Another Corner-Turning Averted

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa rewinds the Stanford game, and discusses how UCLA missed another opportunity to take the program to another level, while speculating about the program's conservatism, and not just offensively...

Once again it's The Ol' Bruin One Step. Tennessee and a couple of overmatched "gimmes" at home had provided the "two steps forward." Stanford administered the "one step back." You might say the Blue Balloon has been deflated. Only a week ago it was a New Deal; the Pac-10 is wide open; all bets are off. Once more that ever elusive "corner" was tantalizingly within reach, though, significantly, on the road.

Today Stanford sits atop the conference, a shiny 3-0; Oregon is #2 with a bullet; SC is back to its old dominating ways; and even Arizona copped a couple of votes in each of the national polls. (The Bruins, of course, fell out the bottom. Were we perhaps wondering why they'd gotten so little respect? Now we know.) Today, only Washington State looks like a sure win, and that game is on the road. If the offense continues producing at its piddling 300-yards-per-game pace, even the modest 6-6 goal so many apprehensive fans were willing to settle for… even that could be in question.

The good news is… UCLA is 3-1 after all. And at least they didn't go down as ignominiously as the poor Cal Bear. Small consolation, I admit. And with Oregon coming to town this week, redemption isn't exactly at hand - unless, of course, Jeremiah Masoli can't play, in which case it is a bit closer. But with the Bruins' luck, he'll probably play. Another possible worry (we're never short of those) may be Nick Aliotti's uncharacteristically formidable defense. Then again the Ducks four-game win streak has been manufactured entirely in very friendly Autzen Stadium… and the road is a hard way to go for everyone, not just the Bruins.

At Stanford, things started out quite nicely with Akeem Ayers' strip and fumble recovery. Johnathan Franklin churned out some yardage on the ground, then Kevin Craft, rolling right, threw downfield (!) to Terrence Austin, perhaps the best pass he's ever thrown as a Bruin (or ever will throw). But once again the Bruins stalled in the redzone and had to settle for the automatic Kai Forbath field goal. (If you're wondering what the national, single season record is, it's 31.) From that point on, things went downhill fast.

Toby Gerhart and the Cardinal O line began bullying the Bruin defensive front, while Andrew Luck was doing as he pleased in the passing game. Rahim Moore's near backbreaking personal foul on a third-down play not only prolonged a Stanford touchdown drive (in a game that figured to be low scoring), he further upset an already precarious secondary by knocking himself out of the game. Not only were the Bruins now playing with a featherweight, true freshman corner, they now had to go without their playmaking free safety.

Meanwhile, Stanford continued driving the ball. Once inside the Bruin ten, they'd overload one side, usually by a shift, then simply outnumber the Bruin defenders at the point of attack, making things ridiculously easy for such a skilled power back as Gerhart. Twice he scored with barely any opposition. It certainly looked as if Jim Harbaugh was outscheming Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Bullough.

On the other side of the ball, Norm Chow wasn't having much Luck either (sorry, couldn't resist). The Bruins had only three points and some nice punts to show for the second and third quarters, which the Cardinal badly dominated in time of possession. At 24-6, this game was basically over. Credit the Bruins for hanging tough and making the Cardinal sweat ‘till the end. But once the Bruins crept within eight, Stanford immediately turned up the heat on Craft. They were obviously intent on not letting last year's collapse happen again. The Bruin offense would never even cross midfield.   


Conservative play kills, particularly in college football.

Young players are not very good, not particularly happy, at having to play carefully. Balls out aggressiveness is more their style. If you can get past Pete Carroll's sleaziness - admittedly hard, if not impossible - you can see an example of what I'm saying: maximum pressure, offensively and defensively. John Wooden is an even better example. Turn up the tempo as fast as you can while still being under control ("be quick but don't hurry"). Do this well and the opponent will generally crack. Of course you need the right personnel to play fast so you may have to downshift a gear or so to accommodate for less than the ideal. Still, the principle remains sound.  

For our purposes here, consider what happens when the Bruins can't threaten the secondary downfield, thus allowing the defense to concentrate on defending the run and the dink-and-dunk-game. Since the defense can more or less anticipate underneath throws - hitches, slants, screens and such - they can now contest the shallow zones with something like impunity. They can play loose, play fluidly, "have fun out there."

Craft may understand the offense better than a more gifted freshman, may shine brighter in film sessions and even on the practice field, but we've seen too much of him to expect he can drive a Pac-10 offense and put touchdowns on the scoreboard. Sorry, but for me he simply casts a pall over any week he's due to start. I'm firmly in the "Anyone-But-Craft" School.  
We all know Craft is not comfortable throwing downfield, and we know he lacks an instinctive pocket presence. He's mechanical, naturally methodical, and the reason he's better throwing on the run is simply because he's under comparatively less pressure. His problem has been, still is, and will likely always be… handling pressure. He rarely gets beyond his primary look, and, to be fair, neither have quite a few others in the long line of recent Bruin quarterback busts. Once Craft's primary is covered, the play is pretty much dead. And of course he lacks some arm strength, too.

Whenever we discuss those 20 picks of last year, we inevitably soften the blow by bringing up poor O line play, poor blitz pickups and shoddy route running, which is fine as far as it goes. But we've become so sensitive about a kid who has literally bled for the program, we conveniently forget all the additional picks he would've thrown had linebackers and defensive backs been blessed with better hands. Isn't it finally enough that a player of limited skills has had the time of his athletic life starting 14 games for UCLA, playing on TV each week, before such huge passionate crowds? Hopefully, Kevin Prince will be back this Saturday.  

Craft isn't the only troubling personnel question, either.

Derrick Coleman may be a fullback after all. Since the opener, he's been looking less and less like LenDale White. Though he's bigger and more powerful, he's also noticeably slower, less skilled and less likely to break off a long gain than a couple of talented, smaller tailbacks playing behind him. And with the limited offensive plays available - since this anemic offense has had such problems sustaining drives - there have been very few carries left over for Milton Knox and now Damien Thigpen (who absolutely opened some eyes last Saturday). And now Christian Ramirez is back.  

And isn't it time Nelson Rosario started seeing the field more? He's the biggest, most athletic Bruin receiver, and he's improved his consistency lately (another way of saying he's catching more balls). Am I wrong or do these sort of things indicate a somewhat grey, safety-first approach?      

You hate to think any of this may have been influenced by Neuheisel's association with his old "belt and suspenders" college coach. But then stuff like "punt to win" and "we'll run the ball or die trying" does have a familiar ring. And while we all understand that the offense is young, it's not untalented. And the defense is both talented and experienced. Anyway, we see "young teams" every year grow and become successful as the season plays out. Why not the Bruins? Wait ‘till next year, or the year after that, is indeed getting old. Time to start living in the present.

Do you remember the video of Neuheisel pounding that locker in the dressing room after the Tennessee win and screaming, "The entire world that bleeds blue and gold…THEY HAVE BEEN DYING FOR THIS! DYING FOR THIS!" Neuheisel, indeed, "gets it." Rick is a charmer, he can recruit, he knows his history, and he knows the deal with respect to the fans. This may be Chow's offense and Bullough's defense, but it's Neuheisel's team, and he may need to personally tune up some people in order to get things running cleaner… because right now this team is stalling. 

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