Arizona Review

It's now blatantly obvious the level of talent in the program, but in the face of the Bruins losing to Arizona Saturday, 31-10, it's time to also look at the bigger, long-term picture, and see what the coaching staff can salvage from the season...

Most Bruins fan won't want to dwell on UCLA's loss to mediocre Arizona, 31-10.

Neither will we.

There are a number of salient points – and we'll get into them and get out quickly.

It's abundantly clear, like we've been telling you for years, that Karl Dorrell didn't recruit very well. Last season when he had a senior-laden team, you couldn't tell as much, since the experience masked the lack of talent. But when you have a lack of talent with a lack of experience, you get the last two weeks.

On top of the lack of talent, UCLA is beset by injury. Just to do a little run down: UCLA is starting its third-string quarterback, it's fourth-string tailback, is without its best wide receiver and tight end and has an extensive patchwork of an offensive line, made up of walk-ons, back-ups to walk-ons, players who changed positions and a true freshman. On defense, it replaced 7 starters from a season ago, with generally guys of average talent and little experience.

So, the new coaching staff under Rick Neuheisel is trying to squeeze as much out of the talent it has on the roster, while trying to possibly stay in a game, and put itself in a position by the end to steal one.

UCLA, if it wins any more games, will have to steal them as a result of some coaching sleight-of-hand.

And it very well might.

UCLA came close to staying in this one. It needed to hold on to the ball offensively, and keep its defense off the field, which it was generally doing for most of the game. UCLA actually had more time of possession that Arizona in this game. It did so because it actually had a modicum of a running game, which is a definite improvement from UCLA's first two games.

But the improvement ends there, and UCLA lost possession and the small bit of control it had in the game when special teams broke down consistently throughout the second half.

UCLA was going to win this game by keeping Arizona deep in its own territory, making it have to drive the field to score. When Arizona was on its own side of the field it went to an I formation, didn't use four wideouts and UCLA could then use its base defense, and UCLA defended well. It even led to UCLA's only touchdown of the game (actually it's only touchdown in two games), when Reggie Carter popped Arizona's running back and Korey Bosworth grabbed the fumble and fell across the goal line for a score. When Arizona got to midfield, it opened up its offense, went to four wides, which forced UCLA into its nickel and dime packages, which are far more passive. When UCLA was in its nickel and dime, Arizona could run, picking up between 8 and 12 yards on every carry.. And it still generally was successful throwing the ball.

As we said above, UCLA's defense was forced into this because of its horrendous special teams. Arizona got most of its points as a result of UCLA's shoddy special teams play, either as a result of a fumbled Terrence Austin punt, or many huge punt returns, with Arizona averaging a whopping 23 yards per punt return. Aaron Perez punted the ball 11 times, and Arizona kept returning the ball within UCLA's territory, shortening the field and allowing the Wildcat offense to open it up.

There were so many things wrong with this game, but it's not a stretch to say that if UCLA simply covers its punts better, it very well might have been in it at the end.

It might partially be Aaron Perez's fault. After hitting a couple of boomers that were downed within the five-yard line, he then hit a few low-liners, which meant easy returns since there's a short hang time. It also is very much the punt coverage's fault. The coverage, pursuit and tackling were extremely poor. It almost seemed like, at times, the Arizona returner was surprised when he realized he wasn't wrapped up and could keep on running.

It's tough to take when UCLA has a dedicated special teams coach in Frank Gansz, Jr.

When Rick Neuheisel said after the first half of the Tennessee game that "punting is winning," it was toungue-in-cheek, but partially true. UCLA controlled this game when it controlled special teams with punts placed within Arizona's 20. When it lost control of that, it lost control of the game and the chance to win.

Of course, this need for sleight-of-hand, control of possession and control of field position would be mostly moot if UCLA actually had an offense that could gain yards.

But we're not going to get that, at least this year, so UCLA needs to learn to manipulate the game better, or it's going to repeat today's result quite often during the 2008 season.

Solid defense, solid special teams, especially punt coverage, and a decent running game – and UCLA might steal some more.

Kevin Craft wasn't good today. It was easily his worst game. He didn't have any picks, but he deserved at least a couple. He made a couple of bonehead plays. He threw some errant passes. He can't find a receiver down field well at all. But even so, the kid is working hard, and the errors – like the flick pass to a receiver over the line of scrimmage when he more than likely could have run for a first down – are at least done when he's trying to make a play.

If you're talking talent, if UCLA had just a little bit more out on the field the game might have been different. When Chane Moline broke his 40-yard run in UCLA's one successful drive to end the first half which led to a field goal, if Moline had been faster in the open field, with a blocker in front of him, he almost assuredly would have taken it for a touchdown. Moline, to his credit, looked quicker against Arizona, but he's not a tailback that should be getting more than just a few carries a game in the Pac-10.

The offensive line opened up some decent holes in the running game but had a poor outing in pass protection. It allowed constant pressure on Craft. Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow was even moving Craft's launch point pretty well, but the pressure was still coming. But heck, you can't fault the OL that much. The majority of the game it was made up of a true freshman just a couple of weeks off a knee injury, a redshirt sophomore guard making his first start, a back-up redshirt sophomore center making his first start, a redshirt sophomore who is a new starter who had lost his starting job a couple of weeks ago, and a JC transfer who is probably playing out of position at tackle. Given this, actually, all in all, it's probably a decent performance, and a good job done by OL coach Bob Palcic.

Seriously. UCLA out-gained Arizona on the ground, 115 to 111.

The defense was, really, just hanging on. It gave up 333 yards to an average Arizona offense, and it wasn't, actually, on the field that much, despite UCLA punting 11 times. It had a number of breakdowns in the secondary, with a big swath of the nickel seemingly wide open for Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama to exploit a number of times.

While we do sincerely believe that DeWayne Walker is a good Defensive Coordinator, there still is some reality to come to terms with here. Remember, Walker is in just his third years as a DC. He had good – not great – defenses in his first two years, with a roster dominated by experienced players. This is the year – without stellar talent or experience – that he had to prove that his scheme was mostly responsible for the good defenses of the last two years. The jury's still out for this season; it very well could still prove to be true. But there still is that pesky issue of defending against spreads. Walker's base D is a good one, but his nickel and dimes are suspect.

The silver lining here is that, if Walker doesn't have a great defensive year, he more than likely won't be leaving UCLA at the end of the season. We would really like Walker to stay at UCLA and work out the kinks of his nickel and dime packages -- and help Neuheisel recruit.

If you're a Bruin fan, you have to basically disregard this game, and you have to look at the bigger picture. You can't dwell on the disappointing losses this season, or you'll beat yourself up. You have to look longer term. And the longer term is this: UCLA has a good coaching staff. For the first time in a very long time, recruits will perceive they can come to UCLA and get good coaching. That, alone, will help UCLA's recruiting. A few more over-achieving wins this season would help, too, of course.

It's similar to Ben Howland's first year at UCLA. For the first time in a long time, recruits knew if they came to UCLA they'd get good coaching. A basketball program can turn around far quicker than a football program, but it's the same concept.

Neuheisel has to get himself some talent. However he feels is the best way to get talent in the program in three years – whether by redshirting the talented true freshman class, or playing them to get them on-the-field experience – is really inconsequential. He just needs to have more NFL-type guys in the program by the 2010-2011 season. Okay, the 2011-2012 season.

We know the best way to get talent in the program is to recruit well. As I said, he has the one advantage over past UCLA football programs – the fact that he can sell them on good coaching. But the better he does that, and generally the better he does in recruiting, the faster the program will turn around.

Perhaps the biggest worry about this game, if you put it in the big-picture perspective, is not the impending poor season, or the lack of talent, or even whether Neuheisel will be able to have something to sell recruits. The biggest issue in this game was the fact that the team looked flat. They didn't look like they were "firing out," as Athletic Director Dan Guerrero is prone to say. If you want to send a sign to potential recruits that you can come to UCLA and get well coached, and get some immediate playing time in a Norm Chow offense – that's great and all. But you better send a message, too, that this is a place where the team is going to play hard.

If Neuheisel wants to recruit well for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, he'd better light a fire under the ass of the 2008 Bruins.

It's also the only way they have a chance to steal the season.

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