And Saturday the Bruins were riding at the peak when they beat #9-ranked California, 30-21.
It was easily the best-played, most-watchable UCLA game since the big win over USC a year ago. And actually, it was a better-played game on both sides of the ball than that one.
These were two evenly-matched teams, playing well, with some individuals stepping up and making big, dramatic plays. It's really what you watch college football for.
There was some very good drama, in fact. Look at the Hollywood-esque stories, just on the UCLA offensive side of the ball. The UCLA quarterback, Patrick Cowan, who is hampered by a bum knee, not playing at 100%, but, being the quarterback of the people, one of the guys on the team, leading his team to victory. Like it's out of an old, corny children's book on football, he completed 7 passes to his brother, "Joe," which is what he'd typically be named in that book. The other receiver, Brandon Breazell, makes some incredible catches and throws a touchdown pass, while he still wears a red, no-hit jersey in practice all week due to getting his teeth knocked out earlier in the year. There's the running back who, a year ago, was close to leaving the program, mostly because of his attitude, but in a great story of changing your perspective and approach to life, Kahlil Bell does just that and turns himself into a player and gains 142 yards Saturday. There's the seldom- and under-used tight end, Logan Paulsen, making a juggling catch for his first touchdown reception of his UCLA career, and making another big catch down the field.
It truly was a game that gave you chills, if you're a Bruin fan. Not just because they won, and Alterraun Verner's dramatic interception where he ran for a touchdown in front of the UCLA student section, providing a Hollywood-esque backdrop of Bruin True Blue. But it was because of all of these guys who you're rooting for as fellow Bruins. The Cowans, Bell, Breazell, Paulsen...it feels good to see them succeed after so much anguish and frustration over the years and after a disappointing beginning to what was supposed to be the big season.
The only thing dampering it was the injury to the Bruin poster boy, middle linebacker Christian Taylor. Taylor was still on the sideline after the game suffering seizures as a result of his concussion. At Huntington Memorial Hospital, the CT scan on his neck was negative and he was released later Saturday night. The players were reserved in the locker room after the game, at a time you would think they'd be pretty elated, concerned about Taylor.
Taylor was a story himself. Up until his injury in the fourth quarter, the former walk-on who also made himself into a player was playing well, leading the team in tackles with 8. There was Dennis Keyes, the safety who sometimes is maligned for his sloppy tackling, making very sure ones, finishing with 7. There was Kyle Bosworth, who has taken over the strongside linebacker position, having a very good game, particularly in the first half where he disrupted a number of plays that resulted in stopping Cal drives.
And there was Verner, the true sophomore, who also has taken over the starting cornerback position, making two interceptions. The one to ice the game in the fourth quarter was the UCLA play of the year.
And even on special teams there's a great story. Matt Slater, the senior who couldn't find a position on the team, finding himself on special teams returning kicks and on kick-off and punt coverage. In just about every game this season he's made a huge impact on special teams, Saturday returning a kick-off 49 yards. If there ever was such a thing as a Special Teams Hall of Fame, Matt Slater would be a member.
There were a few blips, and we have to talk about those, too. The biggest flub of the day came from the UCLA coaching staff, in the third quarter, with UCLA trailing Cal 21-20, and, as a result of Slater's kick-off return, UCLA gets great field position and ends up with a fourth down and 1 at the Cal 38. But UCLA decides to only attempt to draw Cal offside, and then takes a five-yard delay-of-game penalty. It seems pretty logical to go for it at that spot on the field, at that time of the game, with a defense behind you that's done pretty well at limiting a potent Cal offense for most of the day. If you don't get it, Cal is still at their own 38. UCLA opted to punt and, in fact, Aaron Perez put it into the endzone for a touchback and Cal started at its 20, not really that much of a difference, and worth the risk of going for it on fourth down.
If we have to be critical, too, you could probably say that cornerback Trey Brown didn't have one of his best outings. He was continually burned by the Cal receivers, particularly DeSean Jackson, which actually isn't something to be ashamed about since the Bears are pretty good. But he also made a couple of bad decisions. On Jackson's first touchdown pass, Brown bit on a play-action and allowed probably the most dangerous receiver in the nation get behind him. On the other, he allowed Jackson to push off him in the endzone and was actually called himself for pass interference. He also made a blunder on a punt where he ran into the punter; he was right there in time to block the punt but seemed to flinch and then ran into the punter. But Trey Brown, over the last 3 ½ years has racked up enough good credits to offset a dozen poor games.
And, if you're being nitpicky, it still seems like the offense succeeds when only the individual players can make up for it. When comparing the scheme side-by-side to Cal's offense, it's so clear how Cal's offense, play by play, is predicated on deception and uses such a variety of plays to keep you guessing. UCLA's, on the other hand, is very predictable with very little deception. The offense also suffers from that same curious play-calling at times. You have to assume there's more in the redzone playbook than run on first down, run on second down and then throw a fade. UCLA, also, might have attempted to throw the ball over 10 yards perhaps less than ten times in this game. There was a series when it seemed like there was a new rule that UCLA could only use screens as a pass play. There is also the long-running issue of when UCLA chooses to be conservative and when it chooses to open it up. Early on, the UCLA offense was made up of power running and dink-and-dunk passes. Then, once it pried open the Cal defense and there was some running room, late in the game, trailing 21-20, UCLA then attempts some throws down the field when it seemingly appears to be the time to run down the throat of Cal's fatigued defense.
You can easily make the case that Bell is the offensive MVP of the season. There's really not any competition. To be candid, he's not an incredible talent, but he has done what it takes to turn himself into a very good college football player. He understands to stay low to the ground, keep his head up, keep his legs churning and turn up field. And we're done with making the case of any UCLA running back lacking the speed to finish off a big run for a touchdown. Bell and Chris Markey, if you take his entire UCLA career, have definitely gotten the most of their talent.
But while Bell is probably the offensive MVP of the game, too, Patrick Cowan has to be the overall MVP for the game. You know with any other quarterback running UCLA's staid offense it wouldn't be near as effective as it was Saturday. Cowan, even with the injuries limiting him, is clearly the guy the offense gets behind. There is far more energy to the offense when he's under center. You can't discount how important it is, psychologically, to have a guy that other guys want to play for, and it's very evident whenever Cowan is the quarterback.
His brother, Joe, had one of his better games in a while, doing what he does best, being that reliable possession receiver. Breazell, again, made some breathtaking catches. And all we can say about Paulsen is: Please get him more touches.
The defense did a very good job overall, against the high-powered Cal offense, limiting it to just 232, which is 83 yards less than it's next-worst offensive performance this season. The Bears, a team averaging 196 yards per game on the ground, was held to just 67. That, truly, was the key. When Cal can't run, which they almost always can do, they're left mostly with a dink-and-dunk passing game themselves, which really only works when you can also run the ball. In a game where the Cal linebacking group was supposed to be the headline, the far more unsung, scrappy Bruin linebackers really outshined them. There was Taylor and Bosworth and then Reggie Carter, coming out of seemingly nowhere to make a number of key stops in the second half. Defensive tackle Kevin Brown was also good, on one play actually running down Cal's fast running back, Justin Forsett, from behind on screen. With not a great deal of pressure on Cal's QB, Nate Longshore, in the first half, the defense adjusted in the second and put on more pressure. Cal gained just 103 yards in the second half, with just one successful drive that resulted in a touchdown. Their six other second-half possessions resulted in three punts and three interceptions, and only one drive other than the touchdown drive that netted even one first down.
It's difficult, though, not to do the what-could-have-beens. While UCLA, in no way, is worthy of the #2-ranking in the nation, that's exactly where it would be if it had taken care of business against teams it should have beaten this season. It's hard not to think of it – UCLA being ranked #2 in the country, with USC #13. The season, which everyone thought was going to be "the one," very easily could have been.
But, as a UCLA fan, you can't do the could-have-beens, or you'll be repeating them to yourself in a white jacket and a room with wall-to-wall mattresses.
What you can hope for, though, like you've done with the few successful Bruin season we've had in the last 15 years (2005, 1998 and 1997), is put some of the ugly messiness of the season behind you, concede that the team has some serious issues, but hope that it can overcome them and pull off the drama. If the team puts more games together like it did on Saturday against Cal, you might not be too greedy to expect the roller coaster spending more time at the top of the hills for the rest of the season.