Emerald Bowl: Surprising and Strange

In a game that didn't adhere in any way to its pre-game indicators, UCLA lost in an offensive slugfest to Florida State in the Emerald Bowl, 44-27, Wednesday. There were so many surprising and strange aspects of the game, from a 4th-down touchdown pass to the horrible condition of the field...

This was a surprising and strange way to end the season.

In a game where you thought maybe 40 points would be scored total, Florida State beat UCLA, 44-27, in the Emerald Bowl Wednesday night.

There weren't too many games that defied prediction completely this season. Most of them adhered predominantly to their pre-game indicators.

This one, however, deviated almost completely. This was two teams with very good defenses and struggling offenses. It was two teams that showed for most of the season that they struggled to put points on the board and couldn't run the ball.

Well, the teams combined for 74 points, 864 yards, and 360 yards on the ground.

It was also plainly strange that UCLA's defense, that was averaging 17 points allowed per game, let 44 get put up on the board, the most in a game this season. And it allowed it to happen by an offense that was scoring just 23 per game.

Surprising and strange.

It was strange the way the game played out, in many ways. Very simply, UCLA had won control and momentum of the game late in the first quarter and held it until the fourth quarter, when it relinquished it quite liberally. The flood gates were then broken. The score was 27-23 with about 10 minutes left in the game – and Florida State scored three unanswered touchdowns.

It was strange since, while UCLA had the momentum for most of the game, you could feel it was tenuous – because UCLA's defense was faltering.

Strange since it was a type of feeling that you really didn't feel this season – but echoed back to last season. In many games last year, you never thought UCLA had the momentum of the game in hand fully, since UCLA's defense in the 2005 season could never stop anyone. This game felt a bit like that; while UCLA had the momentum for most of three quarters, the UCLA defense was vulnerable enough that a few bounces of the ball could swing the momentum toward FSU.

And the ball did bounce.

First, when you're discussing momentum-shifting points of the game, it has to be a first that the field condition – on a clear day with no snow or rain – was a factor. The Pac-10 (and the ACC, for that matter) need to lodge formal complaints with the Emerald Bowl organizers. It was very funky that one endzone was practically right up against a wall, like it was Arena football, or that both teams were on the same sideline. But that was the poorest display of a field that I can remember in college football. The turf was tearing up into divots that a Mini Cooper could fall into. Players on both sides were slipping all night, and slipping in key situations on key plays. It's really strange when perhaps the biggest determining factor of the game is the poor preparation of the field.

Which leads us to the biggest momentum-shifting play of the game. FSU has the ball, fourth and nine, at the UCLA 30 yard line, the Seminoles trailing the Bruins, 27-23, with 9:40 left in the game. UCLA, still, has possession of the momentum, and you were feeling that, if UCLA could stop them on this down they could probably ride the momentum for the last nine minutes into a win. But FSU QB Drew Weatherford throws a high floating ball to Greg Carr, the 6-6 receiver who had been, for the most part, kept under wraps for the game. But all we can see, watching it on ESPN's poor coverage, was cornerback Rodney Van on the ground at Carr's feet, as Carr catches the pass over him along the sideline at the three-yard line and tip toes into the endzone for the touchdown.

What happened? In this Information Age, we're so used to knowing everything, and not being left with a mystery. But in this case, we have a throw-back mystery.

Because, on one hand, the TV announcers, Dan Fouts and Tim Brant, emphatically stated that Carr committed offensive pass interference throwing Van to the ground. ABC never showed a true replay, probably because, with the 14,000 cameras they have in the stadium so busy finding pretty girls in the stands, they missed it. Please, to any network that televises sports: Don't allow your announcers to claim something and then not be able to back it up with a replay.

On the other hand, it's very plausible that Van slipped on the horrendous turf.

Talking to a few UCLA fans who were at the game, who say they were very close to the play, I'm even getting different opinions. One says Van slipped, the other said it was a PI.

It was the biggest play of the game, by far. It opened the flood gates, giving Florida State swagger, and evaporated the last breath UCLA's defense had. The tenuous momentum that UCLA had definitely switched on that play, and FSU scored two more touchdowns to seal the deal.

And if you even throw out the potential PI, or the turf, you could easily ask the question: Why, in this situation, while UCLA has five defensive backs on the field, is Carr only getting single coverage with a cornerback? Carr is the big-play, touchdown guy. There were pretty good odds that FSU was going to go to him. In this situation, with Carr starting to get loosened up, having caught a couple of balls right before this play after getting bottled up for most of the game (mostly because of Weatherford's poor passes), wouldn't it make sense to bracket Carr?

It was the poorest game of the year for UCLA's defense, both performance-wise and scheme-wise, which is so regrettable, given that it was a breakthrough year for UCLA's defense. It's tough to have that performance as the last impression for the season of a defense that definitely turned the corner under first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker.

The defense was, for the most part, on its heels for this game. If it weren't for the inefficiency of Weatherford, the UCLA D might have given up quite a bit more points and collapsed considerably earlier.

And again, the words surprising and strange are appropriate. It was both surprising and strange that UCLA's defense would end the season with this performance, against such a struggling offense. Walker looked like he was calling a game on his heels himself, lacking the aggressiveness in blitzing, going to a 3-3-5 quite a bit, which essentially eliminates the pass rush, and giving FSU a big cushion for its receivers. There was a big soft spot in the middle of the D that FSU took advantage of by getting running back Lorenzo Booker into that space with the ball.

UCLA's defense had done this in different games this season, against Oregon, Washington State and Cal. The common thread among these teams and Florida State? They all run primarily spread offenses. The one knock on Walker is that he's stellar against pro-style offenses, like USC's, but isn't near as good against college-type spreads. This is just speculation, taken from quite a bit of circumstantial evidence, but it does seem to be true. Against spreads, Walker goes to the more passive nickel and dime packages, and doesn't appear nearly as confident in calling the game.

The game was surprising and strange, too, in that UCLA's offense did so well. It had, easily, its best rushing performance of the season. The offensive line and the running backs were excellent. Chris Markey, to his considerable credit, has gotten stronger and better as the season has worn on, which is definitely the one aspect that is better than his often-compared predecessor Maurice Drew. Drew got worn down as the season wore on, while Markey, this season, has seemed to get stronger. He ran with explosion and strength in this game, finishing with 144 yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

The offensive line also had its best performance of the year, against what was supposed to be the best front seven they faced all season. There were beautiful holes for the running backs, particularly between the tackles. UCLA's interior linemen, center Robert Chai and guards Shannon Tevaga and Chris Joseph, really handled FSU's interior DL. Tackles Noah Sutherland and Brian Abraham (playing for the nicked-up Aleksey Lanis) also did very well sealing their ends to create space on the edge. Tight end Logan Paulsen also showed he's developed into a very good blocker.

Quarterback Patrick Cowan is getting flak on the BRO message boards, but personally I don't think it's warranted. Cowan was 15 for 36 for 240 yards. He did throw two interceptions and had a few other badly-thrown balls. But he more than made up for it with a number of excellently-thrown balls, particularly the two touchdown passes, one to a streaking Brandon Breazell in stride, and another to Junior Taylor in the back of the endzone where he had a very small space to put it. When he threw the pick in the final few minutes, that the FSU DB returned for the touchdown that really sealed the game, it didn't necessarily look it was Cowan's fault, and you couldn't say, at that time, that that play decided the game. There were far too many other plays that preceded it that did.

If you're talking about plays that were big factors in the game, there was, as I said, the 4th-down touchdown pass to Carr, and then one big turning point in the first half. With about 2:30 left, UCLA was on the FSU 2-yard line and was faced with a fourth down, and Head Coach Karl Dorrell elected to kick a field goal, which Justin Medlock did, to make the score, 20-10. While that might be what the coaching manual tells you to do, Dorrell might have made a critical tactical error here, since there were other contributing circumstances. First, UCLA could have gotten a first down at the one-yard line. It didn't have to make it two yards for the touchdown, but just one more yard and it would have had four fresh new downs. Secondly, the game was shaping up into a high-scoring affair, not a defensive battle. In that case, the chance for 7 points outweighs the certain three points. If UCLA, in fact, had gotten a touchdown at this juncture, going up 24-10, it might have changed things quite a bit in the second half. While it's near impossible to say how the second half might have gone, if it had gone the same way, after FSU's 4th-down touchdown to Carr, UCLA still would have been up 31-30. It wouldn't have had to play catch-up with 6 minutes left to play in the game, and could have stayed on the ground, where it was very successful, rather than going to the air, where Cowan threw the game-sealing pick.

Another key moment: UCLA being called for an illegal motion on a 4th-and-1 at UCLA's 45 in the middle of the third quarter with UCLA up 20-16. The call was made on Terrence Austin for an illegal shift, but if you watch the play, you'll see that UCLA's offense was confused on where it was lining up. For a coach that likes to cautiously burn timeouts, this would seemingly have been a great time for Dorrell to do it. On the next play, Aaron Perez's punt is blocked and FSU runs it in for a touchdown, putting FSU up, 23-20. It was one of those moments where, because of the flag, you can really point to it as a defining moment of the game. Without the flag, if the punt had just been blocked, you probably wouldn't think twice about how big of an impact it had. But since UCLA very easily could have prevented it, it becomes huge.

Even take away Carr's 4th-down touchdown, those two other plays were big – not going for it on 4th at the 2, and not calling a timeout on 4th and 1 -- and directly a result of coaching decisions. Many times you can say that coaches put their players in position to win a game, but they players don't execute. This was a situation where UCLA coaches are truly directly responsible for critical plays that determined the outcome of the game.

But before everyone jumps on the anti-Dorrell bandwagon (again), let's stop it right here. Many are saying that this loss completely diminishes the win against USC, which is absurd. Simply, if UCLA hadn't beaten USC it would have a losing record for the season, and now it's 7-6. There's a big difference between 7-6 and 6-7. Plus, the boost the USC win gives the program is tangible and too strong to be dimished by one surprisingly strange game like this one.

And, while that four-game losing streak was particularly painful, this season was more successful than the 7-6 mark indicates, much like the 2005 season was worse than the 10-2 record indicated. In 2005, it was like walking a tightrope, with that horrendous defense. It wasn't even like watching football, but playing a video game, complete with all the last-minute, dramatic finishes needed to win. In 2006, at least, the defense made UCLA a real team. While in 2005 UCLA very well should have lost a couple of the games it pulled out, and probably been 8-4 for the season, there were a couple of games this year that UCLA essentially out-played its opponent but lost, and it probably should have been 9-4. So, if you're looking at it strictly from a record standpoint, UCLA still had a winning season, with a team that wasn't overly talented or experienced, facing a tough schedule, while losing its starting quarterback for a majority of the season. If you look at it from a closer perspective than just the record, 2006 was significant in that Dorrell accomplished the essential aspect he needed to if he expected to have any chance to last as UCLA's coach – and that's find a defense. Yes, the D didn't look good in the Emerald Bowl, and it appears that Walker will need to do some off-season homework on spread offenses, but with Walker's defense it gives Dorrell a chance to have a balanced team, with the possibility of a good defense and a good offense in any given season. In many ways, it provides Dorrell stability and a plan for success, rather than having to rely on the absurd, lucky and haphazard type of success of the 2005 season, which wouldn't have let him last too long.

The loss does, however, raise the pressure on the 2007 season. It's almost as if, with this loss, that's one more win UCLA will have to garner next year. It's pretty well accepted that UCLA should have a good team next season, losing just 2 (or 3, depending on what you consider Junior Taylor) starting seniors from this year's team, and then next year probably starting 16 seniors. The schedule is favorable also, with most of the tougher games at the Rose Bowl and the projected easier games on the road. But with UCLA losing this game, it creates more of a "you'd-better-win" attitude for 2007.

It was, of course, disappointing for UCLA to lose this game. But if UCLA had lost in the customary way it did this year – with the offense unable to move the ball and score – it would have been quite a bit more bleak. But the fact that UCLA's offense looked very good made it easier to tolerate, particularly because it bodes well for next year. The offensive line looking that good against a good front seven was particularly promising for next year.

But it's strange and surprising that, again, UCLA can't get a good offense and a good defense in the same season – and not even in the same game.

Hopefully this game at least gives Bruin fans a hope that next year is the season when UCLA puts together a strong offense and defense. For Bruin fans, that would, at this point in time of the football program, be the most surprising and strange.

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