Chiccoa on USC: Ch..Ch...Ch...Changes

BRO columnist Charles Chiccoa basks in the afterglow of the win over USC Saturday, giving more props to the heroes of the game, like Eric McNeal and UCLA's defense, and wallowing in the after-game comments from the Trojans...

1. Morgan, Goodman & McNeal


What an embarrassment of riches. Where to start? So much of the sports world in this age of discount hype is so calculated, so vulgar, that something such as the spectacle we witnessed in the Rose Bowl on Saturday comes like a sweet Santa Ana blowing away all the interminable "TO" style crap, all the glib Sports Center chatter. It's the difference between "Rocky" and "Raging Bull."


Typically, ABC/ESPN missed the second-most electric moment of the day when they had to cut away for commercial (to the director's credit, they showed us a brief replay): the pogoing, "Jets" and "Sharks" staredown at midfield. Of course, the most dramatic moment was Eric McNeal's tipped-ball interception that put an exclamation point to this instant classic. From now on the phrase is officially amended to, "Karl Morgan, Marvin Goodwin and Eric McNeal." The play happened so fast, its meaning was so shocking, that it took a long second to register, at least for me. Then all at once the joy from the blue sections, the despair from the red sections, became overwhelming. It was like the announcement, in court, of a death sentence. One minute SC was driving to pull out yet another clutch, late-game victory, the next minute, game over, streak ended, the season turned upside down, inside out, the wretched BCS entirely exposed for the timorous half measure that it is.


My quite sensible wife had been avoiding me all day, running errands, doing work at the office. Just then she walks in the door… "So how are they doing?"


I say, "Check out the screen, honey." It reads 13-9 Bruins, 4 seconds left and SC is at the wrong end of the field. A moment earlier Aaron Perez had delivered the biggest punt of his life, sailing a 60 yarder over Desmond Reed's head. Oh happy day… let the partying begin.


2. The Ghost of Norm Chow


I had to laugh when I read poor Lane Kiffin's pathetic remark that McNeil actually "screwed up" on the play, as if a blitzing linebacker, when he can't get to the QB, is not supposed to leap and try to tip the pass. But then for him to catch it, too, is the kind of play only a converted DB like McNeil can be expected to make. Think of all the linebackers you've seen butcher a ball thrown right to them. (John David Booty claims never to have seen such a play. Gee, didn't Trey Brown do the same thing just a couple of weeks ago? Was John David nodding off during a film session?) I have no idea whether Kiffin was in tears again after his latest bad trip to what SC used to call "their home away from home" (must seem like Cold Comfort Farm now), but he might have been had he tuned into "Trojan Talk" on the drive home: crank after crank, all lined up, going on about "the fraud that is Lane Kiffin." Sounded just like Lav Talk back in the bad ol' days (the memory almost made me tear up). But didn't we all believe that running off Norm Chow would come back to bite Pete in the ass. And speaking of bad karma, there's also the transparent business of Pete warning DeWayne Walker off of UCLA, which is now getting a wider airing in the media. And it didn't help that Pete apparently questioned the heart of UCLA's defensive personnel, especially such fiery types as Bruce Davis. Pete should have (probably did) know that the only real pussycat in Westwood had been Larry Kerr. But above and beyond all that was the fact UCLA had very decent personnel, defensively. They needed to stay healthy and they needed to be let loose. As good as Walker is, particularly in his attention to detail, his insistence on fundamental skills, strengthening each unit – front four, linebackers, defensive backs – then integrating them into an effective whole that attacks rather than sits back trying to react… beyond all that was the fact that guys like Davis and Justin Hickman, Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell, Reggie Carter, Christian Taylor, Chris Horton and Trey Brown are not bad guys around which to build a quick, aggressive defense. College football players do what they're told. These guys, like so many Bruin defenders of recent years, had been poorly served by passive leadership.  


3. "The Truth About What Happened"


That's exactly what Pete Carroll said he wanted to take away from his most devastating defeat (a useful response in analyzing such a nightmare as this). Maybe, after all, there's something more to the guy than outrageously good fortune, a super slick recruiting pitch, a loose way with the facts and hubris. After the initial shock of being punched in the solar plexus, he couldn't wait to get back to the office that very night to watch film of the game. Well, you know Pete, so you can imagine how fast his motor was racing. Picture the Road Runner on speed, a crooked snout, prematurely grey, with a killer haircut. Anyway, here's what he saw: "It wasn't like other games that we lost. We didn't kick the ball around and the other team, I don't think, had to play the game of their life to beat us. I thought they did a real good job." In other words, UCLA is a damn good football team, hardly the pussycats from Westwood I've been trying to sell recruits the last few years. Regarding Booty, he said, "John had a statistical game that was on track" (the emphasis on statistical). Questioned about what could be done about Booty's tipped passes that led to both defeats (thus far) this year, Pete said, "I don't know. No response." In other words, my guy seems a bit mechanical and there's not a lot you can do about that.      


At least Pete can stop worrying about Booty leaving early. This game was played out just as Walker described it… himself vs. Booty. After getting burned through the air on that infamous three play drive in South Bend, and during the four game skid, Walker and Karl Dorrell knew they had to return to the more aggressive stance of the early season. Luckily this "three game season" KD has been selling would not include facing any particularly athletic QBs, or even explosively fast wide receivers. Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are greatly skilled but not blindingly fast. Take your chances with them and go hard after the QB. Make him beat you over the top while he's scrambling for his life, something he's not comfortable doing. A tightly packed defensive front would take care of their non-Reggie tailbacks, and SC was fresh out of healthy fullbacks, at least any worth worrying about.     


The opening moments of the game must have given Pete little reason to doubt his preparations, his guess as to how things would go. He won the coin flip, deferred, and the Bruins quickly went three and out, Lawrence Jackson easily beating Noah Sutherland, then a predictable 2nd and 10 run (of which there would be at least three more), followed by an incomplete pass. When SC's offense, on their opening drive, was able to overcome some penalties, including a 2nd and 19, to move into UCLA territory, Bruin fans must have been squirming in their seats… I know I was. Then strange things started happening. The Bruin front was stuffing the Trojans on third and fourth down plays, and Booty, because of the pressure, wasn't having any luck going downfield. The Trojans' only effective gainers were those little delays and check-offs they drive defenses crazy with. And Booty seemed unusually anxious. The Bruin crowd sensed what was happening, and so did Brent Mussberger and Bob Davies up in the booth. It wasn't just that Walker knew SC's offense, it was that the Bruin D was so much quicker and stronger than anticipated. Until two particular forces actually collide there's no predicting the effect. The rest of the nation, together with a certain amount of Bruin fans, were just as taken aback as SC (seems everyone had forgotten the first 59 minutes in South Bend). There was no Trojan running game to speak of, and Booty was scurrying around in the pocket like a trapped rat.


After UCLA's third drive, we all knew (or should have known) that something was up. Chris Markey accounted for the first chunk of yardage, then Cowan scrambled for an incredible 55 more and just nosed the ball into the endzone on a third down play (shades of Gary Beban). After suffering another fourth down stuff at midfield, SC eventually got a great bounce on a punt near the goal line, Robert Chai got caught holding Sedrick Ellis in the endzone for a safety, and SC finally put together their one and only successful drive of the game, 66 yards: 9-7 at halftime, and though the talking heads in the studio tossed a couple of bones the Bruins way, you could see they were expecting another second half Pete "adjustment." Wait on it fellas, because the second half was just more of the same only better.


Sustained drives in this game were like gold. It's the kind of "hard-hitting defensive struggle" we used to associate with the Big Ten only this beautiful monster, rather than just big man on big man, was more like big athlete on big athlete. Everyone was aware of the talent at SC. Now the rest of the nation was learning there was some talent across town. Who knew?  


SC starts the third quarter nicely with a couple of first downs, then a lineman kills the drive with a dumb personal foul. The Bruins can't do anything, but Perez gets off a 63 yard mortar shot as a prelude to its more memorable twin later on. Booty now delivers his best play of the day, hitting Jarrett in stride for 39 yards, despite a face full of Justin Hickman. When he just misses C.J. Gable, offset in the backfield on the old Reggie-wheel-route down field, Bruin fans let out the big exhale. The drive peters out as Booty slips down under pressure without even being touched.


Ryan Graves gets some running room on a punt return and breaks it for 24 yards to near midfield, thus setting up the drive in which Cowan completes four passes, three to Marcus Everett, the Bruins "go to" receiver, one of them for 21 yards on a 3rd and 15. On the last reception Everett is just short of the first down around the five. No hesitation here, this is a low scoring punch-out. The Bruins have to go for the sure lead and Medlock converts the chip shot.


The Bruins will scare the faithful with two big mistakes in the half:


1) With a great opportunity at midfield Cowan first fumbles a snap, then flips that crazy lateral to Michael Pitre, who can't handle it. This sets up a short field for the Trojans. Is this the break that always seems to find them? No sweat. Call in the defense. This is a new day. After a false start, Carter throws Gable for a four yard loss and on 4th and 2 SC tries some of their quick snap trickery… only problem is they run it into the strength of UCLA's alignment. Half the defense meets Gable four yards behind the line of scrimmage with Alterraun Verner and Taylor doing the honors.


2) Dennis Keyes gets a hugely forgiving bounce after he fumbles a punt deep in Bruin territory. Uh… can we please keep Mr.Graves back there from now on?


Pete's predicament gets deeper with the Bruins third and final drive of the day, which features a 3rd and 15 conversion to who else… Marcus Everett. Markey goes up the gut for 12, then it's two good runs by Derrick Williams. When Cowan takes off again and runs for ten, the Bruins find themselves first and goal at the Trojan three after a marginal personal foul call. But Cowan takes a bad sack when he sits down at the 12 instead of throwing it out of the endzone. Medlock converts the field goal for the four point lead, and a field goal is now out of the question for SC. Now they've got to get in the endzone. Hey, Pete's got the Bruins right where he wants them. He's probably multi-tasking away, already making mental notes for his post victory interviews.  


Just under six minutes remaining, and up pops Ray "Mauathugga." Cowan's trying to convert 3rd and long when Ray-Ray, like a human missile, gets Patrick in his sights two yards short of the down marker and comes with a screaming, helmet-to-helmet kill shot on the QB who, like some Warner Bros. cartoon character, miraculously pops up while the sound of the collision is still reverberating around the Arroyo Seco. The poor side judge is apparently paralyzed by the shockwave, and unable to find his flag to throw it. Or maybe he was afraid Ray-Ray would eat it. Or does Ray-Ray own the refs, too? So how did Pat survive? It looked to me like his best judgment kicked in and told him to roll with it. Hey, he's a Bruin, and Bruins are smart, right? Anyway, this where we came in: the "staredown," the last desperation drive, Trojan tragedy, good guys win, bedlam reigns supreme.


4. The Sleeping Giant Stirs…


The Bruins may have college basketball's greatest tradition, but I still hate it when people call UCLA "a basketball school." That's too easy. There's been more football success in Westwood than people credit, or are even aware of. A lot of the problem, of course, is SC… this whole cursed series, all their #1s, all their Heisman winners compared to Sanders' lonely #1 and Beban's lonely Heisman. But even without this win, UCLA football would still be miles ahead of something like Trojan basketball. I continue to believe there's no unmanageable barrier to a successful profile in both sports. If KD can do something about this offense; if Cowan or Ben Olson can make it work like Drew Olson managed to do ten out of twelve times last year, then December 2nd could be the beginning of the reawakening we've all been waiting for.  


Bruin football, for the first time since Miami, is a national story. They won in what was arguably the most dramatic game of the year, certainly the upset of the year. And it seems everyone was watching. Names like Hickman Davis, Cowan, Everett and McNeil are now known outside of SoCal. KD is being talked about in something other than the subtly patronizing terms as before. He's finally acquired an identity and so has Bruin football. Obviously, this can be lost between now and the "Emerald Bowl" This game in San Francisco, considering the sorry state of things after Cal… well it couldn't have worked out better. No Hawaii over there. No gimmicky, volleyball offense. Instead the Bruins have drawn a geriatric, apparently debilitated legend, pretty obviously on the fast track to forced retirement, coming west to play the most underrated team in the country, fresh off its biggest win since "Route 66." The Bruins cannot afford to stumble. They need to handle Bobby Bowden's mediocre ‘Noles like KD's old Bruin team handled Jimmy Johnson's mediocre Miami team. The Bruins are a well deserved favorite, but you know the ‘Noles always have good athletes.


Beyond keeping both Cowan and Ben Olson at least reasonably content and in the fold, we all know that KD and Dan Guerrero need to do whatever it takes to retain DeWayne Walker, at least for another season. If it becomes impossible, so be it. Otherwise, get it done. Right now he's indispensable. Failing that, they'll need someone to at least replicate his system, to the extent that Kiffin/Sarkissian have replicated Norm Chow's. The fly in the ointment is that you can't replicate the playcalling, which is a kind of art. At least we should never see another read and react dinosaur.


5. Cynical Dan Stays the Course


My friend, Dan, the worst Bruin fan you can imagine, had been trying to flog his tickets all week. Couldn't get it done, so he had to drag himself out to the Rose Bowl, take it like a man… or so he imagined. He swore he was not renewing his season tickets. He'd had it. During the Trojan's last drive, like a lot of other Bruins, he kept fearing the worst… apparently loud enough for the woman behind him to hear. Whereupon she began beating him over the head with a tightly rolled newspaper, ordering him to shut the hell up. Now Dan's no stranger to getting assaulted in the Rose Bowl: another woman once tried strangling him. So, like every one else out there not a Trojan, he winds up with the fabulous gift of this game, an experience he'll likely never forget. A great hand with the remote control, that evening he makes sure not to miss a single highlight on all the various news shows. Talking to him the next day he seems as thrilled as any teenager having attended his first great Bruin game. For a second there, I could almost sense a Hallmark moment. And for the first time in years I couldn't detect a trace of sarcasm. Of course he'll be renewing those tickets.      

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