After watching UCLA lose to Notre Dame, 20-17, the first time, and then watching it over and over again, you're still stunned.
Your natural knee-jerk reaction is to try to place blame. And while there is always some blame to give out in a loss, and while we'll have to do our duty and give out some, there is still so much praise to bestow as well.
First and foremost, the Bruins did play their hearts out. You could see it in the energy on the field, and in their eyes. When the momentum looked to be switching to Notre Dame at different times in the game, UCLA willfully took it right back. It was almost as if UCLA willed itself to stay on top of this game, and did it. It's difficult to say if this kind of effort is something that can be given every week, but this Saturday it was the best thing about this game. No matter the mistakes, the issues, or even if in places when it looked like UCLA just didn't have the horses, the effort and heart were definitely there.
And while you can place blame on the defense for not stopping Notre Dame on that last game-winning drive, you have to give the defense a huge amount of credit for establishing the energy and effort level, and putting UCLA in the game in the first place. There were periods in this game when things weren't going well for UCLA, and Notre Dame had a chance to really take the reins of the game. But UCLA's defense wouldn't allow it. In the first half, UCLA missed a field goal, failed to convert a fourth down in its own territory and had an interception. But UCLA's defense responded. After Notre Dame scored a touchdown, UCLA's defense made three stops on the next three Irish possessions. It was a critical time of the game, when Notre Dame could have, and looked to be, taking control. They had just scored, UCLA's quarterback Patrick Cowan had just thrown an interception, and the rhythm of the game looked to be Notre Dame's. But the UCLA defense quickly jerked that away, and held on.
One you saw that the UCLA defense wouldn't allow this game to get away from it, like the Oregon game last week, it was pretty evident that UCLA would be in this game until the end.
It's a shame that it had to end the way it did. It would have meant so much to this season, the program and especially to the players who left everything on that field.
Again, though, you almost don't feel right blaming the defense. Sure, they allowed Notre Dame three plays with about 40 seconds left in the game to win it. But it just doesn't seem right to blame them for it since their play and energy is what really kept UCLA in this game all day.
Notre Dame finished with 345 yards, 80 of which they got in that last 40 seconds. They gained just 41 yards on the ground.
There are many posters on the BRO message boards that are blaming safety Dennis Keyes for that missed tackle on the final Notre Dame touchdown, and for a few other missed tackles in the game and the personal foul on the punt that backed up UCLA's offense on a critical possession in the second half.. Yes, Keyes didn't have a great game. And we have to acknowledge it or we wouldn't be doing our due diligence. But again, it doesn't seem right.
And to give props, there were some good performances on defense. Defensive end Justin Hickman was too quick for Notre Dame's big, slow offensive linemen. Notre Dame's offensive coaches looked like they were trying just about everything, including double-teams and switching a few different offensive lineman onto Hickman, to see if anyone could contain him. Christian Taylor, the middle linebacker, again, was in position and made plays. Safety Chris Horton had some big hits, one which caused the fumble in the first half, and some sure tackles. Linebacker Reggie Carter also was quick and aggressive. The defensive secondary, even though they gave up those last three plays, were providing good coverage throughout the game. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn was under pressure, but it looked more like pressure resulting from good coverage down field most of the time.
And if you're still looking to place blame, it doesn't even seem right to blame the players on offense. There are reasons that a casual observer could cite to do so – the fact that the offense only had possession for about 26 minutes and forced UCLA's defense to have to defend Notre Dame's offense for a whopping 34 minutes. UCLA only gained 243 yards total, 26 yards on the ground, and made a measley 12 first downs. But if you watched the game, you'd know that the players on the field were playing with great effort, and probably playing to their capability. UCLA's offense, this season, just doesn't have the talent to be a "good" offense, and the offense isn't putting them in their best situation to be successful.
There were some questionable coaching decisions. Everyone is pointing to the three successive running plays on UCLA's last series, and that is one that is definitely debatable. Notre Dame had used its timeouts, and if UCLA gets a first down, it wins the game. Perhaps something like a roll-out off play action with Cowan wouldn't have been too risky in that situation. UCLA fans are also pointing to the series right before the last one, where UCLA ran on first, ran on second, and then attempted a short, underneath pass on third and couldn't get a first down.
Some message board denizens have been saying that the play-calling was good, or at least, better. Maybe true. But there are some basic issues with the offense and the play-calling that almost don't seem fixable at times. From our seat, the play-calling isn't getting more creative when you repeatedly throw on first down, run on second and then throw on third. It's obvious that the Bruin offensive brain trust has decided they need to throw more on first down, to get shorter second and third downs. But when you consistently pass on first, run on second and pass on third that gets very predictable in itself.
And it's not necessarily the down-and-distance choices, but the plays themselves. UCLA's running game is the most conservative and predictable of any rushing attack I've ever seen, and it's been this way since Karl Dorrell came to Westwood. UCLA runs out of the I almost every time, over its strong side, and runs simple, straight-ahead handoffs through the A or B gap. You can count on one hand the amount of times in four years that UCLA has pitched the ball to a running back. You can probably count on two hands the amount of times UCLA has employed a counter or a trap. How many draws have we seen? How about a shovel pass? Oh, well, then, you'd have to employ the shotgun, and that's another element you can count on one hand how many times UCLA has used it.
If you run on every second down, after throwing on first, that's predictable enough. But utilizing close to the same, very conservative running play without any diversification is really what's killing the running game. UCLA, against Notre Dame, started out running decently, able to get some solid 4-to-7-yard runs, but then the running holes, not surprisingly, closed up.
Chris Markey is playing tough, but we all know he's not a bruiser back that's going to break many tackles or an explosive type that's going to bust big runs. UCLA's lack of creativity and diversification in its running game is making it even harder for him to succeed.
UCLA has had one year – one – when it ran the ball fairly well under Dorrell, in 2004. And that was the first year of Tom Cable and his zone blocking had every defense, and defensive coordinator, confused (and complaining about chop blocks), at least until the final third of the season. And you had Maurice Drew busting off big runs.
For a running game like this to work, it would simply need an elite offensive line and a NFL-caliber running back. UCLA doesn't have either this year. In fact, it hasn't really had an elite offensive line since Dorrell arrived.
When UCLA decides to throw the ball down the field, its passing game is decently diversified. It seemingly can sometimes forget about parts of its playbook, but at least the plays are in the playbook. It's just not so with the running game.
If there is any blame to be cited for UCLA losing this game, you have to look at the offense, not its players. Because even when UCLA doesn't have the horses, it's still not operating an offense, or applying it in a way, that gives its players their best chance to succeed given their talents. It's far too conservative, especially in the running game, and the play-calling lacks creativity and imagination. It's been this way for four years, and it doesn't look like Dorrell is going to abandon his approach anytime soon. He'll either ultimately defy our criticism or go down with his offensive ship.
If he's going to succeed with it, however, he's going to need those horses. He had a few last season, and he still needed some last-minute, improbable comebacks to make it work.
While passing more on first down seems to be the chosen solution to make the offense more creative, the desire to appear more risk-taking is also manifesting itself in other questionable ways. When Dorrell chose to go for it on fourth down in the first quarter at UCLA's own 44, it was highly questionable. It, in fact, set up Notre Dame for its first touchdown (and wouldn't you like to have those seven Irish points back?). There have been times in the past when it would have been a sound decision to go for it on fourth down, given the situation in the game and the field position. But this wasn't it. It almost feels like the coaches feel pressured to be riskier, but don't have an idea how to do it.
And when talking about individual plays, in a game that was decided by a mere 3 points, there are many plays and decisions you can point to that make you ask the What-Ifs, and it can get weary. But we have to indulge this one: What if offensive lineman Micah Kia hadn't jumped on Justin Medlock's first field goal attempt, the one he made before he missed it? We had already thought it wasn't worth burning the redshirt of probably your most talented true freshman on field goals and extra points. But here was another huge reason not to; you might have had a more experienced player in the game who wouldn't have probably felt the pressure of playing at Notre Dame as a true freshman and jumped.
The game did go pretty much as we expected. While many were predicting a Notre Dame blow-out, we predicted UCLA would lose by 4, and they lost by 3. And we thought UCLA would be in the game and have a good chance to win it. Notre Dame is over-rated, as we said, and UCLA looked like a team out to prove on national television that it has heart.
While coming away from the game without a win, there will be many national pundits who don't take notice. And again, that's a shame. But the UCLA fan, and I think many other fans who were watching the game, came away impressed with the heart and toughness of the Bruins. If there's anything I'd like UCLA to represent as its national profile, it would be heart and toughness. Last year the team consistently showed it week in and week out. You have to give the players themselves credit, but you also have to give Dorrell credit; in the last two years he has more often gotten his teams to play with the heart and toughness that UCLA fans can be proud of.