UCLA Pregame Guesses: Arizona Wildcats Edition

Gene Sweeney Jr.

UCLA is 6-2 and has some flaws, but some of us are still enjoying the season.

Wilco - California Stars (Live at Farm Aid 1998) (via farmaid)


(This week’s video is "California Stars" performed by Wilco. I lost a very close friend last Friday. The details don’t matter. I don’t want to get into it – we’ve had too much death in this column this season, what with Nick Pasquale and Lou Reed and now this. My buddy dug Wilco. This is for him. That’s all.)

I've been contemplating this all week, while reading some of the really smart posts by fellow front pagers, fan posts by members of the community and comments below both.

I guess on some level, without consciously making a decision about it, I've decided to enjoy this season. I've been to all four home games and we won them all. This will be the first time in many, many years I've been able to go to every game and while I don't tailgate and sometimes leave early, I'm having fun. I like my seats, by coincidence I sit near the families of some (recent) former players. It’s hilarious to hear them commenting on the games – I would let them replace Chris Roberts and Matt Stevens immediately, they are far more entertaining.

Oddly enough, I find myself enjoying the season more, the less I think too hard about it. That’s something that’s easier to do when you’re at the stadium, at least for me. At the stadium, I’m not in a game thread, not in a chat room, not reading emails or texts from friends. I’m also not hearing the announcers (and, btw, would someone please poke Joey Harrington with a rusty nail? With any luck at all the guy would get lockjaw and I’m pretty sure nothing less could get the guy to shut the eff up. Memo to Joey: you don’t have to dictate a blog post after every play. We’re watching the same game you are.)

In the stadium, you’re just … there. You see few replays. There is no commentary or subtext. You’re disappointed when the other team scores and happy when Brett Hundley hits Devin Fuller with a long touchdown pass. Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t dwell on the hidden implication of every play, every drive. In some ways, it’s the football equivalent of ignorance is bliss.

But maybe there is nothing wrong with bliss?

What I enjoy about football is also different than what I enjoy about basketball. In basketball, I unabashedly like offense. Howland was effective, but his defense first/ball control offense was tedious to me. I always compare hoops to jazz and the way Howland coached hoops was like listening to a jazz performer I don't dig, someone like Kenny G who plays with too much control and not enough spontaneity.

But in football, I have no problem getting behind a good defense. Football defense, for me, is fun to watch. So, while the offense has been inconsistent (and we've been debating play calling, scheme, personnel, injuries, coaching players up all as possible causes) and that is an issue, at least we're fun to watch defensively. Other than the second half of Oregon, the defense has looked pretty good all year. They kept Stanford close on a day when the offense did then no favors. They actually played Oregon close until the offense went three and out three straight times in the second half and the floodgates opened. But, c'mon, Oregon is tough to stop when your offense offers no help.

If you look at the raw talent on this team, the better players are on the defense. Barr is the best player on the team, in terms of raw talent. Other than X -- is there an offensive player in our top five best players? I guess maybe Hundley. But other than X and BH, our best players are Kendricks, Jack, Zumwalt, Barr. I would argue that our corners and safeties are better corners and safeties than our wide receivers are wide receivers (though I think Fuller is starting to stand out). Point is, IMO, we have a better collection of players on the defense than the offense. That might change as the true frosh starters on the offensive line improve with time, but right now, we have a quick, athletic defense. Sometimes they give up yards, but other than OU, they aren't giving up too many points. Stanford was at 17 until they scored really late and by that time it didn't matter. If the offense had played as well as the defense, we beat Stanford 27-17.

What if defense became our identity? What if Mora is just better and building a defense and recruiting on defense and that’s what we became? Could you live with it? Could you learn to love it? I think I could.

But maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Our defense is better than our offense, but our defense is not great. I’m writing this as I watch Stanford play Oregon and Stanford’s defense is really handling Oregon. And they are handling Oregon for the second year in a row.

Stanford has the blueprint for beating Oregon, but we could not do to Oregon what Stanford is doing. At this point in the Mora era, we do not have the sheer size and strength to just knock the Ducks off the line and run the ball down their throats. As the announcers keep joking, all Stanford runs is "power" and both teams know it, but Oregon can’t stop it.

Which brings me to the fact that we started nine true freshmen against Colorado, including our punter Sean Covington. That’s really unheard of – I bet there isn’t another team in the nation who started four true freshmen on offense and four more on defense in the same game. (Eric Kendricks is coming back this week, so it will be three true freshmen on defense against Arizona.)

Forget whether or not starting that many young players is an excuse for whatever you feel needs excusing, to me it’s just skewing my assessment of the team. I honestly don’t know if whatever we’re not doing right on offense is because of the play book, play calling, the four starting true freshmen, the lack of a true stud playmaker, the plateauing play of Brett Hundley, some of it or all of it. Point is: we’re flawed in a number of ways and I’m just not relating to posts or comments that point to one single thing and imply if we just changed this or that a bit we’d be so much better. To me, there is are so many variables in flux that it’s impossible to tell exactly which is the main reason, if there even is a main reason we’re struggling on offense.

All of these small flaws add up to a real reduction in our margin for error. When everything is going right, we can play with anyone, just about. But how many times does everything go right? How many times does anything go right for any team? Hardly ever, those games are rare. So, every team has a margin for error. Alabama’s margin for error is huge – they can play what for them would be a terrible game and still beat 90% of the teams on their schedule. If we play a terrible game, we maybe beat 10 or 15% of our schedule at best. But there is a lot in between everything going right and playing terrible. And it’s that gray area that’s frustrating. On paper, we should win the rest of our games. But on paper, you always play your best. Our team is too flawed for us to be at our best every week.

Maybe that’s why I’m just enjoying the season. To this point, we are exactly where I thought we’d be. We beat every team but Oregon and Stanford and Oregon and Stanford are better than us. Could we beat either one on a day when we did everything right and they didn’t? Yes. But that’s a storm so perfect I can’t allow myself to be disappointed when it doesn’t come to fruition.

At the moment, I’m fine. We’re a flawed team. For whatever reason, I’m okay with it. I’m not convinced that our flaws are permanent. I hold out hope that we just haven’t reached our potential yet and I’m accepting of the fact that our potential might not be reachable until 2014. It’s possible, we’re right on track, but the finish line might be a year away.

We’ll see.

And with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Arizona Wildcats edition:

  1. How many touchdowns will UCLA score in the game?
  2. Name a Bruin who gets a takeaway (either interception or recover a fumble)?
  3. True or False: Brett Hundley will pass for over 350 yards tomorrow?
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