Chiccoa: No Rest for the Worried

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa reflects on the win over Kansas State, the performance of Kevin Craft, the offensive line and UCLA's defense, and looks ahead to the Stanford Cardinal with a little trepidation...

There's always something… always at least one more thing with the Bruins.

Immediately after hearing the news of Kevin Prince's fractured jaw, you might have flashed on the intriguing prospect of seeing the talented Richard Brehaut getting a start, seeing extended playing time. Though a true freshman, he had the added benefit of spring practice and had looked impressive in his brief appearance vs. San Diego State. Also, an apparently mediocre Kansas State seemed like the perfect spot to throw him in, see what he could do. And there was always Kevin Craft as backup, with a full season of experience (though, admittedly not the best kind) in case the occasion might prove too much for him.    

A day later, the word from Spaulding Field was that Brehaut was not looking particularly sharp; that Craft's experience might be giving him an edge; that Craft was now a possible starter. By Thursday evening the decision to start him had apparently been made, though Rick Neuheisel kept a lid on it. (Why should Pete Carroll, with his Barkley/Corp dilemma, get all the attention?) Though Craft would go on to play decently in the KSU game - probably as good, or better, than he'd played in any of his twelve starts last year - just the introduction of his name as a serious player, this year, was bound to set off alarms in the Bruin Nation. Which, before the 51-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Austin, it certainly did.

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After Alterraun Verner's early pick, the Bruin offense, along with the senior QB who will turn 24 next month, got off to a good start. Craft completed a 3rd-and-10 to Nelson Rosario, then connected on a nice 14-yarder to Logan Paulsen, inside the five, from where Johnathan Franklin powered it in for the score. The Bruin offensive line was handling KSU's defensive front easily, allowing Craft to operate smoothly, under no pressure.

After the Wildcats answered with a drive of their own for a field goal, you began to suspect that Bill Snyder's shotgun spread-option-wildcat offense was going to give the Bruins a greater challenge than did Tennessee's more conventional, pro-set (Jonathan-Crompton-handicapped) offense.

At times Bruin defenders would be made to look like a bunch of out-of-town rubes trying to beat a Times Square shell game (or like that find-the-football halftime game on the tiny Rose Bowl replay screen, the game that usually defeats me 2/3rds of the way through). Often over pursuing, there were times they simply couldn't find the ball until the ball carrier was running free in the secondary. And it was obvious the three mainstays of the KSU offense, Carson Coffman, Brandon Banks and Daniel Thomas, were more than up to the job of giving the Bruins fits.

Coffman was a good-sized, fearless, running quarterback who, barely adequate throwing downfield, was capable of hitting those short, ball-control throws that drive opposing teams (and their fans) crazy. Banks was a quick, tough, little receiver/kick returner, and Thomas, their biggest threat, was a big, strong, talented tailback, a converted JC quarterback who remained a threat to actually throw out of KSU's wildcat formation.   

With the score 13-9, KSU had two chances to either take a fourth-quarter lead, or to creep within one point of the Bruins, thus putting real pressure on Craft and the offense. But at this point the Bruin defense stiffened. The offense then nailed the door shut on that beautifully designed crossing pattern which Norm Chow was apparently sitting on all game long. Austin popped wide, wide open against what looked like a nickel defense. Craft had all day to throw, and he hit Austin right in stride, not a difficult pass to be sure, but a welcome sight all the same. Even if you're not big into human interest sports stories, you couldn't help but be a little pleased for Craft over the redemptive aspects of his personal drama.                   

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Franklin again ran well in this game, and though he let the ball be wrestled away from him while obviously on top of a defender who was on the ground (the play should have been blown dead), I don't see how the replay judge could have overruled the call on the field. Then again these are Pac-10 officials. That being said, fumbles do seem be an issue with Franklin.

It was too bad Milton Knox was among the suspended. Since he has moves, great vision and finishes runs much like Franklin, I think we were all looking forward to seeing more carries for him.

It was nice to see Rosario have a solid game and make that spectacular, one-hand, cupped reception (always a receivers dream). It seems to me he's come into some unfair criticism. I mean, he's not the first athletic, young receiver who's gone through a period of the dropsies. Some Bruin fans had even gone so far as comparing him to the notorious Brian Poli-Dixon. Even though BPD was not a friend of mine, I can safely say Nelson Rosario is no BPD. I'd be surprised if he doesn't win over these same critics before he's done.             

There would seem to be little or no chance that Brehaut starts the Stanford game. If the Bruins had somehow blown it to KSU, sure, he probably would start. But until Craft truly reverts to last year's play, he'll be the starter. (And what if, miraculously, he goes off at Stanford? Not likely, I admit. And you know how coaches hate getting off what they see as a winning combination. I'm just saying…)

I think most of us are coming round to the fact this O line is the real thing and getting tighter by the week. They're certainly big enough, and they consistently dominated KSU's front. If not for all the bonehead penalties, most of them not their fault, this game would have been all but over by halftime. And though the defensive front was having problems finding the ball, they did eventually adjust enough to hold KSU to a quite respectable 268 yards total offense, only 69 net on the ground.

Alterraun Verner's continuing excellence is a joy to watch. This was just one more game for the highlight reel in aid of his All-American candidacy.

It was great fun watching Brian Price come spinning off the right defensive end position on that last KSU drive (The Wildcats would've been better off not being awarded Franklin's "fumble.") Price has to be the best D lineman in the Pac-10, and, if he avoids injury, is yet another Bruin All American prospect (and likely future millionaire).

If Stanford can contain Jake Locker, I expect they'll be something around a 4- to 6-point favorite vs. the Bruins. Since most all of us will be tuned into Stanford/Washington. we'll be able to write our own scouting reports in our heads.  

I always reset expectations every week. I wasn't as disappointed as some fans, especially after watching the KSU replay. Seems like things often look better on replay, and KSU's spread option is the type UCLA has traditionally had problems with, as have most teams. I'd be surprised if Stanford can handle the Bruins defensive front, and the Bruin secondary, when intact, would appear to have four cover guys, almost the equivalent of four cornerbacks, all without sacrificing solid run support.

Unless Stanford blows out UDub and Andrew Luck turns out to be a superman, I think the Bruins have a very good shot if they can get decent quarterbacking… and of course if they can hold onto the ball and clean up the little things, the bonehead penalties and such. They'll certainly need to play with the poise they showed in Knoxville. Still a dark horse, I suspect the Bruins are the better team. I would also hope the Bruin quarterback, whomever it is, would be on a short leash… something that seems to go against the grain of modern coaches who seemingly revere first-team practice reps above all else.

At least KSU will have provided UCLA with a preview of Chip Kelly's apparently more proficient Shotgun Spread, back in the Rose Bowl the week following Stanford. And if all goes well there, it could be nationally ranked Cal in the Rose Bowl. Am I getting ahead of myself? Why not? None of us here have to play the games. Our job is to sit up in the stands and squirm.   

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