The game against Cal was working to the script through three quarters, but then the wheels came off.
UCLA lost at Berkeley, 41-20, in a game that they had no right to be in for even three quarters.
We said in our preview that Kevin Craft throws many near-interceptions and it was a matter of extreme fortune that he hadn't committed more – and probably a matter of time.
We feel a little responsible for maybe ending the spell, because four of Craft's near interceptions were indeed picked off in this one. In fact, Craft had many more near-interceptions and very easily could have had 8 picks on the day if the Bears hadn't been so unlucky.
Craft looked like he started to get into his usual second-half rhythm early in the third quarter, but the odds caught up with him. He has had a habit all season of forcing balls into considerable coverage. He's been very fortunate up to this time to have only thrown three interceptions in all of the other games besides the Cal and Tennessee games. It wasn't as if Craft was under overwhelming pressure either; while the Cal front seven did beat UCLA's pass protection a number of times, Craft easily had enough time to be effective. Many times when he did throw his picks it wasn't under particular pressure.
Is there an immediate solution to the Craft issue? Not at all. While many are clamoring for Chris Forcier, please know that Rick Neuheisel and his staff would have opted for Forcier sometime much earlier during this game, and certainly some earlier time this season, if they really thought there was even a slight chance that he could be more effective.
Really, UCLA's only chance for any kind of quarterback "savior" would be Ben Olson, who might be capable of returning from his foot injury after next week's bye. But you wouldn't want to place those type of expectations on Olson.
You really have to think about it from this standpoint: What is going to serve you better next season?
Does that mean I'm conceding the season? Heck yeah. I'm all about next season and doing whatever UCLA can this season to benefit next season. The more snaps Craft gets right now will only give him a better chance next season. You could say the same about Forcier, but I think there isn't much doubt on the UCLA staff that Craft gives them a far better chance next season than Forcier does.
You might be thinking there has to be another option. Those would be Kevin Prince, Nick Crissman and Richard Brehaut. But, given the precedent in situations like this, it would be a longshot that any one of the three youngsters could be prepared and effective enough to overtake Craft. There's a chance, but it's a longshot.
The Bruins did have a chance, even with Craft performing so poorly, to stick to their theft script against Cal, trailing only 17-13 at the end of the fourth quarter.
Amazingly, they gave up 24 points in the fourth quarter. Heck, they gave up 24 points in 10 minutes.
When you are trying to steal one, this can happen. The levies can break. At any time.
UCLA's defense, up until that point, was somehow, miraculously, limiting Cal's offense. The Bears didn't score in the third quarter. It seemed that Cal was almost putting itself to sleep on offense.
But damn, they woke up.
UCLA's offense had put far too much pressure on UCLA's defense. UCLA's offense couldn't hold onto the ball for long, and UCLA's D was on the field again and again, and generally against a Cal offense with good field position. Then there were the four interceptions, which definitely added to the pressure. But UCLA's D was holding on, getting some good, critical stops.
Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker was working some magic for the first three quarters. Cal's running game was completely capable of running through and around UCLA's defense, and did a number of times. But Walker deftly mixed up some nice blitzes – particularly some run blitzes and zone blitzes – that kept Cal off balance just enough to disrupt their drives.
But alas, it wasn't enough. Walker couldn't mask the defense's clear weaknesses for an entire four quarters against a pretty good offense.
This season it really doesn't seem appropriate to point out when certain players aren't performing very well. It's not as if everyone can't see it. So, this only comes from genuine wonderment: It's uncanny how many bad plays and mistakes strong safety Bret Lockett can commit. When he's limited by his ability, like taking a really poor angle or getting juked, you have to excuse it. But there is no excuse for, on a critical third down, when the defense has Cal stopped, to rip off the ball carrier's helmet and get called for a personal foul. Luckily, Cal's offense sputtered and they had to settle for a field goal. But when you have a defense that has to savor every stop it gets against a good offense, it was truly inexcusable.
Since we are talking about players, it needs to be mentioned that defensive tackle Brian Price had a very good game, flashing his quickness to get into the Cal backfield. Alterraun Verner is easily the most dependable tackler on the team.
While Cal's passing offense is inhibited by mediocre receivers and a developing quarterback in Kevin Riley, UCLA did well in making Cal's passing game really a non-factor. Well, except for one trick play – the 53-yard flea flicker of a touchdown that took all of the air out of UCLA's theft effort. At this point, even though UCLA's D hasn't gone up against a good passing team since BYU, you have to start giving UCLA's pass defense some credit. If you take away that one play, UCLA held Riley to 100 passing yards.
Cal did run for a whopping 232 yards. Even though it was pretty bad, it still wasn't as bad – or as effective for Cal – as it might have been. UCLA did, in fact, bend and not break in terms of the Cal running game. You can only really attribute one Cal touchdown to its offense – that is sans the points they made off the interceptions. It's a bit depressing to think that, if UCLA had actually not turned the ball four times and hadn't bitten on that flea flicker, that the Bruins were effective enough against Cal's running game to definitely be in it with the Bears.
Perhaps my expectations have lowered considerably, but the offensive line wasn't horrible either, given the circumstances and the personnel it's working with. Yeah, UCLA had no running game (16 total yards), but generally Craft had enough time to throw. Mike Harris, in his first start at right tackle, had some breakdowns, but was mostly good in pass coverage. Jake Dean's snaps in the shotgun are particularly hurting the passing game right now and desperately need to be corrected.
Okay, well, I take it back: The OL was pretty poor (My lowered expectations lasted a paragraph).
Even though UCLA doesn't have a deep threat, the young receivers are definitely the strength of the offense. It's really exciting to think that Taylor Embree is a true freshman.
Special teams had a huge impact on the game. Punter Aaron Perez really helped to keep UCLA competitive, with a 71-yarder and placing a couple of others within the 20. The blocked punt was responsible for the majority of UCLA's scoring effort through three quarters. Even the fake punt, while it wasn't effective, since it was attempted with far too many yards to make up for the first down, was still an admirable and gutsy call.
Generally, even though Cal ended up beating UCLA by three touchdowns, it wasn't a dominating performance for the Bears. While Cal fans are probably feeling satisfied, they probably shouldn't be. This was UCLA's least talented team, the most "re-building" year, in recent memory for the program. Given all that, Cal, in a year when they were supposed to be pretty good, couldn't completely annihilate the Bruins.
As we've said before, this is a season that UCLA fans have to get through and tolerate. A few years from now, looking back, I'm pretty confident UCLA fans will have the same opinion of this season as they did of Ben Howland's first year at UCLA. It's hard to believe it now, but there are just too many indicators that, if Neuheisel can keep the staff together, the program will good – and quicker than we might think.