As many games have done this year.
C'mon, admit it, Blues. There was some Crankiness in your living room when UCLA went down 22-0 in the first quarter. You were firing up your phone calling your friends and dissing the program, just a bit.
If not, you're not human. If you didn't do it, consider yourself Super Blue.
There were visions that UCLA's entire season had been a fluke. That when they faced a decent Big Ten team, after going up against soft Pac-10 defenses and pulling out some lucky games, the Bruins were getting exposed on national television. You were thinking – "Man, they just aren't a 9-3 team."
But then as UCLA climbed back in the game, probably so did your opinion of the team. The confidence, which is understandably a bit shaky over this team with the roller coaster ride we've been on this season, slowly came back. You saw the team begin to dominate the line of scrimmage with a patched-together offensive line. You saw the coaches make a very significant adjustment, realizing that the passing game was out of sync and reverting to UCLA's running game (which might have been out of desperation more than genius). You saw that, as you might have thought before this game, that UCLA has better athletes than Northwestern and that its superior personnel and depth would eventually prevail.
And you saw something that didn't necessarily help realign your confidence in the team, but was singularly surprising: the much-maligned UCLA defense play solidly for most of the game, against a Northwestern offense that is one of the best in the nation.
While Northwestern did gain a gaudy 584 total yards, most of those yards were desperation yards, with Northwestern down in the fourth quarter and desperately trying to put together a comeback against UCLA's prevent defense. The most telling was the fact that UCLA only gave up 168 yards on the ground, and 84 yards to Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton, the sixth-best running back in the country, averaging 126 yards per game. See, usually when UCLA's rushing defense faces someone like that, UCLA is one of the teams that helps inflate that rushing average. But not this time. In fact, Sutton got only 36 yards through three quarters and only picked up the rest of his yardage against that prevent defense, which makes for a big cushion against the run. In fact, Sutton's biggest run was for 11 yards until the fourth quarter, which is unheard of for UCLA's rushing defense, which this season gave up huge runs. If you were an alien that had just landed on this planet and the first thing you did was watch this game, you might have thought UCLA had, say, about the 50th best rushing defense in the nation, not the 117th.
So, while UCLA was playing a good rush defense they also played decently against the pass, and really got lucky in its pass defense. NU's passing game was just out-of-sync, with NU quarterback Brett Basanez and his receivers off in their connections. Many throws were just out of the reach of receivers, along with a couple of dropped balls and seemingly missed routes. You might have to hand it to UCLA's defensive game plan against the pass going in – to prevent the big play downfield but make NU execute its short passing plays. NU didn't do that well.
This game was all about the lasting feelings you have to take with you for the next eight months. In the last few years, UCLA football fans have had to carry some miserable feelings with them from UCLA's last game of the season to its first the next season. It's really not good for your health. Probably has the same effect on your health as clinical depression. Clinical Bruin Post-Season Depression. UCLA has made it an art form in recent years, how to leave its fans with a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps the worst was last season, when UCLA looked like it was "turning the corner" and then underachieved and lost to Wyoming in the Vegas Bowl. That loss effectively erased most of the advancements the program had made during the season in the minds of many onlookers. Similarly, a loss to Northwestern might have done the same. The Cranks would have been out in full force during the summer and the Blues would have been clinging to the progress they saw in the 2005 season, all, though, having that same bad taste in our mouths.
It was the same for the defense. If it had looked like the sieve it had many times this season UCLA fans would have come away with some considerable pessimism about next year's D. But the defensive performance against Northwestern provided some optimism for next year's defense. Everyone will be older, bigger and better. You'll get back Kevin Brown and Nikola Dragovic to the defensive line, and you'll have an influx of recruits to help shore up the two-deep.
Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr looked very tense on the sideline, as if the defense was playing for something more important than just this game.
Offensively, UCLA had a mix bag of results. The passing game never got in sync. Drew Olson had time to throw, but was inaccurate on many throughout the game. His poor decisions resulted in three first-quarter interceptions, equaling the mark he had for the season. It was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the game, that Drew Olson, someone who had definitely won the support and hearts of UCLA fans with his comeback performance in his senior year, to go out on a mediocre one. He did come through on a few critical plays – the two good short TD throws to Marcus Everett and Michael Pitre, and particularly the 58-yard strike he threw to a streaking Ryan Moya. That touchdown pass was perhaps the key to the game. It was UCLA' second touchdown of the game, brought them to 22-14, and came just a few minutes after its first touchdown. It signaled the fact that the first touchdown wasn't a fluke, and that UCLA's offense was going to be something NU was going to have to contend with. You could see NU's defense deflate after that play. On the next UCLA offensive series, Chris Markey busted out runs of 24 and 51 yards, and Kahlil Bell kept it rolling and punched it in for another touchdown, but it was as if that TD strike to Moya was the roundhouse punch that got NU's defense dizzy.
UCLA All-American tight end Marcedes Lewis didn't have a game that got him any notoriety or statistics. But he was critical as a decoy in this game. On that touchdown pass to Moya, Lewis flared outside and took a linebacker and safety with him, which opened up the field for Moya. Lewis also blocked very well, getting a couple of blocks that helped spring UCLA's running backs.
Maurice Drew was limited in his play by a first-half shoulder injury. And it was one of those if-you-had-told-us-before-the-game kind of things. If you had told us before the game that Drew Olson would struggle, Marcedes Lewis wouldn't catch a pass and Maurice Drew would be knocked out in the first half with a shoulder injury you wouldn't have given UCLA much hope. But UCLA's superior personnel and depth definitely made a huge contribution to winning this game. Chris Markey had some explosive runs, finishing with 150 yards, while freshman Kahlil Bell did most of the blue-collar work and had 136 yards himself. UCLA ran for a whopping 310 yards for the game.
And another testament to UCLA's advantage in depth in this game: Starting a converted defensive tackle, Nathaniel Skaggs, at center after losing its first and second string center actually wasn't a liability. In fact, if you isolated on Skaggs, it looked like he seemingly played pretty well. He didn't get glaringly beat, and stayed on his block well. We don't know if he was executing the correct assignment, but it appeared that Skaggs performed well overall and might have found himself a permanent home, especially with the influx of defensive line recruits coming in next year.
You can't write about this game, though, and not write about Brandon Breazell. Breazell did something in this game that maybe you might not see ever as a fan of college football in your lifetime. And he did it twice. He returned NU's onsides kick attempts twice for touchdowns. Usually when defending against an onside kick you're supposed to safely fall on the ball, but Breazell caught it on the run, juked a couple of Wildcats and jetted for the endzone. The first one was critical. In the second half, NU had drawn to 36-31. UCLA had gone to a conservative, run-out-the-clock offense too early and the UCLA defense was in prevent. So, basically, UCLA was just closing its eyes, holding its breath and taking the conservative, weak approach. You can't argue with the results (UCLA did win), but it did take the aggressiveness out of UCLA and give NU the game's momentum. So, thank the football gods for Brandon Breazell. His first onside kick return for a touchdown put UCLA up 43-31 with a little over two minutes left in the game and essentially made NU have to score two touchdowns in two minutes. They did, in fact, score again, so even though the second Breazell touchdown wasn't as important, it did seal the game.
You have to feel some sympathy for Northwestern's kicker, Joel Howells. It was one of the worst games by a kicker in recent memory, with Howell missing a couple of PATs, getting a field goal blocked and then kicking the onside kick short twice, which created two touchdowns for UCLA. The kid looked stunned at the end of the game. As stated above, the game was a breakthrough for Dorrell's program, in many ways. The 9-2 regular-season record was getting characterized by some as a bit flukey, with UCLA mounting some of those comeback wins, and having to do so with a fairly favorable schedule. The biggest monkey on the back of the UCLA football program for years has been the perception that it collapses down the stretch of the season. And with a loss against Northwestern, UCLA would have lost three of its last four games, and provided the sustenance for that monkey to live on. If UCLA had, in fact, been blown out by Northwestern, it would have been blown out in all three of its late-season losses. Not good.
But as it has all season, this UCLA team showed its competitiveness by coming back calmly. It did it so quickly in this game you almost were worried that it was too quickly, that it would give Northwestern time to get back in it themselves.
But the game was a very good lasting – and fitting -- memory to have of this year's team, and its players. It included another comeback, which was very reminiscent of the season, something that as we get old and our memories degrade, will probably be what we remember this season for. It was also fitting that it wasn't a good statistical game for either of UCLA's two senior stars, Drew Olson and Marcedes Lewis, but that they were critical leaders and warriors when UCLA needed them to be.
So, Dorrell, the program and UCLA fans turned another corner with this game. UCLA fans now won't have to live with a bad taste in their mouths for 8 months (and the message boards should be relatively calm during the summer). Dorrell can claim he has shaken the onus of UCLA football collapsing toward the end of the season. It was hugely critical for UCLA in recruiting; if it wanted to finish its recruiting season on a strong note, it needed to prove to recruits that the program had indeed turned the corner and the season wasn't a fluke. This team can proudly wear the badge that it is only one of six teams in UCLA history to win 10 games in a season.
And more than anything, the game was a good emblem of the season and the state of the UCLA program because it again illustrated the most prominent aspect of UCLA football now – its heart.