Bellerophon set out a well-reasoned post expressing many of the frustrations of UCLA fans, shining a spotlight on some of our glaring weaknesses, and advocating for some strong measures (including parting ways with Norm Chow) in a front page piece here.
While I understand the frustrations and acknowledge the problems, I respectfully disagree with the suggested courses of action. I also think that the Cal game was not a huge surprise, based on what we have seen from the team so far this season; and getting another three wins this season would also not be a big surprise. It was an embarrassing beatdown, but does not change my opinion much on the talent/quality/consistency/performance of our players and coaches. We could win up to 5 games going forward, or lose all 6 remaining, depending on "the little things". More detailed thoughts after the jump.
[note: while in general this is in response to B's post, read his post if you want his opinion, don't assume something I am saying implies that he said something; in some places I am responding to things others said]
Why was the beatdown in Berkeley not a huge surprise? People have talked a lot about Prince's passing ability (and at a meta-level, the decision to play him), and going into the game people were talking a lot about Bullough's soft playcalling on 3rd-and-long allowing our opponents to sustain drives. I don't think either of these factors were the fundamental issues in this game. Cal is a bad matchup for us on both sides of the ball.
On our defensive side: we do not have the ability to defend against run-first or balanced offenses right now. Playing against the traditional Cal 2-headed running back monster and a veteran (if much-maligned) QB, it was always likely to be a long day. While I am typically the first to rail against over-simplifying statistics, here are our yards-per-carry allowed numbers for our first 6 games:
@ KSU: 5.8 ypc
Stanford: 4.3 ypc
Houston: 3.6 ypc
@ Texas: 3.7 ypc
WSU: 2.4 ypc
@ Cal: 5.5 ypc
Unsurprisingly, in games giving up 4.3 ypc or more we lost; giving up 3.7 ypc or less, we won.
Our DL is not a strong point of our team (partly due to injury), and it seems to me that our best defensive playmaker, Akeem Ayers, is at his best trying to disrupt and get to the quarterback on passing plays, and sometimes finds himself out of position - or schemed out of the play - on rushing plays. Veteran offensive lines and savvy playcalling neutralize our best defensive weapon. Cal has the type of offense that we do not defend well. [a brief aside to B's post - I don't see much that shows that our LB performance is reason for elevating Clark Lea. Our LBs do not seem to be providing great run support (why is Tony Dye making so many tackles?) and get picked on in the passing game.]
On our offensive side: to me, the biggest difference between the game @Cal and (say) the game against Texas is that our offensive line was completely unable to make inroads against Cal. Yes, Prince could not make passes, and yes the receivers do not catch balls or help anyone out; but the reason we were going to the air so often was because we could not establish a running game on its own merits. I do not think this was so much a personnel matchup issue as it was the fact that Cal had a bye week to scout us and had already played against a more complete version of the same offensive scheme against Nevada. To date, we have been able to open up small holes for our running backs on a majority of plays - not so against a Cal team that maintained its discipline, did not overcommit and plugged holes as soon as they appeared. Our OL were unable to go on the offensive in the rushing game, put us in holes with penalties, and could not pass protect. Cal was unusually well-prepared to face our rushing offense, and with Prince rusty again after missing time again, we were unable to make passing plays to balance our offense.
So far, so what? Other people may have a similar assessment of the game and have the attitude that both our coordinators and multiple position coaches need to be replaced, but there are some reasons I do not. But first, I should say I would have no problem with Bullough or Moore leaving at the end of the season. I don't like watching UCLA play defense, aside from watching Akeem run around making ridiculous plays, and he'll be gone at the end of the year. On Moore: I think it is clear that the unit that has most underperformed its talent level without any extenuating circumstances is the WR corps - we are deep at that position, should have competition and reliably high levels of performance, and they should be helping out our QBs as we adapt to the pistol; but I see none of that.
But the place I completely disagree with B is on the question of Norm Chow. I think that the decision to go with the pistol was a fundamentally good decision and I think he should be given the time to sort it out. I am in favor of giving him as much time as we give CRN, and then they can both leave if it turns out they fail at what they are doing; but right now, I think we have seen glimpses of a smart offensive mind that is still being somewhat hampered by our personnel.
In particular, I think that if we were still trying to play a pro-style offense as our base offense, we would not have won 3 games this year behind an offensive line that is missing ~5(?) players from the projected 2-deep, including the starting center and the top-2 left tackles. I love what our OL has managed to do this season, and huge credit goes to Coach Palcic as well, but fundamentally those guys are not elite D-1 linemen. This becomes apparent any time we try to drop back and pass the ball: we cannot protect the QB in the pocket when the pass rush is coming (again, an issue when you have your 3rd string LT starting, even though Sheller is manning up and giving his all). We have got by so far on our offensive scheme being able to utilize the talents we have in the best possible way, using misdirection and zone blocking to create space for our playmaking running backs. When we have had to pass, CNC has tried to keep Prince on the move to give him a little time to throw, but the QBs and WRs have not executed the plays; and it doesn't look like this is some high-minded OC asking too much of his players, it is players who are on scholarship to execute a limited range of skills not doing what they are on the roster to do. I also understand the frustration with CNC's confidence in Prince to the exclusion of others - Prince hasn't thrown well, and isn't a dynamic running threat, so why not try a better-passing, not-much-worse-running QB like Brehaut? - but fundamentally, he seems to believe our best chance to win games is to establish a running game through executing our pistol plays, and that Brehaut simply does not make the right decisions to make that happen, in practice or in the game. We have seen Prince pass the ball decently in his freshman year, so we know it is not physical incapability, and they clearly think he can pull it together; it seems on the other hand that they have seen nothing from Brehaut that suggests he can run the offense the way they want to run it. Given that Prince is our #1 guy for running this offense, then it is also reasonable to cite his injuries as a mitigating factor in our performance to date.
In short on CNC: going to the pistol was a forward-thinking long-term strategy that has paid some immediate dividends for a team that has been severely hampered by injuries and other factors ravaging our depth charts, and I think he should be given the time, with CRN, to see this through for at least one more season. In the longer term, the prospect of a solid offensive line blocking for the tandem of Hundley and Jones is exciting, if we can get that far. I think CNC and CRN have made decisions that are aimed at reaching competitive greatness and are putting their jobs on the line to do so, rather than trying to play their way safely to a ceiling of 8-4 seasons based on superior talent.
I was a total CNC skeptic heading into this season and I was lukewarm on extending him, thinking that perhaps his reputation was built more on superior (and often ineligible..) players at his disposal, but now I believe he and CRN have a plan. A plan that involves some growing pains, and a plan that can only show so much in a season with a decimated OL and a first choice QB hampered by missing time due to injury. But a plan that we should allow to play out.
Probably the most oft-quoted line on these boards by someone other than the greatest coach in the history of sports is Albert Einstein's line:
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
While some use this as blanket justification for changing any and all things if you are losing, I would say that at the highest level CRN and CNC are doing a different thing and expecting different results, and cutting this before the end of next season (when we will have had a full off-season committed to it) would be a mistake.
Going forward, I am hoping for 6-6 including a win over $c. I do not think that is unrealistic, though I think 5-7 is probably what I am expecting at this point. I think teams will scout our run game better, but I expect that our passing game will show some improvement if Prince can stay healthy the rest of the season. Going 3-6 in conference again, even against possibly the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the country, would be disappointing but potentially redeemable with a big improvement next year. 3-6 or worse this year and a lack of significant improvement next year and CRN and CNC will be on the hottest of hot seats. At least, that's my take, for whatever it is worth, and I am sure many here will take a stronger line.