The bowl picture remains cloudy for us and per the folks at the Irish Round Table (HT Magnusblitz), the news of Notre Dame players voting "no" to play in a bowl game looks very premature. Either way, I think it is time we start shifting the focus back on our team today. The defensive performance against Southern Cal was encouraging to say the least. Although the big question to ponder in the coming weeks (especially if we don't have a bowl game to play in) is how the heck we are going to replace Price, Jerzy and Carter next year in our front-7. I have no doubt CRN and his staff will put together a full court press in the coming days to find some DTs and shore up our LBs spot, but the inexperience in our front-7 heading into next year is going to be a huge challenge.
We will talk about the defense another day (unless one of you want to start the discussion in a separate fanpost today). I really want to talk about the offense today based on what we saw (or didn't see) last Saturday. Let's go back to last week and revisit a quote from CRN in which he conveyed that the Bruins needed more than Moline to beat the Trojans (emphasis added):
UCLA used a safe-and-sane offensive approach in a 23-13 victory over Arizona State on Saturday. The Bruins had fullback Chane Moline at tailback and ground out yardage.
"That remains to be seen," Coach Rick Neuheisel said when asked if a similar game plan would work against USC. "I don't think we can do it wholesale. I think we have to mix things up. I just think we're going to need more explosive plays. That's going to require more than just having our 'bigs' on the field."
Needless to say, we didn't see much of that on Saturday night. Chane had 12 carries for 15 yards (with a TD). JetSki got the ball 4 times for 28 yards (he fumbled in one of those carries), and Coleman got the ball one time picking up a single yard. So, during the game and for most of last couple of days I was pretty frustrated picturing Moline getting the ball in that "Cheetah" formation and going nowhere with it. I wasn't getting why the coaches were putting a big back in that formation who doesn't have the speed to get by defender or hasn't shown the ability to throw the ball. We didn't see any Knox or Thigpen at any point during the game. So yeah, I can see why so many of us would be so frustrated with that game plan (especially after CRN himself articulated the need for "explosive plays").
So how to explain the minimalist approach from a UCLA football program that has Neuheisel and Chow, two of the more aggressive and dynamic play callers in the game? Well we have to take in few factors into consideration.Norm Chow was playing with the hand he was dealt with. He was going into this game with a QB who is still developing in his redshirt freshman season. His OL was completely rebuilt at the start of this season and is now just coming around in terms of pass protection. Among his running backs he has some speed in JetSki but doesn't have dependability given his fumble issues. Milton Knox from what I have seen in limited appearances hasn't show the ability to read defenses (get in the right position in blocking schemes). He did well in the Wildcat formation in the Washington game (so I can see the argument why he wasn't used in that form on Sat but then again it would have been predictable). Thigpen is still very raw as a freshman and needs to bulk up. As for Coleman, I think he is better suited to be a FB, and didn't exactly light it up when he played against faster defenses such as Tennessee and Arizona State (total 3 yards in 8 carries).
As for our receivers, Pressley has been banged up. Randall Carroll is still getting up to speed on our playbook. Austin and Embree are servicable, but they have issues with getting separation in the defensive backfield. Then we have Nelson Rosario, who simply hasn't been consistent yet. He was showing signs of coming around this season and has definitely taken a step forward, but it seemed like the stage was too big for him on Sat. Add into this mix, our senior TE, Logan Paulsen has a habit of making crushing mistakes.
So, add in all these factors into the mix, I can see why Chow and Neuheisel decided to go with a minimalist approach. For most part they had a very good chance of pulling it out. Kevin Prince didn't have a good night. Yet, we were in that game. We were driving on those guys and certainly moving the ball on the Trojan defense. It was a freshman mistake on his first throw that did us in. If we didn't get burned by Rosario's fumble we probably would have gotten at least 3 in the first half. Same story in the second half, when Prince injured himself because of the difficult long yardage situation we found ourselves in due to Paulsen's brain cramp. Yet, despite all the adversity we were within 7 with lots of nervous Trojies in the Colosseum late in the game.
Now, as I mentioned above, I guess I can see reservations about why coaches didn't use Knox in Wildcat formations. Yet as I wrote, I think given that Knox at this point can only seem to handle that formation, it would have been predictable. I would also add that IIRC we were also making mistakes in terms of penalties and fumbles with Knox and Thigpen in the game in recent weeks. So, I understand if the coaches opted to go with the dependable handles of Chane Moline. The factor was paramount considerng the fumbling issues of JetSki and also the TOs generated from our own passing game.
I also think we have reasonable grounds to be frustrated about continious use of Terrence Austin in kick and punt returns. I am not exactly sure why all season coaches didn't given Thigpen or Carroll legtimate shots in those departments. Austin is a great kid and he can be depenable (most of the times). However, it was frustrating to see us not being able to take advantage of any of the opportunities presented by our stout defense. Going forward, if there is a bowl game, I really would love to see Carroll and Thigpen getting legit opportunities to play a part in the return game. When we have that kind team speed at our disposal, I just think coaches have to find a way to leverage it on the field.
Also going forward, as encouraged as I am about the progress I have seen from Kevin Prince this season, I am really hoping Richard Brehaut is going to hit the playbook hard. I hope he got started on Sunday. I think it would be beneficial for the entire team (and Kevin Prince) if Richard can mount a ferocious competiton during spring ball (and perhaps even during December if we have practice weeks thanks to a Bowl bid). As for JetSki, Knox and Thigpen, those guys will need to hit the weightroom harder and study up on Professor Chow's playbook. They have certainly shown flashes of promise but they need to prove they can maintain it on the field. Thankfully they are going to get competition next year through Malcolm Jones and Jordon James.
Obivously, this post is just to kickstart the discussion on our offense. We are just scratching the surface in terms of issues we have to discuss around this side of the ball. We will have a lot to talk about in the coming days, weeks, and months going through (hopefully) bowl game, recruiting, spring ball, and 2010 kickoff season. I get the sense excitement level and passion around Bruin football (at least around this place) have kicked up to whole another level after last Saturday. Let's keep that fire burning.