Review of the Arizona Game

UCLA lost to a mediocre Arizona team, 34-27, Saturday, and the Bruins are now looking down the barrel of an unsuccessful season. Can they pull a miraculous turnaound and, perhaps, save their head coach's job?

Even though UCLA lost to a mediocre Arizona team, 34-27, it was surprisingly not that upsetting.

For a number of reasons.

There is of course, the overall malaise of the program.

At this point, with UCLA now 5-4 and looking down the barrel of an unsuccessful season, the year when UCLA was supposed to go to a BCS bowl, most UCLA fans are resigned to the team's fate.

But also, given the circumstances, the Bruins didn't play that horribly. It wasn't a game that you came away from particularly disgusted, or embarrassed. Posting a lost against Arizona, yes, is embarrassing, but if you watched the game it wasn't as if UCLA was under-achieving with the players it had on the field.

Independent of what you think about Karl Dorrell, and whether he should be fired or not, the injury situation was extreme in this game. At one point, UCLA was using its third- or fourth-string (depending on your perspective) quarterback, and its fifth-string running back, who is a walk-on. The offense was playing with nine of its top skill guys either out of the game or hindered by injury – Ben Olson, Patrick Cowan, Kahlil Bell, Chris Markey, Michael Pitre, Brandon Breazell, Marcus Everett, Logan Paulsen, and Gavin Ketchum.

While, on one hand, you could make an argument that there isn't a great deal of NFL talent in that bunch anyway, it still is a huge chunk of UCLA's offensive skill guys.

And ironically, the offense didn't completely shut down, but, in fact, moved down the field fairly effectively with Osaar Rasshan, Chane Moline and Craig Sheppard.

You have to hand it to those third- and fourth-stringers. If they had had enough time, they very well might have staged a comeback to win the game.

And it was funny how Arizona built a 20-point lead. It wasn't as if they ran over the Bruins, and it wasn't really that UCLA was completely flat. But you looked up after a few minutes were gone in the second half and it was a bit surprising to realize Arizona was up 34-14. It wasn't as if the Wildcats had dominated. Arizona's total of 469 offensive yards was gained by so many big plays it didn't seem necessarily that they were driving through the UCLA defense. Arizona's four touchdowns weren't the result of drives, but four big plays – Nicholas Grigsby's 60-yard run, Willie Tuitama's 55-yard pass to Chris Jennings, Tuitama's 44-yard pass to Delashaun Dean to set up a touchdown run, and Rob Gronkowski's 27-yard TD reception. Arizona punted seven times.

And UCLA, on its first possession, drove the field 66 yards for a touchdown. And that followed Matt Slater's 100-yard kick-off return for a touchdown, which also gave you the feeling that UCLA was in the game. And, by the way, Slater is a charter member of the Special Teams Hall of Fame.

UCLA's offense then went through a series of three-and-outs that essentially caused the lopsided, third-quarter score. UCLA had one drive where it gained 40 yards, but then six others where it gained a total of -10 yards.

Now, many of you could make the case that UCLA's defense lost this one, not UCLA's offense. After all, UCLA scored 27 points, usually enough to win a game, and UCLA's defense allowed 34 points – and all of those 34 points were allowed by UCLA's defense, not by any offensive turnovers.

But, as we said in the game's preview, the defense has been holding up the flag of the program for two years now, having to try to win games with an ineffective offense. There comes a time when it just can't do it anymore, and given all the factors going into this game, it was pretty easy to foresee that this might be the game where the defensive dam breaks. So, to blame the defense for this loss wouldn't be entirely fair.

The offense, again, looked poor. You have to feel for Patrick Cowan; the gimpy quarterback looks so hamstrung trying to make something happen in an offensive scheme that makes it so difficult to succeed. When he went down with what was first thought to be a concussion but later believed to be a collapses lung, your heart had to go out to the warrior. He's not a vastly talented quarterback but the effort and heart he's put into trying to squeeze some success out of Dorrell's offense has been the stuff of great tragedy. One of the lasting images I'll take away from the Dorrell years is Cowan, running around frantically – and with guts and heart – trying to generate something out of Dorrell's offense.

Give Rasshan credit. He came into the game, obviously the original fourth option at quarterback, one that the coaching staff was pretty reluctant to go to throughout the season. It wasn't exactly a great confidence boost for him. But he trotted on the field and played with moxy, which was a great deal of what seemed to sustain him. Rasshan is definitely a change of pace at quarterback for UCLA, a run-and-gun, spread quarterback in a conservative, pro-style West Coast offense (one that doesn't work, by the way, if we haven't made that clear). Rasshan's escapability is easily his best trait; when he's in the open field he can run and is always a threat to do so and pick up good yardage. He doesn't throw the ball particularly well, though, and that's what's kept him off the field. You could argue endlessly whether more experience would get him to be a better throwing quarterback, or this is what you got and it ain't getting much better. Most of the people who haven't watched a great deal of UCLA's practices fall into the hopeful category A, and the ones who have watched too many UCLA practices fall into category B. Regardless of where you are on the Rasshan argument, it's really a moot point. Even if you think the coaching staff should have gone to Rasshan earlier in the season, there is still no way, if they had, it would have made a particular impact on the season. The offensive scheme isn't going to suddenly become successful because of Rasshan, who, all in all, isn't a huge talent at quarterback and would be trying to work in a failed scheme, one that is completely wrong for his talents. Maybe if this offense had Brett Favre, and not the old Brett Favre but the one in his heyday, it could succeed. And the argument on whether Rasshan can develop the capability to throw the ball consistently might be one reserved for later, when, in the future, UCLA's program is, in fact, employing a different offense and perhaps a different head coach.

All roads return to that subject, don't they? Well, it's looking like it could be the end of the road for Dorrell. He could try to use the injury card, and there have been an inordinate amount of injuries this season. But it's not enough to counter or rationalize how the program has failed. You simply can't use this year's injuries to excuse all of the program's issues that got it to this point.

The main issue, now, really is: Dorrell has lost the Bruin community. If he did return, can you imagine the lack of interest in next season? The Rose Bowl would be as peaceful as the golf course that surrounds it. The donor booths at the Rose Bowl would be empty, as would the athletic department endowment funds. It would be one season that would take the program many seasons to overcome, in terms of fan interest – and recruit interest. There is a lag of fan interest for programs, both positively and negatively. When you run a program into the ground, like next season under Dorrell would be doing, it takes a while for a majority of the fans to come back. The general fan base is not like the fans on BRO, who are on the cutting edge. Steve Lavin's death march in 2002 sent away UCLA basketball fans for years. They're only now, this season, in Ben Howland's fifth year and after back-to-back Final Four seasons, returning to Pauley Pavilion in the numbers commiserate with the status of the program. It's as if they only come back when they know it's completely safe. It's kind of the same with recruiting. It takes a few years, like it did with Howland, to instill some confidence in recruits about a new coach, to overcome their impression of the program provided by the previous coach who decimated it. Heck, the interest lag works the other way, too. UCLA got some hype heading into this season, and what did you see at the Rose Bowl? With UCLA struggling and with a coach that could be fired after the season, there were still 80,000 in the seats for the Cal game.

But the fans have definitely jumped off the bandwagon. The Cranks, of course, were never really riding it. But most of the Blues that were riding it religiously quietly pulled the string and got off at some stop along the way this season.

For no other reason than the devastation that would be next season, it would seem unlikely that Dorrell will return. And there are many other substantial reasons.

If he did return, it would have to be entirely due to a miraculous finish to the season, with at least two wins over the remaining opponents on the schedule – Arizona State, Oregon and USC. Those teams, right now, combine for a record of 23-4, and are ranked all in the top 20. Beating them, right now, seems fairly unlikely. You can't completely dismiss the possibility, of course; most of us remember Lazarus Lavin. Then there is the no-man's-land scenario: UCLA beats one of the three, goes 6-6 on the season, gets in a bad bowl game and wins, and ends up 7-6.

If we are bringing up Lavin's miracles, however, there is a difference: Lavin did it with talent. He had NBA talent that was poorly coached, so occasionally the NBA talent would shine through and Lavin's Bruins would rear up and beat a #1 team out of nowhere.

Dorrell doesn't have that talent. Even with a healthy team, there aren't many NFL talents on the roster. Like we've said before, it's difficult to remember a time when UCLA didn't have a fairly clear-cut future pro among its quarterbacks, running backs, receivers or tight ends. And the talent of the program is relative: If you have NFL-level talent starting, you then usually have pretty good Pac-10-level talent as your back-ups – that can step in when you're hit by a string of injuries and at least be moderately successful running your offense. Successful enough to beat Notre Dame, who has yet to win a game other than the one they played in the Rose Bowl; or Washington State, or Arizona. Besides the UCLA community support, and the level of coaching, it's another big issue that could bring down Dorrell, and counters the injury excuse. Even with the injuries, UCLA should have had enough talent, in an offensive scheme that works, to be able to beat Notre Dame, Washington State and Arizona (and we won't even talk about Utah on the road). If they had done that, they'd be 8-1 right now, a result you would conclude was quite good enough, given the injuries. Heck, let's even concede one loss between Washington State and Arizona because of injuries, and UCLA was currently 7-2. That'd still be acceptable.

Now that I'm thinking about it, if UCLA had just not blown the Notre Dame game, made possible by some poor decisions from the coaching staff with the offense, and UCLA were 6-3, you could probably even then mount a decent injury-excuse argument.

But it all comes down to Dorrell's offense. Dorrell had a chance at UCLA. He was certainly given enough time, with only one successful season in five. He shuttled in assistant coaches like UCLA was an assistant coach temp service. He had plenty of time and opportunity to find two coordinators and two schemes that could be successful – and not even revolutionarily successful, but just good enough (Because at UCLA, remember, good enough sometimes is good enough to keep your job for a long time). He found a good-enough defensive coordinator with a good-enough defensive scheme, through much trial and error. But there has been nothing he could do, no amount of coordinators, that could save his offensive scheme. If Dorrell had even just a good-enough offensive scheme, it's very easy to assert that his job would currently be very safe. We've made the analogy before and it's very apt again: Dorrell captained the ship of this offense, and it looks like, barring some miraculous turnaround, he could go down with it.


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