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Bright Spots (In A World Of Reality)

We are now three games into Rick Neuheisel’s first season at UCLA, and I think it is starting to become clear to everyone in BN, precisely what we were foreshadowing when we were writing all those posts with taglines “dose of reality” during this off season. There is no escaping from it. We find ourselves at this position not by accident. This is a result of total mismanagement and lack of competent leadership this program has endured for more than a decade (note we are not just pinning this on the previous HC, even though he hastened the downward spiral this program has been going since December 5, 1998).

Right now, I am not sure if there is any use for UCLA fans to get upset every loss this season and probably the next one. I agree with Telemachus that more than ever we need to stand behind our team and with Class of 66 that we need to circle the wagon by getting behind the kids we have in our program, while we wait for the recruits CRN, Chow and Walker bring in next few years. However, at the same time, I think it is important for us to make honest observations about our week to week performance that will enable us to maintain perspective and appreciate the week to week progress that might not be showing up in the final scoreboard.

With that in mind, I will start with the offense. Kevin Pearson from the Press Enterprise flagged the obvious positive marker from yesterday:

An offense that had gained a mere 38 yards rushing in two games, 29 inches for each of the 47 carries against Tennessee and BYU, had just picked up 115 yards and averaged 4.1 yards against the Wildcats.

Those totals beat Arizona's 111 net yards and 3.2-yard-per-carry average.

And how about the somewhat unlikely pair that put up those numbers. First was 232-pound Chane Moline, with a mere 23 yards in 13 attempts coming into this game, who ran for 72 on 11 carries (a 6.5 average).

Moline's first carry of 9 yards eclipsed the Bruins' previous season high of 7 by Ray Carter, one of three UCLA running backs to miss this game. Carter was out with a knee injury. Kahlil Bell and Aundre Dean were out with ankle problems.

So there was Moline, a junior from Mission Viejo, twisting and turning for 40 yards at the end of the first half and eclipsing UCLA's two-game team total in one run.

"I thought we rushed the ball all right," Moline said. "But we gotta stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We had a good week of practice. We focused on running the ball. And we had a chance today. But we've got to be perfect. And we have to build on it.

"We have to improve even more running the ball this week to get ready for Fresno State."

We also have to give our beleaguered OL some credit. They showed improvement yesterday and they started to get it going starting with the last drive at the end of the first half. Note how the coaches put in freshman Jeff Baca at LT to replace Kia to start the second half. I think that was a clear message sent to the entire OL that no one’s starting assignment is safe. Sure, the production of OL is not close to where we want it to be. But we still have to appreciate the obvious progress that took place yesterday. (UPDATE: It looks like Baca was inserted due to Kia's backpain (HT Bald Eagle). However, as noted the OL played much better once Baca got it).

Speaking of bright spots, Derrick Coleman made a nice debut at the Rose Bowl as he rushed for 24 yards in 7 carries. In the limited carries he got, it was clear DC hits the holes with authority and aggression. I liked the term Papadakis used to describe him as someone who runs with “violence and fight.”

That said, we can’t escape the fact about what went wrong with the offense. Tele already noted the bad and ugly below. I think we have to discuss the QB situation. There is no doubt the kid is giving a valiant effort and we will never forget his second half performance against Tennessee (who BTW is turning out to be a very over-rated, mediocre team which might be firing its head coach at the end of this season). However, based on what we have seen last two weeks, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for coaches to ponder about what other options they might have to jump start the offense. Here is Rick Neuheisel in Jill Painter’s DN report:

Craft's not getting the job done, and it's unclear if UCLA will turn to someone else - be it Kevin Prince or Ben Olson when he returns from injury. Everyone's position is tenuous, according to Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel.

"We're going to evaluate all the positions," Neuheisel said. "It's easy in these situations to hide behind the team. When you're the quarterback, you don't get to hide. It's easy to say he must be the reason you're unsuccessful.

"Kevin wants to (be successful). He works hard, and I hope he can continue to work hard and continue to improve. Just like all positions on the team, we're going to evaluate them and keep working to find answers."

And Norm Chow:

Asked if he was concerned Craft might be taking the brunt of the criticism, UCLA offensive coordinator Chow said: "He should. He's the leader of this group, and he needs to take responsibility. The other 10 guys need to take responsibility as well."

I think Craft is doing the best he can in terms of managing the game. To his credit he hasn’t thrown a pick since the first half of the Tennessee game. But at the same time the coaches need a little bit more at the QB position to keep the offense moving.

From what we have seen to date, it looks like KC doesn’t have the arm strength to look off the D and complete a medium range pass over 10 yards. That’s a problem because it is allowing the opposing D to cheat and bring up their LBs to completely stuff the short passes. Those short passes are effective when the defense has to be wary about the QB being able to go downfield. Right now from what we have seen it looks like KC doesn’t have the physical tools to keep the opposing D honest and off balance.

Also there were couple of plays yesterday  that really pointed to the glaring talent issue (I know it’s not a fun topic to discuss, but it has to be pointed out to keep things in perspective) in this offense. There were two potential situations that could have been game changing moments in Bruins favor. First, there was that Moline rumble for 40 yards. Moline was able to get himself in a nice space and then bust into the open field. All he had to do is just break away from one takler. But he didn’t have the speed to break away. Again, big ups to Chane for giving the effort he did yesterday. However, you would have to think that if the Bruins had an elite back with true breakaway speed, the game could have turned. Similarly Dominique had a chance to catch a Craft slant pass and house it. I think that’s the kind of opportunity we have to take advantage of. As I pointed out during the game thread Arizona had three dependable game breakers in Gronkowski, Thomas and Grigsby (along with Tuitama). To date we have no one has emerged as a game breaker in our team.

I think Chane is getting lot of reps because he looks like he is the best blocker among our backs. And given the tenuous situation with our OL, it is understandable why coaches would give him large chunk of our reps. Hopefully Bell will get healthy soon because if he comes back in top form, our offense could become serviceable if the OL continues to show same the improvement it did on Saturday.

Shifting our focus to defense, Walker’s unit made a decent showing yesterday. The run defense was much better as Harwell and Price sealed up the middle. We are still having issues with tackling though. Perhaps as our young secondary gets more experience, they will become better at it.  

Also, speaking of our secondary, our pass coverage is still an issue. I think Walker has been solid in terms of scheming against pro-set base offense. However, I think for him to emerge as truly one of the best five defensive coordinators in the country, he will need to improve his schemes against spread offense formations. I don’t think I was the only one holding my breath when Tuitama was airing it out deep at the Rose Bowl. Well, I think the silver lining here is that I think if Walker brings in few more good recruits this season and next, he will have that opportunity to improve on that aspect of coaching and emerge as one of the best in the game.

Moving over the special teams, it was an ugly performance for Gansz’s crew.  Let’s start with the return coverage. Arizona piled up more than 200 yards in return yardage at the Rose Bowl. Seems like they are couple of issues FG needs to correct. First, let’s start with Perez. He had two booming kicks. However, he also had few line drives with not much hang time not allowing our guys much time to get up field. Second, our gunners were atrocious. We are hoping this is something coaches can correct in the short term because the horrific coverage led to short field, putting our defense in bad spots.

Also, speaking of special teams, I wonder if the coaches can look at other options for punt returning. Austin is a talented athlete but he needs to work on getting up the field, instead of dancing around too much to avoid tackles. There was another situation where he let the ball go even though he had room to catch and go. Again, just like coaches are making sure no positions are safe (as they showed by starting Baca over Kia and putting Craft on notice), I am assuming they will take a close look at punt returning position in the coming week.

Well despite the above reference concerns about our current personnel, I trust these coaches to make the right decision. I don’t think there is a better combination than Chow and Neuheisel to address quarterback issues. I think they will make the right decision when it comes to trying out Prince or Olson (whenever he is 100 percent healthy).

It’s not a fun situation that we are in right now. There is a long road ahead, as CRN mustered up the following remarks to stay with his relentlessly positive mantra following yesterday’s game:

"There is not, I don't think, a quick-fix solution to this," he said. "It's about everybody getting focused, and really getting involved with individual improvement, that will then show collectively. I am optimistic. I'm always optimistic. I do believe there will be brighter days ahead."

UCLA's anemic showing was so mesmerizingly inept, Neuheisel showed gratitude to those of the 65,434 in attendance who endured all 60 minutes, of all things, not booing.

"I appreciate our fans for staying," Neuheisel said. "It must have been hard to watch as we were trying to climb back into the game, and yet there was very little in the way of booing. It showed a lot of class."

Losing should never be acceptable and we deplore moral victories. However, as mentioned above the situation we are in right now didn’t happen overnight, and our coaches no matter how good they are, cannot resolve it over night. This is going to take a lot of time and patience on our part collectively as member of the larger Bruin athletic community.

We will need our coaches to recruit speed and athleticism at all the skill positions (on both offense and defense) so that we can emerge as an above average BCS conference team in next three seasons. Meantime, we have to ride this out and appreciate the progress we are making on a week to week basis.