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Sunday Thoughts: Eternal Optimism Around UCLA Football

As I was heading down to the bar yesterday afternoon to watch our game I was openly wondering why I was bothering to spend 3+ hours of a Saturday afternoon inside a bar watching a game, we were going to lose. Even though I think the Bruins have a shot at finishing the season strong (more on that later), there wasn't much in yesterday's matchups that gave me reasons for optimism heading into the game. I had a feeling it was going to be either depressing blowing out or just another excruciating loss filled with frustrations of endless "what ifs" and WTFs.

Yet there I was heading down to meet up with a friend and watch the game with other alums. As I was openly wondering aloud about my sanity and devotion to this team, Mrs. N simply said that deep down despite all the reality based cynicism and frustration around our program, we are "eternal optimists." Despite all of our troubles, at the end of the day we  do believe things are going to work out all right (with or without Rick Neuheisel) and Bruins will get back where they were 12 years ago (forget the mirage of 2005).

So with that backdrop despite yesterday's loss for some reason today didn't feel like another sad Sunday when the whole weekend feels ruined after another frustrating Bruin loss. No, I don't take any comfort in moral victories. I don't also care much about the "effort" we put into yesterday's game (didn't see a lot of it from some key players on the defensive side). Yet, I still think the Bruins have a shot to finish this strong on an up note and meet the modest goals and expectations we had set for this program heading into Rick Neuheisel's third season in Westwood.

Bruins will have a very winnable MUST WIN matchup next weekend against Oregon State. From what we have seen from our offense under Richard Brehaut, we do think we have enough playmakers in our program (who have been shackled by Norm Chow's unimaginative and conservative playcalls) to outscore the Beavers (up to the coaches to figure out that game plan). If the Bruins get the expected victory against the Beavers, we think they should be able to win at least one of their remaining road games (if not both) against mediocre Washington and Arizona St., and then go for broke against Hello Kiffin's Southern Cal.

So the Bruins still have a shot at finishing the season on an up note. The question right now is whether Rick Neuheisel and his coaching staff (on both sides of the ball) will show the necessary courage and conviction needed to shed its conservative cocoon to meet the reasonable goals set for the program earlier in the season. At the end of the day, we are going to be all right if the Bruins fall short of the goal by 1 win here and there. What is not going to be a positive move for this program is if it continues to operate with a conservative mindset, curling up in fetal positions with games on the line. More on yesterday's game after the jump.

So the second half of the game was interesting to watch. It was awesome to see Richard Brehaut doing a little play action, roll out and then hit a streaking Randall Carroll in perfect stride to score the first TD after the first half. All of us felt the energy jolt when Brehaut executed that perfect flea flickr to hit Josh Smith for the second TD.

Those plays were fun to watch but it just led to more questions for yours truly. Why did it take Norm Chow so long to dial them up? After watching Brehaut's third start, I am now wondering more than even whether the outcomes of at least one of two contests - v. Kansas State and Cal -  would have been different if Chow (who apparently makes the decision on who gets to be the starting QB without interference from Rick Neuheisel) went with Brehaut instead of a gimpy Kevin Price who barely practiced with the team.

Moreover, as exciting it was to watch Brehaut take another step (at this point he seems to be taking steps forward in every game as a starter), the Bruins were shackled by conservative play calling during couple of key stretches in second half. First opportunity came for the Bruins when we got the ball back thanks to an incredibly lucky bounce to Christian Ramirez from a fumble by "sure handed" (LOL) Taylor Embree on a punt return. Down 5 with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bruins got the ball 50 and moved down to Arizona's 34 with a first and 10. Here is how the sequence went:

  • 1st and 10 at ARIZ 34    Josh Smith reverse for a loss of 10 yards to the Ariz 44.
  • 2nd and 20 at ARIZ 44    Johnathan Franklin rush for 2 yards to the Ariz 42.          
  • 3rd and 18 at ARIZ 42    Richard Brehaut pass incomplete to Christian Ramirez.

The reverse was ugly and slow developing. It's  stale play from west coast offense that fast defenses can catch up and smoke out easily. Okay, at least we tried something different so it wasn't all that upsetting. What was really pathetic was the call at 2nd and 20 when Chow just called for a weak handoff to Jet Ski (who wasn't having a great day). That's the kind of uncreative and vanilla call that so many of us are having hard time. It is difficult to understand why it is so hard for UCLA to dial up options like slant to WR, jailbreak screen to RB or FB or WR bubble screen in that kind of situation. The pass to FB eventually came on 3rd down but by then the entire freaking Rose Bowl knew that Brehaut was going to pass. So there wasn't any shred of unpredictability left in that series.

Norm Chow's play calling didn't get any better when UCLA got the ball back (still down 5) with 3 mins left in the game on our 20 yard line. Here is how the pathetic sequence went:

  • 1st and 10 at UCLA 20    Derrick Coleman rush for 3 yards to the UCLA 23.   
  • 2nd and 7 at UCLA 23    Richard Brehaut pass incomplete to Morrell Presley.          
  • 3rd and 7 at UCLA 23    Richard Brehaut sacked by Ricky Elmore and Lolomana Mikaele for a loss of 4 yards to the UCLA 19.
  • 4th and 11 at UCLA 19    Richard Brehaut pass incomplete to Taylor Embree, UCLA penalty Illegal Formation declined.

So note how the Bruins tried to set up that drive with a meager run on the first down. Prior to that drive here is how UCLA called plays on first downs:

  • Richard Brehaut pass complete to Jerry Johnson for 9 yards to the Ariz 36.
  • Richard Brehaut rush for 2 yards to the UCLA 37.
  • Johnathan Franklin rush for 2 yards to the UCLA 27.
  • Richard Brehaut pass complete to Taylor Embree for 12 yards to the UCLA 41 for a 1ST down.
  • Derrick Coleman rush for 13 yards to the UCLA 27 for a 1ST down.
  • Richard Brehaut pass incomplete to Jerry Johnson.
  • Richard Brehaut pass complete to Josh Smith for 11 yards to the UCLA 33 for a 1ST down.
  • Derrick Coleman rush for a loss of 1 yard to the UCLA 13.
  • Richard Brehaut pass incomplete to Josh Smith.
  • Anthony Barr rush for 9 yards to the Ariz 41.

Again I wonder what kind of calculation that goes through the coaches' minds. Up until that point when the Bruins threw on first down Brehaut complete 3 of his 5 attempts for 32 yards. When the Bruins went to their RBs on first down Jet Ski and Coleman came up with 14 yards in 3 attempts. The other two rushing attempts netted 9 yards with 2 coming from a QB keeper and the other 7 from Anthony Barr at F Back spot (which was a nice call).

So with those results at hand it could have been lot more interesting and unpredictable if at that first down spot, Chow decided to call for a pass from Brehaut  or go with his F Back (run or pass) in the first down (BTW Anthony Barr seems to be lot more productive than Morrell Presley). Anyway, Chow went the safe route with Coleman and the drive seemed kind of dead from that first attempt.

I am sure we can find lot more examples of conservative playcalling. It really has to change if the Bruins are to make any kind of move.BTW I had no problem with the call to go for it on 4th from our 19. Brehaut made a nice pass but once against our "sure handed" receiver Embree failed to make a critical play.

I appreciate the circumstances around this program in terms of depth and injury issues. However, we never asked this team to content for the Rose Bowl or even win 8 or 9 games. All we were looking for this season was a team that would develop methodically, make a consistent effort to put together a dynamic and unpredictable offense, and play sound and fundamental defense.

Which brings me to our pathetic defense. What can I say? The 29 point was an aberration. The Bruins gave up 583 total yards in this game. We also gave up 582 yards against Oregon. Don't think we have had a stretch like this since Larry "You Are Killing Me" Kerr's unwatchable unit from 2005. Difference this year is that our offense has been mostly just as horrid.

Not surprisingly the guys sound completely confused and clueless:

Hester made it clear: "We've got to get it right, whatever the problem is. I'm not sure what we have to do, that's up to the coaches. But we've got to get it right."

Arizona's Matt Scott who despite career numbers in passing yardage had a bad game mentioned the obvious:

"Honestly, I didn't think there was any way they could stop us in the first half," Scott said. "We made mistakes."

Jordan Zumwat, who gave a valiant effort  let out the fact how once again Chuck Bullough's defense had no clue until the second half:

"We started figuring them out (in the second half)," UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. "I wish we would have done it in the beginning, it would have made it a lot easier."

While the coaches deserve a huge brunt of the criticism for their vanilla and uninspired schemes, they player themselves - at least some of them - have lot to answer.

The tackling was simply atrocious. What was even more disheartening was to witness the putrid (have been using this word a lot wrt to our defense this season) performances of our two "captains":  Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore. There were few plays it appeared as if Ayers basically quit. He was jogging instead of running and giving up.

We love Rahim's passion for the game and for the four letters. However, the painful fact is that he is a very poor tackler lacking in fundamentals. Perhaps Moore had a great start to his first two years because he had ATV essentially blanketing one side of the field. This season though he has been a shadow of his former self. He has a long way to go to improve as a college football player, before even thinking about the next level (if Ayers had another game or two like yesterday, same case can be made about him too).

So, right now even though the effort from our Bruins was nice and it was interesting to see us hang in against a decent Pac-10 opponent, there are lot of serious issues (that are fixable with good coaching) with our football team. Despite all the negative notes mentioned above, I still believe this team has a chance to close on a strong note (hey October is almost over!). However, for the Bruins to end on a strong note, Rick Neuhiesel needs to take charge.

I guess we can be heartened by the fact that the team as a whole is still responding to its head coach (they could have rolled over and played dead) and that Brehaut is injecting a genuine sense of excitement around our offense (anxious to see how he performs next week). Still for this team to make a move, it needs to badly shed its conservative tendencies, get aggressive, take chances (when opportunities arise) and play with a sense of purpose and pride in those four letters.

We saw some flashes yesterday afternoon. That's not good enough. We need this team to put together a consistent effort throughout an entire game - starting next weekend - in a must win game against Oregon State. Guess all of us are going to be watching and tracking our Bruins once again because deep down inside despite our frustrations and cynicism we are all eternal optimists.