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This Feels A Little Different

I am still having a hard time setting aside my emotions after last night. Thanks to wsmontano1994 and others for helping to maintain all of our perspectives and keeping our collective eyes on the big picture after one of the more stirring wins in UCLA’s recent football history (which has been dotted with one heart break after another).

Montano and others are right. In the big picture last night represents nothing more than a building block. Yes, it was something special because time after time, in situations like that on national stage our guys have come short even with legends such as _____ Aikman and Cade McNown. I didn’t expect the Bruins to win last night (and yeah the CROW was the most delicious meal I have ever had) and was fully embracing a funky and somber Saturday of reflections after another hard loss. I was mentally ready for heart break when Tennessee was driving in for what looked like the go ahead TD and then going for it on the FG. I wrote last night how I was having visions of Brady Quinn and Dewayne Walker’s prevent defense when Tennessee went on that last drive. When we made the goal line stop and then Viney rushed from the Corner to once again rattle Crompton, it felt like something changed in the collective Bruin psyche. Something feels different today about UCLA football.

I don’t what is that "difference" yet but we will know next week when we see how our coaches and players prepare for Kansas State and in the following weeks against one tough Pac-10 team after another. We still have a long way to go. Our offense is a work in progress with a young (but fearless) leader and skill players, and our defense still needs to figure out a way how they can show that ferocity and aggression (with discipline) right from the first drive. We have played two games and there is a lot of room for improvement.

That is I guess what is so fun (I told everyone this year was going to be fun even if it will a roller coaster ride) about this team right now. These are young kids playing their heart out and giving everything they have to represent those magical four letters on those gold helmets. It is fun to see them play with so much fire, aggression. It is fun to see a coaching staff operating in a way they know what they are doing and then have it reflected in their game plans. It is a fun feeling to have a sense of growing confidence that our guys are going to come in and fight with everything they have. We were getting the same feeling with those Ben Ball warriors in Coach Howland’s second season when they were going into Arizona and giving the Wildcats everything they can handle. We are now seeing it on football. Now the trick is for these guys to do it every game and bring it in every play. With those macro thoughts out of the way let me share some of my game notes and interesting reads from today’s paper.

I will start with Kevin Prince. Kurt Streeter of all people encapsulates it perfectly:

UCLA learned much in this game. It now knows, for certain, that its defense can apply the brakes, which is what happened during a goal-line stand late in what became a 19-15 win. And it now unquestionably also knows that at quarterback, the most important player on the field because the ball is in his hands so often, UCLA is manned by a kid who has something special burning inside.

"Guts," said teammate Terrence Austin in the locker room when the game was done.

"Heart," said another teammate, Rahim Moore.

"Composure," added offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who compared his 19-year-old pupil to one he coached at Brigham Young many years back: Ty Detmer. "Kevin discovered he can control a game today. Stats don't mean everything and this game was proof. It wasn't always pretty, but he showed through his body language he will to do what it takes."

No, it wasn't pretty. Prince had one touchdown. He had 11 completions in 23 attempts. He threw for 101 yards. Maybe his greatest statistical contribution was that, facing a team with a Heisman candidate at safety, he did something that last year would have been unthinkable: There were no interceptions, no picks for 70-yard returns. This from a UCLA quarterback -- yes, you read that right.

The stats weren't great but what Prince did do, with a calm look that belied his admitted case of nerves, was help stare down a team bent on revenge for last year's loss in Pasadena. And help silence more than 100,000 fans whose lives clearly hang on the fate of Tennessee football. And help wipe the perma-smirk from new Volunteers Coach Lane Kiffin.

"I just tried to hang in there and keep us in the game," said Prince when it was done. Blood dripped from his lips. There were cuts and scrapes and cherry-colored welts on his chin, neck, arms and legs. "I struggled as far as passing, but I just wanted to do what it would take to win this game. . . . I just wanted to protect the ball and give us a chance because they were coming. I've never heard it so loud, never been hit this hard."

You have to read the whole piece here.

Not sure what else I can add to that in terms of admiring what this kid did yesterday. Again, he pulled out a win at a place where Maddox and McNown melted. Now to keep it in perspective I think both Maddox and McNown went against much better and more importantly better coached Tennessee Volunteers. So we have to be again – keep it all in perspective – in terms of getting carried away with Kevin’s performance. But Kevin is showing us something. He is showing us promises and he is built on last week’s performance.

He still made some mistakes. He and Kai need to put in some extra time on communications and exchange of snaps, because we have had three of them in two weeks.  Also, he needs to learn to slide. At this point I think he has showed us and his team-mates enough on how tough he is when he is on the run. But no need to get into those brutal collisions (and I am not talking about the play in the end zone) when he is running out on the open field. Slide Kevin, slide! It will be very interesting to see how he comes out against Kansas State.

Just like Kevin, our young OL had their moments. I think they really helped to set the tone in that first drive when they helped take advantage of good field position, by opening up some running lanes, get some first downs, and get us three to start the game. That was huge. However, then we saw the kids make freshman mistakes when they were getting overwhelmed by the Tennessee rush. Especially, in the second series (I believe it was the second series after Tennessee scored three), Hasiak and XSF absolutely got blown up on the left side which led to the Prince sack and fumble (and subsequent TD, the only one of the game for the Volunteers).

That said, they did all right. I am not going to complain too much about the OL, given the coaches kept the game plan conservative.  From Jon Gold in the Daily News:

The two-face UCLA offensive line seemed to alternate between perfect protection - as when redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince found senior tight end Logan Paulsen with a pristine, 14-yard pass near the beginning of the third quarter - and awful blocking, as when Prince found himself on his back more often than a tomato-can boxer.

But the Bruins did enough.

In the third quarter, with the score tied at 10, Forbath rang off field goals on three consecutive drives, providing a little cushion for the young Bruins offense. On the three drives, Prince attempted just six passes, while UCLA ran the ball 11 times.

"The second kick gave us a six-point lead; the third one gave us a nine-point lead, which means two scores," UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said. "With a freshman quarterback and a hostile environment, we don't need to do that to him. We can keep pounding and take care of the ball."

Instead of passing, UCLA handed it off - not to its running game, but to its defense.

And I was OK with that. Also, it was clear that coaches went into conservative mode of play calling in second half particularly after the picks. Tracy Pierson from Bruin Report Online, in his post game reflections (which is not behind a subscription firewall) explained the reasoning behind it:

There are surely some UCLA fans out there who weren’t pleased with the play-calling. It was a very conservative game plan, with very few running plays going outside the tackles, and very few throws going beyond 10 yards or in between the hashes. But what the critical UCLA fans aren’t getting is that the game plan isn’t a result of short-sightedness by the UCLA coaches, but vision. Or self-awareness, more accurately. The coaches quite soberly realized what UCLA had on offense, and what it could do, and what it would take offensively to win this game. Last year, they attempted the same approach, but with a game plan that only intended to minimize mistakes and turnovers, last season’s offense couldn’t pull it off. This year, at least, in this game, it did. Also, the play-calling in this game changed in a couple of ways. In terms of the running game, UCLA ran tackle-to-tackle for most of the first half, and that set up some of the off-tackle runs in the second half that were key in sustaining some drives and retaining the ball. Also, early on, with Tennessee blitzing and pressuring Prince on just about every play, UCLA wasn’t utilizing any screens to offset the pressure. In the second half, it did, to relative effectiveness.

It will be interesting to see, as the season progresses, if the coaches attempt more offensively, as Prince settles in more and the offensive line grows and matures. You can see maturity from the first to the second game, especially in Prince. Heck, you could see development in this game between the first and second halves; the UCLA offensive line was far more effective in pass protection as the game wore on.

It makes sense to me. Now shifting our attention, let’s talk about our D. Tracy called our defense a "revelation":

It held Tennessee to 208 yards, 115 rushing and 93 yards passing -- a team that gained 657 yards and 380 rushing last week. Yeah, it was against Western Kentucky, but the one thing we thought we could actually take from the Volunteers’ performance against WKU was that they were going to have a good running game. They averaged just 2.6 yards per rush. Their bull of a tailback, Montario Hardesty, gained 89 yards and averaged 3.4 per carry.

We said before the game that whoever won the battle between Tennessee’s running game and UCLA’s rushing defense would probably win the game. UCLA won the battle, and won the game.

But the UCLA passing defense was also superb. Crompton was 13 of 26 for 93 yards, with three interceptions. His longest completion from scrimmage was 26 yards, which occurred when a UCLA defensive back fell down. Tennessee receivers were blanketed, and couldn’t get behind UCLA’s coverage.

Tracy went on to single out Reggie Carter, Rahim Moore (more on him below), Brian Price, Alterreaun Verner, Courtney Viney, Tony Dye, David Carter for their incredible play. He also specifically mentioned the solid defensive game plan of Coach Bullough:

Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough put in a very effective game plan, and called a very good and creative game. UCLA blitzed far more against Tennessee than it did against San Diego State, and far more imaginatively. Blitzes came from different parts of the field, from different positions. A big element to UCLA shutting down Tennessee’s offense was, after Crompton had thrown the three interceptions, Bullough went after him. You would think Tennessee would go to the ground, since Crompton was throwing the game away, and instead of sitting back, Bullough got aggressive and run blitzed. It was key to Tennessee going three-and-out on its next two possessions.

Yep. Probably the biggest satisfaction from watching our defense was how Bullough didn’t sit back. He unleashed our guys after our secondary set the tone. Not a lot of DCs have the courage to send in corner blitzes on last drives when they revert back to prevent defense. Bullough went for it and I am going to think this is something recruits will take note from all over Southern California and beyond.  I still want to see better results from the first drive though in terms of setting the tone and I think Akeem Ayers can play lot better than he has in last two games to complement the efforts of Bosworth and Carter. But then again these are correctable issues, which give me more hope for the coming weeks.
As for Rahim Moore, here again is Jon Gold from the Daily News:

Forget the picks, because Moore made his presence known beyond the takeaways.

Moore had six tackles, two coming on UCLA's game-defining, goal-line stand with less than two minutes remaining. With Volunteers tailbacks Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown running the ball up the gut on four consecutive plays, Moore stepped up and filled the gap.

Even as a noisy Neyland Stadium crowd tried to mess with the Bruins' heads, Moore kept his in the game.
"The fans can't do anything for us," Moore said. "They can't make a tackle. All they can do is be loud. We came here, we came prepared, and it paid off. I told the defense, 'We have to win this field position.' We knew coming in, it would be a defensive game."

And it was, as both teams had less than 210 yards of total offense, combining for just 194 passing yards. Each lost opportunity was more important than the next, each turnover leading to heartbreak. That is where Moore led the way.

He is a freak of nature. There is no other way to put it and I am going to just enjoy him play because I am guessing that if he keeps this up, he will be gone after next season. Question for the geezers here on BN. Can you remember the last time UCLA had this kind of powerful combination (ATV/Moore/Dye and even Vinney is holding his own) in the defensive backfield? The only comparison I can think of is going back to early 90s when we had Carlton Gray and Marvin Goodwin in the backfield. IIRC Darby and Turner also played together (but I could be wrong on that). However, what we have here is something special, and these guys are now creating all kinds of options for Coach Bullough. It’s freaking delicious.
Some other notes from yesterday:

  • Blocks from TEs: I saw some great blocks from our TEs – Harkey and Paulsen – early on opening up room for our RBs.
  • Knox's Big Play: Speaking of our RBs, Knox I thought had the best run of the game on that screen pass when he just faked out a Vol for chunks of yardage and first down. The guy also has a motor. He is just fun to watch.
  • Kicking Weapons: How about our kickers? Again they are weapons. Kai is the best kicker in college football. Locke for the first time gives us a kicker with ability to boom kicks into the endzone and get our specials teams enough time to run down with hang time on his punts. Except for that goal line start (resulting from Tennessee’s failure to convert), our team had an average starting position at 36 yard line.
  • Oh Lane! Lane made a bone head move deciding to burn his TO by challenging the fumble at the endzone when it was clear Franklin had recovered it. Then again he probably thought he would get yet another favorable call from the homerific refs, who had pining me for some SPTRS.
  • Neuheisel's Questionable Call: I also didn’t like our coach’s move to have Prince roll out on 3rd down from the end zone. I am still not sure why we did that instead of having Coleman rumble for a year and then burn up the clock to take the safety on 4th. Oh well. It worked out.
  • The Joke That Is ESPN: The game was broadcast on WWL. However, after the game was over, there was no sign from the blowhards from College Game Day (perhaps the most overhyped, worthless sports show on television) or the idiots on the set, that UCLA-Tennessee had played a football game. Why do I get the feeling that if Tennessee had won, we wouldn’t hear the end of Lane building a clone of Pete Carroll dynasty in Knoxville. Whatever who cares about those jackholes from Bristol. I don’t and it’s a good reason why I don’t waste my time watching those shows except when I have to after or right before UCLA games broadcast on that worthless east coast pimping, Big-12/ACC/Big-10/SEC hyping and U$C* worshipping network.

Before I go to my last note, once again I want to tip my hat to our friends at Rocky Top Talk. Pretty clear that the class and passion they showed online is reflective of one of the best fanbases in the country offline. Let’s wish them luck. I still don’t know about their head coach (I think they have the wrong guy) but it’s their business, their program. Let them figure it all out. For our part, it’s been fun talking football with some of the best fans in college football.

I will end with this. If you wanted to get a sense of CRN’s infectious enthusiasm all you had to do was watch the funny exchange between Andrews and him during the half time. It couldn’t be more clear from that exchange how he was soaking it all in and relishing the effort and passion of his players. In turn, it was clear from his players they were ready to go through a brick wall for their head coach. We are so used to it from Ben Ball. Again, it’s weird to see this happening in football.

I am liking it. This is fun. Let’s have some more of it next Saturday.