Chiccoa: Back to the Future

Our resident columnist, Charles Chiccoa, insists on talking about the Washington game again, but ultimately keeps the Blue fires burning. While he realizes how the Husky game was definitely a step backward for the team and the program, there is still hope that the team can move forward this season...

It's another Sunday afternoon,
And I'm not walking to the sound of my favorite tunes,
Tomorrow never knows what it doesn't know too soon.

It's beautiful outside and I promised myself I wouldn't roll around in yet another Bruin tragedy. Yet here I am, against my best judgment, stuck inside, watching the wretched Washington tape, trying to see in more detail how it went so wrong. Of course, we've seen it all before. This is the one where the Bruins play it safe against an inferior opponent, fail to put away the game early, blow a nice lead, then pop under pressure as the stadium rocks and the celebrations begin… finally leaving the field devastated and looking like the chumps Craig James and Kirk Herbstreit believe them to be. And what can you say after something like this? In its own way, Washington is of a piece with Arizona and SC last season... and God knows how many other train wrecks down the years. Every program experiences this kind of meltdown, it's just that UCLA football seems to experience them regularly. And it always grows out of the same damn thing: a lethal combination of complacency and conservatism.

The Bruins knew Washington was not strong defensively. And when, on the opening drive, they seemed to cut through them like butter, they immediately went conservative  inside the red zone, coming out in a two tight-end set with Michael Pitre in the slot, all but screaming "here we come." Now this sort of thing can be effective if you're playing some directional team, or if you're decoying the defense, looking to bootleg, or find a tight end or slotback open in the endzone. Second down is a little dump off to Chris Markey, incomplete. Third down, and Ben Olson breaks contain, rolls left, can't find a receiver and throws it away... Justin Medlock time. And what was the problem again vs. Rice?

Washington immediately goes three and out; Isaiah Stanback is obviously tight. Their good punter then fumbles the long snap and Trey Brown puts him down before he can get off one of those soccer-style, running, sidewinder jobs. Bruin ball at the six… two line bucks and Markey scores. Just as we expected… this could be easy.

Stanback is still tight as a drum and the Huskies punt again. Markey breaks off a 63 yarder, but is, of course, knocked down short of the endzone. Before the game, Chris gave an interesting insight into the offense's mindset. Seems as if the "soft" label has been chafing these guys, too. "They think they're more physical than us," he said. "We're going to go there… punch them in the mouth." Which is jockspeak for we want to run it down their throats.  So now it's up to Ben and the offense to finish the job, just like two weeks ago. And so they come out in another two tight-end set ("here we come again") and, of course, the Huskies are waiting again, and they smack the Bruins in the mouth. Second down, Ben locks onto Brandon Breazell and throws an ugly little duck, incomplete. Third down… Ben rolls left with two receivers in the pattern, throws to the short man, Matt Willis, who bobbles, hangs on, but wouldn't have made the endzone in any case. Another short field goal, another stop of the Huskies, and Ben moves the Bruins downfield with a couple of nice completions, but on third and long throws a little behind Junior Taylor, who has no chance to run for the first. Medlock then kicks another 50-yarder and it's 16-0. But the TBS announcers (along with all of us) know that the Bruins need touchdowns and are having full-blown problems getting them.

This time Medlock kicks off deep, puts it in the endzone, and the Bruins take down the return man at the 11. Stanback still can't move his team and the Bruins are set up in good field position, which they promptly squander. KD decides not to go for it on 4th and 1 near midfield, and so they punt.

Stanback finally gets his first, first down on a close interference call. But Justin Hickman then hits Stanback while in his throwing motion, and the Bruins are set up on the Husky 31 with the game still there for the taking. The Husky defensive coordinator now comes up with the perfect call on a corner blitz and sacks Olson; the usually reliable Marcus Everett drops a flanker screen; and Ben misses Breazell by five yards on a long ball. Not even a field goal try as the Bruins punt again. This team is looking more and more ripe for the picking as each minute passes and they can't put the Huskies away.

Three plays later, 3rd and 11, and Stanback hooks up with his favorite receiver, Sonny Shakelford, who takes the pass short of the first, then eludes Rodney Van and continues down the sideline for a 17-yard gain. During the post-game autopsy this will prove to be the fatal shot. Suddenly Stanback is completely untracked and starts hitting passes left and right (while also being the beneficiary of another typically awful no-call by a Pac-10 reff when, obviously still inside the tackles, he throws it away). Inevitably he finds Shakelford in the endzone, matched up on the smaller Trey Brown: no contest and the Huskies are officially back in the game. There's 50 some seconds left in the half when KD elects to get off the field without risking a turnover. All those who believed KD would put the ball up, please raise your hands. Right, that's what I figured..                

Coming out for the second half, Stanback is on fire and after Medlock's kickoff goes short and out of bounds, he marches the Huskies straight down the field to a touchdown, Van once again missing a sideline tackle.

After Kahlil Bell, on a third-and-13 run, comes up a half-yard short of the first at the Bruin 42, KD again elects to punt rather than gamble and perhaps stalling Stanback's momentum (he is literally a one-man offense).

Now, Bruce Davis makes the same play as Hickman did earlier, forcing another Stanback fumble. After a first down at the Husky 13, the conservative Bruins go run, run, pick, as Olson again throws short, underneath and into a crowd.

UCLA has one last legitimate chance to turn this budding horror show around as Terrence Austin provides a beautiful 74-yard punt return. Unfortunately the freshman runs out of gas short of the endzone (there's always something). At this point we're all thinking the same thing: How the hell are they finally going to make a touchdown? A failed pitch play and a failed flat pass later, we get the sad news: a 3rd-and-10 running play! Sorry, but hope won't float this boat. More like, no guts, no glory… and heeeere's Justin. No one will admit it, but it looks like KD and Svoboda, at least today, have lost confidence in Ben; they're afraid he'll throw a pick in the endzone (which is not entirely unjustified).

Chris Horton stops another Husky threat with a pick deep in Bruin territory, but eventually Stanback gets the go-ahead touchdown on a drag route by the tight end, then hits the same guy, different play, for the 2-point conversion… 19-22. KD's staff is obviously being out-coached by Ty Willingham's staff. All that's left is for Dan Howell to jump Ben's sideline pass and take it to the house, which of course comes down. Ben admits he didn't put enough loft on what should have been a touch pass over the linebacker's head. Not only lights out, but one more Bruin humiliation to add to your collection. You can already hear the chuckles at ESPN.    

                                      ***

Monday morning, and the smell from this thing is still lingering. Everyone's after Svoboda's hide for his conservative playcalling. His statement that they "probably have to be a little more aggressive and take a couple of shots" seems somehow inadequate to the moment. A few are even beginning to wonder about Ben, trying to suppress memories of Ron Paulus. And what about KD? What exactly is he responsible for during actual games? ("Who goofed, I've got to know.") There are still too many of those unsettling shots of him on the sideline with that characteristically stoic expression… and with his lips not moving.

Certainly DeWayne Walker should get a pass for this game. Whatever the shortcomings of the defense, Walker isn't one of them. Due to coverage problems, he seemed to loosen his defense just a bit in the second half, which Stanback didn't fail to notice, and which he took advantage of with a few well-timed quarterback draws. And Shakelford, alone, caught nine balls for 120 yards and two scores. The Husky offense was nothing beyond these two talented athletes. Give Washington credit for having the sense to ride those talents instead of getting caught up in some "need for balance." Still the Bruin D held the Huskies to only 249 yards total offense.

Right now the previously maligned front seven is the strength of this team, and the more Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell are on the field together, along with Hickman and Davis, the better this unit should perform. And so far the linebackers are flowing nicely to the ball, not overrunning plays, as was common in the past, and making much surer tackles. In the secondary, there is nothing close to a shutdown corner, or even an outstanding cover guy (perhaps Alterraun Verner with more experience). But these guys are more than serviceable and may improve their coverage skills as the season progresses. But I wouldn't think any of them, save Horton, is a confirmed starter the rest of the year.

By now we've all read the depressing redzone stats and first-down run stats. We know the deal. And by this time, having gone through all the quarterback woes of recent years, wouldn't you think the offensive coaches would have copped to the idea that first-down passes are easier to complete than third-and-long passes? But it appears that what they fear most is 2nd-and-10 or three passes in a row. And until opponents start having to worry about downfield coverage, they'll continue to roll up their secondaries in the hope of strangling the passing game. And one certainly hopes we'll be seeing a lot less of those compact, double tight-end sets. The offense is going to have to get more aggressive early, and just roll with the consequences. Some of this over-reliance on underneath stuff is likely on Ben. You look at him throwing the ball and you marvel at his accuracy, but there's more to being a quarterback than just accuracy. Ben's problem, at the moment, is inexperience and possibly (no matter what he may say) confidence. The Utah game, not Rice, seems to have been the anomaly. But I don't think many here are betting against him.

The predicate for the season is now set. The easy home games need to be not only wins, they need to be impressive, both for the sake of the team's confidence and for any sort of vagrant "perception" (on the off chance that anyone outside LA is still paying attention to this team). This perpetual hanging on "the corner," "wait 'till next year" routine needs to end. I know a lot of you believe this team is relatively untalented, but try as I might, I still can't work up a lot of fear over Oregon and Cal, and certainly not Arizona State. Today, the season may look like a shambles, particularly to those who were waiting on something like the Washington breakdown all along. But for me, I want to see more.

KD's reputation among Bruin fans has undoubtedly taken on a lot of water since Saturday, and a lot of it is the déjà vu factor. This stuff is getting old and people have lost patience. Svoboda's play calling is, at minimum, an extension of KD's sensibility (If not, that would truly be an indictment of the head coach.) The Washington game, (and all Bruin games) are a reflection, primarily, on KD more than anyone else. But any talk about firing a head coach coming off a 10-2 season (no matter the circumstances), and especially someone as apparently well-liked as KD, is not only premature and unrealistic but actually "bad form," something like breaking wind at a Westside cocktail party. But if this season slides south, in the neighborhood of 6-6, or even worse, the smell in Westwood will indeed attract attention.

Well, at least good seats are available for Stanford, which seems to have fallen to the level of Rice (Norm Chow call your office). This game won't "prove anything" (unless of course the Bruins make it close). Last season Arizona and SC put a damper on this year's early season, and now Washington has put one on the next two home games. Among a host of other shortcomings, Bruin football always seems to have bad timing. Call me Blue, but I still haven't given up on the season. Washington was horrendous, but if the Bruins win and play well against Arizona… Oregon and Cal (dare I say it) may offer redemption. I have no feeling right now about the trip to South Bend other than extreme trepidation. But I'll be out at the Rose Bowl on Saturday and I expect so will a lot of you. We're addicted. Once again, it's either that or go fishing.     


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