Charles Chiccoa: Fading Out

Our football columnist, Charles Chiccoa, goes up and down with the rest of us week to week. He speculates about what the Washington State game means for Karl Dorrell, and the possibilities for the rest of the season...

If you happened to read the piece last week, you already know the song. Since the timing was wrong, I held back the last verse, which is:

"You're fade in-out
Without a doubt
I don't see no shine
Today is just a day dream
Tomorrow you'll be cast away"


There's also a nice gut-wrenching scream in there, which I know we all could appreciate.

Sorry, but all I can do is grin and shake my head over this pile of smoking rubble we're staring at today. I mean, we've been here before (and not just with this coach). Loyalist or skeptic, Blue or Crank, we all must have feared, deep down, this moment was more than just a possibility. If this doesn't qualify as critical mass, I can't imagine what could. And with Arizona's suddenly red-hot passing game up next in Tucson, and with Kahlil Bell down for the year, and with the obviously under-practiced Patrick Cowan hobbling around like a lame stork, it may be time for the less manly among us to learn how to use Tivo. Then after Arizona, a murderer's row of Arizona State, Oregon and SC.

Given the revolutionary flux of the college game right now, and because this team is obviously in desperation mode, I suppose there's some slim chance the Bruins might at least begin to play well here and there, but, with everything that's gone before, everything we now know, how comforting is that… and how likely is it? At least Christian Taylor didn't receive some kind of Bruin-style, career-ending concussion, so he'll be available, and apparently also the indestructible Brandon Breazell. But what are the chances of this defense being able to handle offenses like the next four opponents (particularly the last three)? And even if Cowan or Ben Olson return to full strength sometime before December 1st, and given their overall body of work, how comforting is that?  

                                             *****

I refuse to call KD's hideous offense a "west coast offense," first as a libel on the west coast, then as a libel on Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh, among others. Those guys used the pass to control games through lots of intricate, horizontal pass routes, all of them integrated into a strategic whole. The idea was to drive a defense crazy with short passes, ball control, continuous first downs… make them antsy, then drop the hammer with longer passes, along with deceptive, well-designed running plays, employing, incidentally, misdirection and counters. Done properly, it was beautiful to behold. Does any of this sound like KD's crude interpretation, which is making each succeeding Saturday more like a trip to the dentist?

Who can say how Patrick and Ben, or any other Bruin quarterback of the last five years, might have faired in any other more workable offense? Who can say how the running backs and receivers might have faired, or the offensive linemen for that matter. It's an old, old Bruin story: The personnel on the field being let down by the personnel on the sideline. Billy Barnes, Pepper Rogers, Terry Donahue (yes, Terry Donahue!), Bob Toledo and now KD. Toss into this unsavory stew coordinators like Bob Field, Nick Aliotti, Phil Snow, Larry Kerr, Steve Axman, Jim Svoboda and, now, Jay Norvell, and it's a miracle we're all still here, waiting for deliverance once again. 

Even the popular DeWayne Walker is increasingly coming under fire and not, in my opinion, for no reason. Give him an opponent with an unathletic, somewhat mechanical quarterback, in a straightforward pro-set and he's in his element, he turns up the pressure and good things usually follow. But give him a "spread offense" that throws the ball at least fifty times a game, with wide receivers and slot backs set all over the place, and what does he inevitably fall back on?  Coverage and faith in his defensive backfield. And the outcome is usually the same: No success. After the WSU defeat, he said, "I wasn't worried about the yards. I wanted to keep the points down. I felt pretty good through three and a half quarters. Then the roof fell in." As if the last seven minutes are not the most crucial minutes of a game. And doesn't this notion of "not worrying" about yardage sound suspiciously like the old, old, discredited philosophy of "bend but don't break."

To repeat: Your average defensive backfield, particularly at the college level -- absent consistent pressure up front -- will regularly get toasted through the natural mis-match of bigger, faster, more skilled receivers (who know where they're going), vs. smaller, less-talented defensive backs (who are desperately trying to react while back-peddling). This predictable drama repeats itself with the same dumb regularity as between lion and wildebeest (otherwise known as "the lunch of the plains"). It's nearly as sad to watch as the perverse "prevent defense," which coaches simply will not let go of.

Rather than trying to recruit a secondary unit of "prime time" defenders, including instinctive safeties that can both hit and cover (a rare breed today)… rather than trying to teach intricate zone coverages that are mostly beyond the experience and practice hours the college game can provide, why not put your faith in a more concerted effort to get in the quarterback's face? Attack the passing game at its source. We all know a DB's best friend is the pass rush. By all means, mix in some zone coverages, but back them up with the insurance of an effective blitz. It looks to me as if Walker's still trying to beat off these troublesome passing attacks more through his secondary than his defensive front. And it remains his Achilles heel.

The passing game, and how to defend it, has become perhaps the major element in winning football. UCLA hasn't done a decent job on either side of the proposition since Cade, and even then only on the offensive side (except for Rocky Long's brief tenure).   

Cry all you want over the offensive futility in Pullman. The fact that the O couldn't drive the ball certainly contributed to Wazzu being able to run off nearly a hundred plays and control the ball nearly 40 of the 60 minutes. But you still can't give the defense a pass since they were almost as bad, early, when fresh, as later on, when they were gassed.

Although it was hard trying to read numbers and make out individual players from a mile away (where the Fox cameras appear to have been "hidden") and though there was no help coming from the usual bumbling Fox northwest crew, it did look as if the Bruins were not only missing Taylor at linebacker… for chunks of the game they were also missing Reggie Carter, their second best 'backer who is normally pulled on passing downs (Reggie did enter the game later). Walker had chosen to go mostly with the "nickel," which meant trusting Kyle Bosworth and Aaron Whittington in place of the injured Taylor, but also Carter. In any case, both Bosworth and Whittington were ineffective. This plan also seems to have led to few effective blitzes. In fact the game looked like a rerun of Alex Brink's dissection of Walker's D last year in the Rose Bowl, only this time Wazzu had even more yards (545 to 515 last year). The goal line stand, with the blocked field goal try, was the high point for the defense. When the offense couldn't respond, you sensed the Bruins were finished.  

                                           *****

Once the mainstream media begins speculating on the head coach's "hot seat," you can be sure it's getting close to endgame. After labeling this thing "The Plop in the Palouse," the Times' Bill Dwyer noted Dan Guerrero's response to not being interviewed: "I'd rather not," he said. "You understand." Indeed we do.

After leaving the field to chants of "We own you! We own you!" (imagine being owned by Wazzu!), KD, to the question of why things like Utah, Notre Dame and Washington State keep happening to his team, could only reply, in his usual guileless way, that he didn't know why. "As soon as I get [the answer] I'll tell you." Then came the by now rote KD boilerplate: "Not a very good performance," "Didn't play the caliber of game we should have," and the old, old reliable, "We've got to coach better."   

So how many "plops," in addition to the three this year, have there been in the unhappy seasons of KD? Let me count them off: There was the first game at Colorado; then the punt return nightmare at Oklahoma; then the five-game losing streak to close the season (including 22-47 at the Coliseum); next year the 42-48, come-from-ahead loss at ASU; 29-31 to the Cougs in the Rose Bowl and, of course, Wyoming in the 'Vegas Bowl; next year, "the good year," we had the cringe-making embarrassments to Arizona and SC; and last year the blown opportunity in South Bend, another Wazzu wood-shedding in the Rose Bowl and the Florida State letdown that all but neutralized the sublime 13-9.

That's a lot of "plops."                 

Is it safe to conclude KD won't survive past this year? I would think so. A consensus has been growing, since Utah, that Bruin fans are absolutely united in wanting to see the back of him. Notre Dame, then Washington State, seems to have made it all but unanimous… which is not to say he's gone. 

The predicate for KD's uncoupling seems pretty well set. In the "It" year, in "The Year of No Excuses," he's already had three ugly losses with four games yet to play, including three of the four best teams in a very strong conference. A loss this Saturday, not unlikely, sets up a death march and more or less seals the deal. A win and there's some slight wiggle room if that's what DG is really looking for (and he may or may not be overly concerned about losing some portion of the highly anticipated recruiting class).  

Even with an Arizona win, you'd have to think the Bruins would need to survive the last three regular season games with their dignity intact. Two wins there, making it three of the last four (a huge long shot!), an 8-4 regular season with two QBs down, and KD could reasonably make a case (unless perhaps he's humiliated once again in another pissant bowl). Lose all three and he's a goner. But what if the Bruins somehow split the last four? What if one of those wins is SC again, this time at the Coliseum (another huge long shot!). And what if the losses are respectable and he finishes 7-5 with a chance at a discounted 8th win, post season? I know what we would do, but what will DG do? 

If I'm a betting man, I go with the obvious: Regime change… then we can start a whole new rancorous discussion on who's next. But until all the smoke clears I'm still interested in seeing what develops in this season's last act. It could make for compelling theater.

It can never get so bad I'll "go fishing." I survived the Bill Barnes era (.463 winning percentage), though, to be honest, I was lucky enough to get drafted and sent to a place far, far away (Bavaria), thus blessedly missing his last two miserable years (6-14). It now seems as if KD is looking to become the same sort of unlucky touchstone as poor old Billy, whom I understand was also a nice guy.

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