But things have shifted. It very well might be the concept of "what-could-have-been."
UCLA lost to Oregon, 31-24, in Eugene, and UCLA very well could have won the game. That makes two games – Oregon and Fresno State – that were definitely winnable.
UCLA easily could be 4-2 rather than 2-4.
If it were, you could expect that the perspective of many on the season, the team, the coaches and the players would be much different.
Which is too bad. Because, really, our opinion of the season literally teeters on just a handful of plays? It was the same in 2005, when UCLA went 10-2. If not for a few quite fortuitous plays in that season, UCLA very well could have been 8-4 or 7-5, and everyone would have definitely had a different perspective on that season.
It's a curious thing. The fact that there have been about 800 plays so far in UCLA's season, and our judgment is determined by maybe 10.
Yeah, there will be those that say you have to "know how to win." It's about "winning time."
But it's truly not fair.
And I'm not advocating that UCLA should be 4-2. I don't think they are worthy of that record either. But I feel they aren't deserving of 2-4. Perhaps 3-3 feels just about right.
But thinking about "what could have been" is a very easy rut to get in and one, this season, that might not be advisable.
So, we're going to approach this analysis not so much from a win-loss perspective, or what could have been in this game, since that's so easy to do. In this season, with this team, it's kind of irrelevant to dwell on specific plays that might have changed the outcome – like the onside kick, the interception – or, you could say, the phantom pass interference on Oregon in the endzone, if you're going for the balanced perspective.
It seems kind of short-sighted.
Are we talking about the so-called "moral victories?" In what that term has come to mean then heck yes. When coaches talk their coach-speak and say something like, "We don't accept moral victories," it makes for a good sound bite. It definitely sends a no-nonsense, tough message that nothing is acceptable but victory. But that's b.s. There definitely is something very valuable you can get out of losses, but coaches don't want to appear weak or to have low standards. But make no mistake, the UCLA coaches are looking at this season as the opportunity to create some building blocks for the future.
Getting a bigger perspective, all in all, you'd have to say, first, that UCLA and Oregon were two pretty evenly matched teams. UCLA scored one less touchdown, and most bookies would grant the Ducks 7 points for playing in Autzen Stadium. Oregon gained 365 yards and UCLA 351. Both teams had 18 first downs.
That probably reflects on Oregon being far worse than previously thought than UCLA being better.
UCLA, too, is a team that is ever-fluctuating, it seems. They literally are different week to week. It's probably due quite a bit to younger players and a learning curve, a new coaching staff and new schemes, etc. It, at least, makes for a very unpredictable Saturday every week.
If you were able to graph out UCLA's performances, however, you'd say that, while there is fluctuation, they are charting upward generally. There is improvement.
But there are definitely some aspects of the team that are keeping it from charting up at a far better rate. And many of them were evident against Oregon.
Kevin Craft had a poor first half and a much better second half (is this his m.o., or what?) He also very well could have thrown 4 interceptions in this game, seemingly hitting Oregon defenders in the chest as often as UCLA receivers (luckily the Ducks defenders don't catch near as well; if you're Oregon D-Coordinator, Nick Allioti, you're definitely doing some ball-catching drills this week). While Craft has improved, yes, and is making some plays, he is also keeping UCLA back in many ways. There are just too plays not executed well enough, too many balls, say, on a critical third down, that are badly thrown. You can only hope that he continues to make more plays and lessen the poorly executed ones as the season goes on – because the level of performance right now isn't going to win you many games (again, if you're concerned with that pesky win-loss thing).
The passing game, too, while it's getting more effective, is still limiting UCLA's offense. Yes, even in a game where UCLA passed for 288 yards and ran for just 63, it's easy to say that UCLA's passing game is still limiting the offense. UCLA simply can't throw the ball down the field, due mostly to poor pass protection (Oregon sacked UCLA six times and Craft was under constant pressure). Without being able to throw down the field, sometimes not even attempting to throw the ball past the first-down marker on third down, it lessens the odds that the offense can sustain a drive. The more chances you give an offense to not execute, obviously the more likely it will become. UCLA, simply, can't get a big play. This game UCLA easily had some of its biggest offensive plays, but it still can't get a big play to put some quick points on the board. So, UCLA has to dink and dunk its way down the field, relying far too much on Craft to execute. UCLA had possession of the ball 38 minutes compared to Oregon's 22, which is one of the biggest differentials in time possession I can remember, even for a winning team. And that was with the running game, which eats up clock, gaining only 63 yards.
Craft did look down the field more in this game, and connected on a few. And perhaps the coaching staff could be getting more confident in him doing so and will air it out more in the future. But the offense will be limited throughout the season unless it can somehow work in some big plays into its arsenal. And the thing is (and this is really genius): You have to attempt them to accomplish them.
The running game was horrendous, once again. However, it's very difficult to determine whether it's due to under-achievement. We all know the makeshift components of this offensive line, and it's difficult to say that they're under-achieving. But, bottom line, without a running game, UCLA's offense is reliant on throwing the ball, which is frightening to think about.
The defense has some serious pursuit and tackling issues. If Oregon ball-carriers had been stopped by, say, UCLA's second tackler, not just the first, the Ducks would have probably had 100 less offensive yards. It's almost piling on to talk about the performance of safety Bret Lockett. It was one of the most blatantly poor jobs by a UCLA safety in terms of tackling in memory.
Does anyone ever remember a quarterback running for 170 yards against a UCLA defense? Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli made more Bruins miss tackles than if he had been on a practice field and running around tackling dummies.
There will be some who will place the blame at the feet of UCLA Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker, and that might be justified. Because, even if you absolve him from blame about instilling tackling fundamentals and blame it on the talent, he'd have to get some blame for the talent.
It really is about the talent, though, folks. This game was, even moreso than other games this season, a clear illustration of the difference that talent makes, with the contrast evident even within UCLA's own defense. The guys we know to be talented – Alterraun Verner, Akeem Ayers and Reggie Carter -- looked fairly good, didn't make too many mistakes and generally were capable of making open-field tackles. The ones whose talent have generally been questioned – Bret Lockett, Michael Norris, and John Hale, for example – were exposed. One perspective is: Perhaps Walker and his coaches should have made them better by their senior seasons. Or, perhaps, this is better.
On offense, the lack of talent is especially clear at running back. Kahlil Bell, to be blunt, is probably, a back-up in a traditionally talented UCLA backfield. He wouldn't be the starter on a team with DeShaun Foster, or Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Skip Hicks, Gaston Green, Maurice Jones-Drew, etc. But even Bell, when he's not 100% healthy, showed he is talented enough to bring some ability to the field to elude or break tackles that the UCLA running back position doesn't have much of. I think those that are hailing Derrick Coleman are delusional; he has shown very little capability of breaking a tackle and almost no ability to juke a would-be tackler. To be blunt again, if Coleman is, actually, the best running back among the four freshman running backs, this class is vastly over-rated. Hopefully what we have learned (and seen in practice) is true – and that is that Milton Knox and Jonathan Franklin, and possibly Aundre Dean-- have more capability down the line to create yardage, and that Coleman wasn't redshirted because, physically, he was the most ready to play. While you have to concede that there isn't a great deal of running room being provided, a running back still has to be able to create some yardage on his own. In 2004 and 2005, Drew gained a total of 1,921 yards, and I would bet that about 1,500 of those he created himself.
UCLA needs a star running back. In the next couple of years, they need to have one emerge from the current roster and they need to go out and find one currently playing in high school. Not just a serviceable guy. Not Keith Brown or Tyler Ebell. They need Maurice Jones-Drew.
Now that we've dwelled on the negatives, there were definitely some things from this game that the program can build on. Going into Autzen and being very competitive with even an average Oregon team – for this UCLA team – is something substantive. It, first, got the road monkey off it's back, and proved to themselves they can, at least, go on the road, and not lose by double digits.
Both the offensive and defensive game plans were sound and imaginative. UCLA Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow brought out some new plays, and added some wrinkles, and called a more creative game. Walker was more aggressive in trying to pressure the quarterback out of the nickel, invariably dropping different guys back into coverage and sending pressure from a variety of spots. It definitely helped to limit Masoli throwing the ball. So, from a scheme standpoint, the coaches lived up to the expectation of putting together a good, dynamic game plan.
The bright spot on offense was definitely the receivers. Ryan Moya and Taylor Embree both had six catches, Terrence Austin and Jeff Miller (who?) had three, while Dominique Johnson showed signs of life with three good grabs. Tight end Miller, who has been a defensive end and defensive tackle, caught a touchdown pass, and while he's not exactly Mike Seidman, he showed that he's very capable of being a solid tight end. The 39-yard catch by Moya was the longest from scrimmage so far this season. Terrence Austin had a short catch that he turned into a 27-yard gain [UCLA announced Austin was able to move his arms and legs, tests at the hospital were negative and he was diagnosed with a neck strain and mild concussion].
Again, if you're not dwelling on the loss but taking what you see and thinking about the future, it's encouraging that there isn't a senior among the bunch of Moya, Embree, Johnson, Miller and Austin.
When looking for bright spots, again, you have to be thinking about what is going to serve the program well down the line, perhaps even as early as next season (see the story on projecting next season: Could UCLA Turn it Around Next Year?) On defense, names of two young players kept getting repeated often in this game, Ayers and Reginald Stokes. Ayers, the freshman strongside linebacker, got a great deal of time in replacement of John Hale since Ayers is used in UCLA's nickel alignment, and he was very active, showing good speed and pursuit. With UCLA definitely needing a defensive end to step up by next season, it's very promising to see Stokes playing like he is, showing quickness getting around his blocker and making hustle tackles on the back end.
All in all, though, it's interesting to even think that UCLA fans could look at this season from a what-could-have-been perspective. After the BYU and Arizona losses many were only looking at the season as one where UCLA could set records of defeat. So (and how's this for being positive?), in a way, it's encouraging that UCLA fans have progressed from a mindset of the season being a total blow-out to one where they can actually entertain the idea of what could have been.
But taking the mindset a step further, as we've advocated, is going beyond the what-could-have-been perspective. It's not getting bogged down in the fact that, if not for a handful of plays that very well could have gone UCLA's way, the Bruins could be 4-2 – or 8-4 at the end of the season. Right now, this season, it's really not about wins or losses. It's about building blocks. The Oregon game was definitely another building block.
Hopefully by as early as next season UCLA will have a substantial piece of architecture.
And then we can come back from our hiatus of worrying about wins and losses.