I've had a number of e-mails from readers suggesting things to say.
Some suggested certain points about the game.
Others wanted me to take a bigger perspective. One e-mail wanted me to passionately blame the embarrassing loss to USC Saturday at the Coliseum, 66-19, on the UCLA administration.
But I have to tell you, I don't have a lot of energy to talk passionately about much.
In terms of the game itself, there really, actually, isn't much you can say. If you're a fairly balanced UCLA fan, the game was pretty much how you expected it to be. It was only pure baseless hope that would lead you to conjure up scenarios that UCLA could play with USC this season, and stay in this game. Really, there wasn't much surprising about the game. It went the way any objective person might have thought.
That probably leads me to the biggest point I could make about the game, and the UCLA coaches' game plan for the game. I wrote in the preview for the game that this was the perfect time to gamble. UCLA almost certainly would get blown out anyway, so why not gamble, do some things that were out of your normal modus operandi and see if they could be effective? Some on the message board reacted to that suggestion and called it "desperate," and didn't advocate it. I can understand that perspective, actually. There were instances this season where teams, specifically on defense, limited USC's offense enough to put them in a position to win. Notre Dame and Fresno State come to mind.
But the problem is that not acting desperately, if you're UCLA, is different than if you're Notre Dame or Fresno State. I wouldn't advocate, necessarily, that Notre Dame or Fresno State should have gambled against USC, mainly because of one big difference: They have decent defenses. I was only advocating UCLA act desperately because I think UCLA's defense was so poor this season that it warranted it.
That's what struck me so much about this game – that UCLA looked like they prepared a game plan like it was just another game. Maybe they did spend more time on it (they had three weeks), but there were no indications in the execution of the defensive game plan that the UCLA mind trust realized what the situation was here: That UCLA was vastly over-matched and needed to do things differently if it were to be successful. Head Coach Karl Dorrell repeated a couple of times the sentiment that UCLA couldn't do anything it hadn't done before, but that it just had to execute its game plan better if it were to be successful against USC. Many actually on the message board advocated the same. To me, this is a shocking lack of a sense of reality. Actually, what it really is – is more of a profound degree of delusion.
That's probably my biggest beef with the game yesterday. It wasn't really an argument with the lack of talent comparatively to USC, or anything else that many might call a "bigger perspective," like UCLA's seemingly casual approach to its football program compared to other schools, or how it doesn't pay its coaches well enough to get a quality coaching staff from top to bottom. It really wasn't any of those types of issues, that have been belabored on the BRO message boards for the last eight years.
It was more just being struck, in watching the game, by how little it seemed UCLA knew who it was. How it had totally mis-scouted itself. How it had seemingly convinced itself that if it just went into this game status quo it could play with this vastly superior USC team.
I think it's inherent to college coaches that they are optimistic. Most of them are ex-jocks, and jocks always have to maintain an optimistic, even cocky, attitude, even if it doesn't always reflect reality. You always hear athletes talk confidently about their chances, even when they have little chance. It's the mindset they need to play the game.
But then jocks become coaches, and they tend to carry over that delusional mindset. Admittedly, it must be hard to abandon, having been thinking that way for so long, and then when you're coaching you're still around players, the game and competition, where that mindset lives and breathes.
But in life, so many times success depends on accurate self-scouting. That you soberly know who you are. By objectively knowing yourself, it's the only way to be able to accurately analyze what you need to do in certain situations to be effective.
I was struck in this game by the seemingly lack of this awareness. Maybe it was the 9-1 record, maybe it was the effectiveness of the UCLA passing game that got the UCLA mind trust to delude itself, but it's shocking to believe that UCLA actually deluded itself enough to assert it could play straight-up with USC. At one point, in watching the TV telecast, when USC was up by 30 or so points, ABC announcer Dan Fouts said that Karl Dorrell and his staff looked shocked, because they thought they had created a game plan that could be effective against USC. If UCLA believed that its defense could actually stop USC – even once – and keep them under 50 points, it was plainly delusional.
You could see what was happening here early on in the game. On UCLA's first drive, they drove to USC's 35-yard line. It was fourth down at the 35. Now, if you have soberly considered who you are and who USC is there is no way you punt the ball in that situation. No way. Even if you pooch it well, and make USC start within the five-yard line, if you had an accurate sense of what USC's offense is and what UCLA's defense is, it wouldn't matter. What would it matter if USC's offense, against UCLA's defense, started on the three-yard line or the 35? UCLA punter Aaron Perez, kicked the ball into the endzone anyway, USC started on their 20, and on their first play from scrimmage, Reggie Bush ran for 13 yards to the 33-yard line. What's the dif? On USC's next series, UCLA did essentially the same thing and USC had to start its series from their own three yard line after a good pooch punt from Perez. It took USC a few plays, but Bush ran the ball for 65 yards to UCLA's 32-yard line.
Again, so much for that strategy.
Again, what's the difference here if USC starts its drive from the 35, the 20 or the 3? If you had any kind of actual sense of the units on the field, you would realize it didn't matter.
If you had a sober sense of the two teams and the game you should have realized that whenever UCLA gets within 40 yards of the USC goal line it should use all four downs to try to get there. That it needed to get as many points as it possibly could, and it should try to take advantage of any opportunity. If you weren't delusional, and realized who you are and who USC is, you would have gone for it on fourth-and-five at the 35. Is that desperate? Yeah, of course. UCLA needed to act with a sense of desperation, not status quo.
That was a sign, early on, that UCLA thought it could play with USC. It used conventional football strategy – pin the opponent as deep on the field as you can so they have to drive the length of the field to score. But again, if you weren't delusional, standard-issue football strategy shouldn't have applied here.
This delusion might stem, as we said, from the left-over jock mentality of always having to be optimistic. It also might stem from an ego – a stubborn refusal to recognize that USC is that much better than you are.
Or it could just be human nature. I remember a famous writer, I think it was Salman Rushdie, was on the David Letterman show a few years ago. When Letterman asked Rushdie what was the one thing he had learned about human existence, Rushdie said, "The extent that humans will go to fool themselves."
So, whatever the reason behind it, there was definitely some fooling-yourself going on Saturday at the Coliseum.
Really, though, it didn't seem as developed in the UCLA offensive game plan as it was defensively. As I wrote in the preview of the game, UCLA would need to contain the USC pass rush if it were going to be effective, and the offensive game plan, you could see realized that. Offensive coordinator Tom Cable moved Drew Olson's launch point, he had Olson take short drops – all to try to counteract USC's pass rush. It was unsuccessful because, well, UCLA's offensive line was so poor in pass blocking compared to USC's pass rushers.
Now, I can accept this. Really. If you fail, do so with a sober, objective perspective, and an effort that stems from that perspective. UCLA's offense had a good idea of what it had to do to be effective against USC's defense, realizing that it had to do something to counteract USC's pass rush, it just wasn't good enough and it was ultimately unsuccessful in pulling it off.
But overall, there seems like there was very little acknowledgement about how poor UCLA's defense was compared to USC's offense. In fact, for most of the season, it seemed like there was a lack of realization about what exactly UCLA's defense is. In other words, UCLA should have adopted a desperate attitude on defense all season, but more or less kept advocating that all they had to do is get better fundamentally and in execution. Now, you could think that that was just what UCLA said publicly, and that they might have had an actual accurate sense of their defense behind closed doors. But if that were so, wouldn't we have seen more gambling on the field?
The accurate sense of UCLA's defense was so missing, it was actually missing from an overall strategy in the game. If you had a good sense of the UCLA defense, you would have gone for it on fourth-and-five from the 35. You should have realized that whenever you hand the ball to USC's offense against your defense, no matter where it is on the field, they were going to score. You should have realized that you would always rather have the ball in the hands of your offense, even for just one more play, than your defense.
So, now that it's Sunday and since we're on this sober, objective bent, let's apply the mindset to the season. Come on, guys, come to terms with the fact that this is an over-rated 9-2 team. They won some games they probably shouldn't have, and didn't deserve to win. They benefitted from a vastly favorable schedule, getting the tougher teams in the conference at home, the easier teams on the road, and not having to face the second-best team in the conference, while getting the worst Oklahoma team in years for non-conference play.
Is USC in another stratrosphere? Be objective. Of course they are.
But going with this objective mindset, you have to consider all the injuries UCLA has suffered, especially to the defense. You have to give credit to the offense for having a remarkable year. You have to praise Drew Olson for having a fantastic senior season, as well as Marcedes Lewis. And objectively, even if UCLA might not be as good as its 9-2 record, who cares? It was a heckuva enjoyable season. The comeback victories were some of the most thrilling moments in UCLA football history. It was glorious to see a kid the quality of Drew Olson vindicate himself in such a dramatic fashion in his senior year. It was good to see a quality person like Dorrell get some satisfaction.
Does UCLA's football program have some issues that limit its potential? Of course. We all know them. Does it make it more difficult for UCLA to have a successful football program year in and year out? Probably. Does that mean it can't be accomplished? No. Objectively, while UCLA does have some disadvantages, it does also have some advantages that other programs don't, and that mix easily gives the UCLA football program enough to sustain success year in and year out.
So, even with the objective mindset, it's reasonable to hope that UCLA can narrow the talent gap with USC next year, and continue to do so in the next few years (with UCLA probably recruiting better, and that talent becoming experienced, and USC losing a boatload of guys to the NFL, it's definitely possible, especially if Pete Carroll is one of the guys).
And remember the 2005 season fondly. Because all in all, even for the most soberly objective of us, it was a very entertaining year of football.