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Sunday Thoughts: Sifting Though The Wreckage At UCLA

<em>Stanford's demolition of UCLA would have been lot uglier if not for an off night from Andrew Luck.</em>
Stanford's demolition of UCLA would have been lot uglier if not for an off night from Andrew Luck.

Since the existence of this blog there has been couple of UCLA programs that captured the imagination of this community. First, it was the Coach Ben Howland's Ben Ball warriors who inspired all of us until the freshmen class of 2008 arrived on campus. Second, it was Coach John Savage's baseball program that had all of us captivated through its magical run into the championship series at the College World series this past season. What was the common thread between both of those programs? Really simple. Both of them had developed a strong identities based on their coaches establishing rock solid foundations for their respective programs (well until things went south for Howland starting in 2009).

For Coach Howland it was all about defense, rebounding and fundamentals that marked his first five years in the program, until it unraveled starting in early 2009. For Savage he built his program (from my untrained eyes) in the mold of those classic National League teams around strong pitching, solid fielding, and opportunistic small ball. Now let's circle back to our football program since UCLA fired Bob Toledo following a 7 win regular season in 2002. What has been the identity around the program under Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel? Under Karl Dorrell it became listless, lifeless, boring and conservative football team, which essentially turned into a lower division  caliber program when his reign mercifully ended in 2008.

 We are now 2 games into Rick Neuheisel's  third season in Westwood. With 27 games on his record (11-16) the identity of this football team is unclear at best and still Dorrellian (no other way to describe what we witnessed last night) at worst. From what we have seen from the football team on the field, we are still seeing a team that is guided by conservative principles on both sides of the field. Neuheisel and Chow started out with their base pro-set offensives schemes and then made the attempt to switch over to revolver this off-season. The results are inconclusive to date (with datapoints both for and against it). However, what is troubling is that while we watch this offense it is still not clear what exactly the coaches want this offense to be.

Meanwhile, the defense remains much of the same. It's boring, stale, predictable, and schemed in a way as if Chuck Bullough is competing against opponents from the early 80s. There is no sense of aggression or urgency. We still give up long 3rd down conversions by sitting back with nickel packages, letting opposing QBs carve us apart. It's much the same stuff we saw during Dewayne Walker regime, when our D didn't have answers against creative and aggressive coaching schemes, and fattened up other run of the mill boilerplate, pro-set offensive schemes.

The most disheartening part of the Rick Neuheisel tenure to date is this. One of the main reasons we have been optimistic about Neuheisel when he came to Westwood was that we thought he'd actually be a break from the conservative reign of Terry Donahue era, given the reputation he had established for taking chances (on the field) during his days in Washington and in Colorado. What we remembered was how Kordell Stewart became a great college QB under his mentorship in Boulder, and how he tweaked and adjusted Washington offense turning the Huskies into a Rose Bowl champion.

Yet 27 games into the Rick Neuheisel era, we are seeing yet another Donahue disciple leading the program with conservative principles, without showing any consistent signs of that aggressive mindset that  we saw in those exciting Neuheisel led teams in Colorado and in Washington. I mean last night was not the first time we saw Neuheisel deciding to punt on  4th and short on the opponent's turf (last night it happened at the 37 yard line).

It is still way too early to feel depressed and hopeless. At least in terms of timing of the season it is. Yet the road ahead is more than daunting and the product we have seen on the field doesn't generate much confidence. More observations with couple of positive notes (I do have at least couple after the jump) on a Sunday reflecting on Rick Neuheisel's most devastating loss in Westwood (yes this loss was lot worse that the 0-59 humbling thumping in Provo in his first year with a 3rd string QB).

Since I watched the game in person and not in the comforts of the living room, I didn't bother taking down notes. I was soaking in sitting in the Rose Bowl with good friends and a really good crew around us, who were being resilient and stuck with the team till the very end. Oh, they are not happy campers and were voicing their share of frustrations (and being more than reasonable about it) but they stuck with the team through very end. Anyway, since I don't have written notes to draw from this am I am going to go through the moments of the game and observation that are still fresh in my end today:

  • "Revolver" formation/current QBs: It is still way too early to draw any kind of conclusion on the actual scheme of this offense. What we can observe though is that it appears that Kevin Prince is having a hard time with this offense. I find that surprising because I thought Prince was going to be savvy enough, smart enough and mobile enough to do well in this offense. Instead in person, I saw a QB who was extremely tentative and more importantly was making a lot of wrong reads in terms of deciding whether to run or pass. Perhaps Prince will get comfortable eventually. However, the early returns are not positive and not in his favor.

    I think this offense has chance to be successful with a QB who can be proficient as an "option QB." This brings me to Richard Brehaut. He might have a better set of physical tools. His passes looked prettier (albeit against bunch of Stanford scrubs). Still I am just not sure if he also "gets" this offense either as he still seemed to lack of pocket presence and was showing the tendency to lock on receivers just like Prince. I think Brehaut will deserve a start (not just time during a game) if we have one more ineffective start from Prince (then again his health situation is still unclear). Yet I am not hopeful at all whether Brehaut is can run this offense any better. I have no idea about Darius Bell (I feel as hopeful about him as I do about Lazeric Jones running the UCLA point ... which is not much at all without seeing any of them in person). Yet, I am curious how a QB who has experience with running the option can perform in this offense. Something to think about if this offense doesn't show any kind of improvement under either Prince or Brehaut in next 2-3 games.

  • Resiliency of our OL: This is first of my two positive points. These guys deserve a ton of credit for the way they have stepped up this season. They are doing their part. Despite all the adversity through missions, academic issues and injuries, the group of seniors who have started this season have done enough to get the offense going. With 2 games in the book UCLA offense is now averaging almost 5 yards per carry rushing for just about 350 yards (345 to be exact) in 70 carries. They are also providing more than adequate time for Prince (and Brehaut last night) to find their receivers or make decisions to run the ball. So from vantage point what they have done is pretty solid, and I wish rest of the team would take their cues from them.

  • Combination of JetSki/Jones: The resiliency of our OL brings us to the second bright spot. This is not an original take but it's worth repeating. We are relieved that Derrick Coleman is doing well. Let's hope he gets healthy and eventually rejoins the team. That said at this point Jet Ski and Jones should be the two primary backs of this team even when Coleman returns fully healthy. JetSki deserves a lot of props for his strong start this year (133 yards in 24 carries) after battling through fumble issues towards the season. He almost busted couple of runs for TDs, until getting tripped up with shoe string tackles. Meanwhile, Malcolm Jones at the early going has certainly lived up the hype. These two guys should be spearheading the rushing attack from here on out and Coleman when he is healthy should be used to give the other two breathers. Meanwhile, until Coleman gets back to being 100 percent, the coaches should consider using Thigpen as a skatback to change up the pace.
  • The WRs as a group is a disaster: It's surreal that what was supposed to be one of the strongest if not the most talented part of this team has been reduced to a pile of ugly mess. Nelson Rosario has done nothing to remind us of JJ Stokes. Instead he has been evoking the images of Brian Poli Dixon. It's still very early and Rosario has time to reset and get it going. However, he is now two games into his junior season. It's time for him. Taylor Embree is a dumbfounding case because he has shown consistency during practices, but since his freshman year he hasn't done much to show progress. His route running is not all that great and he still can't get separation from the DBs. Morrell Presley has been non-existent. When Randall Carroll gets in he just looks completely lost. Josh Smith has done nothing really with all that speed.

    The question we have to ask is what the heck is going on with all that talent? Coaching is not just about strategizing, scheming and recruiting. It is also about developing talent and working with what you got. Bob Palcic is getting it done with the OL. His numbers have been on upward trajectory every season since he arrived. Something is terribly wrong with the UCLA WR corps, and the responsibility falls on Rick Neuheisel to address it and correct it. We understand that a coach cannot be let go during the season, however, the head coach (who himself has a solid trackrecord of developing talent as a WR coach at the same school) needs to take measures to deal with what has become nothing short of a disaster. Last night was ugly but unfortunately it wasn't the first time we saw this kind of disorganization and chaos among this crew in Westwood.

  • Inexcusable dumb mistakes of special teams: Heading into this game I though UCLA might have had an advantage in the special teams, especially if Chris Osowu didn't play (and he wasn't available). Yet in total horror I watched Josh Smith going into the field to receive a punt early in first half when the entire stadium knew it was 3rd down. It wasn't Smith's first mishap. He should have fielded the punt when the defense held Stanford in its first series, instead he let the ball bounce resulting in extremely poor field position. Meanwhile, Embree made the opposite mistake of catching the ball around 5 yard line, instead of letting the ball go into the end zone for a touch back. We looked like a special team that looked mentally slow again and again. That's not just embarrassing to watch it is simply inexcusable and it shows the sign of breakdown of the organization around this team. Again not only falls on the special teams coach, but it also goes back to Neuheisel.

  • Lack of organization on defense: Sensing a theme around here? Well what else would we call the situation when our defenders kept bumping into each other pathetically trying to sub in while Stanford guys were set and ready to go. It goes back to the basic job responsibilities of Chuck Bullough, which is to have his defense organized and being aware of game situations. From what we saw last night he failed at it a very basic level. I don't have the advantage of watching tape on last night's game. However, it was easy to pick out how Bullough often couldn't make up his mind whether to change up from his base package while the Cardinal were in our red zone. Hence the total chaos during the subbing of defensive personnel.

    What is even more disturbing about last night's defensive performance was that Andrew Luck was having an "off night." He was not being himself by not putting the ball on the money. That wasn't happening because he felt hurried or pressured (because I counted a total of something like 3 to 4 hurries the entire game). If Luck got in any kind of zone and Stanford decided to just keep pounding the ball, the scoreboard would have gotten uglier much faster. While the offense was ugly, the defense was a mess which was fortunate to catch Luck on an off night. I don't even need to elaborate on Bullough's defensive game planning at this point. It's been discussed ad nausea and not hopeful it is going to get better anytime soon. Hope I am proven wrong.

So what is the bottom line here? The season is not over. We are 0-2 with 10 games left in the season. However, let's look realistically in the remaining 10 teams. Let me see if I can look at this from a charitable perspective. Among the remaining games at this point the ones at Texas, at California and at Oregon are sure fire losses. That puts us at 0-5. If I were to look at objectively I would favor the opposing team in matchups against Houston, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington. So that brings to number of losses at 9. The game against Arizona State is a tossup with the only sure win perhaps against Washington State. We will consider the game against Southern Cal a tossup no matter what the situation is. Still right now it is not completely unfathomable to picture UCLA having with a 9 or 10 loss season in Neuheisel's third year in Westwood.

I'd think Rick Neuheisel would be the first person to admit that an 8 loss season or more will not be acceptable in the third season of a head coach's tenure. It's not like our expectations were anything out of the ordinary. Most of us were thinking about a 5-7 win season with at least a non losing record in the conference portion of our schedule with signs of a team getting better throughout the year.

Perhaps Neuheisel will rally and get us there. In the coming days we will try to think about the positives. Perhaps Neuheisel will able to build on the positives from our OL and the running game. Perhaps may be, just may be the offense will operate from a better frame if a different QB gets the start (although I am not terribly optimistic). Perhaps Moore, Bullough and even Chow will feel a sense of urgency. We have seen turnarounds happen before and given Neuheisel's uncanny ability to be resilient there is a flicker of hope that he could salvage the season. However, the question becomes why we are in this kind of desperate situation in just 2 games into his third season in the first place.