Right after the game had ended, I looked around the Rose Bowl and noticed that many UCLA fans weren't leaving. Many were still in the stands, either sitting at their seats or standing and looking out at the field blankly, stunned.
I think those same fans probably woke up this morning and have that same stunned look on their face.
It's tough to know what's more disturbing: Losing 27-0 and not being in the game at all against your crosstown rival, or losing a game by a point against another emerging rival that you easily should have won and that might have cost you the Pac-10 championship. It was a win that probably could have restored the luster to a program that has taken some considerable hits in the last several years, one it desperately needed to turn the tide. On the field, in the program and in recruiting.
It's difficult to speculate on what a win might have meant to the season and the program. You never know, this game might not end up having any significance in the Pac-10 race. But without even considering the game in terms of the Pac-10 race, there are so many factors here that, if you're going to speculate, make the loss difficult to take. If you have looked around the Pac-10 and scouted the other teams in the conference, it isn't a stretch to believe that UCLA is probably the most talented team in the conference. Even in a year after it lost so many players to the NFL, UCLA still has more talent than just about anyone in the league. And not only does it have talent, but the talent is performing. It's not as if UCLA had a stockpile of bluechip recruits with potential and they weren't producing on the field. They were, and they are. The loss is difficult to take because it comes at the hands of a team that, in recent years, has some kind of magic working for it, a stark contrast to the UCLA program that seems to have a bit of a dark cloud over it. It comes against a program that seems to stretch its talent to its fullest, get the most out of it, while you feel that UCLA tends to squander its talent. It's difficult to take because this UCLA program has had only one winning season in the last three, and the one that it did have was probably the most deflating season in many, many years. Fans are frustrated, impatient, and just plain angry about it all. And it's not as if you can see on the field that UCLA plainly is the worse team and deserved to lose; you watch the games and come away from a typical loss thinking that UCLA is a better team. That makes the fans even more frustrated, impatient and angry. It's difficult to take when this game is almost a microcosm of the current state of the UCLA program: UCLA has more talent, it should have won the game, but, for whatever reason, a series of blunders and that dark cloud resulted in a loss.
Now, UCLA is 4-2 and still appears to have a very good team, one that could still likely get 9 wins in the regular season and go to a good bowl game. Heck, UCLA could play well the rest of the season, win out in the Pac-10, the rest of the conference could beat up on each other and UCLA could miraculously win the Pac-10.
Now, if UCLA had Oregon's recent history – and then suffered the same loss it did yesterday – most fans would still be optimistic and thinking that UCLA could do what I described above. But given UCLA's recent history, UCLA fans are far less likely to be optimistic. It's not even that they would react the other way and be predominantly pessimistic, it's more like they'll reserve their optimism and wait for UCLA to do it on the field. And you really can't blame them at this point. This program has put its fans through the wringer in recent years and should be thankful that most of its fans aren't like those from Nebraska, Alabama or other brutally non-forgiving fan schools.
But it was particularly dramatic that UCLA should lose this game – this critical game – in this fashion. It was almost like a movie script. You know all of the criticisms of the program, and in the game that, if it wins, it could go a long way to vanquishing itself of those criticisms, those exact problems are what causes the team to lose.
Those problems and issues were abundantly crystalized:
-- UCLA is more talented than its opponents and should win most of the games it loses.
-- UCLA will beat itself.
-- There is some questionable decision-making going on.
-- UCLA's game plans are questionable.
Okay, here it is point-by-point:
UCLA is the better team and more talented. UCLA out-gained Oregon 477-383. It had three turnovers to none for Oregon and still was in the game. UCLA dominated the second half. You had one receiver, Craig Bragg, get 230 receiving yards, another, Tab Perry, gain 126, your running back, Tyler Ebell, gain 116 yards and your quarterback, Cory Paus, throw for 316 yards. Just about every fan watching the game had to be thinking, "Yeah, we're losing by one point, but the team is clearly better and dominating Oregon now and will undoubtedly win the game."
UCLA will beat itself. Man, I think there are almost too many instances supporting this point to mention. Turnovers. A missed extra point. Penalties at the worst times. Blown pooch punts. Blown coverages. Bad special teams.
Questionable decision-making. Where to start? The faked field goal might be the best place. It just plainly doesn't make sense to fake a field goal and pass the ball on a fourth-and-15 situation. Maybe a fourth and five. And then to do it to the short side of the field. And to do it when the field goal was a 45-yarder, which is within your kicker's range, and it would have put you up by two scores.
Time-out management. It's too difficult to even get into all the details. The worst one: UCLA, on fourth down on Oregon's 35, is trying to draw Oregon offside to get five yards closer for a field goal. Oregon doesn't jump and Cory Paus calls timeout instead of just letting the clock expire and taking the five-yard penalty. Is this Paus's fault, or did he not get the proper instructions on what to do if Oregon doesn't jump? It was fourth and forever, why would Oregon believe UCLA was legitimately going for it anyway and be foolish enough to jump offside in such a critical situation? (Like UCLA did on a punt last week – but I guess that should be filed under "UCLA will beat itself.")
An intentional grounding call. With UCLA trailing by one, the offense drove to the Oregon 27 – field goal range. On third down, Cory Paus tried to get rid of the ball by throwing it into the ground near the line of scrimmage and was called for intentional grounding. The ten yards marked off on that penalty put UCLA out of field goal range. Paus obviously struggles knowing when – and how – to get rid of the ball when he's in trouble. It's been such a blatant concern it makes you wonder why this bad decision-making hasn't been fixed by now – and why, in this particulary instance, Paus didn't have a clear option for throwing the ball out of bounds.
Oregon lines up for a 59-yard field goal on the last play of the half, a kick whose trajectory will probably be pretty low if it's going to go 59 yards. But UCLA doesn't go after the block, but keeps some players back, as if worried about a fake.
Questionable game plans. The play-calling is incredibly peculiar. The offense throws the ball long and goes for the big play too often instead of just moving the ball down the field and eating up clock, which the offense has now proven it's completely capable of doing. On second and long, it typically runs the ball. On third and long, against a team that is known to blitz, it rolls its semi-slow quarterback to his opposite shoulder, which takes more time to set up. Its talented tight end, Mike Seidman, comes off the two best games of his career, but then is relegated to blocking most of the game. The trick plays, when they work, do so mostly because of luck, not because of surprise. Why aren't there more plays called to move the pocket, or get the quarterback rolling out? Why do you do play-action on third and long? It could go on and one.
In a nutshell: When, logically, Toledo should be conservative, he's risky. When, logically, he should be risky, he's conservative.
So, there is quite a lot to be frustrated over in the aftermath of the Oregon loss, which put UCLA's perpetual issues practically on display. It was a chance for the program – and Bob Toledo – to put out the smoldering criticisms, but this was like squirting lighter fluid on it.
In all of this, though, while UCLA fans are feeling like they're almost at the end of their rope, they should remember that the players themselves deserve the support. Yes, if they didn't perform well, it's entirely appropriate to discuss it. But they aren't professionals, just college students, and they're kids. And no one can even determine how much of what happens on the field is their fault. So, yes, pointing out if they didn't play well is acceptable, but supporting the players that play for UCLA is something every UCLA fan should do, despite the criticisms of the program as a whole.
I blame myself for part of this. I think I practically cursed the game when in the Oregon preview I wrote: "UCLA could tend to hurt itself if it tends to get conservative and just gets plain dopey like it did last week in the fourth quarter against Oregon State."
Before this game, I believed that if UCLA won it would pretty much make Bob Toledo's job safe for this season. I thought a loss would continue to keep Toledo on the "warm" seat. And that wasn't even being able to fathom how the team lost would impact the issue of Toledo's job. Now, there is still quite a bit of football to be played this season, and we might very well look back on the Oregon game as inconsequential. Or we could look back on it as the most significant game of the year.
For now, the UCLA community is still, in spirit, standing in front of its seat at the Rose Bowl, stunned...