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Conservative and Cowardly Coaching: The Prevent Offense

Last week, I posted an article discussing UCLA's and Coach Rick Neuheisel's opportunity to turn this program around by defeating its hated rival and making a statement about where UCLA football was headed. I said this was Neuheisel's Show Me Game.

Unfortunately, what CRN showed me was more of the same conservative play-not-to-lose philosophy on offense that has left the Bruin faithful with little hope for the future, and has many questioning whether CRN should lead this program at all.

Much has been made on BN of the conservative play calling on offense by Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow. A couple of examples are here and here. Granted, injuries and other missing personnel have limited at times what the Bruins have been able to do. However, the consistent lack of aggression in the Bruin's offense has gone far beyond that, and it came to a head in Saturday's matchup with *$c. At a time when UCLA had nothing to lose and when the risk was worth the gain, UCLA folded into a shell and made no aggressive effort to rip this one away from its opponent. And despite Lane Kiffin's best efforts to keep us in the game, the absence of any killer instinct on the part of the Bruins' offensive scheme gave the trogies an easy 4th victory in a row, and 11 wins out of 12 (if you count the 2 vacated Reggie Bu$h games).

Three examples from Saturday's pathetic offensive snoozer against the trogans highlight the how the Bruins' Prevent Offense killed this team's spirit and took away any chance to win, after the jump...

The first glaring example of the Bruins pathetic play-not-to-lose philosophy came in the second quarter. With the game tied at 7 (after the trogan's not-so-well-executed fake FG) UCLA was driving to take a lead, which would have provided an enormous boost to the team and its fans. With 1st and 10 on the *$c 24, a holding penalty and a false start backed us up to the 39. In the thread, I called for us not to abandon the run threat there, but no one suggested a series of safe predictable runs into the line. At a time the defense knew we would run the ball, play action or a screen could have been very effective.  Instead, on 1st and 25, the coaching-scared mindset reared its ugly head. No effort was made to go down the field or catch the defense off guard. A run by Derrick Coleman gained 6 yds, then JetSki's fumbling bug bit at the worst time, and suddenly, *$c was the team in the lead. Instead of playing for a first down and a touchdown drive, we played it safe, we settled, and we got burned. And we were never that close in the game again.

The next play that showed the overly conservative mindset was the 4th down just before halftime. There was a lot of talk in the thread about what the Bruins should do, and most felt that punting was the "right" thing. It was the "smart" play: Don't run the risk; Don't give $c a chance to score before half; Play field position and keep the game close. Trailing by 7 and the way the offense was going, we were not going to have many opportunities to close the deficit. Had we turned it over, $c was still 35 yds away with only a very short amount of time to capitalize. Instead of going for the first down or running a fake punt, a visibly discouraged Richard Brehaut went to the line and made a bunch of flagellations he never does otherwise in an effort to Jedi mind trick the trogies into thinking we were going for it. That this would require the trogies to actually think was the first failure. Not surprisingly, no one was fooled and we made the safe play.

Contrast this with some daring plays by other teams this year. On Saturday, Oregon had a slim lead and a BCS berth on the line in the 3rd qtr in the Civil War. On 4th and 3 at its own 28, Oregon lined up to punt and snapped the ball to an up back who ran 64 yds. The drive ended with a TD, and propelled Oregon to a win. Oregon doesn't play not to lose. They play to win, and they are playing in the BCS championship game.  Earlier this year, Wisconsin was trailing Iowa by 6 in an important early Big 10 matchup when they faked a punt on their own 26 yard line, leading to a game winning TD. Wisconsin played to win, and they are playing in the Rose Bowl on Jan 1. Closer to home, Arizona had a 5 point lead over us and had 4th and 3 on their own 27.  They faked a punt that kept the ball in their hands, flipped the field, and helped seal the win. Arizona will be in the Alamo Bowl this year. These three teams did not play it safe. They played to win. And they'll be playing in bowls.  In a similar situation on our own 35, with nothing like a bowl to risk, UCLA put its tail between its legs, made the safe play, and punted the ball. Brehaut's body language said it all.  And we were never that close in the game again.

The third and most condemning example occurred in the 3rd qtr. The Bruins were still only down by 7, but the inconsistency of the offense highlighted the urgency of capitalizing on every opportunity. When the Bruins got the ball thanks to an interception from Aaron Hester (which somehow Meriones caused with one of the most prophetic karmic comments ever) the Bruins had the ball on the good side of the field. After a DC rush and two RB incompletions, the Bruins were faced with 4th and 4 on the trogie's 40. With a game on the line against our hated rival, on our home turf, instead of showing courage and trust in his team, Neuheisel decided to punt and play the field position game. Here on BN, we destroyed CTS for a similar decision in 2005. The punt was downed at the 3, but then the trogies disgraced Neuheisel's weak play-it-safe strategy by gamely grinding out a 9 play, 97 yard TD drive. And we were never that close in the game again.

In each of these three instances,  the Bruins made the safe and possibly the ""smart" play calls. Each time, those calls cost the Bruins opportunities to be competitive in their most important game of the year. In what turned out to be the world's worst and slowest boat race, the Bruins were never as close to the rivals as they were in those instances, and each time the coaching staff choked and let the trogies get further away.

I don't know if this Prevent Offense mindset is a product of Neuheisel or Chow or both. This wasn't the aggressive Neuheisel we saw at CU or UW. Similarly, Chow was creating prolific Heisman winners before coming to Westwood. Why these two have combined to run such a conservative and cowardly offense is a mystery. This play-not-to-lose philosophy limited Donohue's success, and ended CTS's reign at UCLA. Now we have CRN going down the same pathway. We know the talent level was depleted on Neuheisel's arrival. We know the Pistol is a new system. We know we are missing numerous key players, esp on the O Line. And all of that explains many of the offensive failures up to this point.  But even with the improved talent, another year of experience, and a better O line coming back, do we have any reason to expect anything better from a UCLA football team under CRN and CNC in the future if this cowardly offensive philosophy continues? This needs to change and change yesterday. Otherwise, the CRN reign at UCLA will end with him being the least successful coach in school history. We have to see a team next year that is aggressive, disciplined, and not playing not-to-lose.  It has to play to win.