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UCLA Football Stuck In A "Conservative" Quagmire

<em>Conservatism always takes you backward and handcuffs your progress.</em>
Conservatism always takes you backward and handcuffs your progress.

The cool (and often cruel) thing about sports is that ultimately the facts in terms of numbers and performance on the field over a good sampling of data points tell us a lot about a team and the guys who are leading it. If you are a regular reader you should know that we have a pretty good handle on the big picture and the massive rebuilding job for the UCLA football program due to a decade of mismanagement by the previous head coaches.

We knew full well it is going to time to get UCLA back to where it needs to be. We have always set what we believe is more than reasonable set of expectations to measure progress in this program, taking into account all the circumstances due to injuries, attrition that take place in a FBS program. What I think a big portion of this community and the general Bruin family (Rick Neuheisel's overall approval rating is now just down to 33% on BN) is having a hard time accepting are data points like this:

  • Except for Washington State, Bruins are now 0-3 in their other games getting blown out by a staggering score of 20-130.
  • Bruins are 3-4 right now. I still think we have a shot at getting to our pre-season expectations by taking care of business at home. However, keep in mind only once since 1988 Bruins won less than 5 games in a season. That was Rick Neuheisel's first year in 2008. (Terry Donahue went 3-7-1 in 1989).
  • In little more than 2.5 years Neuheisel's team has suffered 6 blowout losses by 25 or more points. Three of them came this year. In 2008 we were whitewashed 0-59 by BYU, 6-34 by Oregon State, and 9-34 by Arizona State. Even if we put a massive asterisk around his year one due to absurd injury issues, the numbers this year are ugly. Karl Dorrell had 5 of these during his term (Oklahoma (03), Southern Cal (03, 05), Arizona (05) and Utah (07)).

One of the main reason we soured on Karl Dorrell (besides his inept recruiting and mismanagement of the program well chronicled on this blog) was how time after time he always played not to lose (the Donahuesque euphemism for that is the idea of "hanging in the game"). It's that conservative mindset that ultimate spelled his demised and flushed our program down the toilet.

One of the main reasons we were all excited about Rick Neuheisel was we thought he would usher in a new aggressive mindset at UCLA, which would reflect in a team that would always be in an attacking mode on the field without showing any signs of fear. Well to his credit, Neuheisel with his tenacity brought that mindset in the recruiting arena, however at two and half year mark we haven't seen it translate on the field. I think everyone was more than understanding about the "punting is winning" phrase in his desperate first season, but by third year many of us were expecting a product that's more dynamic, exciting and fun to root for on the field.

Frankly I wasn't all that outraged when the demolition was unfolding on national TV. We are all used to it now because of more than a decade of neglect and mismanagement of our football program (which dates back to the later years of Terry Donahue). No, I wasn't all that upset but I just cringed at few moments during last night's game that paints a discomforting picture about our program still mired in hopeless conservatism.  

I never had any doubt that Oregon was going to ultimately destroy the Bruins (which in itself is troubling). However, I did have a little flicker of hope through all the negative mojo, dark humor and clung on to the notion that a UCLA team was going to come in, fight, and play without any sense of fear. All of that hope was squashed during the following sequences:

  • On UCLA's second drive we found ourselves with 3rd and 1 on Oregon's 46 after picking up a first down in that series through consecutive running plays. We responded with a play call that amounted to a late developing zone read play, resulting in a 5 yard loss. At that time I was wondering whether Neuheisel would show any kind of confidence in his team by going for it because face it wasn't like Chuck Bullough's defense was going to stop the Ducks from anywhere on the field. Nope, Neuheisel pulled the Donahuesque/Dorrellian move by staying conservative and punting away the ball.
  • That 4th and 6 in Oregon's first drive pretty much gave us everything we needed to know about Chuck Bullough. The dude had 10 days to prepare for a game in which he could have at least made an attempt to make some sort of statement. I doubt any of us were looking for him to blitz on every down. What we did expect for him is to mix up his personnel, mix up his coverages, given Darron Thomas (a first year starter) different looks and attack from not so predictable directions. Yet on 4th and 6, we essentially sat back and let them carve us with that one guy we should have been scheming for 10 days. I wonder what Bullough was doing for these past days given we saw nothing new or different from previous 6 games?
  • By UCLA's third drive Bruins were already down 0-15 (and I don't fault Chip Kelly one bit in trying to demoralize a passive aggressive Bruin bunch and going for the kill early). There had to be a sense of urgency from the Bruin offense knowing we desperately needed a TD if we had any chance of competing in the game (all the announcers mentioned that obvious note). So the Bruins drive down into Oregon's 14 yard line with 7 straight rushing plays. You'd figure by then the coaches were thinking they had at least 4 plays to work and would game out their calls accordingly. You'd figure it'd make sense to perhaps roll out Brehaut (who seemed mobile enough) or call a play action, because by that time Ducks were completely committed to stopping the run. No such dice and Neuheisel made the conservative decision to settle for a FG to the complete amazement (and clowning) by the ESPN announcing crew.
  • Of course there was the decision to kick the FG after getting stymied at Oregon's 31 down 3-39 in the third quarter. Neuheisel opted for the FG facing 4th and 5. It reminded me of the classic Donahue move to go for the FG against Arizona in 1992, just so he could preserve a pathetic scoring streak he was really proud of. Bruins saved their precious little scoring streak losing 3-23 against the Wildcats but went on to get shutout by Arizona State few games later. It was classic Donahue. Pathetic, weak and meager with no sense of fight.

Those were just few moments that sort of crystallized the mindset of this football team. They reflect the sense of a coaching staff who don't have much courage or strong conviction in their players. They give me the sense of the coaching staff who are too comfortable with their conventional, conservative approaches, and are afraid to get themselves out of the box and attack the opponents.

Yes, the installation of the pistol was a solid move by Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow. There is no doubt it has had positive impact on our run game. However, what bothers me is how Chow hasn't made any attempts to leverage that advantage to jump start his passing game. It took an emergency start by Richard Brehaut to finally see a UCLA QB who can connect on slants or throw effective screen passes to RBs. I don't believe we can all conclusively declare Brehaut is the answer (not enough data points). Yet it is curious to see how he looks little more comfortable in his mechanics and looks more effortless in throwing catchable balls to his receivers. Don't think it's a coincidence that Cory Harkey was making his catches, Joe Fauria showed us he was alive and even Randal Carroll flashed just a tiny bit of his potential.

I realize Brehaut's lack of pocket awareness can get frustrating and he will make those young QB mistakes, but I can't help but what would have happened if Brehaut was allowed to start v Kansas State instead of rushing Kevin Prince in there after missing three weeks of practice. Similarly, it is stunning that the coaches put in Prince against California, when it was clear to everyone that the kid was clearly hurt and couldn't run.

Going back to defense, again I fully realize that it is impossible to stop those guys just by blitzing every down. That is not the idea. However, if a defense coordinator wants to "solve" that offense, he needs to figure out how to inflect pressure on the triggerman in that offense both physically and mentally. That happens not just by calling jailhouse breaks on every down. That happens by mixing things up, bringing in blitzer from places he doesn't expect, giving him different looks. It doesn't happen by sitting back and hoping to "contain" the offense. It doesn't happen by not swarming at the point of attack and constantly being on alert by looking for the ball carrier.

It is just weird to me that after having 10 days of preparation we gave Oregon nothing really new to look at. We went at them with same vanilla schemes. It sure appeared the Ducks had us well scouted in their thorough owning and dismantling of Bullough. Similarly on offense, there weren't a lot of adjustments when Nick Alliotti's guys were jumping the snaps and just destroying us at LOS anticipating runs.

So for number of macro and micro reasons there are legit questions about Rick Neuheisel's program. It doesn't mean that the season is lost. There are 5 games left and I still believe the team has enough talent to win at least 3 of those games. To get that done though, the coaches - on both sides of the ball - will have to find a way to shed their conservative tendencies.

Everyone - including both of Rick Neuheisel's coordinators - should be on alert rest of this season. They are now officially more than half way point of a reasonable five year period of rebuilding a program. The numbers this year (during Pac-10 season) have not been acceptable. They need to figure out fast how they are going to move in the other direction. 

Bruins are not going to move forward rest of this season if they keep reaching back and leaning on conventional and conservative coaching ideologies. Hope Neuheisel realizes that and act accordingly in the coming weeks and beyond. While we keep the focus on our coordinators, the responsibility ultimately is on Neuheisel to get UCLA back where it belongs.