Chiccoa: That Was So Bruin

Columnist Charles Chiccoa reflects on the Notre Dame game, how Bruin-esque it was and how Charlie Weis inadvertently big-timed the Bruins, while he also tries to kill some Karl cliches, talk up the defense and further crushes the execute-or-die offense...

You don't need to review the tape in order to know what went wrong in South Bend. Call it "the curse" or just another pratfall in the tragicomic tradition of Bruin football. Call it a failure of nerve or a choke to put alongside Cotton Spyrer's catch in Austin, "Big-Play" Johnny Morton's catches at the Rose Bowl, and of course – preeminently - the total defensive collapse in Miami.


Other than getting run out of Notre Dame Stadium, the last thing this unhappy program needed was another of those "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" numbers. And how did you like the "respect" Charlie Weis offered the Bruins? "Here is the thing," he said. "Good teams win games like that. Good teams make a play at the end of the game to win. I'm not going to feel miserable about this win." Note the bald condescension, the discounting of the Bruins as a respectable opponent, a team he assumes the Irish homies believe he should have blown out. UCLA, to Notre Dame, or at least in Charlie's mind, is just another Stanford, Georgia Tech or Michigan State… chumps that were lucky enough to hang with the vaunted Irish until winning time reared its ugly head. And notice, too, the implied corollary: not so good teams don't make a play at the end of the game to win. Oh and thanks for playing, Bruins.    


The real stinger to this thing is that the Bruins' most aggressive coach was the one most responsible for this farcical ending. I think we're mostly in agreement that DeWayne Walker is the MVP of the professionals in the football program (sort of like Reggie Bush, for SC, last year). The guy is absolutely earning his pay. Too bad he wasn't more up on Bruin football history. Otherwise he might not have been quite so complacent… assuming he could afford to "wait three plays" before going after a quarterback like Brady Quinn, a receiver like Jeff Samardzija, and a killer competitor like Weis. Oh well… we'll get ‘em next year.


Speaking of empty clichés, I think we've all had our fill of "learning experiences," "moving on," and worst of all, "keep on grinding." And how about the latest fad among losing teams: individuals "stepping up to take responsibility." One week it's Ben Olson, then Patrick Cowan, then Walker and Dennis Keyes. And have you noticed how this routine has the extra added benefit of pointing out that individual's importance? Guys, we're not interested in your confessions. This is not Oprah. Just go out and win a big game.




If it wasn't clear before, perhaps it will be now: this is a very good defensive front, and Walker, Todd Howard and Chuck Bullough have done a remarkable job, completely transforming this unit in a single year. And Justin Hickman's play is no great surprise. This guy could always play; he was just stuck in a bad system. Hickman, Bruce Davis, Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell are a formidable front four. Christian Taylor continues to do his Brian Willmer act, Reggie Carter looks more and more like a future playmaker, and Aaron Whittington is a nicely instinctive player (if his ankle sprain is serious - and what Bruin ankle sprain isn't? - John Hale's got a big job replacing him).


The secondary is a different proposition, and since this is Walker's specialty I would hope he's amenable to some changes because these guys are not getting it done. Their tackling is okay, certainly improved, but their coverage skills don't instill confidence… which is why pressure up front is so crucial, iand why a slack, two- deep- zone is in no way helpful. (And why are Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline so often inserted on passing downs? If they're thought to be slightly quicker than Brown and Harwell, the question is… so what? Neither is as strong or effective as the starters, and neither is, as yet, a playmaker, something which Brown definitely is and Harwell very likely will become. Am I wrong, or is this a classic case of over-coaching?)


Dennis Keyes continues to be the weak link. He's played enough now that we know he's somewhat short of the necessary instincts of a natural free safety, things such as closing to help double in downfield coverage, basic man-to-man skills, tackling, and having that sixth sense in being able to anticipate where the play is going. It's all well and good for coaches to say this or that underclassman is inexperienced, or seems slow in picking up the defense, but why go with an upper classman who may be hurting you just as much… and with all that experience? And how valuable is experience in getting toasted? I'm not saying that Keyes is any Jason Zdenek,  Joey Strycula or "Gentle Ben," just that he's not noticeably improving… and that we all might be surprised to see what a younger player might do if at least given some meaningful minutes. The fact that the top three corners all have some sort of deficiency, be it lack of speed, consistency, or experience, makes the free safety position that much more important. Right now Chris Horton is the only dependable DB, and his job is as much run support as coverage. Who knows, maybe Michael Norris can help when he's able to play.     


I think it's now become obvious KD's WCO isn't exactly a player-friendly O since it seems to lack all benefit of deception. Basically it's an "execute or die" proposition, and that, as we've said before, is the hard way to play football. Once the ball is snapped (if not before) the defense seems confident they know just where to run, and they're almost always right… and on time. No hesitation, no indecision, none of that split second "freeze" which pops people wide open and makes life easier for everyone: quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, O linemen, coaches and fans. This offense is a "grinder" all right, but only in the sense of grinding your teeth.


The offensive numbers are obviously depressing: yards passing, average per pass attempt and per completion, yards rushing, and average per rush. And it's not all on the players. It's getting to the point where a draw play, or the rare misdirection, seems almost like a trick play. (For those of you pointing to last year's numbers, in addition to the three departed playmakers, consider that a ton of those yards and points were made during those memorable fourth quarters, with the game plan long since shredded and defenses playing it safe… until it was too late).


The better offenses do not live by stretch plays alone, or cutbacks, or underneath completions, or double tight-end sets, or by alternating half a dozen receivers. No doubt a lot of this poor play is caused by ineffective quarterbacking (locking onto primary receivers, not getting the team out of bad plays and such), but the Bruins, along with everybody else, will never be in position to plug in a new, 5th-year, redshirt senior each season. With early entries into the pro draft, and reserve quarterbacks transferring out and choosing to play the game rather than watch it (and who can blame them?), those days are gone forever.                           


Since it's not unreasonable to expect a redshirt soph to be able to run an offense competently, or even well, you'd have to say both Ben Olson and Patrick Cowen have been disappointing – which is not to say that one or both of them can't significantly help salvage this season. A child knows that without effective quarterbacking no offense can succeed. Seven games down, and we've seen only two where the passing game was effective; again, not good enough. Call me crazy, but if things don't get better here, I wouldn't mind seeing these guys alternate when Ben gets back, say two or three series at a time and let them compete on Saturdays. Job security certainly hasn't helped much.




So it seems as if everyone is living in fear of Washington State, and why not? Though the Cougs gave up lots of passing yards, they managed to stuff Jonathan Stewart just like Cal did, and caused (or were the beneficiaries of) four Duck turnovers. The Bruins have no running game to go along with a highly questionable passing game; still I wouldn't bet on Washington State. I have to believe KD and Jim Svoboda are going to put Marcus Everett and Junior Taylor to more consistent use downfield, and maybe even rediscover the joys of throwing to the tight end (what a play by William Snead!) and backs out of the backfield. But if this one gets away, and the season goes completely south, you do wonder about critical mass and how big an explosion it might create. But, remember, with this team anything is possible… even a big win or two.      


There seems to be a growing army of Cranks, not all them unreasonable, who've not only lost faith in KD but who believe this team has only average talent. They continue to disparage the quality of opposition, even Notre Dame. They believe the Bruins still don't stand a chance vs. anyone good. I don't agree about the talent on the field, but you'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to have questions about the head coach and where this program is headed. And is the relentlessly sunny KD really learning from his mistakes? Did you believe, when he had the chance to put that game away, that KD would throw on second or third down instead of running into a stacked front? And, following that, did you doubt the Bruins would come out in some kind of slack zone coverage, even with a DC like Walker? KD may not have called the defense, but make no mistake, his stamp has been on all these teams, and the prime responsibility is his.  


If we wind up with a coaching change in the near future, the Notre Dame game, and that thirty-five second, three-play drive, may just be the straw that broke KD's back… just as the Miami collapse foreshadowed the end of Bob Toledo.


Try to imagine an L.A. Times headline, "Bruins Stun Irish," slugged over those great photos of  Christian Taylor woofing with Darius Walker, or Hickman and Davis high fiving over the fallen Quinn, or Whittington's scoop fumble recovery… instead of "59 ½ Minutes of Fame" which is what we got. Hey, only the Bruins…        

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