Most Frustrating Loss of the Season

It was easily the most frustrating loss for UCLA this season, losing to Arizona State, 34-9, because, among UCLA's seven losses, it was probably the only one in which UCLA clearly out-played its opponent. There are still the quarterback issues, while UCLA's defense needs to get some considerable credit...

Among UCLA's seven losses this season, losing to Arizona State Friday in Tempe, 34-9, was perhaps the toughest.

It was probably even tougher than BYU and 59-0. Or at Oregon, 31-24. Or at Cal, 41-20.

In those games you clearly recognized that UCLA was the supreme underdog, and that the Bruins would have to "steal" one to win it. It's been the same in UCLA's six other defeats this season.

But against ASU, UCLA, amazingly, was the better team on the field.

There's so much that goes with that recognition. That means that UCLA actually got upset. It means that the Bruins clearly under-achieved in this game – that UCLA, for the first time this season, really, lost a game it should have won.

It means, also, that Arizona State, is woefully bad.

Just to get this out of the way at the beginning here: If you're an ASU fan, you shouldn't be cheering raucously like many were in Sun Devil Stadium, but standing there blankly, realizing just how bad your team is in a year when you were supposed to be good. You were seriously worse than the worst and least talented UCLA team in the last 30 years – at home. On senior night. With a quarterback who's setting records in your record book.

If I were an ASU fan, I'd be stunned, and extremely concerned.

But alas, that's why sports is so fun. Those thousands of cheering ASU fans have no idea what they just witnessed, and what a bad harbinger that is for their future.

ASU was just one of four schools in history that scored four touchdowns defensively in a game.

The real score was UCLA 19, ASU 6.

ASU was handed four touchdowns, literally, by UCLA's offense.

The first was by freshman Derrick Coleman. It's true that Coleman is deaf and didn't have an opportunity to not hear the whistle, but he should clearly compensate for that. It was lazy when he had the ball in his hand, to not play until he sees a referee wave the play dead.

Coleman shares responsibility for that play with quarterback Kevin Craft. Let's get another thing straight here, Tom: I've been defending your son all season. But after your recent comments, you only proved that even a college coach can be as delusional and obtuse about their kid as any AYSO parent. Yes, your son isn't getting good protection and doesn't have much time to throw. But it's also clear that there are times – many times – when he does have time to throw and he's making horrifically poor decisions.

In fact, most of the interceptions Craft has thrown this year haven't been rushed because of pressure.

The four he threw Friday weren't particularly under pressure. Perhaps one. But that's about it.

Overall, yes, UCLA's pass protection is poor. Craft has taking far too many hits, and it's clear the kid is tough. But for his father to not see the entire picture, and to blame his shaky performance completely on the pass protection is short-sighted and parent-blind.

But pointing out Craft's deficiencies is tiresome. It's pretty clear by watching the games.

Because of Craft's performance, the UCLA faithful are melting down. They can't believe UCLA doesn't have a better quarterback.

Believe it.

There is no young Troy Aikman sitting on the sideline that the coaches are stupidly redshirting. There isn't even a Drew Olson.

Craft is playing over the other quarterbacks on UCLA's roster because the others aren't even close to him in terms of effectiveness. If they were close, UCLA's coaches, who aren't too dumb about quarterbacks, would have opted for them.

But again, put it in perspective. Craft is supposed to be UCLA's third-string quarterback. Remember? There aren't too many programs that could field a winning team with its third-string quarterback. USC would even struggle with a third-string quarterback that had been in the program for a matter of a few months before starting the season.

If you're worried about next season, well, that's a legitimate worry. You should hope that Craft makes some considerable advances in his grasp of the position, or that Chris Forcier or Kevin Prince make a huge leap forward in spring practice and fall camp, or that incoming true freshman Richard Brehaut is freakishly talented and advanced in his grasp of the game that he can come in and consistently show he's going to give UCLA a better chance at winning than Craft in 2009. People, I know it's hard for everyone to take, but scenario #1 (Craft) is easily the most likely. The other three are far-fetched.

But far-fetched has occurred before, so if you want to, you can hope. Heck, I'll hope for it, too.

In analyzing this game, though, it's a bit of a microcosm of Craft's season. There were stretches in this game where you would think he's a solid Pac-10 level quarterback. In UCLA's first possession, if you count UCLA's pass backs that officially are counted as runs, Craft started the game 7 for 7, with precision and confidence. If, again, you were that alien that just saw that first drive of this game, you'd say, "Heck, that guy is going to carve up this defense."

But what happens to Craft? Why can't he sustain the precision?

It's difficult to say, but let's take a stab at it.

Like with any quarterback, as soon as he throws that first incompletion, the confidence looks shaken a bit.

He doesn't naturally have a good feel for pressure. He isn't one of those guys that instinctively knows what to do, with good avoidability.

Then, it also seemed like the play-calling changed. Now, I'm a big fan of Norm Chow's play-calling and can't wait to see what he's going to do in future years when he has some talented chess pieces to move around the field. But if I could nitpick a bit, it seems like the plays called for Craft change after the first series in the first half. Perhaps the first series in each half is scripted? It's hard to say. But they don't play into Craft's strengths – or more accurately, play away from Craft's weaknesses – as well as the seemingly scripted series. For one thing, if you might notice, Craft is much better when he throws on first down. Running on first down, and putting him in a bit of a hole (2nd and 9) doesn't do wonders for him. Drops into the pocket, even if they are three-step drops, are tough for him, especially with the poor pass protection. In deeper drops, he has that poor feel for knowing when to get rid of the ball. He's much better when his launching point is moved; we know he can't roll out every play, but it wasn't done often enough in this game. Craft, also, it's pretty clear is better throwing to the edges; in that first series, he threw out wide. Now, of course, you can't do that all game, but why not do it until the opposing defense shuts it down?

I'm not saying that Craft is being horrible misused. He's not. But it does seem that there are times when the coaching staff tends to forget to what extent they really have to manage Craft.

But then again there can be the type of series like there was in this game that probably devastates the coaching staff. It was early in the fourth quarter, and UCLA was down just 17-9. They drove the field, with some very good play calling and execution by Craft. Craft was 4 for 6 as he moved the Bruins down the field, in what looked it was going to be the game-seizing drive. UCLA had clearly out-played Arizona State on both sides of the ball up until this time, and this appeared to be the drive that was going to set it all straight. So, the UCLA coaching staff managed Craft well, giving him plays and throws he can execute. Then, on first and goal at the 6-yard line, Craft badly underthrows a ball into the endzone that is intercepted by ASU's Troy Nolan and returned 105 yards for a touchdown.

It's a pretty safe throw for the coaching staff to ask Craft to make. Throw it to the corner pylon; more than likely either a Bruin catches it or it's incomplete. But Craft badly underthrew it. You could see Rick Neuheisel on the sideline after the devastating play telling Craft that he had to throw it over the top and into the corner of the endzone.

And, hate to break it to you, Tom, but Kevin wasn't under pressure. It was just a purely poor decision and a poorly thrown ball.

So, imagine if you're the coaching staff. You have to so closely manage your quarterback with such a limited playbook of what he can execute, and without the benefit of a running game. You use those limited plays to engineer a drive to get him and the offense within striking distance of that rare touchdown, one that could potentially tie the game, or at least bring you within a point with a good portion of the 4th quarter remaining. You do everything right, and you call a play that everyone in the building knows how to execute, but for whatever reason your quarterback doesn't do it correctly.

And you think you're frustrated as a fan.

But let's step away from the Craft/quarterbacking issue, and focus on something that is better – well, at least, bittersweet, given the outcome of the game.

DeWayne Walker's defense was stellar. It limited an offense that was gaining 342 yards per game to just 122 total yards. That's 122 yards. . ASU was averaging 241 passing yards per game, and throwing the ball was its strength, and it gained just 101 yards through the air against the Bruins.

ASU totaled 229 yards against USC's vaunted defense. It gained 75 yards on the ground against the Trojans. It gained 107 yards on the ground against Oregon. And those games were in Eugene and at the Coliseum.

Against UCLA at home in Tempe? Just 21 yards rushing.

The biggest tragedy of this game is that 34 points were pinned up against UCLA and, because of that, you wouldn't know it was one of the best defensive performances in recent memory by a UCLA defense.

Throughout the game, I wanted ASU to get the ball back just so I could watch UCLA's defense operate.

Under Walker, this year's defense has evolved into a very solid unit, with very good, sure tackling. Compared to the beginning of the season, there were very few – if any – missed tackles in this game.

Give enormous credit to Bret Lockett, who has developed this season – his first as a starter – into a steady, sure tackler at his safety position.

Of course, it all starts with Brigham Harwell and Brian Price at defensive tackle. If you watch them play after play, they are responsible for the disruption of the opponent's running game.

But then you also have to give credit to Korey Bosworth, who was, well, fun to watch running around ASU's offensive tackles on his way to disrupting Rudy Carpenter. He was credited with two sacks, but it seemed like he had more tackles for loss.

Linebacker Reggie Carter is in position to make a tackle on just about every play, and it's very rare that he misses one.

Then, there are UCLA's two cornerbacks. Alterraun Verner is an artist at jumping routes. He is vastly under-rated at this point, and one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-10 conference.

But you have to give it up massively for Michael Norris, the senior, formerly-maligned cornerback. Norris was superb in this game, providing excellent coverage and run support. And he's been good his entire senior season.

The work Walker has done with this defensive unit this season has been one of the best in recent memory. It started out shaky, with some new starters, and quite a few younger players in key roles. Walker really didn't have the benefit of elite pass rushers, either, which are key to any defense. But he and his defensive coaches have built a unit that have developed some of the shakier players into solid performers, and exploited the talents of someone like Bosworth to their extreme advantage.

While his other two defenses the past two seasons were better statistically, what he's done with what he had this season might make this Walker's best effort as UCLA's defensive coordinator.

Under the tutelage of Walker and defensive line coach Todd Howard, it's exciting to imagine what someone like freshman Datone Jones is going to become. Jones, a couple of times in this game, showed talent in getting around his blocker, but took a poor angle on Carpenter. But give him some time with these coaches.

All in all, it was definitely a different feeling to this loss than the other six this season. Watching the defense turn in such a great performance, recognizing that there were times UCLA's offense was moving the ball effectively against ASU, it was the first time this season it was clear UCLA was the better team. So, in this hard-knock season, it's probably fitting that UCLA didn't win the one game it deserved to win.


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