Chiccoa: Happy Endings (Kind Of)

Our columnist Charles Chiccoa reflects on the Sun Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the recent rumblings surrounding the football program...

Admit it.  You had a more visceral reaction to SC's wondrous loss in the Rose Bowl than UCLA's fifth comeback win of the year in the Sun Bowl.  Obviously the national hype, the media hysteria, the genuinely dramatic setting in Pasadena, compared to the quiet, provincial atmosphere in El Paso, must have played into it.  Maybe it's just me.  Maybe I'm a "bad fan."  But that was my honest feeling.  I was genuinely pleased with the Bruin win, but I was ecstatic, over the moon, when Matt Leinart diddled away those last eight seconds, ala Wayne Cook, and the clock ran out and the Longhorns rushed the field.  I mean heaven! 


The Bruin comeback, compared to all those electric fourth quarter jobs in October, wasn't nearly as dramatic since it occurred so early, so quickly.  The second half felt kind of flat, even considering Brandon Breazell's history-making kickoff returns.  (Nobody, to my knowledge, keeps stats on so esoteric a category as onside kick returns, but I bet no one has ever returned two for touchdowns, let alone in one game, let alone consecutively).  This game felt more like a regular season business trip.  With the memory of the last two pissant bowl losses (and coming off the Coliseum slaughter), this was an absolute must-win against a dangerous offense (and with this hamstrung defense).  That the Bruins managed to keep their poise, coming from 22 down, despite another "bad Drew" day, was noteworthy and, for this team, entirely in character.  They did what had to be done.  Imagine the off-season had they folded after that ridiculous start… and had the Trojans not folded in the most hyped college football game in history.  Would have been "gone fishing" time again.


Forgive me if I treat the SC tragedy first, but it's the day after Trojan Armageddon and I just can't wait to splash about in their tears.  This game should prove, once and for all, that Bruin fans always root against SC.  Pac-10 prestige?  There isn't much east of the Rockies.  Cal last season in the Holiday Bowl and Oregon, this season, continued to insure that.  Until these nationally televised intersectionals start going the Pac-10's way, it's still "USC and the 9 dwarfs."  And SC and UCLA, because of history and proximity, are inextricably connected.  John Wooden killed SC basketball in the mid-sixties, and Pete Carroll, right now, is trying to do the same thing to Bruin football.  Dan Guerrero and Karl Dorrell need to understand there's some real danger here.  Pete plays it down and dirty and this is no time for boy scouts.  Unfortunately for Pete, he and his stunned players play it a bit too recklessly and with a little less respect than is good for a team.  In answer to a question of what the dressing room would be like before kickoff, Pete paused then delivered a blushingly honest answer: "it's time to express all that confidence."  Exactly so.


Did you notice, in the Daily News, Scott Wolf's use of the H word?  "Carroll's gambling nature rarely gets called hubris… but this time it failed miserably…"  There it is.  Say what you will about Wolf, this guy is wired into the Trojan zeitgeist.  He's an unapologetic rooter, a full-on Trojan flack, who, if his paper ever assigned him to another beat, would likely throw off his disguise as a working journalist to take a fulltime job in the SC athletic department.  This guy lives and dies Trojan football like we here live and die Bruin football.  It would be as if Deja took over the Bruin beat from Brian Dohn (though Deja might be less transparent). 


While the dumb national media is gushing over the beauty of it all, Wolf goes and digs up Winston Justice, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga for some poisonous quotes questioning the decision "to go for it," which he calls the "worst decision" of Pete's Trojan career.  Winnie puts it baldly: "I don't know why we went for it.  I have no idea."  Ouch!  Wolf describes it as giving "Texas the one chance it craved all night to slow down USC."  He declares "it cost the Trojans a historic third straight national championship."  None of your cornball, elegiac strains for Wolf: you know, stuff like "a game for the ages played by two of the greatest teams in college football history."  He'll leave that to Colin Cowherd and the profiling, oval-glasses-wearing-crowd at ESPN.


Wolf was clearly pissed: "Leinart appeared rattled… Leinart also almost threw two other interceptions but Texas dropped the ball… USC's clock management was also questionable…"  He takes some not so subtle digs at Reggie Bush: "[Lendale] White took control, at the expense of Heisman Trophy winner Bush, and wore down Texas' defense… softened up… for Bush's 26-yard touchdown run."  Reggie's hilarious high school lateral to that astonished walk-on was "inexplicable."  I came out of my stuffed chair at that one, too.  Whoa!  Even for a classic hotdog like Reggie, that one was way over the top.  The guy's a great talent, no doubt, but he does have a weakness for the cameras (something like his coach).  Wolf wonders why Pete didn't call time in order to give the usual sclerotic replay judge (no Dan Hill here) time to chew over his indecision on the Vince Young lateral play when Young's knee was clearly down.  Wolf, incorrectly, calls it the play of the year against SC (actually the 4th and five, eight-yard sprint to immortality was the play of the year).  And instead of one more routine genuflection to Mack Brown's newfound "greatness," Wolf points the finger at "poor Longhorns coaching" when Texas ran the tailback unsuccessfully on fourth down, "as the Trojans always stopped teams that handed to the tailback… while experiencing trouble when the quarterback kept it."  He then calls out the Trojan staff for having an empty backfield when Leinart got stuffed on 4th and 1 at the Texas 17 (you think this guy doesn't watch video).  On that play I assume SC was trying to decoy Texas into thinking pass, especially since Reggie wasn't available to put both hands into Leinart's chest, launching him for the first down.  Oh well…  This loss is going to hurt for a while.  We feel your pain, Scott.


Bill Plaschke finally got something right when he described Young's style as quiet, no-sweat, seemingly effortless, even as he slipped the knife in on the winning touchdown run: "He did not hoot.  He did not howl.  He did not even gasp.  He crossed the faded white line… and disappeared into a crowd in front of the stands as the referee threw up his arms."  A little purple, as usual, but I see what he's saying.  And note the implied dig at the more vulgar style favored by many other offensive stars.  Could he have had Reggie in mind?  Speaking of whom, how unlikable is he becoming when contrasted with the more grown-up Vince Young?  In addition to Young's marvelous physical skills, he's becoming one the headiest athletes you'd ever want to see… a kind of Magic Johnson, Joe Montana throwback.  I remember seeing him as a freshman, thinking he was just another over-hyped, five-star guy.  Then came last year's Rose Bowl performance, and you just knew SC, minus 7 ½ was a sucker bet.  Though he'll never be a Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas-type pocket passer, he does share their instinctive smarts.  Reggie, on the other hand, is more Shack, Kobe.  Plaschke, like Wolf, also sounded let down and in no mood to salute the fallen king.  That "recall" Heisman crack wasn't bad either.  Blow, blown, blew… these were his operative words.


A few more things: 


(1)   As to "going for it," one's first instinct is to admire the brass balls of the thing (what everyone criticized KD for not doing early in the SC game).  But consider the circumstances here.  A punt from midfield, even if it goes into the endzone (less than a 50-50 chance with SC's experienced punter), tends to make Young go more downfield with the passing game.  Even though he completed four passes on the fatal drive, now, from midfield, he needn't concern himself so much with longer throws for bigger chunks of yardage while minding the clock… not to mention the chance for a game-ending pick becomes less.  Above all, having to drive the full field in two minutes would have tended to make him more of a passer, a little less likely to "take off" which is the thing that most terrifies a defensive coordinator.  Pete's blowing some self-serving smoke when he tells us there was no difference in Young having to drive 80 or 90 yards rather than 55. 


(2)   All this talk of Texas being a great team is a bit too feel good.  Without Young, Texas is not that special.  As good as their offensive line is, as respectable as their overall personnel may be, he's as close to a one-man-offense as anyone I've ever seen.


(3)   If, as it seems, a defensive player called that last timeout on the two-point try, it is well to remember this isn't the first time such an important decision was initiated by a Trojan on the field.  Remember the failed fake punt in South Bend a few years ago.  That option was apparently left to the player.  And, of course, this year at Notre Dame: the winning streak on the line, last play of the game, SC breaks the huddle, the fans are going wild, and Matt turns to ask Reggie "should I go for it?"  What was that!  If entirely true, it sounds like the worst kind of Hollywood pap.  I mean playing loose is fine; no one likes their team to come out tight, overcoached, but Pete's approach might be too loose.  When he says "we screwed it up," he doesn't sound real contrite; his inflection sounds more like "pass the salt."  This guy's been trying the patience of the gods for a while now, and it looks like they finally got fed up and fired on his ass.  But nothing ever gets Pete down.  Strange guy.                 




It's a couple of days after the Rose Bowl and the latest news is deflating: Maurice Drew is leaving and Eric Bieniemy may be interviewing in Minnesota.  Also it appears Larry Kerr is staying.  Considering his last two defenses, it's easy to imagine good reasons for letting him go, along with some desperate rationalizations for keeping him, i.e. injuries, his schemes will work, there's nothing better available. And considering the dearth of information coming out of the Morgan Center, imagination is about all we're left with.  Damn these people are tight-lipped.  I sometimes think they'd be happier if UCLA was in the Mountain West Conference or even the Ivy League.  I'm sure they have little use for people like us, other than as donors and true-believing athletic supporters.  We're basically a nuisance to them, the wages of operating a big time, Pac-10 athletic program in the 21st century… and in the same town as SC (tum, ta ta tum, tum, tum, ta tum).  Pete Dalis used to refer to us as "the fringe element."


There's not a lot to say about the Sun Bowl.  It was a microcosm for most of the season: a respectable but beatable opponent, the usual poor start and a strong finish.  It looked like a nice day in El Paso… a nice crowd too.  I mean, it could have been worse.  It could have been Vegas.  Drew Olson once again reverted to his old form, which made it two shaky starts in a row, three for the season.  It's a tribute to Drew that he played as well as he did this year, considering his limitations.  He's got to be one of the great overachievers in Bruin athletic history. 


People always wonder why so many athletes can't maintain a level of consistency.  The reason is pretty simple.  The best players (provided they're smart) dominate their games.  They're in under their heads, so to speak.  It's like a 12th grader going against 9th graders.  As long as they stay dedicated good things happen… consistently.  Nobody, of course, wins them all; stuff happens.  Even Wooden, Sanders, Walton and Kareem didn't win them all.  But they won just about all they should have won and, in Wooden's case, much, much more.  The reason Drew's performance curve resembles the letter U is because he made so much out of ordinary skills.  Roger Federer is a consistent winner because he's better than everyone else and because he's dedicated.  The 25th player in the world wins the occasional tournament, but he's also known to go out in the early rounds.  Same principle with Tiger Woods and a middling pro golfer. 


Of course three picks in your first four passes (two of them brought back for scores) is really pushing the envelope of the absurd, especially when you've thrown only three picks the entire year.  But Drew worked through it; he kept on grinding and finally delivered three scoring passes and a two-point conversion.  The 58-yarder to Ryan Moya (the Marcedes Lewis decoy play) in the seam was probably the turning point of the game.  The photo in the Times of KD patting Drew on the helmet after that play was a classic.


I know some Bruins tend to watch this sort of game on the knife edge of despair.  I used to be like that, and I'm sure a lot of you (consciously or subconsciously) gave up on this one after the third pick and, based strictly on the percentages, there was good reason to do so.  But first-quarter deficits that huge are rare, and the percentages of coming back to win are obviously better when you fall behind that early.  Sure enough, Drew settled down, the offense started steamrolling the Northwestern front and by the beginning of the second quarter they were back in it… by the midpoint they were tied… and by halftime they had the lead.  (After Dwayne Jarrett caught that pass with 6:42 left, my rather excitable house guest, Tom, cursed under his breath, came off the sofa like he was shot out of a cannon and got an early start for home.  Even my wife, who's only recently become interested in sports, and who was rooting for SC just to tease us, knew that it wasn't quite over.  I'll have to ask Tom if he ever saw more than the first quarter of the Sun Bowl.)


It was nice to see Kahlil Bell run so well.  Of the true freshmen, Bell probably made the biggest impression (and only a two-star).  Along with Moya and Gavin Ketchum, he was the most effective rookie.  With Mo gone, it looks as if he's going to get lots of carries next year.  In this game he was easily as impressive as Chris Markey.  It was also nice to see Jarrad Page finish up well, with a couple of nice plays including that huge pick. 


The coaching staff certainly seemed ready to play.  They had to have known how big this game was and how much hell there would be to pay if the Bruins lost.  I've never seen KD with his jaws so tight.  Coming out for the second half, he was so wound up that he misunderstood the sideline reporter when she asked him about the "Wildcats" habit of coming back late in games.  He thought she was referring to the Bruin comebacks.   


Considering the sorry state of the defense, the two blowout losses, and with all the talk of academic restrictions, it's hard for some of us to work up the usual enthusiasm for a 10-2 season.  I continue to believe it's about the coaching and that winning, on a consistent basis, can overcome these much discussed restrictions.  The dialogue about Bruin football, thus far, seems to have settled around two positions:  (1) the admissions policy is what it is (and for good reason), so get used to the fact that the Bruins cannot (or will only rarely) compete with the likes of SC, and (2) Lower the policy and add some new jock major (to go along with sociology and history).  But why so little talk of working though the existing framework, clearing whatever academic hurdles need to be cleared, then fish in a smaller lake for your premium recruits.  I mean is Ben Olson an engineering major?  How about Junior Taylor, Mo Drew, Jarrad Page, Marc Lewis, Shannon Tevaga, Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell, Justin London, Spencer Havner, Aleksey Lanis, Shawn Oatis, Aaron Ware?)  Which is to say just because UCLA can't recruit all the local four- and five-stars doesn't mean it can't be a top-ten program.  And once you begin attracting positive national notice (and shedding that infernal "soft" label), you can start attracting more premium national talent, thus expanding your pool of eligible prospects.  The challenge, now, for KD is to win with what he's got, to exploit the presence of such a hugely talented player as Olson (at the most important position on a football team), while finally developing a hard defensive presence: aggressive, fundamentally sound and far more imaginative.  With the single exception of Rocky Long's brief stay, UCLA has been satisfied to stay with their characteristic coverage-and-contain style; keep the ball in front of you, force the play to the middle, and don't worry about the opponent nickel and dimeing you down the field in hopes (usually futile) you can stop them in the red zone.  Yet this "safe" defense still gives up the long play and they still routinely over-pursue misdirection and reverses.  They can't contain and they can't cover.  The whole thing is as slack and depressing as Grampa's shorts.  It not only bends, it breaks, and it's not just injuries and it's not entirely on the players.                     


I'm sure when spring rolls around I'll be back on the 405 heading south for Spaulding Field.  And Cranks will once again be making out their new depth charts, itching for August and a first look at the incoming talent and counting the days ‘till Utah.  I see Terrence Austin and Micah Kia officially committed.  Here's hoping for another nice surprise between now and February.  We all could use some good news.                 


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