UCLA lost to Oregon Saturday, 24-10, and I've put it in the right perspective.
To begin with, I understand the frustration. There have been so many games in UCLA's recent football history where they are right there to turning the corner seemingly, and just can't accomplish it.
It's extreme frustration. But the frustration heaped on Rick Neuheisel's program isn't necessarily fair. It's a cumulative thing, that built up from six years of the Karl Dorrell era. UCLA fans are going through a decade of frustration and futility, so there isn't much patience left.
But is there another phenomenon going on here – one where the nation forgets what UCLA is? The UCLA football program has gone from one that was considered a top 15 national power in the 1980s and 1990s. It's getting to the point where people forget what it was – recruits, fans and national media. If UCLA continues like this, on this Road of Futility, you wonder if it will forever damage its football reputation and not be able to re-establish itself among the perennial powers. We've always thought it was where UCLA belonged, given its natural advantages. But could it be that this Decade of Futility delivers such a blow that it renders UCLA a perennial wanna-be? That's the creeping fear. And you wonder just how long – how many futile years – does it take to do that? Can mediocrity get ingrained into a program, one that you even think should naturally be a power?
Probably more accurately, programs go in cycles. There have been plenty of college football powers that went into extreme lulls in their histories – USC, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. The cycle eventually came back up and all the reasons why certain programs are what they are eventually came out again. I'm pretty certain that it will be the same for UCLA.
So, while it's frustrating to say, if you're a UCLA fan you need patience. Yes, there are times when it seems like the stretch of futility will never end, and the corner isn't even in the distance, it's not even on the horizon. In fact, the GPS system can't even find it.
You think, sometimes, that you only have so many years in life and you're spending a majority of it watching a poor UCLA football team.
So let's step back, take a deep breath, and get perspective on where the program is right now. UCLA has a good head coach, one who gets it. They have one of the best offensive coordinators in the history of the game, and a crew of offensive coaches who have been very successful throughout decades in the business. These are guys that aren't learning how to be coaches, like it was with Dorrell's program. These are guys who know what they're doing.
It might not look like it at times, and we'll get to that later.
But in comparison to Dorrell's staff, you tend to trust that this one knows what they're doing. With Dorrell, he was experimenting with an offensive scheme that, really, never had been tried successfully in its Dorrell incarnation. He was doing it with some first-time or inexperienced coordinators and coaches.
So, while we do have questions about the coaching – particularly the offensive scheme and the play-calling -- you still tend to trust these coaches that they know what they're doing. And it's not really fair to them, because they're living down the frustration that built over the Dorrell years. Most of the frustration is with Dorrell.
So, let's step back and just assume these coaches know what they're doing. If that's true, then the next aspect of the program that is essential for it to turn around is recruiting. You'd have to say that Neuheisel is doing well on that front. UCLA got a top ten recruiting class in 2009, and it's on its way there with 2010. In the last couple of days it received commitments from two prospects that are among the top ten at their position in the nation, Oaks Christian running back Malcolm Jones and offensive lineman Chris Ward. Neuheisel plucked those guys from two high school programs that UCLA hasn't recruited well in the past. No one from those campuses would have even recognized Dorrell.
Really, if you have good coaching, and you get good recruiting, it's just a matter of time.
Dorrell didn't have that. His coaching was inexperienced and suspect, and his recruiting was on the level of a good Mountain West team.
I'll go out on a limb and bet the reputation I've earned over the last ten years in doing this job that Neuheisel will turn around the football program. I think I have a pretty good track record, and it hasn't been founded on baseless guesses. It's based on many, many different aspects of Neuheisel's program that I've seen, the same aspects of Dorrell's program that I was suspect of for six years. In my time doing this job, I've been skeptical of Bob Toledo's program in the last few years I saw it from the inside, I was, of course, skeptical of the Steven Lavin basketball program, and skeptical of Dorrell. I was confident in Howland even before he got the job, knowing what I knew about him, and that was only reinforced once he was hired.
And I'm confident in Neuheisel's program.
But I'll concede: UCLA fans are tired. It's been a long road with no corner in sight, seemingly. UCLA has had one productive offense in, well, ten years (in 2005). It's tough to watch. You wonder why, what is so tough about getting some offensive production? Other programs have done it far quicker – that is, turn around an offense that was struggling. What's the problem?
First, it's not something you can make big generalizations about from program to program. Each one is different.
But it can be generalized in this way: If you have a good, proven scheme, it's a matter of getting the talent. Other programs that have turned around their offenses quicker might have had some talent at key positions – namely quarterback. It's easier to turn around your offense when you have someone like Washington's Jake Locker. Or Carson Palmer. So, if you want to place more blame on Dorrell and his staff, perhaps the biggest thing that is holding back UCLA's offense is a lack of a good, older, experienced quarterback on the roster. It'd be a completely different story if UCLA had Locker under center. Heck, I'd even take Aaron Corp, the guy who wanted to come to UCLA but Dorrell decided to take whoever would commit first between Corp and Chris Forcier, not evaluating well enough to know that Corp was a considerably better prospect. You wonder why UCLA's defense has been able to make the transition to a new staff and be good, it's because it has seniors like Reggie Carter, Kyle Bosworth, Alterraun Verner and one of the most talented defensive linemen in the country, Brian Price. UCLA's offense doesn't have that kind of experienced talent among its juniors and seniors. It doesn't have it at quarterback, receiver or on the offensive line. It has good, experienced tight ends, but tight ends aren't going to carry an offense.
So, if you have that in your mind while you watch the Oregon game, or re-watch it, it all makes more sense. UCLA, simply, lacks the playmakers. If you're frustrated, as I am, with UCLA not looking to throw the ball down the field, I know the coaches are frustrated, too, with not having the experienced talent to do it. UCLA is using a redshirt freshman and true freshman quarterback. Their primary running backs against Oregon were also a redshirt freshman and true freshman. Its starting offensive line doesn't have a junior or senior, and has a true freshman. Guys that inexperienced might have the talent to be playmakers, but not the experience to enable them to get in a situation to make a play. Plus, if you have so much inexperience throughout a unit like that it can't compensate for inexperience at, say, one position. A true freshman running back, say, could flourish with an experience, veteran offensive line, but it's tough when you have a vast amount of inexperience at both running back and offensive line.
If UCLA just had one very good, experienced senior among its quarterback, running back or wide receivers that could make a considerable difference.
Questions have come up whether the UCLA coaches are willing to try their youngsters, or are just conservatively using their less-talented veterans. Well, this game more or less refuted that. Fans have been clamoring for Richard Brehaut over Kevin Craft, and that's what they got. They want to see guys like Damien Thigpen, Morrell Presley and Randall Carroll get more chances, and that's what they saw Saturday against Oregon.
Questions have come up about the scheme and the playcalling, and it was again a question in the Oregon game. It's within reason to wonder about UCLA's offensive approach. There were specific times where it was understandable -- like questioning the two quarterback sneaks at the goal line, or the two running plays on UCLA's last possession of the first half when it had the ball in good field position with two minutes left. You can certainly question the dink-and-dunk philosophy. It seems like it's too much to ask of young, inexperience players to have to sustain a drive down the field, putting so much pressure on having to execute, without the benefit of a big play. Prince's interception in the Four Minutes of Hell to start the second half was devastating, and you have to question the risk reward of having your inexperienced quarterback throw 5-yard hitch over a 30-yard out.
But there are things that are playing into this that we might not necessarily recognize through our frustration. UCLA's pass protection is better than it was last season, but it's still not good. UCLA's quarterbacks were sacked five times against Oregon, and were under a great deal of pressure. And this is with UCLA keeping some extra blockers among its running back, fullbacks and tight ends back in pass protection. So, without great pass protection, UCLA has to dedicate another blocker to it, which takes one more potential receiver out of the pattern.
It's a process. UCLA's offense is taking a step forward this season from last season. But it's tough to do it when it doesn't really have any highly talented, experienced players on the unit to facilitate that step forward. It's tough to do with freshman quarterbacks and an offensive line made up of sophomores and freshmen.
In terms of the quarterback spot, this game was, overall, a good development – that is, if you're looking at the big perspective. With Brehaut getting time and having good moments, it will inspire more competition at the spot between Brehaut and Kevin Prince, and if there's anything that will hasten the position's development it's competition.
Thigpen had flashes, too. Johnathan Franklin, while hindered by an ankle injury in this game, has proven to be a guy with some considerable potential, and looked good on some runs early on in this game. It was regrettable that Milton Knox was sick and couldn't play, but with Jones coming in and even perhaps another running back next year, the running back spot looks to be in good shape for the future.
But again, if you're not taking that perspective, and getting caught up in the here and now, as we're all prone to do, it's maddening. This game was particularly maddening because, in the first half, UCLA looked like the better team. In fact, if it weren't for the first few minutes of the second half, the special teams breakdown on the kick-off return and the turnovers that became two more touchdowns, you could say UCLA would have won this game. If UCLA had, indeed, scored a touchdown instead of getting held at the goal line in the first half, and just simply not chosen to throw that 5-yard hitch that resulted in an interception and a touchdown, that's a turnaround of 14 points right there.
But you really can't say that. Because the type of team UCLA is right now, and the type of offense, will make you vulnerable to those kind of ill-fated few minutes. Those turns of events are almost inevitable in college sports. It's very difficult to expect 20-year old amateurs to play error-free football for four quarters. But at this point in the UCLA football program, it doesn't have enough to overcome those unfortunate moments.
UCLA's philosophy here is to try to win games with what it has – and if it does in fact show progress in terms of win/loss this season, the recruits will come and that corner will be seen. In trying to win games, its philosophy has been to try to minimize offensive mistakes, while trying to eat up clock offensively and keep the defense off the field.
It's tough to question that. Again, this is Neuheisel and Chow, and they know much more than we do. But, if we were going to venture to question the philosophy, perhaps, instead of so many higher percentage, short throws to try to move the chains methodically down the field, or safe, tackle-to-tackle runs on first and second down, it's better to attempt the lower-percentage throws and risk going three and out. For one, that higher-percentage short throw, that five-yard hitch, put 7 points up on the board for Oregon. Secondly, you might get lucky and complete a pass for 40 yards. Are the odds worth it, to take the risk more often to go for the big gainer and perhaps get a 40-yard gain, even with suspect pass protection, or try to execute 8 plays or so effectively to get 4 first downs and move the chains methodically for 40 yards?
In this game, the offense did, in fact, look down the field more. It resulted in sacks, scrambles and fumbles. It did, though, get a pass interference call against Randall Carroll on a go route. It's difficult to conclude what's the best philosophy. I think, though, from this game, it's clear the offensive coaches are trying to find a philosophy which includes throwing the ball down the field that will at least work adequately with their young personnel this season.
In terms of players' performance, vast appreciation has to be given to Brian Price, the defensive tackle who is a disruptive force. He not only blew up a number of plays in the backfield where he did get the tackle, he was key in forcing a tackle for loss. Akeem Ayers made perhaps the most athletic defensive play since Eric McNeal on his interception and touchdown. Credit also has to go out generally to the defense; while it gave up big chunks of yards to Oregon's running game, it really only conceded 10 points to Oregon, and that's even counting the touchdown that resulted after Prince's fumble. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough showed a few more blitzes in this game, sending pressure from the safeties.
Looking ahead, this should be the mindset of the UCLA fan. Throw out the visions of 10-2 that you were seeing because the team started 3-0. Readjust your expectations, back to what we projecting during fall camp. 7-5 or even just 6-6, which gets the program to a bowl game and shows progress from a season ago. Take that step for the season and in doing so get all of the youngsters on the team experience on their way to being experienced, talented seniors and juniors, and the season could be called a success. Have faith that, once Chow gets enough experienced talent, this offense will look like one he ran at USC.
Neuheisel didn't convince Malcolm Jones or Chris Ward to commit to UCLA based on the outcome of the Oregon game. He did it by getting them to see where the UCLA program is going, with the coaching it has and the talent it's bringing in. He did it by getting them to recognize that UCLA, by nature, is a top 15 national program.
Maybe UCLA fans should be as wise as these two 17-year-olds.
And have faith that Neuheisel knows what he's doing.