USC Analysis

The one-sided loss to USC Saturday, 28-6, dug up a whole array of emotions -- from bitterness and frustration to even some optimism. While the season was just about what you should have expected, it and the USC game provide some realistic hope for the program under Rick Neuheisel...

There are so many reactions by Bruin fans to UCLA losing to USC, 28-6, that are interesting.

They're interesting because all the divergent opinions and emotions are probably what most Bruin fan have going on inside each of them.

There's the bitterness, from a 4-8 season, being 33-point underdogs to the dreaded rival, and having that rival again show that their program, in terms of talent, is light years ahead of UCLA's program.

Then there's also consolation – that UCLA didn't get completely blown-out, that UCLA's defense actually hung in the game, and the Bruin players clearly played their heart out and left it on the field.

Then there's the residual frustration from having to extract consolation from such a game and a season.

And that's just the tip of the emotional iceberg. I'll tell you, there's a great deal of swirling emotion and reasoning going on over a football game.

But the state that we find the UCLA football program in right now is one of swirling emotion.

Most Bruin fans gave the new UCLA staff a pass for this season – but also held out hope that the new Dream Team of a staff would go beyond expectation. When UCLA beat Tennessee in the season's first game, you thought the program was on track to do just that – exceed your modest expectations. It was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to begin the season – elevate everyone's expectations – to then come crashing down to reality. Actually, just a week later against BYU.

Even though we are giving the staff a first-season pass, you'd have to say that the staff didn't take this team beyond expectation. At the beginning of the season I thought they'd go 4-8 with a possibility of them going 5-7. But I was also capable of such restrained expectation because I witnessed fall practice and knew what challenges were left at the feet of the new coaching staff. For those who didn't have the benefit of that information, many expected a winning season – something like 7-5. But if you were judging objectively back in August you were thinking 4-8 or 5-7. And that's what the staff delivered. Beyond the actual record, it's reasonable to say that the product you got on the field this year, given UCLA's talent level, was just about what you would have expected – no more, no less.

But even for those rational, objective fans who foresaw the 4-8 or 5-7, there was still a flicker of higher expectation, of the hope that the Dream Team could perform a miracle.

That little flicker of hope for the season, if it were a candle, just got snuffed out Saturday. Even with just 5 wins, if UCLA had beaten USC, that candle would have re-ignited and turned into a massive brush fire in the psyche of Bruin fans.

It's funny, though; Even though the seasonal candle is out, it's safe to say that most UCLA fans, at least the ones that aren't drunk on Crankiness, have a pretty strong candle burning for the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA.

They, too, probably saw some things in the USC game that fueled that steady fire.

First, when a team of UCLA's physical caliber goes up against a USC team that looks like NFL players – the fact that the Bruins aren't swept off the face of the Rose Bowl grass is surprising. Being down on the field, and looking at the difference between Patrick Turner and Michael Norris, or Taylor Mays next to Terrence Austin, is remarkable. Again, it's funny how your mind can turn things around; on one hand, you're in awe of USC, but on the other, you wonder why even one play by UCLA's offense could gain more than 2 yards and why USC's offense doesn't score a touchdown on just about every other play.

The optimistic side of your Bruin psyche took a number of things from the game, actually. And among those was a sneaking suspicion that USC isn't what it's cracked up to be. In talking to some people who are close to the USC program, it sounds like there's something missing in recent years, and it definitely feels that way this season, and in watching them Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl. Those who know USC well (it's all over USC websites and talk radio) are saying that USC is underachieving, that the offense has no overview, no philosophy or identity. Some of the most blunt USC people say that the team simply hasn't had that kind of style or soul since Norm Chow left.

Now, whether this is all just looking at a bleak situation through completely Blue and Gold glasses is definitely something to consider. We'll admit, at this point, with the disparity between the USC and UCLA football programs, it's difficult to tell what is a product of a futile yearning for the "monopoly" to be over and what is real.

But at the very least, whether it's true or not, there are many in the USC community that have blatantly said that USC has not been the same without Chow. And the reality of it all is that UCLA has him.

Whether that translates into a dramatic shift in the college football landscape in Southern California might be another fantasy. But at least it gives Bruin fans the Reality of Hope.

Along those same lines, taking some small solace from very little, UCLA's offensive line had a pretty good game. Here's the most startling statistic of the game: USC – 0 sacks. While USC did get some licks in on Kevin Craft, it wasn't overwhelming. And while UCLA only gained 47 yards on the ground, maybe it was those B&G glasses, but it seemed like there was some moderate running room. The fact that USC's front seven didn't crash over UCLA's offensive line like a tsunami could be something to take away from this. This is an UCLA offensive line with a former walk-on and two freshmen, and those three might be the best three on the unit. True freshman Jeff Baca, God bless him, is no way physically prepared to play against USC's muscle-ripped defensive line. The fact that OL coach Bob Palcic could even devise a way to keep USC's monsters from sacking Craft once is, well, miraculous.

Again, I don't think it's realized enough, just how under-talented UCLA is. People, the 2008 version of the UCLA Bruins is a lower level D-1 team in terms of talent, size and experience – and they were on a field with NFL players Saturday.

It would be like you (well, you at the age of 25) taking on your 12-year-old son in a tackle football game. Most of the time you could just physically pick him up and throw him out of the way.

Craft, again, struggled. You have to concede that, in this environment, in his first UCLA/USC game, in front of 90,000 people, it's a tough situation. But there were opportunities where he had time to make a throw and he just couldn't execute it.

What most BRO message board readers can't get about why the staff has continued to go with Craft throughout the season and why many feel he'll still start next season, is not because the staff believes Craft is exceptional – but because UCLA, with the talent Neuheisel was left to work with, doesn't have other viable options. You can hear that in Neuheisel's comments after the USC game. He bluntly states – as he has before – that the problem at the UCLA quarterbacking position is not Craft, but a lack of talent – a lack of competition. You can hear the hope in his voice that he'll be able to conjure up some competition for Craft by spring – and that is either going to come from redshirting freshman Kevin Prince or true freshman Richard Brehaut (who will come in for spring practice). Neuheisel gives Craft respect, but doesn't give Craft any kind of endorsement for next season, mostly out of that hope.

You can derive some hope from the performance of UCLA's defense. It kept one of the most talented offenses in the country to 28 points. Unlike on the other side of the ball, you thought for a majority of the game that the Bruin defense had a decent chance against USC's offense.

It was a shame that the defense's efforts and accomplishments were nullified by some bonehead plays at critical times in the game. It's not that we're under any delusion that USC wouldn't have probably emerged victorious regardless, but college football is a game of momentum, and there were some good defensive efforts that seemed to be creating some momentum that were then wiped out by UCLA mis-steps. Perhaps the most decisive play of the game, in terms of that momentum, was the roughing the kicker against David Carter on USC's punter. The score was 14-7, and after USC had put two quick scores on the board, the UCLA defense mounted a stop and forced USC to punt. The roughing-the-kicker penalty kept USC's drive alive, which led to their third touchdown and a 21-7 lead at halftime. UCLA's only hope, really, in this game, was to stay within 10 points or so, and hope that UCLA's defense would manufacture points or USC would cough up another turnover. UCLA's only chance was to stay within a touchdown and hope for a miracle. But you could feel that chance get sucked out of the stadium on that third USC touchdown.

For those of you who are still immersed in the bitterness, why should you come out on the other side of hope for the program?

I'm not one to just hope for hope sake's. I've been pretty straight-forward on this site, and just about the most objective anyone could be on a fan site, which has gotten me in trouble at times with the diehard UCLA fans.

Looking forward, however, there are some very legitimate reasons to have some hope, to believe that, within a few years, the USC fans aren't going to be partying in the Rose Bowl.

Not that we want to drag down Neuheisel's predecessor, Karl Dorrell, but using his program as a comparison is the best way to illustrate the reality of hope for Neuheisel's program.

For the UCLA football program to be turned around, it would take a considerable upgrade in talent than it's had in the last 7 years. UCLA sets itself apart, however, from an average program, because it has a better capacity to recruit elite-level prospects. For UCLA to do it, though, it needs a couple of successful seasons to sell.

To get to a level of success you need to sell the program, you need some kind of little miracles. If Neuheisel had gone beyond expectation this year and gone to a bowl game, for instance, the turnaround might have started a bit earlier. That would have been a little miracle. But even without that, Neuheisel has given himself a better chance of achieving those little miracles because he recognizes some basic things that it didn't seem Dorrell did.

First, you need offensive recruits to perceive that, if the scheme has talent, it will flourish. Dorrell instituted an experiment as an offensive scheme, and got assistant coaches on the cheap. That's no way to try to cheat the system and get a couple of successful seasons without superior talent. He got pretty fortunate in 2005, and that alone almost took him around that proverbial corner in recruiting.

On the other hand, Neuheisel brought in perhaps the most proven offensive coordinator in the land. He spent money to pay his assistants, got one of the best OL coaches in the country, and paid to keep DeWayne Walker as defensive coordinator.

There is a more legitimate reason to have hope with Neuheisel than Dorrell because, very simply, you trust that Chow would be able to have a successful offense if he had just good talent, but there was doubt if Dorrell could ever really sustain success offensively, even with superior talent. Neuheisel has an OC that just about every Bruin Crank has to recognize would construct a superior offense if had good talent to execute it.

Then, you have to acknowledge what you lack in talent and what you need to have. Dorrell never really got that when it came to recruiting. His approach was to find solid guys he could get through UCLA admissions and plug into a system year after year and that would do it. But even Norm Chow realizes that his illustrious offensive scheme is nothing without superior talent. Neuheisel completely gets it. He started out slow in recruiting when he first got to UCLA, getting himself acclimated, but recently he's been aggressively recruiting, getting on the high school junior class earlier than in any previous season since I've been reporting on UCLA football. Again, listen to his comments after the USC game; when asked what he needs to do to turn around the program, he basically says "get some guys." Unlike Dorrell, who never thought he could get USC-level talent, Neuheisel has that as his goal.

You doubted whether Dorrell, even if he somehow had put together back-to-back, 10-win seasons, would have been able to sell it enough to recruits. You don't doubt Neuheisel's selling capabilities.

So, it isn't just false, delusional hope to believe the program is on the right track. Neuheisel put it on the right track when he hired Chow, Walker, Palcic and the rest of the staff; he's doing what he can in the 2009 recruiting class with what he has to sell; and he knows what the objective is: To go out and get superior talent, and combine that with superior schemes so that, in a few years, the Rose Bowl playing field for the USC game is at least even.


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