Chiccoa: Rock Bottom

Our football columnist, Charles Chiccoa, painfully reviews the BYU game, talks about its implications for the team, the program and the future, and while he expresses his exasperating Bruin frustration, he still finds himself compelled to go the Rose Bowl Saturday...

Stuff like 0-59 is why I don't buy season tickets, why I don't make road trips (other than San Diego), and why I make fewer trips to Pasadena with each passing season. 

Sure, the tailgating scene can be great fun, a chance to meet up with your circle of Bruin friends six times a year. It makes for a very pleasant afternoon or evening. But if you don't happen to eat much on game day, and don't drink much, or "smoke," that key social element may be somewhat diminished. And with the product on the field less inviting, well… you see what I'm saying? 

Considering what happened in Provo, and in the context of recent Bruin history, how many of you are pumped at the prospect of Arizona this Saturday in the Rose Bowl? Are you at all tempted to stay home and watch it on your big screen, HD TV?

UCLA football can no longer be trusted. It's not really hazardous to your health, but it is becoming, at the very least, a distinct irritant, like election year politics, American jurisprudence or the white noise of advertising hype. For the sake of the uninitiated, it ought to carry some kind of warning label.

Sure, it's fun to get carried away by rhetoric when faced with something as continuously bizarre and unexplainable as the ups and downs of this cursed football program. We've earned the right to laugh a little. But please understand that this year's Mountain West Massacre wasn't just "a step back" from the eleven day, temporary high of Tennessee; it was a giant leap backwards. Enough, anyway, to ensure UCLA its familiar role as laughing stock of the college football world.

Bruin Nation has become Napoleon Dynamite, but without the stylized, happy ending. We might as well walk around with a "Kick Me" sign on our collective ass. It's back to the bunkers for us: no newspapers and no sports-talk radio. And when engaged at work by perhaps some well-meaning Trojan fan concerned about your possible, emotional precariousness, just nod that you're fine, shrug your shoulders… perhaps throw in the quizzical, upraised palms bit. Act like you've been here before, then hope for something better on Saturday. I mean that's what we do, right?                                        

We can talk all we want about Karl Dorrell, Bob Toledo and the unfortunate Terry Donahue hereditary line, but this game was about more immediate concerns… like the one at quarterback and, of course, the injury watch along the offensive line (with Micah Reed down, that's one more gone). Also the intermittent problem that will not die, i.e., DeWayne Walker's problem with quality passing teams. And it's not just spread offenses we're talking about, which BYU, strictly speaking, does not run.

Yes, Alterraun Verner couldn't cover Austin Collie one on one, though he was often close, just not close enough. And the entire secondary couldn't handle tight end, Dennis Pitta, or any other receiver BYU's outstanding quarterback, Max Hall, kept hitting all day, perfectly in stride. We all know this score could have been in the seventies had Bronco Mendenhall been "Pour it on Pete."

I'm still curious about the apparent misunderstanding over Verner giving Collie too much cushion. Isn't that up to Walker? I mean he's right there on the sideline. Why does Walker now "need to sit down and talk to him" when he could have called him over to the sidelines and asked him what he thought he was doing? In any case, BYU's passing game was a thing of beauty. I'm sure Norm Chow wishes he had one like it. Alas, all he's got is Kevin Craft and, to listen to the buzz, nothing behind him. 

Craft seems to me a kind of poor man's Patrick Cowan, which is to say he throws lots of line drives, but with less strength and even less touch. For those who thought the injuries to the two senior QBs were "a blessing in disguise," think again. Even dedicated "Ben haters" may be wondering if the Bruins haven't gone from the frying pan into the fire. But after Drew Olson, and John Barnes, and Scott McEwen, and Rick Neuheisel, I'm not prepared to ever again write off another QB until he's actually seen the field over more than a couple of games. Or even any games at all.

Also like Cowan, Craft seems to have that knack of appearing to be in command even when he's not: all that body language which screams forget it!, so what, lets move on to the next play, we can do it, I can do it, we can get back into this game. This sort of thing can be catnip to a desperate coaching staff, not to mention the fan base. It's a little like seduction. And Cowan, after all, is the son of a successful ex-QB; Craft is the son of a head coach. Both are the anti-Cory Paus with all his helmet banging and self doubt. Down 0-49, Craft was having fun racking up a little yardage, getting to throw the ball every down during an extended garbage time. "Relentlessly optimistic," all right.

Maybe Craft has been improving apace on Spaulding Field. I don't know… haven't seen any practices since they closed the gate August 20th or whenever. Presumably he's getting the vast bulk of the reps because he's the best option… so far. None of the QBs was completing many passes downfield in the sessions I saw. You can cry about the protection but, even when they had time to throw the ball, they weren't getting it downfield. And, with the single exception of the fourth quarter vs. Tennessee, nothing much has changed. So my question is this: If Craft continues to throw picks and turn the ball over, how long before Chow and RN seriously consider… uh, "going in another direction," or at least altering the reps during the week and, in effect, opening up the position.

Forcier, for whatever reasons, has apparently lost ground recently, what with Kevin Prince having jumped ahead of him on the depth chart. Prince looks to have the strongest arm, or at least the most accurate. But he'll have to be a prodigy, indeed, to take over as a true freshman, especially considering how little he's played since being injured in the first quarter of the first game of his senior year in high school. But then if Chow is forced to make a change, Prince will only have to an improvement, not a revelation. And you thought the O line was the biggest worry. I suppose we all better pray that Craft moves the team on Saturday.   

Of course the Bruins were never going to win in Provo, even had Craft performed reasonably well in the first half. Their total defensive collapse and BYU's spectacular offensive fireworks saw to that. (It'll be moderately interesting to see how the Cougars do when they hit the road again. Certainly the Bruins have instilled great confidence into them, and they now have a real chance of a BCS bid. They're no Hawaii.)

It's no secret Walker has yet to solve the traditional Bruin vulnerability to a good passing team. When it comes to crunch time, he continues to opt for coverage over consistent, concentrated pressure. He's a DB coach, after all, so he may have an instinctive belief in his corners and safeties, his nickels and dimes, to get the job done even though DBs regularly find themselves at a disadvantage with respect to size, speed and skills. These guys need help up front. This match-up is usually a recipe for defensive heartbreak. The fact DW, after all that we've seen, can still call for a three man rush with the game on the line, as he did vs. Tennessee, is a little depressing. The odds of "covering" a good passing attack have never been great and they're getting longer the more sophisticated offenses become. Maybe you can get away with this in the NFL, with their infinite practice time and where pure talent, strength and size rules. Not in the college game, where DBs can have trouble even understanding their zone assignments. And with the Bruins current lack of a consistent pass rush… well at least it's a good sign Akeem Ayers is getting on the field. 

I would hope that after last Saturday, worries about red-shirting and staggering the classes at various positions have been rendered beside the point. If the personnel on the field is as bad as people say, and if recruiting turns on respectability, then worrying about four and five years down the line doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe we're worried more than the coaching staff. We'll have to wait and see on that.  

I was glad to see RN scotch the old "letdown" excuse. He said, "We've got to get our team back." Truer words were never spoken. Hopefully he'll insist on whatever changes will benefit this season and help the team squeeze out every possible win, which means getting those who are physically ready to play coached up and on the field. Now is not the time to be worrying about upper classmen having "a good experience." The danger sign is up, and the faster this plummeting momentum gets reversed the better, because the schedule is definitely back loaded.

Dare we believe these next three games are winnable? Maybe I will buy a ticket for Arizona.   


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