Chiccoa: Feelin' Super Sonic

Our football columnist Charles Chiccoa watched the UCLA/Tennessee game literally from the cheap seats, but he still provides a good perspective on the game, including a take on all of the college football pundits and their view of the UCLA football team...

But first a brief sermon:


For all the usual reasons, I never take pre-season forecasts seriously. We all know about the big boys but, for the hundred or so other programs, we first need to see how they stack up against legitimate competition, see where they stand by the end of September, sometimes even beyond. These prognostications ordinarily deal in quantity rather than quality: So many returning starters; so many graduating seniors; so many 5-star difference-making newcomers (who won't make a difference, at least this year), not to mention so many Taylor Embrees who simply get overlooked (and will make a difference this year).


This is my favorite hobby horse -- the belief we need to let things unfold naturally, week by week, each new season. But try suggesting that to all the various chattering classes, from such a preposterous ass as Colin Cowherd, with his army of ESPN "insiders," right down to the most obnoxious tool posting on other team sites. You might as well ask a third grader to do advanced calculus. Yet we allow these types to set the agenda, to dominate the discussion, each new season. And when reality inevitably rears its head, as it did in the fourth quarter Monday night, they blithely go about redefining the agenda all over again. And, good little lemmings that we are, we fall right in line.    




Through an unfortunate set of circumstances, none worth recounting here, I found myself hot, tired, hungry, thirsty and increasingly angry by the time the Bruins kicked off to the Vols. My seat in the north end of the stadium, next to the big orange Vols section, was so low I spent half the game watching the tiny replay screen instead of watching the field like a normal person. For punking out (again) on season tickets, it's probably what I deserved. 


Akeem Ayers' blocked punt briefly lightened my mood, but then Kevin Craft immediately provoked flashbacks of Notre Dame last year. By halftime, I felt like Spike Lee watching Reggie Miller clown his beloved Knicks, then give him the choke sign. You may know the feeling… like blood descending before your eyes and nothing but crude expletives exploding inside your head (It was only through main force that I managed to stifle their expression). What a nightmare! It was as if the old regime had never got the boot.


Leading up to Tennessee, the conventional wisdom around here was: Hope we don't get embarrassed on national TV. And after Craft's first-half demonstration of how not to play quarterback, all notions of Bruin respectability seemed out the door. Only the fact Tennessee hadn't been able to put away the game provided any hope at all.


Like some of you, I was hoping to see Chris Forcier trot onto to the field to open the second half, but I wasn't holding my breath. It had become obvious Norm Chow and Rick Neuheisel had concentrated on preparing Craft for this game and, short another flock of wounded ducks, they were unlikely to pull him.


When the Bruins went three and out, then punted, you almost felt relief. The Vols immediately drove the ball and looked to put this baby to bed, but Reggie Carter's strip of Arian Foster at the Bruin six-yard line, right in front of me and the huge Vols contingent, would become the big turning point.   


Slowly but surely Craft started throwing some decent passes, started looking like the high-profile transfer some had been counting on. Then, of course, came his magnificent 4th quarter, Chow's masterful play-calling, and a first, close up glimpse for Bruin Nation of Chow's incomparable offensive design, which those anxious first-half passes had so cleverly disguised (It would be a sorry QB, indeed, who can't make Chow's offense work). First came the 6-for-6 (completions) drive, and when Tennessee promptly answered with a drive of its own to retake the lead, Craft was taxed with having to do it all over again. No sweat! By this time the boy was on fire. Where the Vol secondary had been dominating the Bruin passing game to the extent that Phil Fulmer actually accepted a holding penalty instead of forcing a 4th-down punt… now Craft and his receivers, Ryan Moya, Embree, Dominique Johnson and Terrence Austin were torching that very same secondary, one huge pass after another. And with the noise level rising with each completion, you'd have thought the Bruin crowd was collectively main-lining ecstasy. Only 13-9 and maybe that 52-28, Cade-McNown, Rocky-Long, Husky slaughter in 1997 was comparable for drama.


The only real downer of the half came with the decision to "pooch" the kickoff with 27 seconds remaining. This was uncomfortably reminiscent of more passive Bruin regimes. Add to that the fact that kick coverages had not been impressive, and this makes the decision to kick safely all the more questionable. Sure enough, Michael Norris overran his lane along the Bruin sideline, and Tennessee was able to set up practically at midfield with enough time for at least three pass plays. They completed two, the last one against a three-man rush. Their kicker, Daniel Lincoln, finally came through with his only good try of the evening from 47 yards.  


With Tennessee having briefly recaptured some momentum going into the overtime, you still had to concede the Bruins a trump card in the person of Forbath. When neither team seemed anxious to put the ball up, Kai came through with a long field goal that split the uprights perfectly, but poor Lincoln, whose kicks had been moving a little left all game, pushed his easier try wide left. The usual delirium and heartbreak ensued… then the fireworks. Since I missed out on 13-9, even with the crappy seat and all the rest of it, I was overjoyed not to have missed (again) such a memorable spectacle.              




The bye week couldn't have come at a better time, what with the most fragile (or unlucky) team in the west having incurred a new wave of injuries. Thankfully no linemen went down, and tailback and wide receiver happen to be the two deepest positions on the team. And though Logan Paulsen may be forced into a red-shirt year, maybe Kahlil Bell and Marcus Everett can return sooner than what we've become accustomed to. If nothing else, the competition at their respective positions should provide incentive. And then Gavin Ketchum looks to be returning… perhaps some others, too, over the next four games, three of which are at home. But somehow you have the idea Chow and Neuheisel will find a way to work around the problem. Just pray the Bruins can get through a week without anyone else going down.  


So, what to take from the Tennesse game? Number one: Bret Lockett, off his suspension, will be a very welcome addition. Despite what he says about the similarity between free and strong safety, Aaron Ware never appeared comfortable at strong side. In any case, his play wasn't notable. In fact, with the usual exception of Alterraun Verner, the entire secondary didn't provide much run support, getting juked and overpowered much of the time by Foster and his equally strong backup, Montario Hardesty. These two rushed for a combined 162 yards on 25 carries, or 6½ yards per pop. Norris and Courtney Viney are obviously undersized, making the flanks vulnerable to getting overpowered. The Bruins could use more size here… either that or some increased toughness. The Bosworth twins looked solid up front, but you have to think Akeem Ayers must be pushing John Hale hard at the "Sam" linebacker. Brian Price and Brigham Harwell were everything we thought they were.   


Without a doubt, the running game got stuffed; the blocking was almost non-existent. But then the Vols defensive front appeared to be better than advertised. Time, of course, will tell here. Anyway, we should finally begin to see something of the much anticipated Aundre Dean… perhaps even one or more from among Milton Knox, Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman (the youngest member of the team). It should be clear by now that Chane Moline is not a tailback, and that his carries seem almost like wasted downs. And it's not as if the Bruins are deep at fullback


It's being said UCLA has "nothing" behind Craft. Chris Forcier, in my opinion, is not "nothing." And I'm not sure Craft is quite yet "a new star," as ESPN's Mike Patrick rather prematurely dubbed him (But then that's ESPN, isn't it?). It's also still being said the Bruins are "just average," that they were "lucky" (even RN, perhaps overdoing the humility bit, repeated the word). Considering all those gift-wrapped, special delivery picks in the first half, Lockett's unavailability, the injuries and the crushing facemask penalty on Tom Blake, I'd say the breaks favored the Vols. The BYU contest should be a good test of Craft's newfound poise, as it will be for the entire team. They've passed their first fourth-quarter test, now it's time for their road test.


Finally, with the hysteria swirling all around him, you had to love RN during the post-game interview on the field, particularly his accent on the word relentless. Patrick may have thought he could have been more "eloquent" with his closing remark, but that spontaneous "Good to be back at UCLA, baby" worked just fine for me.       




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