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Dear Coach Neuheisel: Go For The Win Or Die Trying

Let me make it clear at the outset. I am not even close to giving up on Rick Neuheisel and his chance of success as the head coach of UCLA football program. I finally gave up on Dorrell pretty much during his first year in Westwood right after his team choked in a typical Dorrellian sloppy loss against Arizona State in October of 2004. By that time it was pretty obvious based on his in game management skills, lackadaisical recruiting, and just complete cluelessness in terms of how to communicate with the greater Bruin Nation, that Karl Dorrell was not qualified to be the head coach at UCLA.

Now with Rick Neuheisel it is pretty clear that he is as dynamic and intensely competitive recruited as anyone in college football. He clearly "gets it" as in knowing how to communicate with alums, students and the hardest of hardcore UCLA football fan. I also think given his background here in Westwood and the lessons he has learned from his previous mistakes, he is as good as fit as anyone in terms of having the best chance of success as the head coach of our snake bitten football program.  That doesn’t mean, I can’t think out loud about the doubts I have about him on his ability to be the kind of in game coach and program administrator, who will finally be able to break the Donahue curse that has ravaged the UCLA program for years in Westwood.

Actually one of the reasons, I wanted Rick Neuheisel to be the head coach at UCLA was because I thought he would be the ultimate Anti-Donahue (forget about being Anti-Dorrell). I thought that finally we were going to get a coach who will have his team come out and play with the same underdog, nothing to lose mindset that made him a legend as a player at UCLA. I thought he was going to provide the kind of leadership, who through his clear actions of always going for the win, would not just light up his players, his future recruits, and the entire Bruin Nation around him.

We have seen some signs of that here and there since his arrival in Westwood. But from what I saw yesterday and during other occasions this year, right now I am seeing a coach who is too concerned and consumed with barely eeking out 6-7 wins so that he can build his program for the future by loading up on elite recruits. I can respect that mindset and I can respect the need to operate in a way so that we are thinking long term. However, at the same time I think Neuheisel needs to send signals to his team that would clearly demonstrate the urgency of how much and how badly he wants to win at UCLA.

I get what the mantra is for this year for our offense:

Run the ball or die trying.

But to me the more I think of it the better mantra should have been:

Go for the win or die trying

I already rebumped BruinBlue’s epic post from two years ago articulating the curse of Terry Donahue over UCLA football.

That post saved me the set up for three decisions from yesterday’s ball game:

  • First, already talked about going for the FG with a 4th and 2 at Cal’s 6 yard line. When it was pretty clear that Bruins needed TDs instead of FGs, CRN decided to play it safe.

  • Second, we saw the same situation play out again later in the third quarter when with a 4th and 3 on Cal’s 28, Neuheisel again went with the Donahue mindset of playing it safe and going for three.

  • Third, this is where probably many will not agree with me but I will share it anyway. Jahvid Best’s 93 yard run I thought was the game changing moment that pretty much decided the outcome of the game. However, the pivotal decision in my mind came right before UCLA punted in that second quarter. Bruins had 4th and less than a yard to go on their own 46 yard line. Up until that time Bruins were doing all right on offense (actually we had a decent day on offense against a slightly better than average defense yesterday). Anyway with a less than a yard to go and down by only 7 (14-21), Neuheisel took the safe route (the Donahue one) and decided to play for field position by depending on Locke’s leg. Well Locke did boom one (for 46 yards) but it didn’t do much good as the D got obliterated by Best in the subsequent big play. What I am saying here that’s the kind of moment when Neuheisel instead of playing by the conventional Donahue rules, could send his signal to rest of his team that he had enough trust in his young talent and offense to go for less than a yard.

I know what the retort is going to be to that third point. People are going to say that well we tried that last weekend against Oregon and came up short at the goal line. I don’t buy that argument because I don’t think it is not just about "going for it." It’s going for it in a smart and aggressive way with swagger and attitude that puts other team on the heels. If we are going to try to ram it in at the goal line than we should be coaching up our fullbacks or big backs to blast through the hole and fall forward (something DC, Ramirez, Moline or any of our "power" backs seem unable of doing).

On the same point I think Bruin4ever is on point in admiring the mindset Pete Carroll shows when going for it on 4th down. Of course Carroll takes gambles are calculated. I don't believe they are reckless decisions as many UCLA fans would like to think they are. I think when Carroll goes for it he is doing to grab a choke hold of the momentum and optimize it for his team. He also does it from POV to send a clear message to his team about how much he trusts them. And note he is doing it this year as a true freshman at QB.

We need to not only go for it when chances present themselves, we should go for it with play calls that are not necessarily predictable. For this reason, after my initial reservations about it, in hindsight I liked the roll out call Neuheisel made from the goal line with Kevin Prince against Tennessee. That was different. It was aggressive and it played up the idea of going for the kill.

Speaking of the Tennessee game, I think the victory in that game might have undermined us not for the reasons some are thinking. I don’t think the victory against Tennessee undermined us in the sense that players got too cocky reading the "press clips" (even though it certainly feels that way given how we have seen the defense play since the). I think what might have happened is that the Tennessee outcome might have given Neuheisel and his coaches a fall sense of comfort with their scheming. We did get out of that game with victory by settling for FGs and playing base defense most of the game. Unfortunately the strategy that might have worked against one of the worst quarterbacks in the history of Volunteer football, was just not going to cut it with more potent Pac-10 programs such as Stanford, Oregon, and Cal with lot more explosive talents and better QBs leading the teams.

Staying with the topic of coaches and their schemes, as mentioned up top I still have confidence in Rick Neuheisel. However, what I want to see from him is that he needs to be communicating and functioning in a way that makes it clear that he is going to impose a culture of accountability not just from his players, but also from his staff.  While I have confidence in the job Norm Chow and Bob Palcic have done with our offense, right now  I am unsure about rest of the staff.

Our WRs have been a disaster. I feel comfortable staying not only are they doing a poor job with running routes, they are  also not playing hard and at times with lack of heart. From what I have seen this year, I see a team in which the receivers are not getting separation and fighting to make plays. Sure there are those flashes of brilliance that gets us excited about the future. However, there is no consistence and I am not seeing any signs of this unit getting better game by game. I am also not sure whether the coach in charge of this unit – Reggie Moore – is doing his job in terms of ensuring we are playing the best talent and getting the most out of them.

Same goes with our defense. At the half way point of this season, color me extremely unimpressed with the job Chuck Bulllough has done. I don’t really care much about the argument that we need to give him a chance because he is a "DC in training." If that is the argument, then the responsibility falls on Rick Neuheisel for failing to hire a DC who would get most out of our talent. If Rick Neuheisel can voluntarily take a substantial paycut as UC employee, he might just want to consider taking another one and help investing on quality defensive (and other assistant coaches) at UCLA. Because from what we have seen from Bullough is not good enough. Looking back at yesterday’s game, I am even more unimpressed the day after with our defense. Sure they did a better job of "containing" Cal’s explosiveness in the second half, however looking back at it, it looks like lot of it had to do with Cal pulling back their offense and going with the strategy of eating up the clock.

I never cared much for Dewayne Walker’s defense. He had some great moments and did a good job of bringing back credibility into a joke of a UCLA defense. However, Walker always ran a fairly conventional pro-set defense which time and time was outshined and outscored by spread type college offenses featuring explosive skill players. Looking at Bullough’s defense after 6 games, it looks like we now have a defense that is even more conventional, and frankly reverting to the vanilla bend-don’t-break Bob Field defenses from the Donahue eras.  Again, that’s not the kind of football I was expecting from this program when Rick Neuheisel took over in Westwood. If we continue to see the same pattern of predictable, vanilla schemes in defense in the coming weeks and see them getting shredded and toyed with by athletes such as Foles, Grigsby, Rogers, Locker and by you know who, I sure hope there will be changes at the of this season, which will clearly establish a sense of accountability in this program.

Where do we go from here? Well, FWIW I did some "signs" of life yesterday in offense. While I am not sold on Kevin Prince, I thought he improved from his rusty performance against Oregon. I think our OL is coming into its own, and looks like the unit that is showing tangible signs of progress game after game. We have some decent sets of young backs and collectively I think our offense is potentially on the right track.  That said we need our coaches and players to play with that proverbial sense of urgency. I get that we have a very young team and have years of mediocrity to shed. What I am really looking for rest of the season from here on out is for Rick Neuheisel and his coaches to show they are going to go all out for Ws in every play for rest of the season.  Of course I want them to play smart and disciplined football. Most importantly, though I want them to show boldness and courage on the field.

Just running the ball or die trying is not good enough. We need our head coach to send a more inspiring message through his game management decisions rest of the year:

Go for the win or die trying.

We are rooting for your coach.

As you well know ... we are dying for it.