Chiccoa: Staying on Track

Football columnist Charles Chiccoa remains cautiously optimistic going into the two-game stretch of UCLA's schedule that could seriously begin to redeem Rick Neuheisel's program...

I'm not exactly sure what to take from the game at Washington State other than the fact of increased confidence for both players and coaches… which is no small thing. 43 - 7 looks nice enough in the media, but thanks to that ugly five-game skid, UCLA remains just another blip on the national radar. They have lots of work to do.

Before that fourth quarter at Oregon State, UCLA football projected nothing so much as frustration and insecurity. Players and coaches may never have doubted themselves, but then neither does their Pac-10 opposition (with, of course, one exception). I mean, Rick Neuheisel didn't invent the concept of "relentless optimism."

Despite all the disingenuous poor-mouthing that goes on in college football – something Lou Holtz raised to the level of an art form – you'll find few genuinely insecure personalities anywhere in the world of major sports. And for those few alien souls wondering what the hell they're doing still in the game, their life as a coach, or athlete, is generally short or nearing its end. But the sort of rock-solid confidence every good football player, or program, either demonstrates, or is seriously chasing, can only properly be found on Game Days, not on the practice field.

What do players mean when they say the game is slowing down for them? What else but the gift of confidence and poise which enables them to relax, think and execute in the heat of intense, violent competition. The quality of opposition inevitably varies, but the ability to play well, and play smart, usually remains (though everyone is human, even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, or that pair of ugly, deeply unlikable coaches, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick).

Confidence is about all the Bruins can take from wins vs. Washington and Washington State… and what they'll take into the tougher, more important games vs. Arizona State and SC the next two weeks.

We knew Washington State was among the worst teams in the country, and one of the very worst in Pac-10 history. Wazzu, as they like calling themselves, has always operated at a relative resource deficit based mainly on their middle-of-nowhere location. Only jock-friendly recruiting standards, along with the occasional talented quarterback and high-pressure coach, have ever succeeded in making this program respectable. In fact, UCLA's recent history of losses to the Cougs – ten since 1992, six of them of the embarrassing sort – is only one measure of how deep this extended Age of Irrelevance (or Dark Age) for UCLA has really been.


It would be hard to complain about the Bruins' defensive performance: Of Wazzu's eight first-half possessions, three ended in picks, there were three punts, one fumble and a safety. Their longest "drive" was four plays, one time. They ran only about 50 plays for the entire game. WSU's miniscule offensive numbers came to 7 first downs and 181 total yards. Not bad, that. One hopes Chuck Bullough may have gained enough confidence for the next two games to play it a little looser, bring a bit more heat, stuff the box a bit tighter. ASU hasn't demonstrated much in the way of quarterback talent, and Pete may have to wait on that projected Heisman (or two) for his boy, young Master Barkley, who seems to have hit a wall of some kind. Kevin Prince, on the other hand, seems to be progressing apace.

Any doubts about Prince are gradually beginning to dissolve, at least for me; one hopes the trend continues. Since coming back from injury, he's looked more confident and formidable by the week. He's steadier in the pocket and making stronger, more accurate throws downfield. And he's quicker making decisions to check down or tuck and run. (Were you surprised at how fast he looked sprinting down the sideline on that 68-yard TD?) And isn't it curious how much better the wide receivers look now that they're getting more catchable balls thrown their way. Funny how few complaints we've heard lately about the lack of talent and/or effort from Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree and Terrence Austin. The dumbest, most tiresome football cliché is the one that goes… if you can get a hand on it you should catch it. And the dumbest, most tiresome BRO cliché is the one linking Rosario to the never ready, never to be forgotten, Brian Poli-Dixon (wash your mouth out with soap).

Brian Price continues to play at his usual All-American level; enjoy him while you can. With Jerzy Siewierski seemingly on the mend and Jess Ward benefiting from all the Saturday reps as his replacement, the front four should be chomping at the bit to show in a better light than during the losing streak.

It would be nice if Reggie Carter's knee improved to the point he could run sideline to sideline again. Or that Aaron Hester could finally fill out the "other corner" so there could be some adequate run support over there (Aaron, we've missed you). Sheldon Price may be as good in coverage as the coaches believe he'll become, but right now, in addition to being too slight physically, he shows little inclination to take on running backs and receivers heading upfield. Since he's six inches taller and five pounds lighter than me, I can't say I blame him.

The most troubling area at the moment is obviously the running game. With Johnathan Franklin looking psyched out (while possibly channeling Marc Tyler's old man), and with Derrick Coleman slated to be the new starter, it looks like an ensemble cast at tailback… and that's never good. I don't want to say Coleman's a four-yard Freddie, but he's not as quick or fast as Franklin and Milton Knox, and he's not as good on short yardage and swing passes as Chane Moline (who's coming off his best performance as a Bruin). Which leaves them with a sort of tweener tailback/fullback. What UCLA needs most is for someone to grab the position by the throat, earn 20 or 25 carries a game and not give up the ball. Coleman, unfortunately, doesn't have great hands or much explosion, and he can't really take advantage of those rare chances to break off a long run, rather than getting the minimum out of a maximum opportunity.

So now it's two-down-one-to-go in order to get to November 28th and a shot to seriously begin redeeming this program. As the losing streak continued, you could read the desperation in Neuheisel's face, hear it in his voice. But straits are not as dire today as then. However, a loss to the offensively challenged Sun Devils would take the air right out of the modest little bubble that's been forming these last couple of games. This Saturday, at home, should be treated like a dead-serious business trip. The team is a solid favorite over a respectable enough opponent; they have some momentum and should certainly know enough to bring the hammer from the opening kickoff.

Bruin fans have lost that hopeless feeling and are even getting a little salty. As the saying goes, win and advance.

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