Chiccoa: Revelations Galore in Knoxville

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa reviews the Tennessee game and thinks it could be a watershed moment for Rick Neuheisel's program, and that the future just might be this season...

It seems as if UCLA's win over Tennessee went relatively unnoticed in the media. No sweat. It's only week two of the season.

Once you understood the Notre Dame/Michigan game was on opposite the Bruins, and, in Jim Harrick's memorable phrase, that game was a ball burner while ours was merely an old-fashioned, smash-mouth, defensive war, you could pretty much assume only SoCal and the state of Tennessee were tuned in.

Immediately after the network cut away from Erin Andrews' post game interview with Rick Neuheisel, it was strictly game over, move on… get back to the 24-hour, game-of-the-century hype for SC/Ohio State, along with highlights from around the country involving ranked teams, which UCLA and Tennessee were not. Hey, it's ESPN's world; we're just the anonymous faces in the crowd, holding up our little hand-painted signs, providing the hysterical atmosphere the networks love to see behind their "experts," the so-called "talent."  

Anyway, UCLA/Tennessee was only featured due to the tradition of both programs, not to mention the undeniable spectacle of a game in Neyland Stadium: "Rocky Top," the solid acres of orange, the famous checkerboard endzones.  

Why should we object to any of this? I mean, if UCLA can go on to validate this win, the celebrity-stalking sports media will ultimately take notice, right? We should know the deal by now: It's all about the winners. And the Bruins still have miles to go before they even get close to that "black tie table" Neuheisel was talking about. Still and all, we know what we saw.                                                    

Unlike the week before, we actually learned important things last Saturday: first and foremost that this defense looks like the truth. In pre-seasons past, we would always wonder, is the defense really this good or is the offense that bad? This season, increasingly, the answer is the former.

Everyone on the west coast knows about Brian Price, Alterraun Verner and Reggie Carter. Now we're learning good things about Rahim Moore, Jerzy Siewierski, Datone Jones, Kyle Bosworth and Korey Bosworth, Akeem Ayers, Tony Dye and the "other corner" (whether it be Courtney Viney or the injured Aaron Hester). Even selected backups like David Carter, Jess Ward and Damian Holmes are stepping into the light.  


Things were looking truly precarious near the end of the first quarter when Prince was manhandled in the pocket and lost the ball. The Vols rammed it in right up the middle on the very next play, and the noise in that stadium must have been deafening. (I've always wondered why teams, after turning over the ball deep in their own territory, don't burn a timeout to settle down and refocus.) The orange 100,000 had waited a year for something like this and, at that moment, it must have looked like the Vols were on their way back, and watch out Gators (so much for that). As for Bruin fans, probably half were flashing on that familiar, recurrent Bruin nightmare: getting bullied on the road by yet another inspired, very physical opponent.

Then things immediately turned.

The Bruin defense steadied, then began to dominate. Brian Price, in particular, was too quick and strong for the Vols to handle, while Reggie Carter and the Bosworths were making plays all over the field. More encouraging still, it became apparent Jonathan Crompton was who we thought he was: same guy, new year. Crompton was spraying picks all over the place, two to Rahim Moore, one to Verner. On the sidelines, booed by the home folks, he seemed to be cracking up, exhibiting bi-polar tendencies, alternately hiding under a towel, then giving his offense a pep talk. Verner's diagnosis was simpler: "I think he likes throwing us the ball."  

So with a huge assist from Crompton, the Bruins continued to dominate through the second and third quarters, building their lead to 9 points, courtesy of three Kai Forbath field goals (now almost automatic) and a nice touchdown hookup, Prince to Chane Moline. As soon as you saw Moline line up in the slot you could see this one coming. Prince barely got off the pass before being creamed by a pair of Vols. Once in the open field, Moline wasn't going to be denied.           

It might be interesting (and fun!) to review, again, the Bruin defense in the fourth quarter, particularly the crucial Tennessee drive beginning at the 8:41 mark. The game, as we said, had largely settled into the equivalent of down-and-dirty, hand-to-hand fighting, no time for fatigue. Get a quick blow if you must, then back to the dirty work. UCLA spent about thirteen minutes of the quarter on defense.   

After one of those pogoing standoffs that have become popular, the Vols were finally getting to play on the other side of the 50, somewhere they hadn't passed since the first quarter. They would start all three drives from midfield. Every time they'd come out in two tight ends, the Bruins would mirror them with a six man front, then stuff the box. One tight end and it would be in a five-man front. But always there was pressure.

You had the feeling that if the Bruins could stop them just once, they would be pretty much be home. One time, Montario Hardesty, a kind of Stefon Johnson type, barely converted a 4th and 2 with great second effort while in the grasp of Reggie Carter, among others. On the first two drives of this quarter, Crompton actually played well. On a 3rd and 6 he hit his receiver smack on his number 6 (thunk!), but the guy dropped it. Had he held on, it would've been 4th and 1 at about the Bruin five and Kiffin would undoubtedly have gone for it. Now he settled for three and was still down six.     

On the crucial drive to the goal line, Crompton made his best play of the day, eluding Datone Jones and Kyle Bosworth, sliding left in the pocket, then throwing back across his body, leading his receiver to the right for a 25-yard gain; first and goal from the 7. By now Neyland was in a frenzy. Everybody up! For the Bruins it was starting to look like the same ol', same ol'. But this defense is different. First down, Brian Price penetrates, half a yard loss. Second down, Hardesty runs SC's toss sweep left to the three-yard line, Rahim Moore and Verner keeping him from spinning into the endzone. Third down, Vols go with one tight end, the Bruins crowding the line of scrimmage, nine men up. Maybe a short yard. Fourth and a long one for the game. Two tight ends, the Bruins up in a virtual ten-man front. Talk about selling out. Nothing… and quietness descends.  

It's in the bag, right, Bruin fans? Naw. For us it's always drama. Taylor Embree is the 12th man on the field, and the ball is moved back inches from the goal line. Johnathan Franklin barely escapes a safety, then, on the next play, FUMBLE! Franklin manages to get it back, but there's a replay… an interminable replay… seems like an hour. And you just know those good ol' boys up in the booth are scouring for something, anything, to justify a Tennessee recovery. But there's no angle from which you can actually see the ball, see who came out with it. And the official on the field, the one who made the call, has obviously told the replay guys Franklin got it back. How can they reverse him? And why wasn't Tennessee jumping around, going wild. Too bad. Bruin ball.

Now we come to Neuheisel's gamble. Sorry, BROs, but if you objected to Rick's call you're at least a bit conservative. I'm not, so I loved it. Too much time left on the clock, a minute and forty eight. Even after a sneak, and an intentional safety, fifty some seconds would remain, and the Bruins would inevitably be defending their endzone against a possible winning TD pass. I'll never forget Nortre Dame and neither will you. On the other hand, if the Vols don't show so much discipline and savvy, or if Prince lets it go a step or so earlier, game over. The pass was a safe one, with a reasonable expectation the quarterback could at least make it out past the goal line. I suppose there's good arguments either way.   

Fortunately, Jeff Locke can provide great hang time for covering kicks. And fortunately, Crompton, his receivers, and Kiffin provided us with a clinic on how not to finish in the passing game. It was incredible, but wonderful to behold. And the zebras even gave the Vols a mulligan with a bogus, 4th-down offsides call.                          


This should be a great week, a particularly intriguing week, running up to Kansas State. Here we are at home, the Bruins coming off a huge win, shucking off that soft label, facing a less than fearsome opponent and with the prospect of seeing the other young quarterback get a start. What could be sweeter? And if Richard Brehaut happens to do something special, who knows… I mean it's shaping up as The Year of the True Freshman.   

Today, however, the Bruins remain a one-handed team. Granted Tennessee seems to have a formidable defense (more about that Saturday). But San Diego State does not. And 567 yards total offense over two games (283.5 per game) is unimpressive however you cut it. Sure the offense is young, but they're getting older every week. And the schedule sets up pretty well for Football 101. Prince is obviously beyond criticism when it comes to toughness, but 29 of 52 for 330 yards over the first two games hasn't set the bar particularly high. So let's see what we can see and let the chips fall where they may.

The win in Knoxville feels to me like the defensive equivalent of Route 66 or that great Cade inspired, 52-28 win over Washington at the Rose Bowl in '97. It feels like a watershed moment, like the door is open and expectations need a reset. I hate waiting for next year, and I wasn't hoping for 7-5 or 6-6 and a Vegas Bowl bid this year… even before the Tennessee trip.

I would think there are no more questions about Chuck Bullough and his defense. UCLA now has some genuine momentum and confidence earned on the field. If they can find an offense, the future might just be now. But like any Crank of a certain age, my optimism is conditional, a week-to-week affair. But I am feeling better and better.    

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