Charles Chiccoa: Still Alive

BRO columnist Charles Chiccoa takes your ticket for the roller coaster ride once again after UCLA ends its four-game skid and beats Oregon State. The ride could very well continue this week against Arizona State, providing Bruin fans that usual queasy feeling in November...

On Monday morning, the relentlessly tiresome Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio was interviewing one of his college football "experts," Bruce Feldman. This being Cowherd, the subject of Notre Dame inevitably popped up. And, making the case against ND nosing into the national championship game, Feldman said this about a couple of their close calls: "Michigan State is awful and UCLA is… not very good." Hey, BROs, maybe the Bruins' national profile is a bit better than we thought. I mean an ESPN "expert" declines to say UCLA is awful.

 

I've already confessed to not being "a good fan" by Blue standards, so I might as well admit to not being a very good Crank either. Though I may have stayed home to watch the game in comfort, I did honestly want a win on Saturday, and did not fear the Beavers or Matt Moore. After so many big-game disappointments, so many underachieving years, I always remember, when things go south, to make a distinction between Bruin talent on the field and the talent on the sidelines. In bad years, rarely is the talent on the field insufficient for at least one or two more wins. My defense of UCLA football down the years has tended to the effect of "these players are better than you think."

 

UCLA is a better team than Oregon State. They have more good players, better depth of talent, and they should have won this game. That was also the case vs. Washington and Washington State. I mean, how would you like to have to recruit to places like Corvallis and Pullman? How would you feel about playing for coaches like Mike Riley and Tyrone Willingham? (Not that Karl Dorrell, so far, has proven to be any walk in the park.) Both the Huskies and Wazzu simply had better quarterback play than the Bruins, and more aggressive game plans on both sides of the ball, not to mention that Washington was at home. And so they won. That happens in football, especially the college game. The quarterback position is probably the most crucial position in team sports, far more important than a starting pitcher or a point guard, in my opinion. DeWayne Walker also might have given Isaiah Stanback (along with his own secondary) too much respect… and perhaps Alex Brink too little. In any case, in those two games, he chose to come with a smaller hammer up front. Last Saturday, with UCLA's back against the wall, Walker had no choice but to turn up the pressure (just as KD suggested during the week). And so the Bruin D made Matt Moore look like the overrated quarterback he's always been. Moore's problem is an exaggerated sense of his own talents. His arm may be strong enough, but he's lacking something upstairs. Turnovers, whether picks or fumbles, can usually be traced to complacency, which is father to carelessness. It's why he throws into coverage so much, why he shows so little awareness of where he (or the opponent) is on the field. I never blamed him for transferring. He was fairly high-profile coming out of high school, and after the phone cock-up in the Coliseum, he believed he'd never start as long as Drew Olson was healthy. Fine. In his place, I might have done the same. His mistake, all along, has been in thinking he was smart enough, quick enough, had an accurate enough arm. He was never any of these things and still isn't. Like all average talents, he needed to bear down every day in order to make up for natural deficiencies. In that sense Drew Olson was always going to be the better man. After the game, Moore seemed puzzled about his fumbles, as if the football were some bizarre greased pig that just kept slipping out of his hands… clueless, in other words.

 

Patrick Cowan, of course, got off to a horrible start, just 44 yards passing in the first half… the entire offense barely 100 yards. If not for the obviously more aggressive defense, the Bruins would've trailed by more than 7-6. But then, starting the second half, the game turned around on three plays: John Hale makes a very nice tackle on third and short, and when Riley gets a bit antsy (or too cocky) on 4th and one, going for it near midfield, Brigham Harwell makes a great play. Then someone makes the right call… Marcus Everett, the Bruins best receiver, beats his man long, Cowan hits him with the prettiest long ball of the year, and with that surprising crowd of 67,000 behind them, UCLA snatches away all the momentum. And whenever the Beavers (what is it with these ridiculous Oregon nicknames?) looked to be getting back in the game, they would promptly drop the ball.

 

Cowan played well once he was able to relax… or once the coaches simplified his job. The second touchdown to Everett was even prettier than the 45-yard bomb. Sprinting right, you either expected him to throw wildly, throw it away, or run out of bounds, when Pat suddenly turns loose a rifle shot (throwing across his body) to Everett moving left in the back of the endzone. Bullseye! Cade would've been proud of that one. It therefore came as no surprise that KD named Cowan the starter for Arizona State, though he seemed to be at pains to defuse any "quarterback controversy" when he said, "Ben will be the starter again." That's easy to say now (Cowan still only threw for 126 yards), but if Cowan plays well and finishes the season strongly, and Ben has to stand and watch, when he's physically ready to go, it's hard to imagine there won't be tough decisions and hard feelings ahead. This scenario almost has the feel of the Major Applewhite/Chris Simms deal at Texas, even down to the 5 star lefties.

 

The biggest surprise of this game may have been the secondary play. Undoubtedly the increased pressure on the quarterback made things easier, but it did look as if the DBs were in better position to defend both the pass and the run, and they all made plays. The front seven, which is again the strength of the team, was outstanding, Harwell and Christian Taylor in particular. Harwell is becoming the player we were all looking for, and Taylor's beginning to look like the most valuable walk-on transfer since the immortal John Barnes. And wasn't it gratifying to see the Bruin D keep up the pressure until the very end.  

 

                                          ***

 

The game in Tempe now becomes pivotal to any hopes of salvaging this disappointing season. If the Bruins lose this one it's going to be an uncomfortable two weeks ‘til SC.  Another road loss in a winnable game and it's the old rollercoaster routine again, and the radical Cranks will once again occupy the high ground. ASU will never scare anyone defensively until Dirk Koetter finds himself a competent DC, or until ASU bumps him off. On the other hand, the Bruins offense doesn't scare anyone either. It's an interesting match-up in that each team's strength, at the moment, is exactly opposite the opponent's strength: UCLA's good D vs. ASU's good O; ASU's bad D vs. UCLA's bad O. Those were some eye-opening numbers the ‘Devils put on Wazzu: 562 total yards; 330 yards and 3 scores from Rudy Carpenter in just 24 throws; nearly 200 yards rushing on top of that… and they never punted once, while forcing seven Wazzu punts.  I mean, where did that come from? The little I've seen of Carpenter, he does look like one of those "gunslinger" types who'll throw it up for grabs under pressure, which would appear to work to the benefit of Walker's renewed faith in hunting quarterbacks. And it would certainly be nice if Cowan could take advantage of his shot, here, in getting the start. He's beginning to bank a little experience, and he won't be facing one of the stronger Pac-10 defenses.

 

Maybe the most worrisome factor is all the penalties (155 yards!). After last week's spectacle, you can be sure the obsessively discriminating Pac-10 zebras will be examining each Bruin play like an episode of Proctologists Gone Wild.       

 

In addition to the Bruins improved play, particularly defensively, I do think Bruin fans ought to send a shout-out to Matt Moore and Mike Riley. Thanks in part to them, the season still has some carbonation left, and we can look forward to at least one more week with something like anticipation, instead of that familiar queasy feeling of November. For some strange reason, I've always dreaded this month.    

 


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