 or 350. Earlier, I implied that amongst all the hysteria surrounding SC's offense I didn't buy into Bush being the best that ever was. Actually, I'm not completely sure on that point. He's certainly better than OJ; he seems to hit harder and run even more determinedly than Barry Sanders; and, in terms of versatility, he may be the most dangerous running back I've ever seen. Jim Brown was the greatest power back, but his style is easier to scheme against. However, considering LaDamian Tomlinson, Bush might not be the best back of his generation. In any case, this is nothing but academic quibbling. Bush is a nightmare to play against and, for the Bruins' sake, I hope the Lendale White story is a smokescreen and White gets all the carries his heart desires. But even if he does, I assume Bush will be on the field every possible play.

So strap yourself in, BROs, and hope for the best. The Bruins do have something on the line, but SC has far more to lose. Down the years, the Trojans have been pretty good under pressure, certainly better than the Bruins. And this year's Trojans have responded well in those games when their "legend" appeared to be teetering. One hopes the Bruins can force that sort of pressure one more time, possess the ball at the end, like last year, with a shot to drive it. But oh, what we wouldn't give for a healthy Kevin Brown and Justin London to place alongside "good" Drew. But then there's always something.

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