UCLA Football Pregame Guesses: Oregon Ducks Edition

Ezra Shaw

Digesting the loss to Stanford and looking ahead to the game at Oregon

Mazzy Star - California (via MazzyStarVEVO)

(This week’s music video is California by Mazzy Star. The song is their first single off their 2013 release Seasons of the Day. This is the band’s first album/musical release in 17 years. I’m not sure what they’ve been up to during that time, though I did read that guitarist/band visionary David Roback had been living in Norway. I’m not sure what chanteuse Hope Sandoval was doing during that time. I do remember being a real fan of the music the put out in the early-mid 90s; I’m sure many of your recall their one "hit" Fade Into You, which got a lot of video air play back when the M in MTV stood for music. I really like Seasons of the Day, I find it beautiful and melancholy, like much of Mazzy Star’s oeuvre. Melancholy just felt right after last week’s game.)

Well, we lost.

We lost to Stanford in Palo Alto by a couple of touchdowns, though it actually was a one score game for about 58 of the 60 minutes played.

And in some ways, that makes it tougher to take than simply having your doors blown out.

Look, as UCLA fans, we know what that feels like. All I have to do is type "50-0" or "60-6" and it conjures immediate and very ugly memories. But on the other hand, there is an "oh well" feeling that comes after a trip to the woodshed. Sure, is sucks when your arch rival simply pastes you or when the best team in the conference shows you where you’re lacking (answer: everywhere) but the realization that your opponent is simply better coached, better resourced and loaded with superior talent, well, there isn’t much you can do but tip your visor and hope for a better future.

But a close loss? Those really sting. They hurt because if we had just done this better or just done that better, we could have won the game.

Let’s face it.

We lost to a damn good Stanford team, maybe not a great team, but a damn good one. And despite playing like crap, we were only down 0-3 at halftime and were one break away from taking the lead or tying up the game until the Cardinal added their final points in a clock killing situation that saw the game effectively over even before their final score. (Just so you know, I have no problem with Stanford punching it in for one final score. I read or heard that head coach Jim Mora had a problem with it, but he and I differ on that point. I didn’t think it was a big deal.)

I happen to watch the game in a Century City bar. We actually made a reservation, anticipating a crowd, but when we arrived the whole place (and I bet Smith House has a 200 person capacity or something like that – it’s massive and also has Los Angeles’ largest selection of beers on tap. I drank George Dickel on the rocks, mostly, and a wheat ale with my happy hour sandwich) was empty. By kick off, maybe there were a dozen UCLA fans scattered throughout the place. Watching in a bar is different that watching at home or being at the game. At home, you have the announcers to listen to and like it or not their commentary colors how you process what you’re watching both intellectually and emotionally. In person, you’re very much caught up in the excitement and the experience. At home, you get caught up in being at one with thousands of likeminded fans and on the road you savor the us against the word mentality.

But in a bar – and a mostly empty bar at that – you’re listening to classic rock on the house sound system which creates a subliminal disconnect from the game and there is very little emotion in the room. Which leaves you alone with your thoughts and your mood.

The mood at our table was one of frustration, with maybe a little bit of envy mixed in.

We were frustrated for many of the same reasons you were frustrated, whether your were in the stadium or watching at home or your local watering hole.

We were frustrated because Malcolm Jones started the game and looked for about three plays like a guy who was a high school Gatorade Player of the Year many years and one lost season ago but who never reappeared in the contest, at least to my recollection. We were frustrated because this team simply commits too many penalties. How many times were we in second and short with a chance to get a little offensive momentum with an easy first down and we moved on the line and turned short yardage into second and eight? And two of those infractions were on the center. You can go a whole season and not see your center get called for dead ball penalty and we got hit twice in one afternoon.

We were frustrated because of the play calling, too. When you’re rolling and moving the ball and scoring points, Noel Mazzone’s offense looks pretty good. Those passes to the flat create mismatches in open space and they open up the middle both for runs and passes into the seam. But when it’s not working? Holy shit, it looks bad. Those swing passes to the backs go nowhere and then the middle never opens up and before you know it you can’t move the ball at all. All those three and outs put way too much pressure on your defense and eventually those guys wear down.

Credit to Stanford: They looked like they were just trying to contain us, playing base defense, mostly rushing four guys and still getting pressure against an inexperienced and injury-depleted offensive line, forcing us to make plays that we ultimately failed to make. It also looked like they had their All-American linebacker Shayne Skov spying Brett Hundley at least some of the time, keeping Hundley from becoming too much of a weapon with his legs.

In the aftermath of the loss, I heard much of the same from others, here on this site, offline in email threads with old buddies and in person with my UCLA family and friends. (For the record, I’m an alumnus. My wife is an alumnae. Our brothers and sisters are alumni. My kids, my nieces and nephews, who aren’t in college yet, say "we" when they talk about "their" Bruins. In short, I know and am close to a lot of people who passionately root for UCLA.)

Fueling all that frustration was everything that happened prior to kickoff. We’d won all of our games to that point. We’d beaten a very tough Utah team on the road, a team good enough to beat the Cardinal and prevent last Saturday’s game from being a Battle of the Unbeatens. We found ourselves ranked in the Top Ten for the first time in forever. In other words, we had an opportunity to take a step up to the next level and show the country – in a nationally televised contest – that we were a player in the game.

But, instead, we showed them we weren’t.

Instead, we missed out on an opportunity and it turns out we are not quite ready for prime time. Not yet, anyway.

What’s trickier for me is deciding just what it all means. Was this game just pot hole on the road to greater successes? Or did it evidence some serious flaws that might prevent us from ever becoming a truly powerful football program?

I don’t know what the five stages of grief are for fans of a football team who let a big moment slipped through their fingers are, but for me after the frustration comes the rationalization. In the aftermath, I (and I suspect others) start to pick the game apart and try to find the reasons and excuses for the loss.

One thing Mora has talked about this week is are the differences between UCLA and Stanford and where they are as football programs. Stanford is in its seventh season of the Harbaugh/Shaw era. UCLA is in Year Two of the Mora era. To Mora, this is an indication that Stanford has had more years to implement their system (which seems to have transitioned more or less seamlessly from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw) than he and his staff. Naturally, we counter that argument by noting that Harbaugh had to rebuild from the burnt out wreckage of the Buddy Teevens/Walt Harris era while Mora was left a program in relatively better shape after Rick Neuheisel’s tenure as coach. In point of fact, Hundley and Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks and Xavier Sua-Filo (in other words, many of our better players) are holdovers from the prior regime. That said, it is obvious that most of our talent overall is in the younger classes, an indication that Mora and Co. are bringing in quality players, they just need a few more classes to stock the roster from top to bottom.

Which brings me to what might seem like a bit of a detour in today’s guesses column, just bear with me.

I perceive (and I know I’m not the first person here or elsewhere to make this point) a real lack of elite talent on the offensive side of the ball. Our second best offensive player after the quarterback is our left guard and he never makes a catch or runs with the ball. Our receivers are good, I really like Jordan Payton, for example, and like Shaq Evans and really like Thomas Duarte’s potential, too. But Stanford’s Ty Montgomery is better than any receiver we’ve got. Their tight ends are more dangerous weapons than anyone we’ve got And I don’t think anyone on our team makes that one-handed catch for a touchdown that Kodi Whitfield made.

At running back, I think it’s clear we really miss Johnathan Franklin; our running back by committee is simply not giving us what Jetski gave us. And it doesn’t help at all that Jordan James is out for who knows how long?

From there, we can dive right into the strategic abyss: Maybe we have more than enough talent, maybe the coaches (read: Mazzone) just aren’t utilizing it properly. All I have to do is ask why Stephen Manfro gets more plays than the aforementioned Jones and away we go.

My sense is that it’s a bit of both. We have some really good players on offense, I should have mentioned Devin Fuller as another player I really like. But how many of the problems we’re having – from playing calling to the really young offensive line – would be solved by a Maurice Jones-Drew? And, sure, you’re not always going to have a superstar back or receiver, but I notice the really elite teams do have those types of game breakers on offense. Give us DeAnthony Thomas and we beat Stanford. Period. It was that close and guys like that are just that good. (Yes, I know Stanford beat Oregon last year. Shut up. It was just an example.)

Ultimately whatever happens in the program is on Mora. If we don't have enough elite talent at WR/RB or enough depth at OL, that's on Mora. So pointing out that we lack high end talent at the skill positions doesn’t let him or his staff off the hook for Saturday’s loss, it just shifts the focus a bit from the play calling to the roster.

Mora is a defensive coach and it looks to me like our defense is ahead of our offense. It’s one of our better defenses in recent years. And that's with a lot of young talent playing major minutes including some true freshmen. Yes, there are some veterans like Cassius Marsh, Kendricks, Zumwalt and Barr -- but we're playing a bunch of young guys and true freshmen like Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack are among our best players on that side of the line of scrimmage. We lost senior veterans in the defensive backfield and are better now just playing the kids. It’s a good defense with the potential to be great in the years to come.

I thought the D was really solid against Stanford. 24 points, sure, but seven came really late and in 2013 24 points allowed to anyone isn't really all that much. Considering how poor the offense was and the two picks Hundley threw, the offense gave the D zero help. The defense’s only flaw, really, was not forcing any turnovers. Had Kendricks picked up that one fumble and returned it for six it might have been a different game. But he didn't and Stanford got a field goal and that 10 point swing was huge. I'd give the D at least a B+ and if they grade grubbed like a Stanford student I'd give them an A-. The only thing they couldn't really stop was Stanford's jumbo package and that's pretty tough to stop no matter what team you are.

On the other hand, the offense is lacking even when one factors in both the talent level at receiver and running back and the fact that we’re forced to play freshmen on the line.

Speaking of which, that’s another excuse/reason I heard this week. Stanford played mostly juniors and seniors while we went into the game playing youngsters at many key spots.

So, what does it all mean?

Is Mora right? Does he just need some more time to bring in top talent? Does he need more time not only to upgrade the roster, but to reverse a culture that accepted mediocrity for a decade as long as the head coach bled blue and gold? Or are there fundamental flaws in his approach?

If this last is true, I believe those flaws are mostly manifest on offense. As above, Mora is a defensive coach first and foremost. I’m not at practice (and if you are, please correct me) but my sense is that Mora gives Mazzone real freedom on offense to do what he wants. I don’t know if that means he’s more intimately involved in Lou Spanos’ defense or not. But, to me, it’s clear the defense is out performing the offense and will only get better as the young talent matures. There are more questions on offense. The fact that Arizona State fans didn’t care when we hired Mazzone is a red flag in and of itself.

It’s likely a combination of things. Noel Mazzone’s running game definitely looked better when he had an NFL running back and a senior like Jeff Baca on the line. Heck, it looked better before James and Torian White got hurt. Still, it’s incumbent upon an offensive coordinator to make the most of what he’s got and I don’t think that Mazzone did that against Stanford.

What’s really not clear to me is whether or not the Stanford loss was a picture of what we really are and will always be or if it was an aberration, a glitch. Did the Stanford game show us our ceiling as a program or did it jusr show us where we are 20 games into the Jim Mora program? I mean, many of us were frustrated 20 games into the Cade McNown era, but he and Bob Toledo led us on a 20 game win streak that covered most of McNown’s junior and senior seasons.

Tomorrow we play Oregon.

Oregon looks really good.

If you’re like me, you’re not conceding anything to the Ducks. But, if you’re like me, you can’t help but be honest with yourself and acknowledge that the Ducks deserve to be double-digit favorites.

The Ducks, though, are a different kind of good than Stanford. Stanford is a veteran team that comes right at you, a traditional team with size and strength. You know what they are going to do, it’s just hard to stop them. And when they get a lead, they know how to grind things out and run some clock.

With Oregon, you don’t know what they’re going to do. They seem to come at you from all angles. They turn third and longs into touchdowns. I’m not kissing their ass, either. I’m just reporting what I’ve seen when I watch them play.

Look, we knew that the eight day stretch from last Saturday through tomorrow was the key to the season. Very few people I know predicted we’d win both games, most people I talked to hoped for a split. That’s still the hope I suppose, though it’s definitely going to be tough.

A moral victory is out of the question, too. I won’t feel good about hanging with the Ducks, only to lose in OT or something. I want to win and a loss – a blowout or a tight game – will/would suck. But in the aftermath, no matter what the final score is, I’ll be asking the same questions I am today: Did the game tell us where we are this season and is the result just part of the process to some future goal? Or does it in some way define who we are now and who we might always be under this coaching regime?

I don’t know the answers now and I likely won’t know them late Saturday night either.

Maybe you do. Let me know what you think and feel in the comments below

And, with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Oregon Ducks 2013 edition:

  1. Who will pass for more yards, Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota?
  2. Will Oregon's time of possession be more or less than 20 minutes?
  3. What number will be higher: UCLA rushing touchdowns or Oregon turnovers?
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