Chiccoa: Unprepared, Uncompetitive

Our football columnist Charles Chiccoa weighs in on last week's devasting loss to Utah, trying to pinpoint the causes, derive some meaning, and provide a historical lesson...

Considering the debilitated state of an average MWC opponent, was the Utes massacre the worst loss in Bruins history? Who cares? It's like horseplayers comparing their worst days at the track. And who wants to wallow around in the press guide, sniffing out some equally foul-smelling slaughter. Come December, we'll be nine years removed from the watershed loss in Miami. I'm sure there's enough likely comparisons in that single sad time frame. All things considered, 6-44 is a strong nominee. 

Has Bruin football finally come undone? Ever since Miami, this program has been like a loose ball of yarn getting kicked around by the cat. Garfield toys with it for a while, then loses interest. Today you have to wonder if he's finally focused enough to finish the job, tear it up once and for all. 

Now in year five of the failing Karl Dorrell experiment and we're watching the same routine, over and over again; yet this latest absurdity seems finally to have torn it. How can you not feel that way, living in this state of perpetual, mild anxiety, waiting for that gigantic Monty Python foot, unseen but always poised overhead, about to stomp your team back to irrelevancy. As they say, "on any given Saturday…" It is so tough following this perverse, almost self-destructive program. Days like this you sometimes wonder if there's a death wish. 

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Two questions hung over this season, both as usual connected with the passing game:

(1) Was Ben Olson the answer for this sluggish offense?

(2) Had DeWayne Walker learned his lesson about sustained pressure against passing teams, against spread offenses?    

Sad to say, both answers look pretty grim today. We can argue all day about the relative quality of Bruin personnel. Some believe it's good enough - not nearly as bad as it seems today - while others believe its just serviceable, solid… both euphemisms for average. I'm going to take the players side. I think the talent is still good enough to stave off ultimate humiliation (How's that for going out on a limb?) Not so sure about the coaching staff.

No offense can consistently move the ball without a competent quarterback, and save some kind of Drew Olson redux, Ben Olson does not look like the man. Right now he's moving in on Stuart Gray as one of UCLA's biggest recruiting busts. At least he's got some time left. Is this a cruel thing to say? Isn't he just a hard-working college kid doing his best on Saturdays? Isn't he entitled to some kind of pass? In my opinion, that would be a sentimentality. High profile, D-1 football and basketball programs are involved in a million-dollar, high-stakes game and, as has been oft stated before, the best, most high-profile jocks are there generally to play their sport and hopefully hit the jackpot in the pro leagues. They are not normal students. Most even look different.

It would also be a misunderstanding of why we come here. BRO, and places like it, are for the frank discussion of what's up with your college team. How honestly can that discussion proceed - and why would we keep coming back - if some absolutely key element like blunt evaluations of the players was off limits, soft-peddled, tip-toed around? 

Ben's been around awhile, and ever since that Rice game many Bruin fans have progressively begun to suspect that what we saw in his debut was a mirage. He hasn't played real well since then, not in the many practice sessions I've seen, and not in the games he's started (which are now beginning to pile up). Today his problems are clear: He doesn't see the field well, his actions are more mechanical than fluid and instinctive, and he still hasn't grasped the offense as a whole, and is thus at a disadvantage knowing where to go with the ball. We've all noticed that once his primary option is shut down, it becomes desperation time, and you almost want to cover your eyes in fear of what can happen next. Add to the fact of this slow learning process, it's now obvious he has an important physical limitation, i.e., Ben's not quick, he's not nimble, and he has huge problems handling the least pressure. In a word, he's a statue. In basketball terms, he can't get his own shot. He looks lost and he's evidently not getting much useful help from KD and Jay Norvell. Does he lack confidence? How could he not? Unless an athlete is totally and completely delusional, only success on the field can give him real confidence. Only success can lead to that Cade-like "swagger" which so often is the sign of a winner.

No matter how Patrick Cowan has played in the past, he now needs to start and Ben needs to stand and watch and hopefully learn. It should be better for all concerned, certainly including us up in the stands. Which brings us to the coaches.

Norvell's stock seems to have taken a hit, Walker's is declining from a previously comfortable high, and KD's stock is in free-fall. Other than being able to identify with those who find themselves in a bad spot, how many here feel real bad for them? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Compared to the rest of us, coaches have it quite good. They're able to stay in a game they love, they get lots of fresh air and travel opportunities, they work amid nice facilities and the pay is good. Assistant coaches are recognizable, while the head coach is often a national celeb (at least in the sports world). For him there are opportunities for speaking engagements, the offers based mainly on his position, not any special talent for speaking. And there are various other perks, such as "camps," financial bonuses, sweet buy-out deals, and a fair shot at the various celebrity goodies the media and advertising world are happy to dispense. They've "paid their dues" (to greater and lesser extents) and, if they're talented and/or lucky enough, if timing and circumstance favors them, they too become, in effect, lottery winners. Some, of course, are merely jumped up little time-servers who fall into a sweet situation which, itself, gets sorted out in the end (Hi, Lav!).

During spring and fall practices, Norvell was very conspicuous… looked like an alpha personality, and a lot of us started making comparisons to another Bruin alpha type, DeWayne Walker. Three games into the season and both guys are looking shaky. But so much of the offensive headaches are chicken and egg propositions. Is it Ben or is it the offense? Is it Norvell or is it KD? Is it the overall personnel? Is it all of the above? We used to think of poor Jim Svoboda as KD's creature, which is what he was. If things don't change quickly, Norvell is liable to find himself being painted in the same pastel colors. Is Norvell even aware of this? Does he care? And if he does, why doesn't he begin distancing himself from his predecessor. Right now this offense needs something like an electric jolt, maybe even shock treatment.   

The passing schemes don't look much different, nor does the play calling. We still see a lot of 2nd and 10 running plays, theoretically "to keep the defense honest." Of course it's almost always a wasted play, leading to 3rd and long, which is just what Ben doesn't need. And why do coaches think the best way to protect a troubled quarterback is to limit his first down passes? First down pass plays are exactly what they need; third and long is what they don't need. And why no running plays out of the shotgun? I was thinking these were possibly being saved for the closed, pre-season practices and we'd see them when the real games began. So much for that. 

Running plays are still the old straight-forward, here-we-come, execution-heavy things we've become used to. Still little or no misdirection or counters. Deception is still a dirty word, an ungentlemanly concept: "By God, sir, you can't do that! If it's not against the rules, it bloody well should be." And of course there's the head-scratching personnel decisions. Was the anointing of Ben in the spring perhaps somewhat hurried, a bit premature? It was unsurprising, but it did put me in mind of a shotgun wedding. I mean, Ben didn't seem to have distanced himself that much from Patrick. Was Ben perhaps being forced into place in the hope that his "natural talent," his prep domination, would reassert itself more easily without the day to day pressure of winning the job? Obviously it's not working.
                                                 
Another alarm bell went off when Kahlil Bell didn't start the BYU game and was still splitting carries with Chris Markey last Saturday. What was KD thinking? Was it that Chris was the incumbent, his numbers last year were respectable, we owe it to him to give him back his position, and, anyway, he's a good kid, never given us any trouble. All this despite contradicting the evidence of the eyes? What was it Pete said? "It's not about keeping people happy, it's about winning." Sounds like something Red might've said.   

So much of the offensive woes lead back to the common denominator, KD. Forget terms like the WCO; this thing we've been watching for over four years is more properly called the KDWCO and, as noted before, it may be complex to learn but it's not hard to defend. If Norvell has any ideas of how to make this troublesome beast work right, he needs to start in immediately before the sky completely falls.

I wonder how many Bruin fans are still hot for Walker as a possible replacement for KD (should the necessity, after the season, of bumping him off arise). Probably not as many as just after 13-9, but who knows?

Could it be that in practices Walker may have been led into a false sense of security regarding his pass defense? Remember how we used to wonder how this offense would fare against a defense other than the Bruins. Now the question is: Why did we assume this secondary would be so formidable since it was only going against the KDWCO, and some questionable quarterbacking?

I could be wrong, but -- just like last year -- it's beginning to look as if moderate pressure from the defensive front won't get the job done, especially up the middle. I wish Walker would play with more desperation, bring more heat, more blitzes from different angles, more press coverage on the outside. In short, get back to seriously hunting quarterbacks. And give Brett Lockett (when he returns) and Aaron Ware a shot at the field. Dennis Keyes also seems to be getting the Markey treatment, and it's not as if he hasn't had time to prove he's a playmaker, which apparently he is not. Even Chris Horton has been disappointing. And when will we see a return to the Easley/Rogers style of free safety (please note I am not saying the player has to as good as those guys), which is to say an instinctive athlete not just a one-dimensional "hitter" disguised as a safety?
                                                                                         
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I know some of you out there would rather see your beloved Bruins crater this year than see KD survive, but it's still too early for me to surrender. Anyway, I have tons of experience in handling Bruin football letdowns. In elementary school I remember the huge disappointment of the '53 Rose Bowl team, losing a 14-0 lead just before halftime when Michigan State's Ellis Duckett blocked a Paul Cameron punt, leading to a 28-20 loss. Two years later Ronnie Knox's Bruins lost an even worse heartbreaker, again to the Spartans, this one on a last second field goal set up by a rare coaching-from-the-sidelines call. I still remember trudging home, cursing a blue streak, after watching the tragedy on TV at a friend's house. It took weeks to get over that one. And then… and then… but you get the idea. I'm sure you have sob stories of your own.

Times like these I think of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and the sound of Daltry's primal scream: Aaaaaaargh!!! Then, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Something, or someone, needs to break this wretched cycle.
 

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