If I would have told you that:
UCLA's two tailbacks would run for over 300 yards...or...
Rice's starting quarterback couldn't play, and they had to go with a freshman who had never played...or...
UCLA's defense would hold Rice to 184 total yards...
...you would have told me that UCLA would win by at least 30 points.
But that, of course, wasn't how it all worked out Saturday in the Rose Bowl, with UCLA struggling with a poor Rice team, beating them 26-16.
You can't tell me that there was a UCLA fan on the planet that enjoyed that game. That great, always-reliable description of "ugly" was heard quite often after the game.
It was not only ugly, it was worrisome. Not only worrisome for the issues the game brings up for the rest of the season, but the game itself was worrisome.
If I told you all of the above, would you have ever told me that this game was one more bad play, one more turnover, away from Rice actually coming close to winning it?
This isn't the type of performance a UCLA team that's been going around asking for respect needs to put on the field. It wasn't only ugly, but the unit that, going in, you thought would dominate the most on either side of the ball – UCLA's offense – was bad. We're not even going to mince words. It was bad. Yeah, it gained a lot of yards on the ground, but sorry, this was an under-manned Rice team that's won 1 game in its last 19. If you can't run on this team – against its 3-3-5 defense – you can't run on just about anyone.
This was simply a bad offensive performance. In trying to dole out the blame, it's difficult. In watching the tape of the game – a couple of times – it seems more than anything that UCLA's offense got beat because it was simply out-schemed and out-coached.
Ben Olson certainly didn't have a good game. And coming off last week, there were expectations for him to look like Troy Aikman every week. He did fumble the ball twice and throw an interception. We're not going to absolve him of that.
But for most of the game, he was trying to throw in the face of some considerable pressure by Rice's defense. Let's say that again – UCLA couldn't handle pressure from the defense of Rice (again, a team that's won one game in its last 19). Yeah, they run a funky scheme, but after a few times when Olson immediately had a defender coming off the edge in his face, it didn't seem like UCLA's offensive brain trust adjusted well. Last week, Utah opted to try to take away UCLA's running game and concede some yardage in passing. This week, Rice took the opposite tact – to concede some running yardage to take away Olson and the Bruin passing game. But after it pretty much showed its game plan early on in the second quarter, why couldn't UCLA pick up the blitzing? Was it really that complicated?
I would still bet, if we replayed that game, and Olson had decent time and an open receiver, he would pretty much look like he did against Utah. But he didn't have time, and it appears like he didn't have many open receivers. You know things aren't great when easily your best receiver is your fullback, Michael Pitre.
Again, it's the same mantra: Give Olson time, he'll do the job. I guess we can throw in also to give him some moderately open receivers also.
We're probably just in a pissy mood, but it seems a bit hollow to give UCLA's offense a ton of praise even for its running game. Again, this was Rice. This was what UCLA should do against Rice running the ball. If USC or Texas or Ohio State ran for 300 yards against Rice, would anyone be praising them? No, because that would be expected. And, to get even pissier, while Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell had a good game statistically, there was a whole Rose-Bowl-full of UCLA fans thinking to themselves at the same time: "If Maurice Drew had that much open space to run, he would have busted a couple of ‘em." Markey is a serviceable running back and he played up to his ability Saturday. But there was no home run. The UCLA tailback position is where we're used to seeing home-run hitters.
The run blocking definitely improved from the Utah game. But again, it should have. This was Rice. So, in taking stock of the game, you might think you could give props to UCLA's running game, that it allayed some of your worries about whether UCLA could run the ball. It did to some extent. Put it this way: If Rice had shut down UCLA's running game it would have been time to panic. But, also, since this was Rice, it's really nothing to get greatly excited over either. Suffice it to say, UCLA might be able to run the ball, but that's about as far as we can go right now. This game doesn't prove anything more than that.
UCLA's defense had a good, all-around performance. But again, it was Rice, one of the worst teams in 1-A, with a new coaching staff, a new scheme and its starting quarterback out. If UCLA's defense couldn't shut down Rice under these circumstances, then it was another time to panic.
UCLA allowed Rice, which runs the ball decently, only 53 yards rushing, and most of that came on one 48-yard run by Quinton Smith in the 4th quarter. It was quite fitting actually. Really, UCLA fans were trying to take some solace in something about this game, and it might have been in the fact that UCLA completely shut down Rice's running game. But that was spoiled by Smith's run.
UCLA's passing defense did well, generally, but had a big let down for one series in the second half. Up until that time in the game, I had been writing notes, preparing to praise cornerback Rodney Van for having two stellar games in a row. But then, in the third quarter, and UCLA ahead 16-3, Van got a brain freeze. He had three plays in a series of four where he missed a tackle, was called for holding, and then got burned on a touchdown pass. You have to let him off the hook, I guess, since, up until that time, through two games, Van had played very well. Most of the time on balls thrown his way he has been so ahead of the receiver that Van looked like the intended receiver himself. But on this series, he was worked, by a receiver, Jarrett Dillard, who was probably one of just a few Pac-10-level players on Rice's squad.
And it brought Rice to within 16-10 and again, gave you that feeling that UCLA is just one bad play, one more turnover, away from losing to Rice.
On defense, the defensive tackles still didn't prove anything. In watching the replay numerous times, there are many plays when the DTs were getting pushed back, but the play is run away from them so it doesn't impact it. In the same way that Utah's offense played right into UCLA's defensive strength, so did Rice's; UCLA has good team speed, tackles soundly, is smart and doesn't make mistakes. The guy who epitomizes that is middle linebacker Christian Taylor, who led UCLA with 7 tackles on the day. He actually ran down Smith to the outside on one play and is, as we've said many times, constantly in the hole making a play on a ball carrier and runs well in pursuit.
Also, if you watch the game on Tivo slow-mo, there's always a blur flying in from outside of the frame that takes a good pop on the ball carrier. Chris Horton is living up to the billing of being a guy with a nose for the ball and a big hitter.
But overall, as a UCLA fan, this game, as we stated above, presents many worries. This was the game, against Rice, that was supposed to make us feel better and more confident about this Bruin team. But this game only presented a myriad of more worries.
Again, this was Rice.
This game made you worry about every aspect of UCLA's team. It definitely made you worry about the passing game. Since it was Rice, all it did was make you now acknowledge that UCLA's running game isn't horrific, but the jury's still out. There isn't a home-run hitter in the backfield. What about the receivers? How about the coaching, and getting out-schemed by Rice's Todd Graham, their head coach and defensive guru? The UCLA defense looked good, but it should have looked good (again, this was Rice), so there aren't many worries put to rest there.
Again, for a team that you heard talk so often about deserving national respect, this was really no way to get national respect.
Until UCLA beats good teams, and soundly beats the teams it should soundly beat, the lack of respect is justified. So, maybe the Bruins should stop talking about it.
Prove it to us, Bruins.
As for the season, right now, after watching UCLA struggle against Rice, just about every game remaining on the schedule appears to be a toss-up except, of course, Notre Dame and USC.
So, as we've said before, and repeated many times last season: Sit down, sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride, Bruin fans.