Chiccoa: Right Time is Always Now

Our football columnist, Charles Chiccoa, picks up the keyboard for the first time this fall and, fighting off the naysayers, gives us some hope with a measured shot of optimism for the 2008 football season...

This time of year, unless your team is in the exclusive company of LSU, Florida, USC, Ohio St. and that crowd – call them The Reloaders – you're apt to find a big question mark hung round its neck. With UCLA it's become a tradition, like ham and eggs, knuckleheads and mindless violence, SC and the police. Once the Bruins begin losing that question mark, we'll know they've finally turned that everlasting corner and secured some genuine respect. But in order for that to happen we'll have to see consistent, quality play, particularly on the road, and that means 1) no more embarrassing blowouts, and 2) more clutch, fourth-quarter wins (As Karl Dorrell might say, this is football 101).


For the Crankiest among us, that-great come-and-get-it-day seems far off, a virtual dot on the horizon. If I felt that way, particularly after trading up so well with the coaching change, I doubt I could sustain the same level of interest in Bruin football (perhaps become a fellow traveler, so to speak). UCLA has been too far down for too long, and this patience/rebuilding treadmill has become exhausting. It's as if we've been suffering some form of psychic, oxygen debt; and wouldn't it be nice if we could begin repaying it come September. Listening to Rick Neuheisel, from the day he got the job, you know he understands.         

According to the media, UCLA football, despite the supercharged coaching triumvirate, is still treading water somewhere in the middle of a middling BCS conference. The coaching staff may well be all-conference, but the players are just honorable mention... or so the thinking goes. The pre-season consensus is big, bad SC in a walkover, then Arizona State, then either California or Oregon, after which, in no particular order, come the Bruins, Oregon State, Arizona and Washington. Stanford and Wazzu are afterthoughts.   


For some fans, "the ground had been salted" long before the KD mistake, starting with Terry Donahue's seven year, post-Aikman decline: 9th in conference, tie for 6th, tie for 2nd, 8th, tie for 1st, tie for 5th, tie for 5th. That comes to 43-36-1. Once Bob Toledo had extended the mediocrity with his 49-32 contribution (along with poisoning the recruiting well), it became clear that the next hire could not be a strikeout. Five years later (35-27), KD looks at strike three. And the 4-8 bowl record was even more dismal. Included in the travel itinerary were such low rent venues as the Hancock, Aloha, Silicon and Emerald Bowls, along with two Sun Bowls and three(!) Vegas Bowls. (I wouldn't wish that tour on Phil Collins.) Is it any wonder UCLA doesn't "travel well?" That averages out to 5-plus losses per year for the last 19 years! That's an entire generation, Bruin fans.   


So here we are, a little older, a little wiser, but deeper in the hole. Meanwhile, across town, they're still riding that glorious return to the days of yesteryear and a hearty hi-yo Traveler. (And you have questions about recruiting? Be happy the Bruins have done as well as they have.)


Now if you happen to be of the "past is prelude" school of thought, all this mess can lead to a kind of despair. But isn't this sort of thinking akin to the chalk player, the stat geek and the numbers cruncher, all masters of the obvious, which isn't to deny they're often right, but only to remind us they're very far from infallible. Anyway, I'm not yet ready to be "reasonable." And a lot of this generalized gloom and doom, not for the first time, reminds me of a band like Travis, particularly a song like "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" Great song, good band, but nothing you'd want to hear in the locker room or come blasting out of the Rose Bowl speakers as the Bruins take the field.


Around BRO, the consensus seems to be 6-6, if not 5-7, with 7-5 deemed "success" and 8-4 "a great season." Anything more is considered childishly naïve, if not insanity. When we're not commiserating over some lost recruit, or the latest key injury or suspension, we're waiting for news of the latest O lineman to tumble off a balcony, crash his off-road vehicle or "retire" from football. And what other program ever lost its only two experienced quarterbacks to serious injury, almost simultaneously, on non-contact, practice plays! Come to think of it, maybe I ought to crank up Travis.


But considering everything, I remain relatively bright-eyed, very cautiously optimistic and greatly looking forward to Tennessee and Monday night. It's too early to surrender. I'll wait at least for the other shoe to drop… you know, like Oklahoma in '03, ASU in '04, Arizona in '05, ND and Wazzu in '06 and Utah last year. After those train wrecks it became mostly a matter of mopping up, along with hopes of a monumental upset of SC, which in these circumstances should never be considered "season saving." (And, like a failed extra point, or the blown chip shot field goal vs. BYU, 13-9 was never properly converted.) But if you can't be optimistic before the opener, when can you be? I mean, how can you embrace a .500 season without giving it a chance to develop?


Today I can't picture yet another mediocre year as "success," I don't care how poorly SC fared in Carroll/Chow's first year. This isn't to say that 7-5, with all kinds of bad breaks, yet competitive play, couldn't conceivably be respectable. Say what you will, but UCLA football is still not Pitt, Rutgers, Oregon State, or indeed Fresno State or BYU, and to infer that it is, is perhaps to have some sort of agenda at work, unconscious or otherwise. For instance: fear of disappointment, exasperation, being seen as un-cool or to relieve pressure on such a promising coaching staff. In extreme cases, even to hang onto a blood hatred of KD and Toledo (or even Ben Olson, who was mistakenly tagged as UCLA's savior) for "killing" the program you love like family. Speaking of which, some Bruin fans begin to sound as victimized as all those real, devastated families of murdered husbands,  women and children on all these proliferating, true-crime TV shows. People, things are not that bad!  




This seems to me a hugely intriguing team. We're all aware of the signal problem areas: depth and quality in the O line and experience and quality at quarterback. As of the uninspired Drake Stadium scrimmage, and the subsequent naming of Kevin Craft as the starting quarterback, nothing much has changed there. The coaching staff had seemed to be waiting for Craft to "take the job," but he never quite did. Finally, with Tennessee looming, they apparently couldn't wait any longer. Fair enough.


Both Craft and Chris Forcier are a long way from demonstrating the "It Factor," but then there's still time before Tennessee, not to mention a long season in which to develop (one hopes not too long).


Though his speed and athleticism can be eye popping and great fun to watch, Forcier obviously lacks arm strength and knowledge of the offense. Craft has the stronger arm and his "command" is stronger than Forcier's, but still not what it needs to be. And ever since the spring, he's been consistently overthrowing open targets downfield, which would seem to indicate a certain over-anxiousness. If Craft has problems moving the team, he's certainly no cinch to keep the job.


Hopefully, we're not looking at another year like '03 when Drew Olson and Matt Moore traded off the position to little effect. But then RN and Norm Chow are hardly KD and Steve Axman. Rick keeps repeating the line that the Bruins "will play the position well," but you begin to detect a growing concern in his voice. If the offense indeed surprises -  and considering that Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart "aren't walking through the door" - this is likely Chow's greatest challenge. But never underestimate what a Chow-designed offense can accomplish, especially when contrasted with what we've become accustomed to.       


You'd have to think early season opponents will try to stack the box and pin their ears back going for the QB, which, depending on the running game, may force Chow to throw more than he wants to, even if it's only screens, check-downs, short routes, slants and such. If the offense stalls, defensive coordinators may begin rolling up their secondaries with impunity and an eye to strangling the dump-off game. In that case, the Bruin QB will almost surely have to take some shots downfield. That should be an adventure.     


Drops and tipped balls must be kept to a minimum, which means the experienced receivers -- Marcus Everett, Dominique Johnson, Terrence Austin, Gavin Ketchum, Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen -- must raise their games. Because for all the size, skills and potential of Antwon Moutra, Nelson Rosario and Jerry Johnson, they're still true freshmen, and true freshmen inevitably have trouble with focus, which often leads to the kind of mistakes that cost you games.     


The running game will obviously depend on the development of the O line. The ballcarriers are certainly in place, both in terms of quality and depth. Kahlil Bell and at least three of the talented freshmen are as deep and talented a group as we've seen here in years. Give them some daylight and they will deliver. Offensive linemen Micah Kia, Micah Reed, and any of at least a half dozen others will somehow have to make up an effective unit while avoiding catastrophic injury. Like Chow and Neuheisel with the QBs, offensive line coach, Bob Palcic, is perhaps looking at the challenge of his career.  


Other than Bret Lockett missing the opener, there should be a lot less worries with the defense. Even with the loss of Bruce Davis and Christian Taylor, the defensive front, featuring two of the best D linemen in the conference, Brian Price and Brigham Harwell, should be improved over last year; more experienced and quicker overall. This should be a very difficult outfit to run against.


I'm also not losing too much sleep over the secondary. Lockett and Aaron Ware can't be worse in pass coverage than Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton, though Horton, of course, was a big-league "hitter." For Tennessee, however, with Ware filling in for Lockett and true freshman Rahim Moore sliding over to free safety, and the as-yet unproven fifth-year senior, Michael Norris, opposite the very-much proven Alterraun Verner, the Tennessee game should turn on who plays better pass defense, who can move the ball on the ground, who can make some throws downfield, and of course (all together now) who makes the fewest turnovers.             




How many games on the schedule, right now, do you consider up for grabs? And aren't these exactly the sort of games that favor a bold, imaginative, resourceful coaching staff? Everyone talks about how tough the schedule is… all these teams that finished in last year's top 25. But how many, other than you-know-who, truly scares you? And the fact that so many games line up, early on, at the Rose Bowl (4 of the first 5, 6 of the first 9) certainly can't hurt and may well provide much needed momentum, not to mention the possibility of instilling the sort of confidence that is only earned through success on the field.  


Until Tennessee actually wins the game, or BYU looks good in Seattle, or Fresno State doesn't get run out of Madison, or Oregon and Cal don't get run out of the Coliseum, or ASU can keep Rudy Carpenter effective, and in one piece… until then I'll hold off on the whining. Of course some or all of this may be unduly optimistic, and this schedule may indeed prove killer, and the Bruins may once again go into the SC game an ugly ‘dog. But I have to see to disbelieve.

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