The criteria most people seem to be using to judge our UCLA football program are some combination of the following: our final overall record for this season, the overall performance level for this season in terms of how we have looked in all of our games, and our overall record over the last four years. These are all reasonable measures but in my opinion are not the best measure. Let me relate how I have arrived at the perspective I now have.
After the Arizona game I was completely deflated. That was a completely unacceptable, inexcusable, and embarrassing performance in every way. As someone here aptly put it, it wasn't fair to the term embarrassing to refer to it as that. As a season ticket holder I was even ambivalent about whether I should attend the remaining games, since the season seemed all but lost. I decided to go to the Cal game which to me felt almost like going to a funeral. I fully expected Cal to beat us as they have the last three years, and that would be the final nail in the coffin for the season. However much to my surprise our team played very well on both sides of the ball. I had already given up on our defense which hadn't played well in even one game this season, but much to my surprise they held a decent Cal team to 14 points which came only from two turnovers that gave them the ball deep in our territory. And the offense looked really good with the new dimension of Kevin Prince making beautiful fakes and rushing for 163 yards (and not getting injured). After Cal held Utah to 13 yards rushing the week before I feared that Cal would stuff our offense. But we played by far our best game of the year and not only won the game but beat them by 17 points and had 263 yards rushing. I was very surprised and at least cautiously optimistic, but I feared what would happen next against a much better Arizona St. team. Some people I know were saying that they thought we would be competitive against them, but people said the same thing before the Texas game, and we all know how that turned out. And we have performed particularly badly against really good passing teams this year, and my worst fear was that this might be a repeat of the Arizona game.
However again to my surprise we played a really good overall game against a significantly better opponent than last week. The offense moved the ball consistently with a consistent rushing attack and a couple of huge passing plays that were the difference in the game. The defense played well overall holding an explosive Arizona St. offense to 28 pt. which was good enough to win. And we overcame two terrible fumbles as well as penalties that nullified 3 or 4 of our biggest offensive plays of the game. And the team played with real heart throughout the game and especially in that last game winning drive.
What I see is a team that beat a decent Cal team by 17 pt. and now just beat the #18 ranked team in the country. We beat an Arizona St. team that has a dynamic offense and a good defense who had beaten a currently nationally ranked USC team by 21 points and who played very respectably on the road against a top 10 Oregon team, and who was ranked #18 nationally pretty deep into the season. The UCLA team that I am seeing does not look like the same team I was watching up to the Cal game. And it doesn't look like any UCLA team I have seen here over the last few years. The UCLA team over the last two games looks to me like a top 25 team, and the win tonight over a ranked team validates that with some measure of objectivity. I also see a team which is much improved on offense. In CRN's first two years here we had no offense. Last year we could run reasonably well but couldn't pass and were one dimensional and ultimately easy to defend. Now our offense is more balanced and much more efficient. Also important is that we now have a quarterback who is playing very competently and who has turned into a real team leader. And the defense which up to the Cal game was horrendous and had definitely regressed from last year has played well the last two games and doesn't look like the same defense. And this team is also making really big plays when the game is on the line even when the odds are against us.
In my opinion the best measure of our team going into the future is what kind of football they are playing by the end of the season, because to me that is the best indicator of how they will play next year and beyond. Most of this team will come back next year. If they continue to play like a top 25 team from now until the end of the season that to me is the best indicator of how they will play next year as well as the overall trajectory of the program. Are these two games enough to determine this? No they're not, and we have to see if this team continues to play at this level through the rest of the season. To make a criterion such as that they have to win the Rose Bowl Game is in effect saying that it wouldn't be enough to get to the Rose Bowl by beating a top 5 Stanford team. In order to beat Stanford (highly unlikely) we would have to be playing like a top 5 team at the end of the season. I certainly don't expect this, but to me it would be more than enough. My criterion is that if our team is playing like a top 25 team consistently for the rest of the season then I think it would be a mistake to make a coaching change. If they are playing that way consistently through their last five games then they have really jelled as a team, and that would be much more important than how they played in their first seven games.
To me it's not the body of work but where this team is now and at the end of the season. If they go back to playing like they did prior to the Cal game then let's make a coaching change. If they are playing like they have the last two games then I think that would be a mistake. I don't care anymore that Kevin Prince threw three interceptions in the first quarter against Texas. I only care how he is playing now. How he played in the last two weeks and the great improvement he has shown is a far better indicator of how he is going to play moving forward than how he played in the Texas game. And that is how I look at the team as a whole. If they continue to play like they are now playing and only if they continue to play like that then I really don't care anymore about the Texas game. It wouldn't be any more significant than the victory in the Texas game was last year when by the end of the season we had at best a mediocre losing team. And if this team continues to play at this level for the remainder of the season i don't care about the Arizona game either but would see it as an absolute low point that somehow served as a catalyst that turned this team around.
One more point I would like to make is what I see as this idea of the holy grail of getting a new coach as if presto we get a new coach and we would soon be a top 10 team and a national contender. Sure it's happened before such as with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, but this is really the exception. If you want a good example of how difficult this is to attain in reality just look at the team we beat tonight. Five years ago they hired Dennis Erickson who had a pretty sterling resume. He coached a national championship team at Miami, and at Oregon St. he had a team that was better than any team the capable Mike Riley has ever fielded. His Oregon St. team was ranked in the top 5 and won a BCS bowl game 41-9. So how has that worked out for Arizona St? I think he's done a credible job, but this his fifth year was his first breakout year where he has a nationally ranked team seriously competing for a league championship. And that team just lost tonight, to us. I seriously doubt that they will still be nationally ranked as of tomorrow. Is there any coach we can get with as good a resume as Dennis Erickson had? Mike Leach never had a team as good as Erickson's Oregon St. team let alone his Miami team. Sure if we could get Urban Meyer then that would be different, but I don't think that is going to happen. If our team continues to play at this level with the present coach and this positive trajectory continues I'll take that reality over the fantasy of a new coach coming in and magically turning us into a national contender. Again much to my surprise the UCLA team that I have seen the last two weeks sitting in the Rose Bowl looks qualitatively different than this team has looked not only this season but over the last few years. Maybe this will turn out to be a mirage. I hope not but we'll see.