Chiccoa: Welcome to the Hot Seat

Our columnist, Charles Chiccoa, like most Bruin fans these days, wonders about the state of the program, and of Head Coach Karl Dorrell after the thrashing by Washington State last Saturday. He can't help but complain a little about the game itself, too...

Coming on the heels of the three-play drive in South Bend and the first-half collapse in Eugene, Washington State was not what Karl Dorrell needed, and don't even mention Dan Guerrero. Imagine, after such a brutal second half, being pelted with angry, sarcastic questions about the competency of your football coach (talk about taking it up the Wazzu). Dan was lucky there wasn't more than a couple of dozen fans left in the Rose Bowl. So now, in the matter of just three games, we've come from hopeful to a shambles, from guardedly optimistic to something approaching meltdown. Seems as though things are proceeding at warp speed. 

 

I remember feeling something like this in '03 when an unranked Oregon team came into a half-filled Rose Bowl and effectively knocked out the Bruins in the first quarter, then led 31-6 at halftime. This time it was a devastating 23-0 second half, the Bruins unable to make a first down until the eleven minute mark of the fourth quarter. 

 

You could feel intimations of the coming loss even in the pre-game tailgating. There was noticeably less anticipation, and no electricity, whereas at the beginning of the season, at something like the "Derf/Mood" gathering of the BROs, you could hardly find room to turn around. Now you had no problem finding a place to sit, and conversation, if any, was much less animated, almost desultory. Ultimately the biggest thrill of the day would be John David Booty's tipped incompletion up in Corvallis (think how much worse the drive home would have been if Oregon State had completely choked that one away).

 

I won't rehash this thing beyond noting a few obvious points:

 

1) Chris Markey is not the best tailback on this team. His stop/start style has almost no chance of success in this offense. His moves and quickness, his "shake," isn't good enough to sacrifice whatever "downhill" motion he might generate. Since Derrick Williams is no longer in "the doghouse," presumably he'll be getting the bulk of the carries from now on, even if Markey retains an honorary starting spot. It may be one of those characteristic KD half measures, like starting Tyler Ebell, then yanking him for the more effective Mo Drew (a surefire way to make the deposed starter feel better).

 

2) It's beginning to look like the feel-good, "underdog" story of Patrick Cowan may not feel all that good: you know, the business about the "joker," the hang-loose "gunslinger," the "leader" that the players  want to "rally around." As if they wouldn't do the same for Ben Olson, Osaar Rasshan or even, if it comes to that, the wonderfully named McLeod Bethel-Thompson (who sounds as if he should be playing for some Anglo-Indian cricket club).

 

Cowan has shown little inclination for throwing anything but line drives, which is obviously his strength. When he's had to put air under the ball, apply some touch downfield, or even on screens, he hasn't inspired confidence. This aspect of his game definitely needs improvement, and it'll be interesting to see what develops next week since Ben's return, as of today, seems unlikely. This isn't to say that Ben doesn't have holes in his game… stuff that needs to be ironed out if he's to become more effective than he's shown. Neither has demonstrated any talent for coming off their primaries, which, of course, is the same thing that we noticed with Drew Olson his first three years. It's as if all these guys had spinal fusions; you almost never see them turn their heads. The fourth-and-one failure last Saturday was a great example of this. Contrary to what the ABC clowns saw, Cowan stayed on Michael Pitre the whole time… he never turned his head, never noticed Marcus Everett crossing deep and away from the flow, wide, wide open. Instead he began motioning Pitre to wheel around his defender and then popped up an ugly desperation attempt. And Cowan had so much time to throw, you could even see a big Bruin O lineman standing and pointing downfield to Everett, nobody within fifteen yards of him. The guy sitting in front of us at the Rose Bowl immediately turned into some kind of whirling dervish, hysterically pounding his cap on the back of his seat: "I don't believe it, I do not believe it," he kept shouting. He turned so beet red, I thought he was going to have a stroke.  

 

3) DeWayne Walker apparently hasn't yet faced the fact that he badly lacks coverage skills in the secondary. The manner in which he yanked Rodney Van off the field (and Van didn't play "okay") after Rodney's last butchered play indicates he might be more inclined, in the future, to put his faith in a heavier pass rush. Since he seldom came with more than five, he apparently thought he could beat Alex Brink with coverage, thought he could create enough pressure with Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis off the edges. Brink's 405 yards on 38 attempts put paid to that notion. And when are the DBs going to clean up their technique and learn how to both stay with a receiver and see the ball? Van and Dennis Keyes both need to sit; maybe they can learn by watching; maybe some younger guys can do a better job. Either way it seems an obvious move, but depth chart changes, for UCLA, are like pulling wisdom teeth. This team is now at a point where worrying about "the college experience" of various individuals has to take a backseat to the welfare of the team. How much this "patience" is the coordinator, and how much the head coach, is unknown. But it does point to the methodical Dorrell style, which brings us to…

 

4) Game management. The rumors about some kind of roundtable discussions going on over the headphones (rather than a decisive voice), begins to sound more and more credible with each incident of late decision-making and needlessly burned time outs. The latest bizarre example popped up just before the half, when 17 seconds were allowed to run off the clock before the Bruins decided to stop it in anticipation of trying to get the ball back for at least a field goal try. The fact that Wazzu proceeded to complete a downfield pass into the soft underbelly of the Bruin zone, and ultimately wound up missing their field goal attempt, is beside the point. It was the indecision that was so maddening.  

   

                                        ***

 

Isn't it amazing the speed at which things change in college football? Only a month ago, who would have thought it possible the KD era could end by December? And yet, if worse comes to worst, it just might happen. 5-7, or even an incredible 4-8, and DG might not have much of a choice. This is beginning to smell suspiciously like '02 when everything came apart in three weeks. With each passing embarrassment, critical mass is building exponentially. If this "death spiral" continues apace, why would a relatively young AD take a bullet for an obviously failed coach?

 

So what do you do if you're not prepared to go the radical Crank route and hope for the worst? What needs to happen for the Bruins to right this thing, salvage a little respect? Obviously, of course, running the table (Twilight Zone territory)… or else playing Cal close, beating SC (or vice-versa) while also beating both Oregon St. and Arizona St. (a decided long shot). You would think 6-6, with a pissant bowl victory, would insure KD another year, provided Cal and SC are not blowouts. In any case, I would hope Ben's able to play by at least Oregon State, but no matter who is the quarterback, I wouldn't object to a quick hook either way. And the Bruins need to see a lot more of Williams and Chane Moline, perhaps even Gavin Ketchum. And they need to quit "alternating" guys like Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell, Junior Taylor and Everett. This team isn't so deep in talent they can afford this kind of luxury.  

 

KD's first reaction after 15-37 was to say, "We need a lot more hard work. We have to get back to work and deal with all the criticism and all the things that happened." Pat Cowan, when asked what went wrong, said, "Um, I'm not sure." None of this is helpful. Even the most casual Bruin fan would tell you that what UCLA needs right now is change and adjustments. Working hard is likely not the problem (in fact the Bruins look a little tight, as if they're pressing). KD badly needs to quit grinding… to quit digging around in the same dry hole and finally start loosening up this infernally constipated offense.

 

Beyond the question of whether or not KD returns is the realty that, if this team crashes and burns, would he deserve to coach next year's team? Roll that one over.                    


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