A well-coached UCLA Bruin football team.
When's the last time you could say UCLA out-coached its opponent?
Because, on paper, if you look at the talent on both sides of the ball, UCLA really had no business winning its season-opener against 18th-ranked Tennessee, 27-24, in overtime.
Now, that's a coaching staff that could teach Football 101.
That's a game that the previous coaching staff would have lost by probably 30 points.
The "Dream Team" of Rick Neuheisel, Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker certainly lived up to their billing in this one, and definitely convinced jaded UCLA fans what real coaching can do.
The staff stole this one. They manipulated Tennessee, manipulated the game, to take away Tennessee's clear advantage in personnel and level the playing field.
For Bruins fans, even if UCLA had lost, it was a breath of fresh air. To actually watch the game being crafted by the likes of Chow and Walker – and Neuheisel – it was like watching artists.
There were so many instances in this game that clearly illustrated the step-up in coaching UCLA now has as compared to recent seasons. UCLA had only two penalties, to Tennessee's nine. UCLA's defense forced Tennessee into illegal procedure three times. UCLA's offense, operating out of its one-yard line, got Tennessee's defense to jump offside and give it five more yards of breathing room. Time outs were administered strategically, not out of desperation.
The offense had more diversity and element of surprise in it than in all of the seasons of the last decade combined. The offensive game plan recognized the team's shortcomings and tried to work around them. It tried to exploit the strengths of its talent.
The coaching was instrumental in making one of the biggest turnarounds by an individual – quarterback Kevin Craft – ever seen in UCLA recent history from the first to second half.
For the first time in a long time, you could say that a UCLA Bruin team over-achieved.
The heart and soul of the team, as was expected, is the defensive front seven. While you can give Craft accolades, and Chow, the game isn't won without those seven players. And it wasn't just the much-publicized, dynamic duo of defensive tackles, Brigham Harwell and Brian Price. Really one of the biggest keys of the game was the stellar play of UCLA's linebacking group. While they're not necessarily NFL talent, they are so well-coached and disciplined. They're almost never caught out of position, they make sure tackles and they're very smart. Reggie Carter was exceptional, and had the heads-up play of the game when he stripped Arian Foster of the ball at the UCLA 6-yard line. At that point in the game, with UCLA down 14-7, the Volunteers had all the momentum. A touchdown at that point might have made UCLA roll over.
Korey Bosworth, the defensive end (and virtual linebacker), was very good all game, but then also had a few big impact sequences. In the second half, with UCLA down 14-10, after a good punt return, Tennessee had the ball at the UCLA 26 with just 13 minutes left. Again, you felt like Tennessee had some momentum, but the Bosworths shut off that valve. On first down, Korey made a great tackle on a sweep, catching the runner cutting back for no gain. On second down, Korey put pressure on Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton and forced him into an incompletion. On third down, on a stunt, Korey pushed his blocker back onto Crompton, which made him stumble, and his brother, Kyle then sacked him.
Harwell and Price had some big moments, with Price slicing through the UT offensive line for a couple of tackles for loss, and Harwell coming up with a big sequence in the first half with about 5 minutes left when he had a tackle on a running play for no gain, then made an athletic play to run down a running back on a flair for no gain on third down.
Crompton had a poor showing, mostly because he was under pressure for a great deal of the game. When he had time to throw, he did fairly well, but that wasn't often. Walker had pressure coming from many spots, with linebackers shooting the gaps, the DL stunting quite a bit, and the use of zone blitzes throughout the game to change the point of the attack on the quarterback. Walker also went to a 3-4 for a few sequences, so Crompton had a lot thrown at him, and it showed in his general confusion and inability to get in a rhythm.
The cornerbacks, with so much pressure being put on the quarterback from blitzes, were put out on an island many times, and they held up well. You kept expecting Tennessee to do more to pick on Michael Norris, but Norris held his own, leading the team in tackles, actually, with 7, and with two break-ups. Alterraun Verner had some textbook coverages, and one great pick where he came up out of zone coverage and stepped into the passing lane. Freshman Rahim Moore, playing free safety, had a couple of plays where he took poor pursuit angles, but generally played well for a true freshman in his first time out in a pretty tense situation.
The defense, by the end of the first quarter, had been on the field too much and was looking tired. When Tennessee drove 60 yards to get its first touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter, the UCLA D looked a bit spent, but to its credit, it bucked up and held Tennessee scoreless through three more UT possessions in the first half.
There wasn't a true star on defense, though, and it's a testament to how good of a DC Walker is that he can plug in so many new starters and the defense doesn't really miss a beat. The scheme is the thing, and Walker is so crafty in how he applies pressure to the quarterback that it continually keeps quarterbacks off-balance.
To simply be able to limit Tennesee to converting just 7 points from 4 interceptions is miraculous in itself.
The offense's performance was a stunning one. It went from gaining just 85 total yards, with four interceptions thrown, in the first half, to 203 total yards gained in the second half, on 18 of 25 passing. An amazing turnaround.
In the first 30 minutes, watching Craft play was mind-boggling. His four interceptions weren't even lucky picks, they were incredibly badly thrown balls as a result of incredibly bad reads.
So, you're the UCLA coaching staff in the locker room at halftime, and you have an inexperienced QB whose been in your new system for just five months, who has to be a bit rattled having thrown four interceptions in the first half.
First, the head coach tells him that he, too, had four interceptions in his first game of his college career. The offensive coordinator talks to him, calms him down and tells him that they're going to give him a second-half game plan that will make things easier on him. Then, the entire team comes to him and tells him they're behind him.
Heck, with that, I could have gone out in the second half and done what Craft did.
Well, maybe not.
But the adjustments Chow made in the second half were brilliant (when's the last time that word was used in conjunction with UCLA offensive coaching?). Like one of the best offensive minds in the business that he is, Chow recognized that Craft was struggling throwing down the field into zone coverage, and obviously recognized space underneath the zone short. He gave Craft almost exclusive three-step drops or roll-outs, keeping the pressure off him, and Craft didn't have to make a throw longer than 15 yards down the field or read the defense too much before making his throw. After a couple of series, the combination of all of this definitely had a calming effect on Craft, and he got in a rhythm. By the fourth quarter, he was standing in the pocket with confidence, particularly on one series and the one play where he hit Ryan Moya at the three-yard line to set up Raymond Carter's touchdown run.
Not to dwell on it, but you shudder to imagine what would have happened to Craft in this game if the previous staff were still on the sideline.
It's still surreal to see Chow in the coaches' box, with a UCLA shirt on. And it gives you goose bumps to see him clap and cheer after Carter's touchdown, and high-five after Moya's touchdown catch.
Neuheisel should probably think about giving Chow a good chunk of the multi-million dollar settlement he got from the NCAA to keep him in that coaches' box for the next decade.
Credit also has to be given to the offensive line and offensive line coach Bob Palcic. What is considered the weak link of the team, made up of walk-ons and players from other positions, the offensive line did well for its first outing. It allowed just one sack, on a jailhouse blitz, but other than that did exceptionally well in pass protection. The run blocking was sketchy, but take into consideration the OL has only been a unit for a week, and they were going up against SEC-level talent, the kind they might not face too much the rest of the season. At this point, you have to put a great deal of trust into this coaching staff, believing they'll be able to do more with less, so we'd expect the run blocking to improve as the OL gets more experienced (Yes, with a coaching staff like this, expectations are going to start rising). Heck, you have to give credit to this snake-bitten offensive line for merely getting through the game without an injury.
The receivers group showed its newfound depth. With its leader, senior Marcus Everett, out in the first quarter, others stepped up, with four receivers having four receptions or more for the game. Tight end Ryan Moya, with starter Logan Paulsen out in the first quarter, had seven catches, Terrence Austin had 5, and Taylor Embree and Dominique Johnson had four each.
Not once last season did four receivers each have four receptions or more in a game. Not once did a tight end have seven receptions. In fact, the starter at tight end last year, Paulsen, only had 12 catches on the season.
Moya, as we expected, benefitted from the new scheme. It's perfect for him – a scheme that tries to exploit mismatches, which he creates. Austin had, perhaps, his best day as a receiver, making some big catches, especially one over the middle for a first down, holding onto the ball after being rocked by Tennessee safety Eric Berry. There was some doubt whether Embree could do in a game what he was so able to do in practice – that is, get in space and catch anything thrown to him. But he did it with that same gliding style, slicing through the UT secondary on a big catch off a seam route in a critical second-half drive.
With Kahlil Bell out for most of the game with a high-ankle sprain, it seemed the coaches were a bit reluctant to go to Raymond Carter, using Chane Moline for a few series (Moline, also is a good pass blocker, which also explains some of the reluctance). Carter started slowly, but once he had made a few runs he looked far more confident and wasn't going down after the first hit. He isn't shifty, but is a north-south guy, and you have to greatly anticipate when he does finally get an open seam and bursts into the defense's backfield and is able to then turn on the speed.
The hiring of Frank Gansz, Jr., as a dedicated special teams coach looks like a genius move by Neuheisel, at least for this game. Without the blocked punt by Akeem Ayers and the return for a touchdown by Sean Westgate UCLA doesn't win this game, obviously.
Enough can't be said about Craft. You can't remember such a dramatic difference in performance between two halves for any quarterback. The word on him is that he's a scrappy kid, the kind who is "relentlessly positive," and it showed in this game. You could see in his body language that he didn't deflate, and it was almost expected after throwing four very bad interceptions in the first half. But when you have Norm Chow designing a game plan for you, I guess it's not a big stretch to be optimistic.
Yes, there is some reality to deal with. You have to question just how good Tennessee is. Crompton looked, well, bad. The UT defensive coaching staff didn't seem to adapt very quickly to Chow's second-half game plan to throw underneath. An experienced offensive line like Tennessee's shouldn't really be called for illegal procedure so much.
In this game, too, there were a few plays that went UCLA's way by a couple of inches. It appeared that Raymond Carter was caught for a safety. It also appeared that Carter didn't get the ball across the goal line on his touchdown run. There was a tipped ball that resulted in a Terrence Austin catch that very well could have been Craft's fifth interception. There were a couple of other completions where it seemed the catch was made by a receiver who wasn't the intended target.
Perhaps, too, there were a few negatives, besides just the four inteceptions. The face mask by Tom Blake on an impending sack gave Tennessee life in the fourth quarter; without it, the game probably would have been over. The pooch kick was either mis-conceived, or mis-delivered; it, too, gave Tennessee unnecessary life that allowed them to tie the game in the last few seconds. There did seem to be a good amount of confusion in the route running of the wide receivers, with two receivers commonly in the same area too close to each other.
But it's amazing how you'll forgive the few mistakes when the game is such an explicit example of good coaching.
This coaching staff is undoubtedly recognizing the odds and ends it needs to correct, and while you were always skeptical in the past that a UCLA coaching staff could do it, this game leads you to believe that this one is capable of it.
As we reported, there was a good collection of prospects from both the 2009 and 2010 classes in attendance Monday. You'd have to think they came away with generally the same impressions most of us did – that this is a coaching staff that is going to give you an edge in the game. And, with that staff, the UCLA program – with a little more talent – looks capable of developing into player in the college football world.