Everyone always complains when someone claims a moral victory. But we're going to officially claim one for this game.
After all, in a season that looks to be the last for Head Coach Karl Dorrell, when UCLA is 5-5 and most likely looking at 5-7, and the players could, in fact, roll over – they didn't.
With an injury-riddled roster, with no motivation but possibly pride, the Bruins gave Arizona State a run. They played hard, looked like they were mentally in the game.
Bruin fans should take the moral victory if UCLA plays this hard in its next two games and loses. It's a testament to the quality of the players in the program – that given a pretty bleak season outlook, knowing their coach is probably fired, that they still bring the type of effort and focus they did on Saturday.
Yeah, you could make the point that 14 of UCLA's 20 points came from special teams. But UCLA's defense limited ASU's high-powered offense to just 352 yards, and Rudy Carpenter to just 200 yards passing. It, again, was probably enough for a team with an offense to win.
But the combination of UCLA's injuries and its badly-conceived offense is too much for just about any Gutty Little Bruins to overcome.
Credit goes out to a number of players. Osaar Rasshan is showing particular moxy, coming into a poor situation, in a week where you had to know ASU would have his scrambles scouted, and he still was effective at times. Hey, the fact that Rasshan didn't throw five picks and fumble the ball a few times, in this situation, is another (moral) victory.
My gosh, is Matt Slater a complete natural at returning kick offs? And, of course, it begs the question: Why did it take UCLA so long to recognize it? He said in an interview earlier this season that he had approached the coaching staff some time ago to try it and they turned it down. It's bittersweet watching Slater this season return three kick-offs for touchdowns, and setting UCLA season and career records, since we could have been watching him do this for the last four years.
UCLA's defensive backfield had a good collective game. Dennis Keyes had a good game, with 12 tackles – and most of them very sure ones. Chris Horton had three sacks – after not having any so far this season. The cornerbacks, particularly Rodney Van and Alterraun Verner were aggressive and physical, and limited ASU's pretty talented receivers.
UCLA had six sacks, and was pressuring Carpenter quite a bit. You have to give Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker credit, also, for coming in with an aggressive game plan. He blitzed ASU quite often, and did it a bit differently than he had done previously, with more safeties and cornerbacks coming from the edge. He put faith in his cornerbacks to go one-on-one with ASU's receivers, and a combination of an aggressive pass rush and aggressive, tight pass coverage took away Carpenter's ability to complete passes.
Also, if you take away Keegan Herring's one big run of 71 yards, UCLA limited ASU to 81 yards on the ground. Yeah, that's a big "if," but other than that run, UCLA limited ASU to 1.8 yards per rush. That's not only an accomplishment if you're healthy, but particularly an accomplishment if you're using your third- and four-string defensive tackles and defensive ends.
Craig Sheppard, the walk-tailback, also looked good, being solid and following his blocking. The UCLA offensive line and tight ends, particularly Logan Paulsen, were very good at sealing off ASU's defensive line and giving Sheppard an edge. Center Chris Joseph had a good game, sealing his man consistently to create a running hole. UCLA allowed just two sacks on the day.
It was also a game where your heart goes out to a number of players, like Chris Meadows, Verner, Rasshan, Terrence Austin, and Christian Taylor, guys who made critical mistakes in this game but are true gamers. The walk-on Meadows' drop of a Brandon Breazell pass was particularly heart-breaking, and came at a critical time in the game when the momentum was shifting to Arizona State in the second half and UCLA needed to keep pace and put up some points. Rasshan, of course, made his one glaringly bad decision of the game, throwing that errant pass and interception in the endzone on UCLA's last-ditch drive to pull out the game. Guys who you can't help but root for (you'd probably even root for them if they were on the other team) because of their desire and effort.
Regardless of what side of the Dorrell debate you're on, and if you were even rooting for UCLA to lose so it contributes to Dorrell being fired, you had to feel for these kids in this game.
Give the coaching staff, overall, and Dorrell some credit, too. The head coach has to know he's almost certainly getting fired at the end of the season, but he's still coaching, and is putting in a valiant effort. This is Dorrell's strong suit, in fact – to keep working, keeping the nose to the grindstone, feverishly. He brought the Bruins into this game with a good game plan, perhaps even the best offensive game plan he's had this season, given the circumstances, and prepared to play.
It's interesting, though, the playbook that comes out because Rasshan is the quarterback. While you can feel for the kid because he seemed to be overlooked by the coaching staff in terms of getting an opportunity at quarterback, he, on the other hand, is getting a far better game plan prepared for him than either Ben Olson or Patrick Cowan. The offense under Rasshan is far less predictable, even with the fact that the passing repertoire is limited. But they roll out Rasshan, they give him space to throw. He bootlegs. He throws swing passes. What? Are you telling me that Olson isn't athletic enough to roll out? Why does Rasshan get the launching point moved for him but Olson has to take a standard five-step drop? It's another mystery to Dorrell's offense.
With the realization that Dorrell will probably be let go after the season, every UCLA fan has to feel good about cheering for these Bruins – the Christian Taylors, Chris Hortons and Craig Sheppards of the world. Despite the issue of UCLA having a winning football program, and how much it means to fans, alumni, and boosters, and what everyone seems willing to do to get one, there is still the reality that the game is being played by young, innocent men who are just trying to do their best.