Although I understand the disappointment expressed here on BN regarding the mediocre start to the 2011-12 football season, I have to say that I do not share it.
No, I’m not jumping up and down happy. No, I’m not going to say that we should be happy with where we are. What I am going to do is say that where we are is not quite as bad as we think.
That is, while we’re in the mode of second-guessing our coach on every little matter from his choice of assistants to his play-calling, let’s use our imagination to think about how a few small changes to the beginning of the season might have us thinking a bit differently about where this team is at.
A caveat: the thought experiment I run here DOES NOT mean we should be thinking of ourselves as sooo much better than we are, but it does mean I don’t think we are as bad as everyone seems to think. Maybe this is on Rick, maybe the players. Probably both. For example, regardless of how much blame Rick gets for not getting the call to special teams to punt out of bounds, there is NO WAY the players should have given up that TD at the end of the first half. Just ridiculous. So, it’s not just on Rick but also on the players.
So, let’s play what I like to call the ‘What if’ game by imagining a few small changes to the beginning of the season and then use that to think about the quality of this team.
Let me start with recent history, and work backwards. I made a comment in the pre-game thread on Saturday that went something like, “UCLA should win by about 14 points…I’m not saying they will, but that they SHOULD.” The 14 point margin represented my judgment of how much better we are than OSU. Well, we won by 8 points. But, what if…
What if we hadn’t missed a FG and a PAT? That’s 4 more points to the total, and OSU isn’t close in the 4th quarter. In this case, the ‘What if’ leads to a 12 point UCLA win, much closer to my predicted 14 point victory.
What if we don’t give up a punt return with 0:00 left in the half? Well, if you put this ‘What if’ together with the first one then we win by 19, not 12. Or, if you consider it all alone then we win by 15. One way or another, this ‘What if’ is an indication that this ONE breakdown by our special teams is causing us to feel worse about yesterday’s game than we really ought to.
There is an OSU-favorable ‘What if’ as well. What if that 2nd quarter pass is ruled incomplete rather than a fumble? I certainly could have seen a referee making that call, at least. OK, take away 7 points from UCLA. This is what can be thought of as an unforced error by OSU, and in my mind cancels out What if #2. They’re each worth 7 points, and seemed to cancel each other out in the actual game.
Conclusion: vs. OSU.
Game wasn’t quite a bad as we’re thinking, but we still underperformed relative to expectations. Responsibility for win being closer than it should falls equally on CRN and players.
What if vs. Texas
There is only one ‘What if’ in regards to the Texas game: KP’s three INT’s. This one is really hard to gauge. Unlike OSU ‘What ifs’, do we come away with points on some of those drives? If that’s the case we could potentially add as much as 21 points to UCLA’s score and take away as much as 21 points from Texas. Obviously, that’s a bit ridiculous.
What I’m going to suggest is that we should take away 7 from Texas (seems reasonable to me…they still get 2 TD’s, and we stop them once) and 6 to our score (2 FG’s). I think this is a relatively conservative way to play the ‘What if’ game in this scenario. It leads to a game in which we loose, 42-26. Not much better, but certainly somewhat. If we come away with one TD and FG, then it’s 42-30 and we’d all be talking about the fumbles we lost, and inability to stop the run as our biggest problem in this game.
Alternately, we could just dock Texas 21 points (which I also think is unreasonable…even if we punt or kick-off to them, their offense was having their way with us all day, so simply taking away the points is too harsh). In this case, however, we get a much closer score of 28-20. Like I said, I think this is far too friendly to us in the ‘What if’ game…but not outside the realm of possibility.
Of course, maybe we should just say KP only has one or two INT’s, rather than 3? One reason I chose to only take away 7 from Texas, and to only give us 6, was because I think that’s probably the right way to think about the What if in this scenario. They clearly outplayed us the whole game and if the first 16 minutes of the game had us down 14-6, that would be about the same pace they outscored us the rest of the way. So, it’s a pretty reasonable way of thinking about the ‘what if’ in this scenario.
Conclusion, ‘What if’ vs. Texas
Spotting a team a 21-0 lead basically looses you the game. The other team has to make some serious mistakes, and you have to make some huge plays on defense and offense, to get back in it. Who gets the blame? On the one hand, I want to say it goes to CRN just for starting Prince, on the other I want to say that CRN can’t be blamed for KP’s mistakes. In this case, I’m going to err on the side of saying it’s on CRN, however, because it seems like he should have taken KP out sooner or started Brehaut who was more game-ready. I didn't talk about the 'What-if' on 3rd and a mile at the end of the second when Texas got the first, and, eventually a touchdown. This one could be thrown in as well.
What if vs. SJSU
1) What if we don’t give up a 65 yard TD run halfway through the 3rd quarter? Dock SJSU 7 points. Or, be kind and dock them 4 points. In this case, the game is somewhere between a 14 and 17 point victory, with SJSU only scoring 1 touchdown. That’s actually closer to what the final score should have been.
2) But, What if we don’t have TWO fumbles back to back in the 3rd quarter either? Certainly we come away with some points here too. I’m tempted to say that this what if should be cancelled out by our two INTs. But, I think that the fumbles are worse, because the one was just Embree dropping the ball on the ground (and we would have gotten points), and the other was Franklin who should know better. To be fair, let’s say we only have JF’s fumble (who is fumble-prone anyways) but that we get 3 points from Embree not fumbling…Our victory is then somewhere between 17 and 20 points, which, taking things in toto, is about how much it should have been.
Conclusion: What if vs. SJSU
In this case, I really think the blame falls on the players. Sure, CRN can be criticized for trying to manage the game too much, but giving up a 65 yrd. TD to a stinky team is just unacceptable. Embree’s drop is also on him, as is the one by Franklin.
What if vs. Houston
As with Texas, there is one big ‘What if’ in this game: What if UCLA doesn’t miss a FG and PAT? That by itself is the 4 point difference in the game…and the game turns into a toss-up. I would hesitate to say we ‘would have one this one’ but we certainly had our chances, and the 4 points left on the field killed us.
Conclusion: What if vs. Houston
In this case, it’s pretty clearly on the players as well. CRN can’t make Smith hit a FG but the ‘What if’ might have actually led to a win.
Overall Conclusion: UCLA’s virtues and vices after the first third of the season
Obviously, the ‘What if’ game is only a hypothetical. And outside of these mistakes that we can use our imagination to think about how much they might (or might not) have changed games, we have dozens of others that need to be corrected. My point, however, is that this thought experiment can help us see a slightly different world. A world in which we might be 3-1, but in which we certainly would have not lost as much against Texas, and would have beaten SJSU and OSU by more significant margins. I don’t think we’re as good as this imaginary team, but I don’t think we’re as bad as the scores currently indicate.
Of course, we didn’t do any of these things. KP did throw three INTs against Texas, we did give up a long run to SJSU and punt return to OSU. But, what I hope to suggest through this thought experiment is that on a play-by-play basis we’ve performed better than the score indicates. What the ‘What if’ game is designed to do, however, is to help us think about what this team is doing right and wrong one-third of the way through the season. There are, however, a few small ‘take-home’ points that I would like to emphasize:
1) The offense is much better. We’re averaging 27 pts. a game, but if you factor in the points we’ve left on the field, it’s almost 30 points a game. Last season we averaged 20 points a game. That’s a 50% improvement so far.
2) The defense needs to get its act together. Here, blame is to be shared. We were supposed to have a better D-line, and a lock-down secondary. The secondary has been bad (although Houston DOES rank #1 in the nation in passing yards) and the D-line has been absolutely unable to put pressure on opposing QB’s or stop the run without help from behind them. I don’t know what needs to be done, but the defense is not looking good. Linebackers are no better. If our defense doesn’t improve it’s going to be a long season.
3) For the most part, these ‘what ifs’ represent critical break-downs. They have to be corrected. Teams don’t give up long runs and win (although returns will happen to even the best of teams sometimes). Texas, SJSU, Houston, all of these games featured missed tackles or missed assignments that gave opposing running backs tons of space to run. Fix these break-downs and we’ll be making some progress.
4) Improvement through the season will be key. If we get killed 35-0 at Stanford like last year, it’s not a good sign. I we compete with Stanford, and give ourselves a chance to win, then that will be significant improvement.
5) If all parts of this team improve through the season then we’ll be looking at having a pretty good team next year. Other than Coleman, we’ll be brining back most of our key starters and everybody will be a year older and wiser. Another year of seasoning for Brehaut, another year of strength training for Franklin, and experience means more to defenses than offenses anyways.
6) Cautious optimism is warranted at this point. Houston is 4-0 and leads the nation in passing yards per game. Time will tell if they go 12-0, but they certainly can. Texas is now ranked #17 and is a pretty good team. I also think that according to the ‘eye test’ we rate better than last year. If we can keep improving then we can finish the season by saying we were significantly better this year than last. Our offense should probably be given a B+ overall for the last four games. It shows major improvement from last year. The defense, however, should be given a D, I think. Considering they have a lot of talent, they have yet to put up a fight against a good opponent and have given too may points to inferior opponents.