As I said last week, being a UCLA football fan for the last decade is a frustrating, maddening endeavor. And it's impossible to be able to separate the season and a half under Rick Neuheisel from that decade chunk of mediocrity.
It's one of the elements of Neuheisel's situation in taking over the job. He didn't just inherit a program that had, say, been down for a couple of years before it had fired its previous coach. It had gone through the worst decade of football in its history.
It's the burden Neuheisel has to bear. And I'm sure, even though he's obviously feeling a bit of the pressure, he'd say that his shoulders are broad enough to bear it.
This is why this game in particular was so maddening:
-- UCLA started the season 3-0, and expectations rose. Fans were starting to fantasize beyond the projected 7-5 season record, and 9-3s and 10-2s started dancing in their heads like sugar plum fairies.
-- The Bruins' offense and defense can never put it together at the same time, forever snake-bitten, almost like Shakespearean, star-crossed lovers that can't ever hook up. When one is good, the other is crap. In 1998, UCLA had the best offense in college football, but it was a decent (just a decent) defense away from a national championship. Lately, in five of the six years under Karl Dorrell, it was a matter of UCLA having a solid to very good defense but a highly ineffective offense. Under Neuheisel, more of the same – until this game. UCLA finally gets an offense producing decent yards, the offense's best performance in the 18 games under Neuheisel, and the defense collapses.
-- It's Cal. That makes the loss unnerving enough, since Cal is kind of like the long-failing, vastly under-achieving big brother that was always in and out of jail, and your parents always had to give money to and buy cars for just to make him respectable. Then, it's as if, in the last 10 years, that loser big brother fell into some streak of luck. I mean, let's face it, Cal doesn't have much of a football history. They have to go back to 1959 for their last Rose Bowl appearance. When I wrote a few years ago that Cal had stolen UCLA's football program, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, and caused a great deal of controversy among UCLA and Cal fans alike. But there's some validity to it – UCLA has the history of being among the top tier of programs in the Pac-10 for the last half century, and Cal doesn't. Then, for the last 10 years, the sister (or brother) Pac-10 school, takes UCLA's place in that power hierarchy, recruiting much the same kids that UCLA would, a huge amount of them from Southern California. Cal has been in a place of power in the Pac-10 pecking order for the last several years and it's pretty much where UCLA had been for decades, and should be naturally. So, a loss to Cal, at this time in Neuheisel's program when he really needed a win, was particularly annoying.
So, patience is running thin. I don't know if there are UCLA fans necessarily jumping off the Neuheisel bandgwagon, but many are barely hanging on right now, looking along the side of the road for a soft spot to land.
In this game, as I said, this was a bit of a unique experience in the context of the last several years for a UCLA fan – since the offense actually was within the realm of acceptability and the defense was exposed for being a poor one. Yeah, many people can point to the second half and say UCLA made adjustments and limited Cal to 10 points in the final two quarters. You could also say that, after leading 35-20 at halftime, Cal pretty much approached the second half with a one-dimensional offense of running the ball to eat up time, which facilitated UCLA's defensive turnaround. I don't think it's much of a victory for the defense to say they shut down Cal's offense in the second half.
Cal's offense, really, was successful in the second half, given what it set out to do. Plus, it still outscored UCLA in the second half, 10-6.
So, there's not even a sliver of a silver lining defensively.
It was pretty easy to suspect that UCLA's defense was over-rated and pretty much untested leading up to this game. Heck, who had it faced so far this season? Not one really good offense. And, in all honesty, Cal's offense isn't even a great one. A great one wouldn't have been completely shut down by Oregon and USC. Cal's offense is a pretty good one, but not legendary.
So, sorry to knock that little supportive peg out from under you, the one that was holding up your idea of the UCLA defense. Heck, we'll confess to being duped ourselves. Coming into the season, everything indicated that this defense should be a good one, but over the first half of the season, there were some clear indications that that wasn't the case, and those suspicions were clearly confirmed against Cal.
In my preview of the game, I said that Cal is a big-play offense, and the Bears lived up to that in a big way. They didn't really move the chains that well, only accomplishing 17 first downs, the same amount as UCLA. They did, however, accomplish the big strikes.
This is now Cal's offense started the game:
-- First series, it gets a touchdown after a 42-yard run by back-up tailback Shane Vereen.
-- Next two possessions, no big play, no first down, no score.
-- Cal's next drive can't elicit a first down.
-- The Bears' next drive, miraculously, does achieve a first down. But first downs take up too much time and effort for Cal. Riley finds Jahvid Best out of the backfield on a wheel route matched up against UCLA linebacker Kyle Bosworth and Best takes it 51 yards for a touchdown.
-- Next drive, Cal can't put together three plays to get a first down and punts.
-- Next possession, since we can't really call it a drive, Best takes the ball at the Cal 7-yard line and goes 93 yards for one of the longest (in terms of excruciating) runs against a UCLA defense in a long time.
That run seemingly had more broken tackles than UCLA had all of last season.
So, what is it about UCLA's defense that Cal could cut it up like this with its big-strike offense?
First, the UCLA defense has a decent amount of talent, but nothing incredible. Now, I know, many are going to lament that this is a departure from what has generally been established in the past – that UCLA has good talent on defense.
But there is a phenomenon going on here that we're susceptible to, myself included. It's more like a syndrome. The Inflated Bruin Syndrome. Just because a guy plays for UCLA, looks the part and/or has started for UCLA for a couple of years, doesn't make him great. Reggie Carter, up until this year, had shown to be a good player. Not great, but good. But this season, possibly because of some nagging injuries, he's simply not playing really well. Defensive tackle Brian Price is a considerable talent, but is still inconsistent. Cornerback Alterraun Verner might be the best corner UCLA has had in a long time, but that might not be saying much.
The best measuring stick of how much talent a team really has is to note how many guys get taken in the NFL draft, and where they get drafted. UCLA notoriously hasn't had many players drafted in recent years, and it probably won't have many taken from this defense. The typical UCLA "good" player of the past decade has been a guy like Kyle Bosworth, or Christian Taylor, the smart, over-achiever who won't hear his name in the first couple of days of the NFL draft, but who gets the utmost out of the talent he has.
There is one guy on the defense who, right now, has a chance at the first or second round and that's Price. One guy.
Secondly, the defense in terms of its scheme, tends to be…(wait for it)….conservative. The scheme of former UCLA Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker was pretty conservative, comparatively to the rest of college football, in terms of formation and philosophy. But it has seemingly gone a bit more to the right with Bullough.
It seems that UCLA's defense is sitting on its heels, playing prevent primarily, rather than attacking.
Now, like we've said with the offense, it's philosophically not our cup of tea. We'd rather go down swinging, taking chances and being risky than the slow, conservative death.
In this game, the philosophy was particularly tough to watch. When going up against an offense that relies completely on the big play, it's tough to watch a defense sit back in conservative, prevent mode and see Cal's running backs weaving through it for 93 yards. The other theory would be to aggressively go after Cal's offense and try to disrupt it before it can get on track. Pressure and blitz, to disrupt the flow of Cal's running game and not allow its quarterback to get comfortable. Of course, if Cal can successfully manage the pressure, you're risking more vulnerability to the big play, but heck, would it have been any worse than it was? And, might more pressure have actually forced Cal into a turnover, which would have made a huge difference in this game? Cal didn't turn over the ball once, and if there was ever a game where UCLA needed some quick points from a turnover this was it.
But we'll just chalk up this one to a different philosophy. It doesn't necessarily mean that either is better, and if the UCLA coaches take the UCLA football program to the Promised Land we'll accept the conservatism.
But man, while we're wallowing here outside the Pearly Gates, it's definitely tough to watch.
If you're going to mention tackling and discipline, sure that's an issue with this defense. If there's one thing in which Bullough is a proven commodity, it's in emphasizing fundamentals and technique. In the past, when he was just the linebacker coach, he didn't have a great amount of talent, but the guys he had were in position, taking good pursuit angles and tackling with good fundamentals.
As defensive coordinator this season, this is not the case with his defense. Beyond the scheme and the philosophy, it's the biggest concern.
Offensively, there were some positive take-aways. UCLA gained 448 yards, easily the most of the Neuheisel era at UCLA. It wasn't against a very good defense, but not an awful one, either.
UCLA got generally good production out of its offensive line. The OL provided quarterback Kevin Prince good pass protection. With Prince having time to throw, the passing game opened up. Pretty much like we've been saying for the past year and half.
The offense wasn't nearly as conservative. It threw over the top. It actually threw on first down. It threw to a variety of receivers. It was a hint of what UCLA could do under Norm Chow if it had some experienced talent.
There were some unnerving, conservative moments, however. With about five minutes left in the second half, Cal was ahead 28-14 and UCLA's defense couldn't seemingly do anything to stop Cal's offense. After Prince completed a pass to Logan Paulsen, the senior tight end rumbled 48 yards to the Cal 14 yard line. After a few plays, it was 4th and 2 at the Cal 6. It was clear that this game was going to be decided in touchdowns, not field goals. It was the appropriate time to go for the first down and try for the touchdown instead of opting for a field goal. Even if you're stopped, you still have Cal's offense backed up. And even take away all of the logical reasoning, might it have been worth the emotional boost you get out of going for it?
It seems that this moment was a microcosm for one of the issues that has plagued Neuheisel and given him the tag of being conservative. Neuheisel's philosophy on how to get UCLA to the Promised Land is pretty clear now – try to eke out as many wins as you can so you can show progress in the win/loss columns. Then load up on elite recruits. We see and understand that.
But there are moments that present themselves where you need to win over the troops emotionally, and have to risk the plan.
Heck, coach, you've already done an amazing job of getting so many talented recruits to sign on without being able to show them much in the win/loss columns, don't you think they'll stick with you when you occasionally go with the less logical but more emotional option?
You would think that most of those recruits, and most of the fans, need to see a flash of riskiness, of a Neuheisel that is a bit of a brazen, riverboat gambler (to use an apropro term) at times.
If we could be so bold ourselves to psycho-analyze the head coach, perhaps it's the fact that, literally, gambling is part of his history that it makes him want to project an image of conservative solidness and trustworthiness, and that keeps him from sometimes taking against-the-odds risks.
With some time to throw, Prince took a step forward, in the pocket, and in his career. He did sometimes throw inaccurately (of course, the under-thrown interception intended for a wide open Paulsen), and he did, sometimes, not see wide open receivers. But the game was clearly an advancement for him.
The receivers and tight ends were good. Paulsen had the type of game an all-conference tight end would have. Taylor Embree was easily the best receiver target. Nelson Rosario showed why he's an enigma – in one moment able to show some considerable ability and then, in the next, show that he's not willing to play hard all the time. Give the coaches credit for trying to get the ball into the hands of playmakers, putting in and going with plays specifically intended to get the ball to Morrell Presley and Randall Carroll.
Johnathan Franklin had the best run from scrimmage for a Bruin in recent memory. The fact that a UCLA offensive line and running back could produce such a run is a clear sign of advancement.
This is the thing, though, overall: Neuheisel and Co. are going to get at least 4 years to make this work. So, if you're going to jump off the bandwagon now, go ahead. It's your prerogative as an irrational fan. That's the thing about being a fan, there is no morality or right and wrong. Being a fan gives you a right to be completely irrational (and it's proven every day on the message boards).
And, when you decide to jump back on, of course, there will be room for you. That's another thing about being a fan, there's no moral judgment overseeing you either.
So, jump off, jump back on, do whatever you gotta do to get through this.
For me, it's a little more of a rational approach to my fandom. I'll stay on the bandwagon, and give the coaches the time they need to get experienced talent into the program. Then, when I think it's time to pass judgment, I will. In the process, I think you have to be able to criticize and disagree with many things that you see from the program along the way. Taking a blind eye is just as bad as over-reacting and jumping off.
So, it's okay to be mad and frustrated as a UCLA fan after such a loss to Cal. But that doesn't mean we're still not steering the bandwagon.