Considering UCLA's football fortunes over the last twenty years, permit me to offer, for your own peace of mind, The Four Stages of a Bruin Football Fan: Hope, Doubt, Depression (and finally) Curiosity… to be repeated, generally, year after year. You should know the drill by now. If not, you need to grow up. Rule of thumb: Bruin football is guilty until proven innocent.
The program that Red Sanders and Tommy Prothro built, and Vermeil briefly revived, has been squandered, to one degree or another, by all the intermittent pretenders: Billy Barnes, Pepper Rodgers, Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Terry Donahue. (And for you TD fans: How satisfied were you with such pissant bowls as the Freedom, Cotton, Hancock and two of those sleepy time Alohas? And that's not counting the years without any bowl at all. Terry's three victorious Rose Bowls in that narrow four year period basically defined the limits of his achievement. )
To be fair, there was also the January 1, 1994 Rose Bowl game made memorable by J.J. Stokes' 14 receptions and, of course, Wayne Cook's bizarre, head-scratching "run to nowhere" on the last play of a 16-21 loss. (Wayne might as well have been Wrong Way Riegels.) Whether or not Rick Neuheisel joins this motley crew is too early to say, but he hasn't exactly hit the ground running.
One indicator of a troubled program is the number of embarrassing defeats. I'm always amazed when some fan digs up that old chestnut, "I'd rather lose by 50 than be beaten in the last seconds." Guaranteed - coaches and players would rather not, at least the smarter ones. The current regime is 17 games old, and how many bad losses does it already own? By my reckoning it's six: at BYU, Arizona at home, at Cal, OSU at home, at ASU and, of course, Oregon last Saturday. You might reckon even more (or less). Compare that to Sanders: one in nine years; Prothro: maybe five in six years; Vermeil: one, maybe two, in two years. Even considering the simultaneously freak injuries to Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan – and the huge eight ball Dorrell left the program behind - that's still a lot of bad football for such a brief period.
Since I'm not a serious drinker, I had to go out and buy a bag of caramel Sugar Daddies before reviewing the Oregon tape. More than anything else, more than players not making plays, it was the superior preparation of Oregon that jumped off the tape.
Both teams came into the game with highly suspect quarterbacking. But UCLA Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough, for the second straight week, failed to strongly contest the line of scrimmage. Once again, he seemed to spread his defense too thin, playing his second line of defenders a bit too deep. And, for the third straight week, his defense tackled poorly. He had little to fear from Nate Costa and the passing game, yet he never strayed far from his base defense. Oregon's Defensive Coordinator, Nick Aliotti, on the other hand, committed to pressure right from the start and was deservedly rewarded.
It's also become a continuing mystery why Bullough and the DB coaches have opted for true freshman, Sheldon Price, as their stop-gap "other corner" until Aaron Hester returns. The kid's 160 pounds are spread too thinly over his 6' 2" frame, and he's simply a liability as a tackler. With experience, he seems to be improving some in coverage, but he's still, understandably, playing conservatively.
Holding an opponent to 300 yards should ordinarily be applauded. Not here, however… not when you're facing a near one-dimensional offense. After giving up 174 yards on the ground to Toby Gerhart and Stanford, the Bruin D gave up a combined 202 yards to the combination of Kenyon Barner and the whirling dervish, LaMichael James.
Offensively, what is there left to say… other than it's becoming a marvel of inefficiency. Last week 300 yards, total offense. This week, just over 200. For the season, 282. Piled on top of last year, not to mention recent history, watching the Bruin offense without benefit of drugs or strong drink is asking more than any Bruin fan should have to endure. Myself, I've become grateful for small favors: a sustained drive here or there; a completed downfield pass with adequate protection; a well-blocked running play, finished well.
The first-and-goal from the Oregon two yard line was kind of emblematic of the season thus far. Derrick Coleman, the "power back," carries on the first two plays, only the second of which does he run well, almost scoring. Then the two futile quarterback sneaks. On the first one, UCLA tries a hurry-up-and-quick snap. Good idea, but the Ducks are ready. The interesting thing about the second sneak was that ABC commentator, David Norrie, an old Donahue boy, thought it was a good idea and actually called the play before the Bruins lined up. Oregon completely sold out and, no surprise, stoned it.
These days UCLA can fall out of a game while you're out getting a hot dog and coke, but those first four minutes of the second half - featuring the 26-second horror show - was the stuff of nightmares.
On the 102-yard kickoff return by Barner, Bruin coverage seemed passive, as if they were overly-conscious of "breaking down" properly. The first man who had a shot took a bad angle, then in quick succession… Glen Love is easily blocked, another Bruin double-teamed, Tony Dye is easily blocked, and finally Barner cuts between Damien Thigpen and Jeff Locke for the score. Barner ran it fast and strong, but the Bruins were more concerned to contain rather than attack (may even have been held, but then UCLA doesn't get a lot of calls). So there goes the modest 3-0 lead.
Ducks kick off. First play, Prince fails to "lead with his eyes" (nice phrase, Norrie), and throws a suicide pick. Uh, oh, 3-14.
Oregon kicks off out of bounds. Great field position. A couple of plays later, Prince, carrying the ball in one hand (as if he's Bret Favre!) gets easily stripped (football 101, right?) A short drive later, Costa hits flanker, Jeff Maehl, on a little bubble screen… he easily shakes off Sheldon Price, and, just like that, ball game. Though your heart tells you there's twenty six minutes remaining, your head knows it's over. Even so, we at least got Akeem Ayers' incredible snuff interception in the endzone ("it's all instinct") to provide a little false hope.
The defense then immediately turned Barner loose for about 50 yards to the Bruin nine, the drive entirely on the ground. Earlier in the game, LaMichael James had flipped the field with a beautiful, spinning, juking 50-yarder from the shadow of his goal line. At least the defensive front, featuring Brian Price again, forced the Ducks to settle for a field goal.
With the game safely gone, we finally get our second peek at Richard Brehaut. Sure, he failed to feel the rush properly, but his passes were noticeably crisper and more accurate than Prince's. He's also steadier in the pocket, has a cleaner throwing motion and seems generally more confident. Had he been able to drive the Bruins to a TD in the fourth quarter, we likely would've had the dreaded "quarterback controversy." Now, with Norm Chow's bald, post-game quote, "Prince gives us the best chance to win," added to Neuheisel's continued vote of confidence, it's going to be Prince again vs. Cal. The battle of the Kevins, Riley and Prince. A Bruin win here could do wonders in terms of people "finding themselves." My advice: take the unders.
All this talk of Neuheisel's status - his prospects of success or failure - strikes me as premature, almost irrelevant. We all know that at UCLA, you generally get at least two or three years on the hot seat before they even think about acting. I mean, you have to "stink out loud," and Neiheisel doesn't. Last season, he had a legit excuse with both senior quarterbacks going down (although 6-6 was conceivably attainable). Some other coaches, at some other schools, may have given up on Kevin Craft and burned Prince's redshirt… Franklin's too. (I take it as a given Milton Knox had personal issues.) But that's not Neuheisel. Which, for better or worse, is one more reason Neuheisel is a "good fit" here. And who's to say Prince or Franklin would have made the difference in one or two more wins. My guess is that Neuheisel stays here as long as he wants. However, he can't go forever without finding a quarterback.
I have another guess, too:
If Prince doesn't demonstrate the "it factor" pretty soon, both Brehaut and Brett Nottingham will ultimately pass him by. Nottingham, in particular, looks like the goods, if you watched him on cable last Friday night.
The question for me is… will Neuheisel be more in the tradition of UCLA's Big Three or that of his old Bruin coach, whom he still speaks fondly of? Either way he looks like UCLA's second twenty-year man. The irony here is that TD was the guy who passed over Rick for Offensive Coordinator, choosing instead the experienced, though recently fired, Toledo, from Texas A&M. Had he gone with Neuheisel, who was "golden" in those days and quite popular with Bruin fans, everyone might have been spared at least twelve years in the wilderness.
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