Chiccoa: Slide Area Averted

Football columnist has gathered his thoughts about the EagleBank Bowl win over Temple, and some more thoughts about some of the issues facing the program for next season...

Down 7-21 to Temple with 48 seconds remaining until halftime, please do not tell me you were not contemplating another humiliating loss on national TV. (Tracy, of course, wasn't worried, but then he's got "The Shining.")

Imagine trying to sell relentless optimism to available recruits while having to justify a second straight losing season, including a year ender to Temple(!) for Godsakes. Luckily, Al Golden is a pretty cocky coach, and he played it a bit too loose just before the half, permitting his underdog Owls to throw it a couple of times, stopping the clock twice, thus allowing the Bruins just enough time to begin their rally.

A poor punt, a couple of nice pass plays, a lucky break when Chane Moline finally stepped out of bounds with one second left on the clock (shades of Colt McCoy), an automatic Kai Forbath field goal and the Bruins were back in the locker room with a little momentum and a more manageable 10-21 deficit. Oh, and they'd be receiving in the second half (which is just another example why you always defer if you win the coin toss).

As we all know, the Bruins immediately climbed back into the game. After setting up UCLA's first score with a 48-yard punt return, Terrence Austin brought back the kickoff to midfield, then, with the Temple secondary sucked in on that 4th and 1, he immediately cashed in the flat pass (great call by Norm Chow), nicely straddling the sideline for the score. Then, in quick succession, the Bruins stopped the Owls' only second-half drive on another 4th and 1... and, oops, Akeen Ayers did it again… and, oops, Temple's long snapper set the Guinness World Record for height and distance while the Bruins' D would completely stone Temple's offense, which had worked them for about 250 yards in the first half (Give some credit to the Owls. They executed pretty well for a half.). Then again, maybe someday the Bruin D will come out in attack mode and/or make their adjustments sometime before halftime. I mean, first-half points also count.

The Bruins should certainly be given credit for handling a difficult situation well. To fall fourteen points down to an inspired, confident underdog playing a virtual home game, not panicking, dealing with that icy surface… none of it should be underestimated. It was also undeniably nice to see guys like Austin, Reggie Carter and Chane Moline play well in a win, closing out what must have been a disappointing four- or five-year career.

*****

It's no news to any Bruin fan that these are not the best of times for the two major Bruin sports (Who could've imagined that a 6-6 regular season would have smelled good next to the smoking rubble [today] of the basketball program?).

Improvement has been the watchword and, sure enough, 7-6 is better than 4-8. But the difference is in intersectional play, not conference play. In both '08 and '09 the Bruins finished 8th in the Pac-10 at a dismal 3-6. The difference, obviously, is that in '08 the Bruins got smoked at BYU and lost to Fresno State, whereas this season they beat San Diego State for the 21st time (against 0 losses and one tie) and Kansas State… both games as solid home-field favorites. And then barely qualified as the last bowl team of the season when Navy (a solid favorite) again dispatched Army for the umpteenth time. Seriously, the Cadets should consider applying to the Ivy League, at least for sports.

The Bruin defense, particularly after Reggie Carter's injury (and it was thought a lame Reggie was better than any healthy alternative), was nothing to brag about. Rahim Moore and Akeem Ayers were everything we could have hoped for, Alterraun Verner was his usual dependable self and Brian Price finished up as the most talented Bruin defensive lineman I've ever seen. Otherwise, the rest of the D was merely adequate, with the exceptions of Sheldon Price and Tony Dye, whose play was not even up to that. Price was like a thin reed in a high wind when it came to run support, and he wasn't particularly good in coverage. The coaching staff keeps going on about his "upside," his "bright future," but it certainly wasn't on show Saturdays. We'll know more about him come spring. Dye's play seemed to go downhill as the season wore on. Needless to say, Aaron Hester's injury was a heavy blow to the secondary.

The offense wasn't that much of an improvement over '08, the major difference being about a dozen less picks by Prince. Kevin Craft was the worst quarterback in the conference in '08, and Prince was among the worst in '09. In neither year could the offense drive the ball, not that the quarterback position was the sole reason, but it was certainly the main reason.

For the past eleven seasons the Bruins have had only one satisfactory offense, Drew Olson's senior year. And even that was marred by two humiliating losses. Remember how we used to bitch about Cory Paus? Little did we know he was almost as good as it would get.

In both '08 and '09 the rushing game was even worse than the passing game. Johnathan Franklin was the best of a bad lot of tailbacks, and there was his fumbling, which rightfully put him on the bench. Not that the running backs were the sole reason, since the offensive lines, both years, were also nothing to write home about, though last season saw at least some improvement. Unfortunately, UCLA has now become one of the easiest Pac-10 offenses to defend.

Prince is obviously the key player next year and possibly beyond. Chow, just as obviously, still believes in him. Some of us are not so sanguine. Chow's on record as being impressed with Prince's "mental capacity," thinks he's "smart," likes his "toughness." He doesn't say much about Prince's instincts, how he sees the field, his pocket presence or his accuracy. Perhaps Prince's problems will, after all, prove to be mere lack of experience, since he lost his senior year of high school to injury and didn't play at all last season. One hopes Chow is not wrong about Prince. In any case it's hard to imagine Richard Brehaut starting in next season's opener.

Rick Neuheisel has said: "I'm sold on Prince, but not to the point where [Richard] Brehaut can't see a chance of winning the job. We want good competition at every position. Kevin will start the spring as first-string quarterback, and while I've seen marked improvement in him, I want to see more." This sounds more like it, but if there's some measure of disagreement here between Neuheisel and Chow, one can't help wondering whose personality is more dominating. Since it's Neuheisel's program, his voice should dominate, and in this instance I hope it does.

The Bruins lose six starters off the defense along with one significant backup, Jess Ward. The somewhat iffy Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough will need to replace three quarters of the front four, two linebackers and a hugely valuable four-year starter in Verner. I count something around ten defensive freshmen who red-shirted, along with perhaps four promising reserves, Damien Holmes, David Carter, Reggie Stokes and Glenn Love (and, of course, the injured Hester). One hopes there's at least a couple of incoming freshmen who will challenge for significant playing time. In other words, the 2010 defense is a huge question mark. On the other hand, it might prove to be a bit more athletic overall.

With the Bruins' one unquestionably talented offensive lineman, Xavier Su'a-Filo, gone for a couple of years on his mission, the O line seems to be in the position of having lots of "guys," including four or five who have started with at least some success. One hopes Stan Hasiak might calm down and return to school with a saner attitude, but who knows? How it all shakes out will be very interesting. At least they won't have Price to kick them around any more.

The skill positions should be in pretty good shape. At wide receivers, Nelson Rosario, Taylor Embree, the redshirt Ricky Marvray and the very promising transfer, Josh Smith, look solid. At tight end, there's Cory Harkey, Nate Chandler, yet another quality transfer in Joseph Fauria and, of course, the hybrid, Morrell Presley. Two hugely promising, committed freshmen, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James should shake up the tailback position for sure, along with Franklin and possibly Damian Thigpen. If Milton Knox doesn't transfer, I'd be surprised. That's only a feeling (I don't have sources) and hardly an original take. The question mark here, of course, is once again the quarterbacking.

*****

Neuheisel is really beginning to grow on me. It seems you'd have to be a radical Crank not to root for him to pull UCLA out of the morass that's been a decade in the making. I think he's absolutely sincere in his dedication to bring UCLA back to what it was and what it should be… and, if he succeeds, I believe he'll be here for life. His recruiting skills seem beyond question, but he's going to have to start winning at a quicker pace than his first two years in order to justify "the pitch." And you'd hate to see him sink for want of a quarterback. (Hopefully, if Prince and Brehaut fail him, Brett Nottingham will prove to be "the fly in the ointment" and just what the doctor ordered.)

It hasn't exactly been fun writing about this program, but I do find I'm getting lots more reading done. In the back yard, we have two towering birch trees (at least I believe they're birch), and each fall I seem to be raking up more leaves, earlier and earlier. But it's no more than occupational therapy. Perhaps if the Bruins pick up the pace in an increasingly more challenging Pac-10, I can begin thinking about hiring a gardener. That would be nice.


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