Charles Chiccoa: Fading In

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa reflects on the 2007 season so far, and the great turnaround that was the Cal game. But will the Bruins continue to surge or will there be some Bruinesque bumps down the road?

"Get on the rollercoaster
  The fair's in town today
  Y'gotta be bad enough to beat the brave
  So get on the helter-skelter
  Bowl into the fray
  Y'gotta be bad enough to beat the brave"
--- Noel Gallagher, "Fade In-Out"

You know the drill Bruin fans. Next stop for the "fair" is Pullman. Buckle up. And who knows how we'll be feeling after that experience. 

Now that the Bruins seem to have found a reliable quarterback - and since the sins of Salt Lake City and Notre Dame have been only temporarily atoned for - the task ahead seems pretty straightforward: get to the Arizona St. game 6-0 in conference. Take care of business in Pullman and Tucson like you should, and maybe we can start having fun again. Lord knows, that's been in short supply around here. Not that the Cal game wasn't fun, because it absolutely was… it's just that this sort of euphoria has recently (and traditionally) tended to have all the substance of a big, fat, soap bubble. But something like 30-21, on a beautiful fall day, does renew your faith in why we take these games so seriously. It wasn't 13-9, but it will do… for the moment.

We've talked before about the unstable temperament of Bruin Nation; how the hardcore has been driven to the limits of the unendurable over the maddeningly inconsistent and unlucky nature of this program. At its most virulent, it seems to resemble a collective version of what the Victorians used to call feminine hysteria: poor, poor, pitiful us, nobody loves us and no sane coach would ever consent to come to our place (and how could we lure him on a paltry million plus a year?).

Who cares if UCLA sits atop one of the great recruiting gold mines in America… because how could any football program find fifteen or twenty guys a year who could possibly survive such overwhelmingly challenging majors as sociology, history and "major undeclared?" All really good football players don't have any interests beyond their sport, right? And how can you possibly fight the notorious secret cabal of pointy-headed, bourgeois academics who, we all know (because it says so on the Internet) hate football, and who rarely attend campus events, save perhaps women's gymnastics, the occasional soccer match and avant-garde dance performances in Royce Hall? 

As if all this wasn't enough, how can someone like Karl Dorrell, who doesn't coach much, can't recruit much and can't even talk right!... how can this guy possibly represent against such a brute genius as the oily, super-villain, "Pete," running amuck just a few miles southeast while sucking all the five-star talent out of California, the west coast and -- hell yes! -- the entire country? (Thank God American football hasn't caught on in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, or else he'd be strip0mining those places, too.)

                                               *****

I wonder if, after last Saturday, it's okay to say UCLA actually has a certain amount of talent, particularly on the defensive side. They did, after all, dominate the line of scrimmage (both sides actually). Or is it all just DeWayne Walker's mirrors? Are not Bruce Davis, Brigham Harwell, Kevin Brown, Alterraun Verner, Trey Brown, Reggie Carter and Brian Price very good college players? Is Christian Taylor nothing but brains and heart, with no real physical talent to speak of, not even quickness, merely a "coach on the field," one more everlasting "gutty little Bruin?" I won't even go into such guys as the Bosworth twins who have added to the effectiveness of a defensive front (seven games into the season) that's statistically among the best in the nation. And how well are Matthew Slater and Kai Forbath doing their specialized jobs?

This is still the only defense that's been able to stand up to the "legendary" SC offense within the last five years. Some of us have been hard on safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, but both played outstanding games on Saturday (and the Bears' offense is most certainly not "just Stanford"). To hold the electrifying DeSean Jackson, along with Justin Forsett, Nate Longshore and Lavelle Hawkins to 21 points and 300 yards total offense deserves special praise, not to mention having to deal with the super-cool looking Jeff Tedford and his XXXL sized play list (pretty soon the guy's going to need some kind of portable desk on the sidelines).

Speaking of Tedford, it seems as if he's acquiring something of a "conservative" label from the Cranks up north. While KD has been getting deservedly slated for the 4th-and-"long-one" call down here, up there they're throwing around words like stubborn, even gutless, in regards to Tedford's play-calling these last two Miami-like tragedies. They cite stuff like banging Forsett into Oregon State's defensive front four straight times on the goal line; then all those wasted running plays once Cal took the lead on the Bruins. At that point Tedford was obviously intent on running the ball and bleeding clock. He may have been starting from bad field position, but on this particular day the Bruins were allowing precious little running room. On one occasion, after a holding call, Tedford chose to run the ball on 2nd and 18… then again on 3rd and 18 (thank you very much, coach).

Meanwhile the Bruins, playing from behind, were still throwing the ball with some success. But KD and Jay Norvell, once they were well within Forbath's range, also went safety first, finally settling for Forbath's third field goal of the day in what's increasingly becoming routine fashion. (I think we're looking at the All Pac-10 place-kicker.)

But when Jahvid Best broke UCLA's kickoff coverage to the Bruin 35, this thing suddenly had the smell of another Bruin tragedy. Tedford, knowing he needed at least another 10 yards for his shaky field goal kicker, once again elected to play safe and received his just reward in the form of a 3rd-down, must-pass situation. It was the same alignment, the same play they'd run at least once, successfully, to the other side with Jackson coming back in motion then cutting off the slot receiver on an out pattern. Verner played it textbook perfect, and Longshore, like most college quarterbacks - especially with the game on the line - locked onto his primary and that was ballgame. What a sweet thing it was, watching Alterraun stretch out into his 76-yard sprint, everyone in the place knowing immediately he couldn't be caught… and what a feeling it must have been for him.        

No need here, four days later, to keep worrying  about the scab of KD's fourth-and one, time out/punt call (the old tin ear problem again). Even he says, "I am what I am," and we can be sure he slept well Saturday night. Had he been luckier… had Cowan not slid, but instead dove for the first down, had there not been the phantom interference call on Terrence Austin, had Logan Paulsen's catch been a yard or two longer, had KD simply made up his mind to call two running plays instead of having Cowan look downfield for the knockout punch on 3rd down (which would've been undeniably sweet if completed), or even had Aaron Perez been able to place his punt somewhere close to where it should have been, maybe he would've/could've gotten a pass for this game. But then that wouldn't have been KD.  

                                               *****                              

Now that the Bruins have the proper quarterback and tailback in place (and until either of them goes down) things may be finally looking up for this oppressive offense. Cowan is nimble and obviously instinctive, and he's not shy about throwing down the middle of the field, thus putting Paulsen back in play. He can also hurt a defense when the field opens up, thus giving defensive coordinators more to worry about than with Ben Olson back there. Other than the fact Ben plays too slow, who knows what exactly is troubling him most? He'd never admit it, but some of the problem might be in his head: frustration, confusion, shock, or just the pressure of living up to his prep glory days. But his one undoubted virtue - his touch throwing downfield - becomes irrelevant if the ball doesn't come out, or comes out late and wrong, or worse still, if he puts it on the ground.

It finally seems as if KD and Norvell are trying harder to feature Brandon Breazell and Terrence Austin. Joe Cowan and Dominique Johnson continue to play well, also, and Marcus Everett seems ready to play again. Only the mystery of Osaar Rasshan remains to be uncovered. All of the above makes, first, the Wazzu game (and if that goes well), then the Arizona game, that much more intriguing. Of course, the more obsessive Cranks are looking for the usual pratfall, which inevitably follows a big win like Cal. Whether or not they're rooting for the pratfall only they know. Either way it's their prerogative. 

                                           *****                                                       

Sunday morning, on the front page of the Times, I was surprised to see Verner in full flight, being cheered along on the sideline by Jess Ward and Chase Moline. Also, inside, a great shot of Bell, along with something like co-equal coverage. I'd been expecting more of the usual Trojan overkill, what with SC stomping on the Dying Irish in South Bend. All in all, considering what we've seen this year, things could be a whole lot worse. With this program, you're just relieved to be looking forward to the next game.

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