Let's start this Sunday where we started in the last one. If there are any Bruin "fans" here delusional enough to think we can win 8-10 regular season games, they need to stop making a fool out of themselves. It's a huge relief that we won yesterday's game despite having a very predictable and classic UCLA "letdown" against a struggling Washington State program, which is going through the worst stretch any Pac-10 team has gone through in recent years. However, despite that relief it'd be foolish to draw any kind of big picture conclusion from yesterday and recalibrating our season expectations for the rest of this year.
For starters our team does deserve credit for holding it together and fighting back after it fell behind in the third quarter. However, the fact that they fell behind was not a good marker. It was not a good marker to give up 21 straight points after failing to show the killer instinct thanks to some questionable play calling during the second and third quarters of this game. Still I guess it is comforting to know that the Bruins didn't pull off yet another "classic UCLA choke" which would have stuck out like a "signature Bruin loss" after all the bloviating we read about a "signature win" against Texas Longhorns.
What we all need to collectively brace for is this. Right now this UCLA team is going to go through a lot of highs and lows. Yesterday's "victory" despite being a win - to me - sticks out as a setback following the high experienced in Austin. Now this doesn't mean that the season is a goner. That is hardly the case. What I do hope is the coaches and players, collectively feel a sense of urgency heading up to Strawberry Canyon, and figure out how they can put together the same level of practice intensity they were reportedly showing prior to the Texas game.
I don't expect the Bruins to win either against California or Oregon. There I said it. I don't think Bruins are going to win there with the performance I have seen to date. That said, don't think that will mean the end of our season. What do I expect from the Bruins though is to work on putting together a complete game on both sides of the ball starting next week and build from there.
To date we have not seen a complete game from UCLA. Against Texas we put together a pretty dominating defensive performance where we are able to get pressure on the opposing team with a 4 men front. However, the offense didn't click till the second half. Now yesterday when we all hoped the Bruins would finally put together a complete game, the defense essentially went to sleep and lollygagged after we went up by a score of 20-7. I am not just making that observation - the admission came from the team itself. More after the jump.
The comments from Chuck Bullough in Jon Gold's game report:
For good reason: UCLA allowed Washington State to creep back into the game and eventually take command, the Cougars tallying 10 plays of more than 15 yards and at one point leading 28-20 before the Bruins buckled down.
"We were banging them as a staff - 'This is a Pac-10 team, they're going to come in ready to go' - but we scored twice early, and we kind of let down," Bullough said.
"Even though the coaches on the sidelines were ripping them to keep it up, I thought the players kind of said, 'All right, it's over, this is not going to be that hard.'
"Then we had to pick it back up in the second half: 'Oh, yeah, we are in a game.'"
If Bullough made those comments during Karl Dorrell era, we would have called him out for throwing the players under the bus (just like his predecessor did at times). Same applies here. I find Bullough's comment perplexing because it didn't seem just the players who were getting relaxed, Bullough's playcalling itself was anything but aggressive until the situation got desperate late in the third and fourth quarter.
To be fair there are some really knowledgeable bloggers on BN such as jtthirtyfour and logan_5, whose opinion I respect a lot, who have advanced the argument (apologies to them if I am misrepresenting it and invite them to correct yours truly in the comment threads) that Bullough's scheme has been fine, it's been a matter of players not executing it. Yet, from what I am seeing while watching these games is a defense that always goes to a vanilla nickel package and continues to get shredded in 3rd and long situations. Perhaps one of the video gurus here can slice up a video zeroing on how our defense performs on 3rd and long situations (with 6 or more yards to go) because all of us feel like pulling our collective hair out.
I simply don't understand as a fan what Bullough and his staff are thinking when they keep going back to 3 linemen rushing and passively letting opposing teams repeatedly burn us on 3rd and long. From what I can see, it seems like Bullough basically relies on getting rush from his front while bringing disguised blitzes around the corner. It seemed to work against Houston and Texas. However, from what I can remember watching yesterday's game, didn't feel like we saw much of that until late in the game. There was no pressure on the quarterback, who seemed to have all day have a cup of coffee and pick apart our D, during that disastrous first half closing drive.
Again, I'd like to be fair to Bullough given there are football savvy bloggers here on BN who think he is adequate. If someone has the chops for it, I'd genuinely would love to read their thoughts on how the defensive game planning for yesterday was adequate. Of course as I noted at the very top, we should be careful about making too much about one game. Perhaps we can chalk it up as the classic let down and expect these guys to come out with a different mindset next Saturday. I really don't know what to expect at this point and I don't think we are going to have definitive answers until we have taken in the data for another 4-5 games.
There are few other aspects of our defense that really bothers me. The following has happened not just against Washington State but also in other games this season:
- It seems like our D has a difficult time with handling screen passes. Perhaps this goes back to the issue of tackling and fundamentals, which have been an issue for this team through early part of this season except against Houston and Texas.
- One personal foul here and there is fine as a sign of aggressiveness. However, this seems to be a chronic problem with our defense. Perhaps it's an issue with having such a young team breaking in lot of new starters. I really hope we see tangible improvement in this department in next 3-4 games.
- Someone needs to talk to Sheldon Price. His talking smack while the D is getting sliced up is embarrassing and very unBruin like. Price has done a lot to improve from his tough freshman campaign but he needs to mature in mental aspects of his game. He makes the entire team look awful when he runs his mouth and then promptly gets tangled up with his PI calls. Of course, speaking of PI, guess now we know what coaches meant when they talked about Aaron Hester playing under control while maintaining his aggressiveness. Again, we hope we can see improvement in terms of discipline and maturity from these two guys and rest of the defense in next few games.
Also, I am a little concerned about Akeem's health. AA was injured a little during Texas game. It was thought to be a mild shoulder sprain. He just didn't look right yesterday. As a result we weren't getting a lot of pressure from our four men front. This is something the team has to address and it goes back to the need for Bullough to get creative (and aggressive) with the athletes he has on his roster. Also, on the same note per the LAT Dalton Hilliard also suffered a "sprained right shoulder" yesterday. Hope both of these guys are fine because they are two of our hardest tacklers on the team.
Speaking of incomplete pictures, it'd be foolish to make too much out of Richard Brehaut's performance against Washington State (even though that's what Chris Fosters of the world are trying to do). The kid had a nice start in the first drive completing 5 out of his first 6 passes. He was 7 out of 17 for rest of the day. He did have some nice moments in terms of showing pocket presence (which appeared improved from last season), stepping into his throw, and managing the game while we fell behind which included the nice keeper in his TD score. I liked that throw he made to Taylor Embree for the 2 point conversion. Yet as I said, it'd be silly to make too much out of this game.
Similarly on the downside Brehaut appeared to have missed few reads and also seems not at Prince's level in terms of selling the run hard out of the revolver formation. As I said, I think yesterday's game doesn't really tell us all that much. However, it is comforting to know we have a serviceable backup if Prince's injury issues continue to persist. I think Brehaut will eventually develop into a solid QB at UCLA. I am not all that worried about how the QB spacing issue resolves because there will be opportunities to get him shirted either in his junior or senior season.
As for rest of the offense, don't think I have to add anything to praise the "Filthy Five," JetSki and Derrick Coleman. If we need to get an idea on how our OL are excelling in the current zone blocking scheme, we just have to watch the sequence in which Ryan Taylor - Pac-10 PoW from last week - loses his hat while getting into what appeared to be 3rd level in maintaining his block. I like the fact how JetSki responded to his fumble but hopefully it's not going to happen much rest of this season, especially while we are on the road next two weeks. As for Derrick Coleman, he is validating why Neuheisel, Norm Chow and our coaches trusted him with carries.
Bruins are now 10th in the nation in rushing offense averaging 262.4 yards a game. It will be interesting to see what happens to that number as we go through rest of this season. What I do hope is that Norm Chow can trust his OL and depend on it as his bread and butter. As mentioned last night, the game turned when we decided to get a little too cute while we had an opportunity to pound it in with either DC or Jet Ski on 1st and goal during the second quarter. Had we scored a TD in that sequence, trusting our rushing attack, I think the game would have been effectively over.
As for other micro issues related to our offense some of my game notes:
- Really appreciated James Washington's candor re. Taylor Embree. It is getting past time for the need for Embree to step up. Catching that 2 point conversion was nice. However, his performance to date in his junior season has been more than disappointing. He has dropped at least 2 TD passes this year. He doesn't seem to be playing with much confidence and I am not sure he has improved at all since his freshman year. I think Embree is a case, where we really have to zero in on the job WR coach Reggie Moore. It doesn't seem like he has been making progress as he has gone along in his UCLA career. The question is why and if he is not getting it done, why aren't we seeing more of other young guys on the roster.
- Speaking of young guys on the roster - hello Jerry Johnson. Nice to meet you. Hope you get to stick around and make few more of those catches.
- Sure hope coaches figure out more ways to get Josh Smith the ball. He can certainly make a difference when gets the ball.
- Malcolm Jones still looks tentative following his fumbles against Houston. It seems like he is thinking too much instead of reacting to the game flow.
I will try to wrap this up with some positive vibe (we won after all) with this from CRN:
"I think the lesson that I'm going to focus on from this game is our ability to respond when things look bleak," Neuheisel said.
And from Rahim Moore (who was responsible for that momentum changing stick at our goal line):
"An ugly win is still a win"
And I will also point to the comical turnaround in the OC Register, kicking our team to the curb just days after they were trying to jump on our "bandwagon." (just silly for anyone to buy into their "positive" nonsense).
The lesson is this. It's an old one but we will keep preaching it relentlessly. Ultimately what will matter is how the team improves game by game, giving us the data points to paint a complete sketch towards the end of the season. As of right now, we just don't have enough info. to draw a definitive conclusions about this year's UCLA team. Sure there are lots of positive stats we can take comfort in yet there are number of questions that still remain unanswered.
Let's hope our team works their rear end off to work for their next big test (every game is a big one as they learned the hard way yesterday) for next Saturday.