WSU Game: The Big Picture

After UCLA's demoralizng loss to Washington State, 37-15, it's clear that there's more than just a season now on the line for UCLA's Head Coach Karl Dorrell. Was this game one of those pivotal types, and could it have officially put Dorrell on the hot seat?

There are definitely games -- even losses – that you can stoically analyze. But there are other games, like UCLA's devastating loss to Washington State, 37-15, Saturday at the Rose Bowl, that are bigger-picture games.

That is, it's the type of game where you don't want to really analyze the game, unless you're almost self-abusive, but it makes you want to talk about the bigger picture. Somehow, in the aftermath of a game like that, an analysis of the bigger picture is therapeutic.

So, I think we need to provide BRO readers some therapy.

But first, with the loss, let's set the stage: UCLA is 4-4 this season, with games remaining at Cal, home against Oregon State, at Arizona State and home against USC.

Well, the USC game isn't looking as menacing as it has the last several years but, on the other hand, the games against Cal, Oregon State and Arizona State look far more daunting than they did just a few weeks ago.

Yesterday Arizona State beat Washington, so the Sun Devils are 5-3 and playing fairly well in recent weeks. Oregon State, as we all must know, beat USC and is also 5-3. Cal is 7-1, 5-0 in the conference, and emerging as the best Pac-10 team this season.

Just about every scenario you play out in your mind for the rest of the season seems reasonable. You could see UCLA beating OSU, ASU, and even possibly pulling off an upset of USC. You could see UCLA beating two of those three. You could see the Bruins beating just OSU at home or pulling off an upset of ASU in the desert. Or it's not difficult to see UCLA getting shut out the rest of the way.

With those scenarios possible, when Head Coach Karl Dorrell said last night in his post-game press conference that the program will have its collective back against the wall, it inadvertently means much more. It probably applies not only to the season being on the line, but potentially Karl Dorrell's job.

While most fans, boosters, and people in the athletic department have long maintained that Dorrell would, no matter what, get the chance to coach the team in the 2007 season, the way this season is shaping up that could be questionable.

If the team doesn't win another game, and gets beaten soundly by USC, that would make it 4-8 on the year, ending the year with a 7-game losing streak. A year like that, in just about everyone's mind, even the coach himself, would be considered a failure. That type of year would probably be enough to negate the credit Dorrell got with his 10-2 season a year ago. Even if the team wins one more game, goes 5-7 and, again, gets beaten soundly by USC, it would probably also counteract last season's 10-2.

It's hard to discount the ill feelings that swirl when a team has such a losing season and gets beat by USC. There were those feelings in 2002, even after Bob Toledo had an 8-5 season. Yes, Toledo had lost control of his program, but it would probably be hard to keep control of one if you're 4-8 or 5-7.

Dorrell, in his first season, went 6-6, and then 6-7 in his second. If he goes 4-8 or 5-7 that would be three seasons without winning records in four years. The exception, of course, is last year's 10-2 season. Coming off the season a year ago, you felt like it had given Dorrell some firm job security, but now, that security feels like it's running out.

Any 10-2 season, of course, you have to credit the coach. Even if such a season was a complete fluke, he still gets credit for it. Coaches should get credit for good seasons that are improbable since they get blamed for bad seasons that are improbable.

But how far does that 10-2 season take Dorrell? That's really the big question.

At the beginning of this season, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero told the L.A. Times that the team needed to prove this season that last season wasn't a fluke.

So, if UCLA goes 4-8, or 5-7, logically, you'd have to say that the program failed to prove that.

Even if you don't consider it a fluke, in four years that would give Dorrell one good season against three without winning records.

If, on the other hand, you think the 10-2 season was a fluke, then it looks pretty bleak for Dorrell.

Dorrell, see, is now out on his own without excuses. He's definitely past his honeymoon. It's past the time where anyone could say, "He's just starting out, getting the program under control, getting his own system installed and getting his own players." We're four years in and those excuses aren't useable anymore.

Nothing you saw on that field Saturday against Washington State can be blamed on just getting started or Bob Toledo. The offensive system has been installed for some time and Dorrell is operating it with his players.

And four years in, watching that game, it was very illustrative. It was clear that UCLA's talent level wasn't on par with Washington State. Nothing against the Cougars, but most Cougar fans must be able to admit that UCLA should be able to recruit better than Washington State. You wouldn't know it watching that game.

Some UCLA fans will say that the team is young, and that's true. But again, who's fault is that? Dorrell's first recruiting class was signed in February of 2003, which would make that class true seniors right now. If he had brought in enough talent in that class and the one following it, you'd have a team of seniors, redshirt juniors, juniors and redshirt sophomores that had enough experience to compete against Washington State.

So, why is the youth of this team an issue? As I stated before the season (and was subsequently criticized for), this program is populated with "solid" guys, but there just aren't enough impact players to be highly competitive at this level of college football. "Solid" guys need to be redshirted, bulked up and coaches up so that, by their redshirt senior years, they're solid guys in your program. But solid guys aren't making big impacts as true sophomores and juniors, or even redshirt sophomores. So, when the excuse is made that this team is young, it's really just another explanation for why this team doesn't have the talent it needs to win at this level. So, the youth explanation just doesn't hold up as the last bastion of a post-Toledo-aftermath excuse. The youth problem is all on Dorrell.

A brief aside: One thing needs to be said for the players, however. While UCLA fans are booing at the Rose Bowl or criticizing players on the message board, the players must almost completely be absolved of blame. The team is playing to their capability, and even over-achieving. The character and quality of the players on this team is one that really is obvious when you deal with them. Rodney Van, we all know, had a poor game, but it's just a plain shame given what a quality kid he is. So, while fans throw criticisms around, they should know that these are high-quality young men that are, indeed, giving their all and playing to their capability.

Even though we went over some of the worst-case scenarios for the season, there is still the possibility that the team wins a few more games, and one of those games could be against USC. Let's say it goes to a minor bowl game and wins. Any scenario close to that, where the team ends the season 7-6 or 8-5 and/or with a win over USC, will probably assure Dorrell of his job and a chance to return for the 2007 season, which everyone is pointing to as "the year."

There's a chance for Dorrell to scratch and claw his way back to a 7-6 record and the chance to get taken back off the hot seat with a strong 2007 season. Or it's finish this season with one of the worst-case scenarios and get fired, or actually return for next season with nothing less than a 10-2 being acceptable to negate 2006.

It will be an interesting drama to watch unfold. Will the team have enough left in its tank for the rest of the season? At this point, after this game, you'd have to say they're running on empty. The offense, in the second half of the Washington State game, was at its lowest point for the season. And you couple that with easily the defense's worst performance of the season, and it makes you wonder how it could possibly put together another win. It's not overly negative, but logical, to think that the offense will continue to sputter and that the defense is probably getting worn down and will be more vulnerable over the next four games. There is the chance of Ben Olson returning and providing a spark, but again, odds are, trying to get back from the injury, it'd be difficult for him to do it.

The Washington State game was one of the lowest points of Dorrell's era. In fact, the second half might have been the worst half of his four years, given the fact that it is four years in. So, is this rock bottom for the season and there is only up from here, or can it get worse?

It was definitely pretty ugly at the Rose Bowl Saturday. Boos rose from the stands a few times, and the crowd filed out early. Down on the field, on the sideline, stood Dan Guerrero, tolerating the catcalls from irate fans. And that's just what Guerrero is hearing from random fans. You can imagine what Guerrero is hearing from the big-moneyed boosters. You know a coach could be on the hot seat when, after the game, the athletic director is being asked by the press for comments.

Usually the recruits at the game are allowed in the UCLA locker room pretty quickly after the game. This time the recruits waited outside.

In terms of recruiting, if UCLA crashes, will it impact the recruiting class? Sure. UCLA could definitely lose some of its committed recruits. But, looking on the bright side: You thought UCLA only having nine available scholarships this season was a negative, but it could end up a positive since they wouldn't have the chance to lose too many.

Any angle you look at it, whether you're a Blue or a Crank, you have to admit that it's all narrowing in on Dorrell. Every win now takes on huge importance. He definitely does have himself in a corner, up against the wall, with every game having big, big-picture implications. Dorrell's character is easily of the quality that, no matter what happens, he'll put in a great effort and try to get everything out of his players, and himself, that he can. That really isn't – or never has been – the question with Dorrell.

The question is – and always has been – does he have the coaching chops. With the honeymoon over, and the goodwill from the 10-2 season waning, he's left out on his own, with no excuses remaining, having to prove himself.


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