HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 03: Running back Michael Hayes #29 of the Houston Cougars breaks the tackle of Dalton Hilliard #19 of UCLA for a 34 yard touchdown run in the second quarter against at Robertson Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
At this point, there isn't much that I can add to the game commentary. gbruin, Freesia39, and Nestor really hit most facets of the game here, here and here. After watching the game, I had to remind myself that it was only the first game of a grinding season.
Offensively, I thought we played well enough to win for the most part. We had a few drive killing penalties, a couple of boneheaded plays, and one very costly fumble. We also consistently moved the ball and found a very good weapon in Joe Fauria. We threw the ball better than we did at any time last season.
Defensively, on the other hand, we struggled. We struggled mightily. We looked timid and didn't exploit any of our physical advantages. More bothersome than any of that, was the utter lack of adjustments to Houston’s gameplan. Houston dinked and dunked down the field all afternoon. Yes, they were aided by our poor tackling, but they were also aided by our scheme. Our cornerbacks constantly gave the Cougar wide receivers a large cushion, and Case Keenum took advantage of the open receivers with short routes.
As pointed out by Tracy Pierson at BRO here, UCLA came out in an all too familiar manner. If this quote reminds you of Coach Chuck Bullough, you're not alone:
"UCLA's defense comes out with the conservative bend-and-don't-break 7 yard cushion approach."
Now, of course, Coach Bullough's conservative scheme was successful against Houston last year. Tony Dye explained to Pete Yoon that the deep cushion was in place in order to prevent the Houston offense from beating the Bruin defense vertically. The comments can be found in Yoon's excellent post game wrap here:
"All week we were working to protect the seams because that’s usually what they like to hit," safety Tony Dye said. "They changed their things up to where they were hitting the underneath routes on us while we were carrying. So they schemed us up a little bit. We adjusted, but it was mostly on us, the players."
Ok, fine. Houston adjusted to the way UCLA played defense last year and started throwing underneath the cushion. And they kept throwing underneath the cushion. Over and over and over and... well, you get the point. Tony Dye plays the role of a good captain by falling on the sword, indicating that adjustments were made, but I sure didn’t see any.
Why didn't Coach Tresey change things up? Why not press? Why not exploit Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price's size advantage over Houston's small wide receivers? Why not force Keenum to make long throws against a superior talented defense in the wind? Why not try to do something other than what obviously wasn't working? Personally, I would have liked to see Tresey come out in an aggressive scheme and try to dictate what the offense does rather than sit back and try to react to what the offense does. In the offseason, we were told that our defense would play an aggressive brand of football. Instead, we came out in a conservative base defense and failed to adjust to Houston's offense.
Another troubling aspect of the lack of adjustment was Coach Rick Neuheisel’s post-game comments where he essentially dismissed the question regarding cushions. The comments can be found here at approximately the 2:15 and 6:45 marks. CRN's response to questions regarding the defense was that Case Keenum disected the defense and ran the Houston offense perfectly due to his experience. I agree that Case Keenum is a great player and knows the offense like the back of his hand, but there has to be a better approach than simply using a gameplan and throwing your hands up in the air if the opposition finds a way around it. We'll plenty of teams who understand their offense inside and out, and we have to be able and willing to change up the gameplan to win. As the head coach, CRN needs to address the conservative gameplan and either own it or fix it- we deserve a better answer than "the other quarterback was too good".
Again, this was only week one in a long season. Our defense will improve, but we are going to have to show the ability to make adjustments on the fly if we are going to compete in the Pac-12.