…When the Bruins beat the Cardinal, 23-20, Saturday at the Rose Bowl it still was a steal.
A win is a win.
A steal is a steal.
UCLA had no business winning this game. Stanford was the better team. Not by much, but they were. While it didn't look like it, since it was fairly ugly, the game had some magic in it. UCLA used some sleight-of-hand to beat a team that was better than they were.
As we predicted in our preview, Stanford owned both lines of scrimmage.
Stanford's offensive line was big, physical and strong. Down on the field, getting a perspective where you could really see them alongside UCLA's defensive line, the difference was startling. They got a consistent push on UCLA's defensive line throughout the game. Stanford's running back, Toby Gerhart, had large holes to run through, commonly not being touched until he was a few yards past the line of scrimmage (and sometimes he was barely even touched). There isn't anyone among UCLA's back seven that has the size and strength of Gerhart who could come close to tackling him one-on-one in the open field when he has a head of steam.
Then, on the other side of the ball, Stanford's defensive line bulldozed through UCLA's offensive line. UCLA couldn't create any running space, with Stanford's big, strong DL commonly pushing the Bruin OL back into UCLA's running back. And then, there was the pass protection, or lack of it. UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft was under constant pressure; Stanford sacked him seven times, and probably should have had a few more.
When's the last time you watched a college football game when one team so dominated both lines of scrimmage – but didn't win? How about when a team gave up 250 yards rushing on defense and seven sacks on offense and won?
If you can recall one, you'd probably also remember that the team that won must have had a very good coaching staff.
Sure, the new coaching staff isn't perfect. There are plenty of things to second guess and question (that's what everyone on BRO does, right?). There are some clear-cut aspects that the staff has even conceded they haven't done well and they need to improve.
But you can't attribute this win entirely to home-field advantage. Coaching was a huge part. Again, it's unfamiliar territory to assert, but UCLA won this game because it out-coached Stanford.
UCLA couldn't run the ball. Their first-string tailback, who is probably an averagely-talented player, is not even close to 100%, and there isn't another tailback on the team who has enough explosion or elusiveness to gain yards on his own.
And we already talked about the offensive line.
They have a quarterback that goes through stretches where he makes as many mistakes as positive plays. In fact, in this game, Head Coach Rick Neuheisel seriously considered replacing him.
UCLA doesn't have much speed at wide receiver, and is dominated by youth and inexperience at the position.
The defense isn't very talented, and is running around out of position and unable to make open field tackles. On Saturday, even one of its best players, Reggie Carter, played like he was hurt – with slow pursuit, taking bad angles and unable to make tackles. Pretty much like the rest of the defense.
But even with all of that not going for it, UCLA still won the game.
There are a number of factors in play here.
First, for all the hyping because of the 4-2 record it brought into the game, Stanford simply isn't very good. Its offense is chronically one-dimensional, with a mediocre quarterback and very little talent at wide receiver. Its defense has a good front seven, but a struggling secondary that is 109th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 273 yards through the air per game.
Stanford gave UCLA gift after gift in the form of penalties, being cited 10 times for 103 yards. It got to the point that UCLA almost could expect another 15 yards and a first down added on to its drive every few plays.
As we said in the preview, both these teams lose a vast majority of the time when they lose the turnover battle. UCLA seemed intent on losing that battle, with Craft in the first half throwing an interception in the endzone that erased at least 3 potential points if not 7, and then fumbling the ball later in the half which led to 7 points for Stanford.
But the Cardinal, god bless ‘em, didn't certainly want to be outdone. It came storming back with three turnovers of its own that either kept Stanford from scoring or led to UCLA points.
So, really, UCLA's margin for magic wasn't overwhelming. Even though Stanford owned both lines of scrimmage, there still wasn't much different in terms of overall talent in the two teams. It's good to know that in a season when UCLA has its most untalented and least experienced team in a long time, it can still measure up pretty close to a resurgent Stanford team.
So, how did UCLA do this? How did it win a game that, on paper, it should have lost?
Well, UCLA does have Norm Chow in the booth as its offensive coordinator. That probably negates Stanford's advantage up front on both offense and defense right there.
We said back in August that the aspect of the season we were looking forward to the most was watching Chow guide the offense, and it's proven to be true. There is a real beauty to the way Chow calls the game – especially after so many years of ugly at UCLA. Every play has simplicity, while retaining the offense's natural advantage of surprise, and predominantly trying to exploit the talents of its players. Or, in this case, trying to mask the lack of talent of its players.
Of course, you can always nitpick. If we had to so endeavor (nitpicking Chow is like writing a critical analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci's works), we'd point out that Craft seems to be much better when he's in space, either able to throw the ball or use his legs. Like most inexperienced quarterbacks, he's rattled by pressure, and he's getting an inordinate amount of it in the conventional pocket. Craft's best play of the season was on a designed roll when he hit Taylor Embree for a 43-yard gain that set up the UCLA field goal which provided UCLA its first lead of the game, 16-14. There were a number of other examples in this game where Craft was far more effective rolling out, and it simply helps to negate how badly UCLA's offensive line is getting beat in pass protection. Neuheisel has even alluded to how Craft might, for now, while the OL is incapable of providing consistent protection, be better out on the edge.
Neuheisel also has conceded that he and his staff have considered using the two-minute, no-huddle offense more often. It worked twice in this game, once before the end of the half to generate a field goal and, of course, for the last winning drive of the game that was eerily reminiscent of the fourth-quarter Tennessee drive. There could be something to it; While Neuheisel always says he has to calm down Craft, perhaps the frenetic pace of a two-minute offense fits better with Craft's natural rhythm. One of Craft's biggest issues is not looking off receivers, but heck if he wasn't looking off receivers in that last, game-winning drive. Perhaps the two-minute offense keeps him from thinking too much and just enables him to play.
It definitely helps the running game. When you're in a no-huddle attack, one of the biggest advantages is catching the defense without the appropriate personnel on the field (that can even elicit a penalty for improper substitution, like UCLA did against Stanford), which can often match your running game against the opposing defense's nickel alignment. UCLA's running game needs every advantage it can squeeze out.
It definitely is something you can bet the UCLA brain trust is going to attempt some time this season, just to give opposing coaches one more thing to have to prepare for – which is what you need to do when opposing coaches don't have to prepare to play against a huge amount of talent.
You have to give Craft a great deal of credit. On the verge of being yanked in the first half, he once again took control in the second half and performed well (Could UCLA perhaps hypnotize Craft into believing the first half is the second half?). It could be my imagination, but it seems his positive plays are starting to out-number his negative plays. He's starting to get how to make a play, and his play-making ability was probably solely responsible for UCLA's two touchdowns. No matter what you think of him and his innate talent, he's got to be a kid you're rooting for – a JC transfer, with only two years of eligibility, who would have been sitting behind two experienced seniors if it weren't for injuries, who's working hard and playing his way through adversity, and a perfection-demanding, former quarterback for a head coach, to be effective.
What's ironic is that, after he led UCLA to the comeback win over Tennessee, most of the local sports news were prematurely crowning him a new star. But then when he showed the chinks in his armor in the following weeks, they weren't around anymore, and had dropped the star-in-the-making storyline. But what he's doing right now – fighting his way to being player – is really the story, the one that should have you riveted and completely involved like a good novel. This is Craft's story, and it's looking more and more like it has a very good chance to end with a fulfilling last chapter.
The other aspect of this season -- besides wondering at Chow, and witnessing the story of Craft -- is watching the young Bruins develop. Freshman receivers caught nine balls in this game. There are times when it's easy to recognize that a young player has elite potential, and Nelson Rosario, the 6-5 true freshman, showed it in this game, grabbing balls over what looked like Liliputian defenders (next to him) with ease, like he had been doing it every week, when in fact he only had one catch prior to this game. Embree's four catches were huge. And, of course, tight end Cory Harkey's touchdown catch was the biggest.
If we're doling out credit, give it to the defense and the defensive coaches. What, you say? UCLA's defense was a sieve, allowing 250 yards on the ground. True, but they got the job done, allowing just 301 total yards and just 51 yards passing. UCLA's defense isn't great, but it's finding ways to overcome its issues and be effective enough when it needs to. There were a few Stanford possessions where it seemed the Cardinal had the momentum of the game, but UCLA's defense stepped up. Heck, all Stanford had to do was hand the ball off to Gerhart, or, actually, not even hand the ball off but let quarterback Alex Loukas run with it. Between the two of them, they were averaging 5.8 yards per carry. If you're UCLA, how do you defend against that? Putting more guys in the box didn't work. It would seem Stanford possessed the one, most dominant aspect of this game that it could easily have ridden to a victory, but somehow UCLA shut down Stanford's running game at a few critical times. Even though they had been getting double-teamed throughout the game and seemed inconsequential, UCLA's defensive tackles Brigham Harwell and Brian Price put together a couple of great sequences against Stanford's running game in the second half to provide UCLA a couple of stops. That doesn't happen just by coincidence. UCLA DC DeWayne Walker made some good adjustments in the second half to try to free up his defensive tackles, shifting them up and down the line of scrimmage, stunting them, etc., and it was enough to get those critical stops.
Also, give UCLA's secondary a great deal of credit. It was an aspect of this game where UCLA truly had an advantage and it lived up to that billing, keeping the Cardinal from being able to convert on third down a number of times (they were four for ten for the game) when they were forced to go to the air (again, Stanford's penalties also helped in giving them third-and-longs).
Again, it's UCLA making do with what it has in terms of talent and experience, and getting enough out of it to be ultimately effective. So even though it wasn't grand larceny, UCLA beating a slightly better Stanford team was still petty theft.
If you're a Bruin fan, you'll take every win -- and theft -- you can get this season.