Once again let's remind everyone here what were the pre-season expectations around the UCLA football program before coming into this season. Basically a consensus had emerged during off season pegging this year's football team somewhere around a 5-7 win squad:
- Adam Maya from the OC Register predicted UCLA's "best/worst-case scenario" ranged from"5-7 to 7-5." He concluded UCLA will finish "finish .500 (6-6) and earn a bowl bid."
- Ted Miller of WWL thought UCLA could be the "surprise" team of the Pac. However, he was also being realistic listing UCLA as the 7th best team in the conference. Miller also went on to project a 6-6 regular season.
- Lindy's had UCLA ranked No. 48 nationally and No. 6 in the Pac-10. Athlon has the Bruins No. 51 overall and No. 6 in the Pac-10.
The pre-season projections pointed towards a consensus expectation of a 6-7 win regular season. Of course there were few over here and around the internets who were drinking their typical off season kool-aid hoping for an 8 win season, but we called that out as basically delusional.
So going into this season it's clear at least among the frontpagers here on BN, we didn't have unreasonable expectations around this year's football team. Time and time I compared this season to what we were going to experience in Coach Howland's second year at UCLA. A team with an extremely young nuclear which would experience a roller coaster year, but get better through the season, and sneak into a bowl game (equivalent of getting into the first round of NCAA basketball tournament). What I was expecting from the coaches was to feature a team that would play its heart out, give its young players opportunity to grow through game experiences, and get better from the game to game.
Obviously, I am going to wait till the end of the season to to take into account all the stats. I still think if the coaches can get this team into a bowl game and finish with 6-7 win season, they will able to have this team positioned to move towards the right direction. However, that said from what I saw yesterday, I am still left with a very bad taste in my mouth in terms of how the coaches are managing the team. We can go over statistical analysis of cost and benefits of going with the safe/high percentage play calls all we want, we can go over how Prince makes a the right reads more often than Brehaut in Chow's scheme. That still doesn't erase certain moments from yesterday's game that has left me concerned for rest of ther season. There were three specific moments from yesterday afternoon that have been replaying in mind in a painful loop all day long today.
Here are the three moments that really crystallized to me what has gone wrong since the Tennessee game:
Moment Number 1: Inability to punch in from the goal line after we had a first and goal at the 1. I am not going to discuss this one because it has been hashed out to death over last 24 hours. If we had scored a TD in that series it would have been a different ball game. Period. I am still disgusted over it and can't get it out of my head.
Moment Number 2: Total lack of killer instinct. Everyone remembers the impotent sequence at the goal line from first half. However, there was another opportunity for UCLA to go for the throat and really get a hammer lock on the momentum during first half. It came towards the end of the Q2. Bruin defense had just throttled the Oregon offense and forced a punt. And after a 13 yard shank we got the ball on our 41. So Damien Thigpen blurted outside for a 9 yard gain setting up and 2nd and 1 at the 50 with about 2:00 mins to go in the same. That would have been the perfect opportunity to call for something creative. Perhaps a misdirection. Perhaps a Prince Roll out looking for the TE (Presley?) or looking for Rosario 15-20 yards deep? Nope. We just handed it over to Thigpen in what looked like a vanilla running play for a 4 yard loss. The next play Prince couldn't connect on 3rd and 5 and momentum was stalled. It was emblemtic of an offense that had zero killer instinct and certainly not reflective of the reputation of aggressive/dynamic offense that I thought we were going to get from Neuehisel and Chow. Moreover, there was absolutely no sense of urgency from an offense that seemed content go into the locker room with an anemic 3-0 lead. Just thinking back to that series has been bugging me the whole day.
- Moment Number 3: Lack of leadership from upperclassmen on offense. During Howland's second year at UCLA, one player who provided with clear leadership was DT (non band wagoners should know who he is). DT really took freshmen core of AA/JF/JS under his wing during the second half of that season during which the Ben Ball warriors were able to make a charge for the NCAA tourney. Arguably on the defensive side of the ball in this year's football team we are getting it from ATV, Carter and Brian Prince (even though he is a not a senior). Right now there is NO ONE on our offensive side of the ball who can provide that leadership. Terrence Austin has been disappointing (he is a great kid off the field I am sure but he is not getting it done on the field). We have also not gotten the requisite leadership from Logan Paulsen. The moment that really crystallized it for me was when he made a dumb freshman mistake on 2nd and 3 at the UCLA 29 in the middle of third quarter, when the UCLA offense desperately needed a drive after falling behind 3-21. The mistake Paulsen was dumb and inexcusable for a senior. That's the kind of situation when a player like Paulsen should be taking charge, making it easier for his freshman QB, rather than mucking it up.
I can't get those three moments out of my head right now because I think putting them together they point to some bigger issues with this football team. Right now I am not sensing we have a team that is getting better game by game and it is bothering me ... a lot. I have seen enough football over the years to know inside that something is not clicking.
I am also wondering this Sunday what would have happened if coaches actually game Richard Brehaut actual game reps during Kansas State and Stanford. I understand and respect the arguments others are making about Brehaut having ways to go in terms of reading defenses and picking up blitzes. However, at the same time I strongly believe the best way for a kid to learn is actually playing the freaking game. What Brehaut showed me yesterday wasn't any different than what we saw from Cade McNown when he got going as a true freshman. Cade made his share of stupid mistakes (often game costing one), but it was clear his team was growing with him.
It's not just Richard Brehaut either. Rick Neuheisel is at a point of rebuilding process at UCLA when he needs to keep his young talent motivated with a sense of urgency. They are not going to get that sense of urgency when they see upperclassmen coming up short time after time. If Paulsen is going to make stupid freshman mistakes is a senior, if Austin and Embree are going to run vanilla routes and not get separation from defenders (second and third string defenders at that), and if the starting QB is not getting it done or ready to execute the game plan, then Neuheisel needs to play the young talents at UCLA. That is what Coach Howland did with his basketball program duing his second year at UCLA which helped him to establish the foundation of future success in the following years in Westwood.
Again I write all this with the context that I never had unreasonable expectations heading into this football season. I have been burned enough and have gotten my heart ripped out enough to know disappointment is just part of UCLA football. I still think Neuheisel with his recruiting prowess with get UCLA at a place which I will be very happy with. At the same time given what I have seen last two weeks, I have real questions about whether this team - this year is on its way to a 6-7 win season. Questions that I have right now:
- Have the mindset and character of our team changed from the boring/vanilla - playing not to lose/Dorrellian mindset from previous seasons?
- Are the coaches putting the best talent on the field with scheme putting them in best position to succeed?
- Is our team getting better week by week?
Right now I am not sure of the answers and that feeling is bothering me ... A LOT.
There will be no shortage for support for CRN here on BN. We believe in the big picture vision he has for UCLA football. It's pretty clear to us we are on the same frequency when it comes to what his ultimate goals are for UCLA football. However, that doesn't mean I am not going to think out loud about these questions. Obviously I will be rooting for Rick Neuheisel, his coaches and our players to provide us definitive positive answers by the end of the season.