Raising Reasonable Questions Despite Staying On Track For A Successful UCLA Football Season

So let's get something out of the way first. The season is not over. Not even close. I never expected our program to go undefeated this season or to make a charge to the Rose Bowl. In fact if folks go over my numerous off season posts going over season expectations, they will find people accusing me of protecting CRN and co. from high expectations (lol). I still believe that if CRN and co. can put together a 7 win season this year, he will have the program at a good place. That said, I think we have to be honest with ourselves with what we see with our own eyes.

One reason this blog took off during the dreaded Dorrell era was that we were always brutally frank and honest with what we were seeing with our own eyes on the field. Same factor has been in play during Ben Ball season. Even though we worship and love Coach Ben Howland, we have dished out our fair share of criticism of Coach Howland and our Ben Ball warriors after tough losses during last few years. So, if you are looking for a site which is going to blindly "trust in coaches" this is not the place to be. From what I saw with my own eyes yesterday, I believe that it wasn't Rick Neuheisel and his staff's best moments at UCLA. Till now Neuheisel has done a great job of rebuilding the program and getting the right pieces in place. That doesn't mean he can be immune from criticism from the world that bleeds blue and gold, when we think there are reasonable basis to raise questions. So let's go through some of the issues that are bugging me and hopefully we can have honest and respectful discussions on them and more importantly, the coaches will work on them even harder to address them during this game week.

Play Calling

I will start with play calling on offense. There are two specific instances during yesterday's game it became clear how vanilla/Donahuesque the play calling was under Nueheisel and Chow.

Offense

First, towards the end of the first quarter, UCLA got the ball down 3-7 on its 17 yard line. After couple of nice runs by Jet Ski and a completion from Craft to Presley UCLA had a first and 10 at its own 43 yard line. Here are how the plays unfolded to end the first quarter:

1st and 10 at UCLA 43    UCLA penalty 6 yard false start accepted.          
1st and 16 at UCLA 37    UCLA penalty 10 yard holding accepted.          
1st and 26 at UCLA 27    Kevin Craft pass complete to Derrick Coleman for 3 yards to the UCLA 30.          
2nd and 23 at UCLA 30    Derrick Coleman rush for 1 yard to the UCLA 31.

We have already dinged the coaches over the lack of discipline, focus. For me though what drove me crazy was the last two play calls. It was indicative of an offense that was shackled with limited options and playing with a safe/Donahue mentality of not playing to lose. Running up 1 yard on 2nd and 23. I mean come on. Really? That's not Dorrellian/Donahuesque conservative? Then what is?

Let's also look at the sequence during late Q4 that led up to UCLA's last score (a FG! yay!!!) once our offense got within 35 yards of Stanford's endzone:

1st and 10 at STAN 33    Kevin Craft pass complete to Cory Harkey for 6 yards to the Stanf 27.          
2nd and 4 at STAN 27    Johnathan Franklin rush for 2 yards to the Stanf 25.          
3rd and 2 at STAN 25    Timeout UCLA, clock 05:07.          
3rd and 2 at STAN 25    STANFORD penalty 5 yard pass interference accepted.          
1st and 10 at STAN 20    Kevin Craft pass incomplete.          
2nd and 10 at STAN 20    Johnathan Franklin rush for 3 yards to the Stanf 17.          
3rd and 7 at STAN 17    Kevin Craft pass incomplete.          
4th and 7 at STAN 17    Kai Forbath 35 yard field goal GOOD.

I don't believe the coaches made one attempt to take a shot downfield during that stretch. It was clear when we got down to 20 yard line the coaches were calling plays to make sure they were no effing up our chances for a FG. Again, no other way to describe that mentality other than Dorrellian/Donahuesque conservative. I saw it all too often during late Donahue years and it was frankly unpleasent.

Of course, an explanation is the coaches were working with what they had in Kevin Craft. Well in that case would it have been the end of the world if they tried out Richard Brehaut and see what he could do? I mean if they are going to have RBs slam up the Stanford wall for 2-3 yard gains in late Q1, then why not bring in Brehaut? What are they so afraid of? Losing? That's the exact mentality that ate up UCLA football during Dorrell years and eroded it until Toledo injected some life into it (with a huge assist from McNown) during Donahue's later years. It's not fun to watch or pleasent to follow and as I noted earlier today, I sure hope it's an aberration.

Defense

Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, it just reminded me of how the Walker coached UCLA defense usually forgets to show up in one or two games every season. Until the defense tightened up later in the second half, the way I would characterize is tentative and unsure. It appeared as if Chuck Bullough was coaching scared and as if he had to wait until the first few series to figure out what Stanford was scheming up. That is inexcusable given we all knew what was coming from Stanford and had two weeks to prepare. It's clear to opposing coaches that they can run on this defense by going outside. It's not clear whether our coaches have done anything to adjust to that.

We didn't see any kind of creative stunts or blitz packages and our DEs were getting mandhandled all over the place. Our LBs were lining up to far from the LOS. By the time Gerhart was blasting up he was running downhill and was gaining additional yardage from his explosive momentum. Again, I didn't get why Bullough didn't shake things up to disrupt Stanford's rhythm. The way we played it allowed a red shirt freshman QB to get comfortable and pick us apart the whole day. Lot of folks have rightly questioned why coaches didn't try out Viney when Sheldon Price at times was looking overwhelmed. And that takes me to personnel decisions made in that game.

Personnel Decisions

Yes, coaches have some explaining to do wrt to personnel use with our current roster.

Craft/Brehaut

First and foremost it starts with Craft/Brehaut situation. I understand and appreciate the argument on Craft's side. I also recognize how Craft yesterday perhaps played one of his best games (if not his best) as a UCLA QB. His numbers would have been better if Taylor Embree had made the trip to Palo Alto or Morrell Presley was not making freshman mistakes. Still, what is obvious to me that the offense is shackled with Craft at the helm. Coaches are not taking downfield shots with Craft because they just don't have the confidence in his ability to connect. If that is the case, then why didn't they try out Brehaut? Why didn't they try out Brehaut in late first quarter or during third quarter when they were dialing up one unimaginative running plays after another.

Also, on that note why UCLA offensive line had opened up some nice holes early on, it was clear Stanford made their in game adjustments and basically challenged Bruins to beat them with Kevin Craft's arm. Given the plays our coaches dialed up, it was evident they didn't have the confidence in Craft's arm, which in turn doesn't explain why they didn't try out Brehaut. BTW preserving Brehaut's redshirt season argument doesn't fly, given Neuehisel/Chow burned it in our first game.

Rosario/Carroll-Embree/Austin

It was clear from the first series that Embree's head wasn't in the game. Meanwhile, Rosario made an obvious impression during Kansas State. Yet didn't seem like he was in their much. And when he was in there he was making plays. It seems like Rosario is always racking up more YACs than Embree. Same goes for Terrence Austin. I get that Austin is a senior and a leader in the team. But from what I am seeing both Embree and Austin are running vanilla routes not getting much separation with the opposing DBs. So why not shake it up by trying out Randall Carroll and Nelson Rosario. It would have been nice to see if the coaches made an effort to take advantage of Carrolls' world class speed. We didn't get a whiff of it. Speaking of speed ...

Thigpen/Austin

... I think it's clear the kind of potential Damien Thigpen has. He was electrifying in the touches he got yesterday. That brings me to the question why not try him out more on special teams and have him return kickoffs. From what I am seeing from Austin when he is returning kickoffs he is dancing around a little too much and not returning with a lot of determination. So again why not shake it up and go with the young talent that's available. I'd think that if the coaches went with the young talent, they would be able to entice recruits even more. No?

Focus/Discipline

We have alluded to this issue few times already since the end of yesterday's game. We talked all week about how important it was for our defense to set the tone. Many will argue that it was Rahim Moore's play (in which he suffered a concussion) that set the tone for the game. After the Cardinal converted that first down, then went on to drive right down our throat to score a TD. It was a statement that resonated throughout the game.

However, that wasn't the only demoralizing penaties that hurt us yesterday. Early in Q3 when Stanford had the ball on their 46 yard line, the defense stopped Gerhart for a loss, putting them at 2nd and 13 on their 43. Of course in the very next play the defense gave up an offside penalty to turn it into 2nd and 8, making it more managble for Luck and co. The next play was the flea flicker to Whalen, that effectively seem to decide the game.

As I have said in the comment sections, I don't have an explanation for these penalties. Sure we can chalk them up to youth. However, at the same time if the coaches are looking to bank on a shackled offense, then they also have a responsibility to make sure the team is playing smart and focused football, to make up for the limited abilities of its backup QB. They didn't seem to get it done.

Other Observations

As for penalties, yes as usual we were burned by SPTRs. However, I am not going to complain about it. Good teams play through BS refereeing particularly in the pathetic Pac-10. We didn't do it yesterday.

Speaking of pathetic, David Norrie is probably the worst UCLA alum broadcaster. He is the Karl Dorrell of UCLA broadcaster. He is terrible. Unlike media personalities such as MJD, Bill Walton, Reggie Miller and Rick Neuheisel (when he appeared on media as a commentator during his non UCLA coaching days), Norrie calls our games as if he is ashamed to admit his UCLA connections. In his effort to make himself look impartial, he makes it worse. I really hope we don't have to hear him broadcast other UCLA games. He sucks. Plain and simple.

Postives From Yesterday

Well I do have couple of positive notes to share from yesterday. Forbath is awesome. However, at the same time I feel like our coaches are getting too much in a comfort zone, counting on his gimmes. The guy who gets the game ball from UCLA pov yesterday  is Jeff Locke. He had a great all around game. Sad that we are celebrating kickers again. What's that word again? Dorr ... never mind.

Also, the defense does deserve some credit for making it a game and fighting back in second half. However, as I suspected all along their late starts would eventually cost us. It did yesterday.

Lastly, as I said above, the season is not over. Not by any means. We have an extremely tough football game coming up next weekend. I am not sure right now whether we can win it. However, I would like to see us come out and fight like we did against Tennessee from the opening kick off and play smart football. I want them to play their hearts out, play with fire, and eliminate as much "what ifs" as possible. CRN knows it. He is on record. The Bruin Nation is "dying for" it.

GO BRUINS.

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