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Pregame Guesses: San Jose State Spartans Edition

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict UCLA beats San Jose State tomorrow night.

Both teams are 0-1, making this a must win situation for both as another loss will crush the BCS dreams of either the Bruins or the Spartans.

SJSU arrives in Pasadena trying to shake off the effects of a 57-3 loss to Stanford in Palo Alto. The last time UCLA visited played Stanford, we only lost 35-0 … which buoys my confidence in my bold prediction.

Let’s face it, in football parlance, San Jose State is what’s knows as "just an opponent" – the type of team one circles on the calendar as an automatic win, a glorified scrimmage that was probably scheduled to help us hone our game plan, stay healthy and get a look at a few freshmen before the Texas Longhorns come to town the following Saturday. But when you’ve lost seven of your last eight, I’m not sure you’ve earned the right to call anyone else "just an opponent."

We’ve spent the last week going over the Houston game, but the weekly guesses column is my time and I’ll hope you’ll indulge what might seem repetitive at this point. I realize we’d all like to put Houston behind us Honestly, I hope this is the last time any UCLA teams goes to Houston – John Wooden and Lew Alcindor lost their only game in Houston, Freddie Mitchell lost his incredible speed when he shattered his leg in Houston and I wonder if Rick Neuheisel lost what was left of his nerve at Houston.

Anytime a team any team loses a close game, its fans can pick apart the performance and try to identify "the reason we lost." You saw it all week, here on BN and other places as well. It could be as simple as "we missed a field goal and an extra point and lost by four" to "Why was Tresey playing the corners 10 yard off the line of scrimmage while Case Keenum was picking us apart with five yard throws that his receivers turned into fifteen with yards after catch."

I’m not going to worry about any of that. We lost and there are a jillion reasons why. They really don’t matter and if nothing else, we don’t make excuses. Props to Houston, they got it done.

But I do want to revisit a couple of things from late in the fourth quarter. I’m not looking at a game tape as I write this (I tend to delete the losses, it would be nice to re-watch them and analyze them, but I just don’t have the time) so bear with me if I get a detail wrong.

On what I believe was our next to last drive of the game, we ran about seven minutes off the clock, then Kip Smith missed a field goal. What bothers me about that drive was the utter lack of urgency displayed by our guys on the field or the coaches on the sideline. We ran 30 extra seconds off the clock on almost every play. We took our time. Guys lazily got up off the ground and walked back to the huddle. Remember, at this point in the game we were two scores down at 28-38. But we ran the clock down from about nine and a half minutes to two and a half minutes.

I’ve read in a few places that the reason we took our time was that we didn’t want to give Keenum too much time and allow Houston to drive back down the field. This makes zero sense. We needed to score twice. Whether we scored in a minute or in eight minutes, Keenum was getting the ball back, unless we recovered the onside kickoff. No matter what, when you’re more than eight down in the fourth quarter, the clock is not your friend.

Okay … hold on to that and let me move on to another sequence.

After we missed the field goal, Houston ran 30 seconds off the clock and punted. Who did Rick Neuheisel have back to return the punt? Taylor Embree.

To me, Embree returning punts at any time is a mistake. I’m convinced that "Embree" is Portuguese for "fair catch." The reason we’re given for Embree’s incumbent status as our punt returner is that the other guys (guys like track star Randall Carroll, or Josh Smith, once a top punt returner at Colorado) is that they drop too many punts in practice and Embree has the better hands. On the face of this, it’s silly. My son’s Pop Warner team had five kids who could catch a punt. It’s inconceivable that the UCLA Bruins have only one guy capable of catching a punt and if it’s the truth, someone should be fired because how hard can it be to teach someone to catch a punt?

But, even if we accept the fact that Embree has by far the best hands when it comes to catching punts, having him return that punt made no sense. We were two scores down with less than two minutes to play. Even if Randall Carroll had a fifty-fifty chance at fumbling you’d still want him to run that one back because we needed a big play. At that point, we had very little chance to win the game, if he fumbled it actually would have just sealed what was already a nearly inevitable fate. But if he found a seam, he could have given us a shot at winning by giving us great field position or even finding the end zone.

So, Embree went back to return the punt and, of course, called for a fair catch. Which was actually sad, because there wasn’t anyone within seven yards of him when he caught the ball. He had room to run in a situation where he needed to take a chance even if he was surrounded and he just lifted his hand and caught the ball.

He might as well have raised a white flag.

For those still with me, Brehaut came on with the offense and drove the team right down for a touchdown, proving he could run the hurry up offense, in case you were wondering if his inability to run the two minute drill was the reason he wasn’t running it on the earlier drive.

Taken together, I’m finally ready to make my point (emphasis on finally, LOL).

Or maybe it’s a question? Whatever.

Point is, I want to know why we play so conservatively? Why is Rick Neuheisel so adverse to taking chances, to playing aggressively? Why does he elect to punt when he’s across the fifty and needs only a few yards to keep the drive alive? Why does he opt for field goals when he needs touchdowns? Why does he burn seven minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter when he’s down to scores? And why won’t he take a chance with another punt returner when he’s down 10 with less than two minutes on the clock? (This whole punt return thing really kills me. Anyone who has watched UCLA football the last decade knows that many of our best games came when Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Slater were running back our punts and kickoffs. It’s a weapon, why we refuse to load the rifle with our best ammunition is a complete mystery.)

Honestly, Rick Neuheisel coaches like he’s got an inferior team that wants to keep everything close against a better team and just hopes to steal a win at the end. This is exactly the opposite of how I thought he’d coach when we hired him. If nothing else, I thought he’d take some chances, gamble, make the team exciting win or lose. Against Houston, there really was no excuse for playing this way, because except for quarterback where I must give the nod to sixth-year-senior Keenum over either Prince or Brehaut, we had better athletes than the Cougars all over the field.

Okay, that’s my rant. I hope it wasn’t just another rehash of Houston, because my goal was to demonstrate that what happened against Houston was a microcosm of some of the things that have been going on the last few seasons.

Believe me, I’d much rather the Pregame Guesses column be a lighthearted look at the next game, a chance to poke a little fun at the next opponent. Lord help us if I’ve got to use next week’s Guesses column to rehash a San Jose State disaster – I’d much rather spend a thousand words reminding Texas about the last three times we faced the Longhorns.

With that, here are your Pregame Guesses for San Jose State. As always, post your guesses in the subject line of your responses, but feel free to respond to this post in the body of your reply:

  1. How many quarterbacks will play for UCLA against San Jose State?
  2. Name a Bruin who will grab an interception Saturday night (if you don’t think we’ll pick off a pass – post "no one."
  3. Will the announced attendance be over or under 57,000?
  4. Bonus question: In what order will the quarterbacks appear in the game? In other words, if you only think Brehaut will play, just post Brehaut. If you think it will be Brehaut and Prince or Brehaut and Hundley, post Brehaut-Prince or Brehaut-Hundley. If you think all three will play, post them in the order in which you think they’ll appear Brehaut-Hundley-Prince or Brehaut-Prince-Hundley. If you think Prince is starting, put his name first. If you think Nick Crissman is playing, you’re probably Nick Crissman’s grandma.