Chiccoa: Sit Back and Enjoy It

Our columnist, Charles Chiccoa, comes out of the box on fire after UCLA's opening-season win against Utah. He gives us his take on the team, Ben Olson, Karl Dorrell, and the new coaching staff, and puts it all in proper perspective, in a way that maybe will be the equivalent of Prozac for the typical UCLA fan...

Not that we don't have our reasons, but the Bruin Nation must be the squirreliest bunch of fans in America. We're always waiting for the hammer to fall, always anticipating the worst. And the college football world is happy to oblige us, UCLA football having become synonymous with "Charmin" and underachievement… the personification of the Westside, slacker stereotype. Hey, they never liked us anyway.

Nobody today remembers the Red Sanders teams - the last time UCLA football was genuinely feared and respected, the last time athletic directors, outside the conference, thought twice about scheduling the burly Bruins. Sure, there've been nice seasons since then, nice wins, most of them upsets of course, but nothing sustainable. And lurking across town, always… the fear of SC, the bad boys, "The Thundering friggin' Herd" back when UCLA was emerging from some kind of teacher's college cocoon: McKay, Robinson I, even early Larry Smith! And today our worst nightmare, Pete the Impaler. Hide the women and children; prepare to die like a man. Thank God we're only fans, irrelevant to the real action on the field.

Why did so many Bruin fans, particularly BROs, have such a hard time getting their minds around the concept of Ben Olson, superstud. Yeah, we all understand the concern over his prolonged inactivity, the possibility of some ru… rus… some lack of competitive edge going waaay back to the redshirt year in Provo, through the Canadian wilderness years, and the bad luck break of last August. But come on! So what if he's become "Uncle Ben;" it's not as if he's old Uncle Ben. To listen to some people you'd think he was a grizzled Viet Nam vet. And yes, there were days he looked ordinary in practice… because those practices were hard. He wasn't treated like some incumbent All Pac-10 quarterback going against the scout team because Patrick Cowan was not David Koral or Brian Callahan, and Cowan deserved the respect of some first team reps; and because DeWayne Walker, sure as hell, couldn't be mistaken for just another brick in the wall obstructing the long awaited defensive resurrection.

Ever since February, some of us have been telling you all to buck up, but the… uh… whinier part of Bruin Nation has apparently become so beaten down they couldn't muster even a smile and a little high spirits in anticipation of what can only be called the new regime (forget any appreciation of those extraordinary comebacks of last October). Oh no… the national media doesn't love us; we must not be worthy; the whole season was flukey. Fortunately, all this may have fooled the poor Utes, too. Referring to Ben, Brent Casteel, one of the few Utes to have played decently in the worst Utah loss in a decade, said "I didn't know anything about the dude. But I know about him now." Eric Weddle, their best athlete, was even blunter: "He was dicing us." And what did Ben think about all this: "I wasn't at all surprised about how we did. The defense is vastly improved, and the O, hopefully, we're not going to miss a beat." What can you say? Extraordinary talent breeds confidence. He looked like he was back at Thousand Oaks.

But even Ben Olson isn't invincible. Every Saturday won't be like last Saturday (at least I think it won't). Troy Aikman had bad days, and not just in the NFL. But Ben looked like nothing so much as, uh…, Matt Leinart, and on a very good day… Leinart with a stronger arm and a bit different delivery, but the same solid, instinctive, pocket presence, the same catchable ball, the same fine accuracy from swing passes to longer, downfield throws. And this wasn't any directional Utah he was facing (there still seems to be some slopover from the presence of Urban Meyer). Plus, the pressure on Ben, with all the expectations (and doubts) was no less than on Leinart in his first game.

We all know the Bruins got some breaks, what with retaining all five fumbles, the Ute TD that was called back (on a legit call when Bruce Davis seemed to give their right tackle the yips) and, most of all, Kyle Whittingham's disastrous decision to bring in Tommy Grady on a pre-arranged substitution (we could have told him something about that one). "He earned a chance to play" doesn't really cut it in such a huge game as this, but Alterraun Verner will certainly take it. Whittingham should have waited a week for directional Arizona. Grady may well have earned a chance, but how about the rest of the team? Utah had momentum, on the road, after an impressive touchdown drive, in one of the bigger games in their history. This was over-coaching with a capitol Oooh. Of course the Utes, themselves, got lucky on a couple of bad Bruin drops, one by Logan Paulsen, who otherwise played well. That's fourteen points right there. No, the breaks evened out.

So what did you think of Walker and Jim Svoboda after the game? When asked if he planned to go after the quarterback, Walker answered dryly, "That's always the plan." Contrast this with the passive Kerr reaction last year when Jarrad Page asked him to please give the secondary more man coverages: something to the effect of how dangerous it is out there on an island all by yourself. Svoboda, when asked about the trouble the O line had in carving out some running room in the Ute defensive front, said "You do what you have to do in a given game… to move the sticks, and if that means you got to throw it every snap, that's what you do." Doesn't sound much like Tom Cable, a thorough-going O line personality who believed in the mystical powers of "the grind." Svoboda has always been involved on the "skill" side of the ball, which is music to my ears. "Establishing the run," especially vs. eight in the box, is decidedly old school. And those two huge Samoans in the center of the D line, Soliai and Talavou, were a handful to try and move out of there. If anything, even a few more passes might've been in order. But I'm not complaining.

Finally credit has to go to Karl Dorrell, who's put together this fine staff, certainly the best we've seen since God knows when. This team, this year, may give him a shot, at minimum, of achieving something like his vision for the program. Sure he's still conservative and methodical, concerned with going a step at a time, but he's also giving off a feeling of lip-biting determination, almost like an anger to succeed. He may now have his foundation in Ben, Walker and Svoboda to finally get some attention, not least of all in his own town. He still doesn't chatter much on his headphones, at least when the sideline camera is stalking him, and he'll never be the camera whore that Pete is. But who cares if he finally gets that famous corner turned. Until then, I'm happy to sit back, relax and enjoy it… see where this thing finally leads.

Utah seemed something more than your usual Mountain West team. I didn't watch them cut Georgia Tech to pieces in their bowl game last year, so they caught me a little by surprise. My knowledgeable Crank friend did, and when I finally dragged him out to a practice, he was so underwhelmed he declined to come out for the Drake Stadium scrimmage; said he'd seen enough and declared he was so sure the Utes could handle his favorite team (?), he threw back the points I'd given him: "They can beat UCLA straight up." He seemed positively giddy. And so I'll collect yet another free lunch at Los Fuentes (it's getting to be a tradition). And keep in mind the Utah O is unusually difficult to defend, especially in an opener (you don't see the spread option out of the shotgun every week). But the Bruins seem as confident, as angry, and as hungry for respect as their coach. Things are officially getting interesting at "the basketball school." How does it go? "In Ben we trust."


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