Review of Fresno State Game

With another loss in the Rose Bowl, this one a frustrating loss to Fresno State that was very winnable, we take a look at the positives, and the negatives, namely some questionable coaching decisions, in the Bruins loss to the Bulldogs...

It's probably time to agree that the honeymoon is over for the new coaching staff, particularly Rick Neuheisel.

A game that included some poor coaching decisions, curious calls by the officials, bad special teams, good special teams and a costly turnover, saw Fresno State leave the Rose Bowl with their first road win against UCLA.

Getting beat at home is one thing, but having some of your own decisions directly contribute to the loss can make even the optimistic Bruin fan question the thought process.

The most glaring decision was the choice Neuheisel made in the third quarter, when the Bruins were only trailing by one, 23-22.

On 3rd and 12, Fresno State was flagged for a holding penalty on a play they didn't gain yards on. So it's a no-brainer right? Decline the penalty, and force the Bulldogs to kick a 32-yard field goal, and at worst, you're down 26-22.

But in a decision that joins the likes of the 4th and 1 call against Cal last year, or the decision to punt on the opening drive of what would turn out to be a bloodbath against USC in 2005, Neuheisel decided to accept the penalty.

And sure enough, Fresno State quarterback Tom Brandstater hit Anthony Harding on a screen pass, and he took it in for a 25-yard touchdown and now the score is 30-22.

Deflated on the next series, the Bruin offense went three-and-out, and Fresno State scored their very next series, to take what would be an insurmountable 36-22 lead.

But that wasn't the only bad decision.

Before the half, with your offense still not showing enough consistency this year to try and get bold, UCLA decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 and were stopped well short, Kahlil Bell not coming close.

Instead of UCLA stretching their lead to 19-13, Fresno State promptly went down and scored a touchdown to take their own lead, which they wouldn't relinquish.

Then there was the decision to leave the true freshman Coleman in the game on what could have been the go-ahead drive. In defense of Coleman, he had a pretty steady game, but this is where your senior leader Bell needs to be in the ballgame. And what often happens when you leave an inexperienced player in the game, bad things happen.

Coleman fumbled and UCLA would never see the ball again with the Bulldogs running out the final 9:05, picking up six first downs in the process.

And that doesn't even take into account some shoddy special teams play.

First, the good of the special teams play: Terrence Austin. The much-maligned Austin had easily his best day as a Bruin, taking the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, on a play he hesitated even bringing it out of the end zone. But of course, as seems to be the case every time something good happens to UCLA, something bad happened. A flag was thrown on Adam Heater for holding. UCLA quickly went three-and-out.

Then came a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown by Fresno State's Malcolm Moore and the Bruins found them in a hole 7-0 less than a minute into the game.

If that sequence doesn't epitomize the peaks and valleys of UCLA football, then I don't know what does. Just when it looks like UCLA is going to get a break, they shoot themselves in the foot. That set the tone for the rest of the game.

There was also a blocked PAT on a Kai Forbath kick and a kick out-of-bounds on a kickoff.

A couple of special teams plays went in their favor, the blocked PAT that Bret Lockett returned for 2-points, two crucial points that could have really made a difference had UCLA scored again. There was a stop of a 2-point conversion early in the game as well by the Bulldogs. And Austin generally returned the ball well on Saturday.

But for the second straight week, there were too many broken plays and good returns by the opponent to make you question the coaching philosophy there. And remember, UCLA hired Frank Gansz Jr., specifically to coach the special teams.

Defensively, it seemed like UCLA was, again, a day late and a dollar short every time Brandstater threw. They were in his face quite a bit, but he was only sacked once. Too many times in the first half, the blitz would be picked up. In the second half, Brandstater would get rid of the ball just in time, usually to an open receiver, who'd promptly pick up a first down. A couple of times, Reggie Carter would come in on the blitz alone, but Brandstater would still have enough time to find his tight end Bear Pascoe, or one of his receivers.

Without a Justin Hickman or a Bruce Davis, UCLA is hurting to get any kind of pass rush. Those two All-American's commanded respect, and double-teams, which allowed for other guys in the front seven to get to the quarterback. It also allowed the secondary to make plays. But with Davis and Hickman gone, it makes the rest of the defense vulnerable.

The defensive line just got gassed by the end of the game. Fresno State's offensive line wore them down and it showed on the time-draining drive to end the game. Brigham Harwell and Brian Price both had some nice moments, Price intercepting a pass tipped by Tom Blake, and both getting good pushes. But Fresno State just was too physical for them.

The secondary, with no pass rush, there were moments where they just couldn't react in time. Bret Lockett isolated on Pascoe was a bigtime advantage for the Bulldogs, who exploited that a couple of times. Other times, they took bad angles on Ryan Mathews.

You have to hand it to Michael Norris. He really didn't play that bad of a game. The pass interference call on him was a bad call all around. And it turned out to be a big momentum swing. But Norris played one of his better games this year.

And the roughing the passer call on Tom Blake was another poor call. Blake was touching Brandstater before the ball was fully out of his hand. And that too turned out to swing momentum to the Bulldogs favor.

But this game wasn't about calls by the officials, bad as they may be. The questionable calls by Neuheisel, which will be discussed all week on the message boards and in the media, have to be the most discouraging points to take away from the game.

With a young and inexperienced defense, you need to set them up for success. That is taking the shot at giving up three points rather than allowing the opponent the chance to make it seven points. When the officials said that it was a hold, just about everyone expected to hear "that penalty is declined." When it wasn't said, you could almost feel that Fresno State would score. And they did.

Offensively, there was plenty to be encouraged by. In fact, it was easily the best performance by the offense all year. The Bruins ran for 234 yards, and did a good job executing. The line played easily its best game of the year, allowing only one sack, from the right side. The freshman tackle, Jeff Baca, played a very solid game in spelling Micah Kia, and you may be seeing a Wally Pipp moment there, and Baca, provided he remains healthy, may lock up that position for the next few years.

Micah Reed returned, plugging in at guard, and played exceptionally well, until he reinjured his knee. Jake Dean had a solid game, and Nick Ekbatani, who allowed the only sack, played his best game of the year.

There were several wrinkles in the offense. At least three times, UCLA ran direct snaps, one going for a nice gain by Austin and one by Coleman. His fumble aside, Coleman had a solid afternoon, rushing for 86 yards on 10 carries. And with Bell back in the lineup, his presence was noticeable, especially in the first half with a couple of big runs, and his two touchdowns.

Chane Moline played a good game at fullback, opening up some holes and adding another dimension to the passing game, including a touchdown reception.

Kevin Craft played his best 60 minutes, running the ball well and not making many of the poor decisions that had plagued him the last few weeks. If there is one knock on his running, it was his inability on a few of them to stretch the ball to get the first down, when he was just short of the marker. Particularly on the 3rd down run where UCLA went for, and was denied, on fourth down, a better reach by Craft would have given them a first.

But two of his best runs came on the potential go-ahead drive, after he went through his progressions and then ran. He did a good job of sensing the pass rush this game too.

Ryan Moya and Taylor Embree both had a couple of clutch receptions, Moya on the final drive of the first half, and Embree on a ball that he came back to for a 20-yard pickup.

Craft, on the final drive, looked confident and comfortable, like he did on the go-ahead drives against Tennessee. He didn't look like a deer in headlights as he did for most of the BYU or Arizona games. Norm Chow did a good job calling the plays, mixing it up, and taking advantage of UCLA's favor in the trenches. Across the board, it was UCLA's best offensive gameplan of the season.

But there is still enough of a glare from the two questionable calls on Neuheisel to make folks cringe on Sunday. Both plays that contributed to at least 10 point swings, and possibly more. And now UCLA stands at 1-3, instead of a much more encouraging 2-2.

With Washington State coming to the Rose Bowl, and the Cougars looking like one of the worst teams in the Pac-10 in the past five years, UCLA should win this one. But then comes a four-week stretch where they go on the road to Oregon and Cal, then play suddenly surging Stanford and Oregon State.

The bottom line is UCLA lost a very winnable football game on Saturday. And now they need to regroup, take it out on Washington State, and prepare for the tough stretch looming. Because if they don't, this could be an even longer season then feared.

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