So, when UCLA came close to pulling out a come-from-behind win at Oregon State, just falling short, 26-19, it seemed there were a lot of positives.
Perhaps I'm just desperate, and it seemed more positive than it was. And yes, it's a bit pitiful that we're going to try to take so much positively out of this game, which is, in reality, a loss against a middle-of-the-road Pac-10 team, UCLA's 5th loss in a row, dropping them to 0-5 in the conference.
But heck, it's getting a bit monotonous every week to repeat the same moanings and groanings. So, while many fans hate them, we're going to take this as a moral victory.
Let's first get some of the moanings/groanings out of the way.
UCLA was, indeed, pitiful in the first half. The Bruins gained only 86 yards, while it gave up 248. The score at half was 16-0, and it appeared that OSU, actually, hadn't taken advantage of all of its opportunities (like UCLA fumbling the ball five times but recovering it), was limited by penalties and its vaunted passing game seemed a bit out-of-sync. A play that epitomized UCLA's fortune was Gavin Ketchum recovering Johnathan Franklin's fumble, with four Beavers all having a better angle on the ball.
The feeling was definitely this: If the Beavers cleaned up some things in the second half, any logical Bruin fan was thinking this could get particularly ugly.
And that logical Bruin had to also be thinking that 16 points for UCLA's offense to make up is like 35 points to another typical Pac-10 offense to make up.
Prince looked tentative and mechanical in the first half. He and Richard Brehaut, who had one series, continued to have no pocket feel, unable to anticipate when they're about to get plastered.
UCLA clearly struggled to run the ball, gaining just 18 yards on 17 carries.
There were plenty of mis-fires and mis-assignments. You can't blame Prince for all of his fumbles; on one play-action boot, he turned into the face of two orange shirts that met him in the backfield without being touched.
But there were some hints, some things that the optimistic Bruin fan might have noticed. Tailback Johnathan Franklin, when given some room, looked very good creating more, and even when he didn't have much room. Prince, while he didn't perform much better than he had this season, also had a bit of a confident air about him. He did make a couple of clutch throws, one on third-down for a first down. On another, he threw a nice fade to Taylor Embree, who maintained his concentration and made a nice catch. There was also a little bit of a shift in philosophy to the offensive game plan – a little more creativity and definitely a little more risk. While many of the new wrinkles weren't necessarily greatly successful, like the double-reverse to Randall Carroll that gained just five yards, the desperate UCLA fan was appreciative of the attempts to do something different and get the ball into the hands of playmakers.
Yeah, again, I guess I'm desperate that I think I even saw a few positives in the first half.
The defense, even though it gave up 16 points, was fortunate. As I said above, OSU quarterback Sean Canfield looked a bit out-of-sync. Except for Korey Bosworth's sack, UCLA wasn't getting much pressure on him, and he still overthrew or threw behind a number of receivers. You felt that OSU certainly wasn't taking what UCLA was giving it. Heck, it seemed if OSU just took advantage of the 10-yard cushion UCLA's cornerbacks were giving OSU's receivers, and executed modestly well, it'd be able to drive the field repeatedly. OSU's offense then put 13 points on the scoreboard in the last six or so minutes of the first half. Jazquizz Rodgers throwing a touchdown pass to a wide open receiver out of the "Wild Beaver" formation, and then Canfield finding James Rodgers with a couple of steps on Alterraun Verner for a 37-yard gain that set up a field goal, and it seemed like they were getting it together, that the levies had broken and, again, the second half, was going to be a flood.
But that second half certainly didn't go the way anyone would have anticipated – except maybe that optimistic Bruin fan who thought he noticed a few things here and there that the Bruins were doing differently – and better.
From that point on, the stats were, well, encouraging. UCLA out-scored OSU in the second half, 19-10. They out-gained the Beavers 288 to 215 yards. Prince ended up out-throwing perhaps the most effective quarterback in the Pac-10, ending with 323 yards on 22-of-34 passing and two touchdowns and no interceptions, compared to Canfield's 305 and no touchdowns. It's the most yards gained through the air by a quarterback during the Rick Neuheisel era – in fact, besting the 311 yards Prince threw for against Cal this season.
The difference between the first half and the second? The difference between the second half of this game and the other 39 halves played in the last two seasons?
There were many, small subtle differences. But the big difference: UCLA actually accomplished a few big plays. Someone made a big play.
UCLA's dink-and-dunk offense has been without the big play for two seasons. It's due to a lack of execution, and simply a lack of playmakers. In the second half of this game, UCLA executed better and voila!, a playmaker emerged.
Nelson Rosario had the best performance by a UCLA receiver in a number of years, with six catches for 152 yards and a touchdown, averaging 25 yards per catch. His first catch of the second half was a very good one, where he went up and brought down a high throw from Prince for a gain of about 8. But it was just a precursor to that thing of beauty on the first UCLA possession of the fourth quarter, the one-handed grab where he went about two feet over his defender to bring it down, and then, one-on-one, took it to the house. It seemed Rosario, after he made the catch, was a bit stunned that he could actually stay on his feet and gain some yards, since it was such a foreign thing for a UCLA receiver. He then capped that with a short slant for the two-point conversion, and then topped that with the 46-yard reception where he was double-teamed and had to make a great, extended-handed catch. When he starts cockily shaking his head at opposing defenders, basically he's right: Yes, Nelson, if you play hard, you're talented enough that almost no one can cover you.
Sophomore Taylor Embree got in on the big-play party a bit too, with a great catch on a fade in the endzone for the last UCLA touchdown.
If you might have noticed, UCLA doesn't really have any juniors or seniors who are big-play guys at receiver. Terrence Austin just isn't capable of making the big play as a receiver (as a punt returner, yes – like we said in the game's preview). Gavin Ketchum, not a big-play guy.
So, not only has UCLA been trying to re-build its offense without an experienced, talented quarterback, it's been doing it without any other real playmakers at the skill positions. Perhaps the tight ends, Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen to a degree, and Paulsen's 23-yard catch-and-run on that final UCLA drive was key. Taylor Embree, the sophomore, is one of the young playmakers
But, now that you see the big plays, isn't it pretty clear that UCLA, for a year and a half, just didn't have the experienced guys who were capable of doing these kind of things offensively?
And, of course, you desperately need a playmaker at quarterback, and UCLA got one for clearly the first time under Neuheisel in the second half of this game.
With most players, especially quarterbacks, development happens in starts and stops. For Prince, he had gone through some "stops" this season, but you could definitely say the second half of the Oregon State game was a "start."
He came out in the third quarter and drove UCLA down the field, completing some big throws, especially on third down, throwing with confidence and poise, on UCLA's way to that first field goal (of course) of the half. It helps that Oregon State doesn't have a great pass rush or a particularly stellar pass defense, but Prince clearly did many things better in this 30 minutes – seeing the field better, looking off receivers, and delivering accurate, catchable balls. They say there are times when the game "slows down" for a player, and even though the game is probably still very "fast" for him, it did seem like it had slowed down at least a few MPH in this second half. And he did it all in a game on the road, in a hostile environment.
One of his best, simplest plays was the first play of UCLA's second possession. He stepped up in the pocket, looked down field, and then found Chane Moline on a little safety valve out of the backfield with a well-thrown ball. Those are the kinds of little bits of execution that make a huge difference in the effectiveness of an offense, that no UCLA quarterback, really, has been doing consistently in the last two seasons, but Prince "started" doing Saturday.
What's ironic, too, is in this game is one of the most recent, prime examples of a quarterback who many thought didn't have what it takes as a youngster and then blossomed into a very good one – Canfield. If you remember, UCLA fans were blatantly criticizing him during his sophomore season in 2007, saying he didn't have the stuff, but he's become a pretty good quarterback with seasoning and experience.
If you had to bet, you might think that it's going to come even a bit quicker for Prince. Maybe all of us novices will have a revelatory moment soon and realize that we shouldn't second-guess Norm Chow, since he is the guy who has been steadfastly confident from the beginning that Kevin Prince is the guy.
With the quarterback showing more capability, the offensive play-calling opened up. There were delays out of the shotgun, fly sweeps, throws to the fullback, and, especially, throws down field. It helps that the offensive line was giving Prince protection, and generally performed well throughout the game. It's a shame, literally, that UCLA ran out of time on its last drive, but even moreso because, after that second half, you just wanted to watch UCLA's offense. It's been so long since we saw anything like that, it's something to relish.
The defense, well, deserves some blame. We've given them credit when in the past they've yielded a ton of yards but kept opposing offenses out of the endzone. But in this one they deserve some blame for allowing OSU to get into the endzone on that final drive.
And, if you're a Cranky Bruin fan, there are two potentially game-clinching plays that you, well, are probably pretty cranky about. Austin's punt return for a touchdown was nullified by a push in the back by Steven Sloan, which was pretty much unnecessary and away from the play. And Alterraun Verner's potential interception with the endzone in front of him with two minutes left in the game after UCLA had just tied it 19-19 was more heart-breaking than anything. If there ever was a Bruin who deserved to make that play it's Verner.
But for the Bluish Bruin fan, which most of us have become since it's just too miserable to be a Crank right now, this was a game of optimism and hope. It clearly illustrated that UCLA has so little experienced talent to carry it in its re-building, and is having to do it mostly by waiting patiently for the talented youngsters to go through their "stops" and "starts" (Well, maybe not so patiently). And we know there are going to be quite a few more "stops" along the road, but now it's at least exciting to think about when this program actually does get some of its talented youngsters some experience.
It's the first time in a while that you actually can't wait for next Saturday.