USC Game is a Poignant One

Knowing UCLA's defeat by USC, 24-7, was Karl Dorrell's last game as the UCLA head coach, it was a fitting one, since it was a microcosm of his team and his program. The contrast with USC allowed you to, surprisingly, actually appreciate Dorrell, too...

UCLA lost to USC, 24-7, Saturday, in what was a pretty fitting game.

It was a bit of a microcosm, of the season and the Karl Dorrell era.

And it's fitting since it's certain that it was Karl Dorrell's last game as UCLA's head coach.

As we've said before, Dorrell, if he were to be fired, would go down with his ship. His "ship" is his offense, and it was typical to the end. It was predictable and unimaginative – and thus unproductive – in this game, as it has been throughout Dorrell's tenure. The game plan, clearly, wasn't to limit the offense's mistakes; With Pat Cowan back, Dorrell attempted to utilize a big portion of his playbook. The only problem is that it's tragically flawed.

The real problem is not the West Coast Offense. It's not the players. Yes, UCLA could use some more talent at the skill positions. But it's the way this coaching staff has tried to implement this offense – the philosophy behind it. It's the Denver Broncos offense filtered through Dorrell's more conservative eyes. There are plenty of college offenses that are pro-style offenses; USC's for one. But UCLA's offense in the last five years has failed because of its lack of creativity – even simple creativity like mis-direction in the run game, roll outs, flares to the running backs, even just pitches. And most importantly – it could never get away from the central core problem of the lack of imagination in the play-calling in terms of down and distance.

There is no way a Dorrell offense would ever be able to change. He had four offensive coordinators, and none were really successful, since those OCs had to run an offense and call plays through Dorrell's philosophy.

And Dorrell, really, was close to being a success at UCLA. It took five years and 22 assistant coaches and a huge learning curve, but Dorrell had a chance. Right now, Dorrell has a very good defensive coordinator. The defensive side of the program is in good shape. He has the "under belly" under control. The players are doing dramatically better academically than they were five years ago. There haven't been any off-the-field incidents like under Bob Toledo. He has recruited only decently, but was on the verge of signing a top-five class in the nation, which was a big step forward for him.

He has accomplished quite a bit.

It's just that pesky offense. And Dorrell has no one to blame but himself. It's pretty clear it wasn't the fault of the four offensive coordinators since the offense suffered from the same Dorrell-tinged problems through all four of them. You can't say the UCLA administration didn't give him a chance to make the offense work. And ironically, it's not as if, say, it's a head coach who is a defensive guru and his program went asunder because he couldn't get the offense right. The offense is Dorrell's baby. In practice, he spent most of the time on the offensive side of Spaulding Field. Dorrell has tried to blame academics, what his predecessor left him in the cupboard, the mess he had to clean up, etc. But make no mistake: Dorrell will be fired because he couldn't get the offense to work in five seasons. There is no other way to point the finger but back at himself.

This game was a snap shot of the Dorrell Bruins. It's a program made up of good kids, good citizens, the kind of guys you feel good rooting for. And even in the midst of a horribly disappointing season, they're still playing their hearts out. The defense, as we've come to be accustomed to, played a good game against USC, and kept USC's scoring down.

But the offense was ineffective, again. To make it even more of a complete representative of the Dorrell era, there was sloppiness – the penalties and the time out.

It was typical of a Dorrell UCLA game since, with the heart the Bruins showed, they still had a chance to overcome their ineffective offense and pull off an improbable win. After UCLA scored on the 40-second drive to end the first half, and bring the score to a respectable 17-7, UCLA came out in the second half with the momentum. The defense stopped down USC's offense and UCLA's offense in its first drive moved the ball. It mixed the run and the pass effectively, until, of course, it registered a couple of first downs and then went conservative – run-run-pass and was stopped and had to punt.

How tragic is it that every Bruin fan, even at this late a date in the Dorrell era, when they see the first couple of first downs in that drive because of some improved play calling, actually start hoping that maybe this offense had changed. But then the run-run-pass dashes those hopes.

For Bruin fans, there was much poignancy in this game. For example, Dennis Keyes, a senior who has had his share of growing pains as a Bruin, finished his regular-season UCLA career with an excellent game. Senior Trey Brown, a Bruin over-achiever, having a good game and getting an interception. To see the team, clearly less talented that USC, play them even for a good portion of the game through heart and effort. To see UCLA's defense, conceived by DeWayne Walker, again show it was the only part of the program under Dorrell that could be on the same field with USC.

There's also a poignancy about Dorrell. No matter what side of the Fire-Dorrell argument you're on, you're still on his side when it comes to UCLA versus USC. After all, Dorrell is a Bruin. He does love UCLA. And watching that game, seeing him on the sideline, you realize that he's not only a good guy – but one of the good guys. In the vast struggle of good versus evil in the world, Dorrell, UCLA and UCLA fans are on the good side of the equation, while the do-anything-to-win creepiness of USC and Pete Carroll is clearly on the other.

Dorrell and Carroll shaking hands.
I usually don't buy into the high-minded theory that you'd rather win ethically or not win at all. Because most of the time the real story is that, ethically, there isn't much of a difference between most programs. In this case, between Dorrell's Bruins and Carroll's Trojans, there is a stark difference. Anyone who follows college football closely knows what Pete Carroll is, and everyone knows what Dorrell is. In this case, there is one mediocre football coach who has ethics and class, and another very good football coach who lacks ethics and class. And in my experience with most USC fans, the smarter ones know it. They either are ethically bankrupt themselves and don't care, or they have chosen to look the other way, having sold out for Carroll's success.

Hey, we can't say that UCLA fans wouldn't do it either. But for whatever reason, the powers-that-be at UCLA won't do it. Maybe they're not clever enough, or don't have enough of that killer instinct like at USC, or maybe it is truly a matter that UCLA tries to uphold a higher standard. And that higher standard trickles down and does affect every aspect of the football program. Who would you rather have representing your university – Reggie Bush or Ben Olson?

There are other football programs and football coaches I have looked at enviously the last five years. And many might not believe it, but I'd still rather have UCLA with Dorrell than USC with Carroll. Dorrell's biggest achievement is that he has lived up to the higher standard of UCLA, and we can only hope that his successor can win while also upholding it.

Dorrell might not have it as a head coach. But we know he has it as a human being, and he represents UCLA well as one.

Watching Dorrell on the sidelines of this game, realizing it was the last time I'd watch him there at a UCLA game, knowing that even a win over USC wasn't going to save his job, there was none of the resentment felt when watching the end of Bob Toledo or Steve Lavin. You felt that UCLA's soul had been violated by those two, that UCLA had been used by them, hollowed out and left worse for it.

You don't feel that way with Dorrell. You feel that he made a significant contribution to UCLA, but he was another one in a long history of good guys that just didn't succeed.


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