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Pregame Guesses: Season Recap, Not A "Harbinger of Doom" Edition

Reflecting on the season and how things got better, instead of getting worse. Maybe I also just like writing "harbinger of doom."

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Miles Davis 1991 (via WELLBRAN)

(This week's video is Miles Davis performing at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1991. I believe this was his final performance ever at the Bowl and I'm pretty sure it was his last concert ever. Miles passed away in September 1991 at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California/)

A reflection:

I watched the Rice game in a bar in Westwood.

Actually, it was on Westwood, about a half mile south of the village.

I didn’t want to run into too many UCLA fans, actually, and figured the few square blocks south of campus would be the one place I would see a bunch of Blue and Gold. That probably seems weird, but I sometimes prefer to watch the games in a less shall-we-say rah rah atmosphere. I like to let a game unfold and not overreact to every play, every call. I like to feel it and think about it – which is why you don’t see me in the game threads all that much or for long periods of time when I do poke my keyboard in.

So, I met a couple of friends who just wanted to hang out and we watched the game in a place where barflies read novels while sipping neon cocktails with umbrellas or work on Sudoku while knocking back cheap shots chased by PBR in cans. The bartender put the game on for us but there was no sound, just classic rock piped in on Internet radio.

We didn’t know what to expect – new team, new quarterback, new coach, new everything, or so we hoped.

I’m sure you remember how that game began. We kicked off, forced a punt, then Brett Hundley went 72 yards for a score on our first offensive play of the season. Then Kai’imi Fairbairn had his extra point blocked and off we went – basically a blowout.

That win over Rice wasn’t enough to inspire confidence, Nebraska the following week was cause for concern, if for no other reason than they are Nebraska. I watched that game at home, in my house, sipping Yamazaki whiskey from Japan. Good stuff, bourbon lovers, and much more reasonably-priced than some of the other Japanese whiskeys. Beating Nebraska was a good thing, but then again they played without their best player, running back Rex Burkhead who I think was injured the week before (I want to say it was against Penn State, but really I don’t remember exactly and what does it matter anyway?) So, a win was a win, but it wasn’t enough to predict how the rest of the season ago.

After beating Houston (I’m sick of playing Houston, by the way) we played Oregon State on a brutally hot day in Pasadena. I only made it to halftime before the heat got to me and I drove home to watch the fourth quarter. That third quarter in the car served as a stark reminder about how as bad an AD as Dan Guerrero is, Chris Roberts is a worse play-by-play announcer. He is unbelievably bad at his jog and literally can’t go three plays without making a mistake. Matt Stevens will always have a soft spot in my heart as the last UCLA quarterback to actually win a Rose Bowl, but the fact that he sits next to Roberts every week and refuses to acknowledge the sheer horribleness of it brings him down a peg in my book.

We lost that Oregon State game because Mike Riley is a very good college football coach. Period. Our players, man for man, are better than the Beavers players (though I would never say the Beavers don’t have good players – they do. But just check the recruiting classes, we have the more coveted roster.) Riley did two things that day: He called an excellent game on offense (and, btw, there are a lot of good play callers in the Pac 12, including Chip Kelly, Mike Leach and yes, Lane Kiffin. Jeff Tedford was pretty good, too, though he’s gone at this point) and he confused our offensive line with a variety of different looks, stunts and blitzes.

This was, at the time, our – or a least my – worst fear. That a young, inexperienced, patched together offensive line would prove to be a weak link all year long. That they would get exposed all year long and that we simply would not be able to move the ball when we had to and we’d lose games as a result.

That feeling got worse for me two weeks later against Cal, another game I watched alone in my living room. We squished a weak Colorado team after the Oregon State game then played our worst game of the year against the Bears. I’m not one to rip other programs too hard, but it’s fair to say that Cal had a bad year and even though they beat us badly we clearly had the better season. But Tedford used the same basic approach as Riley – smart play calling and a variety of pressure defenses – and we committed a bunch of turnovers and that was that.

Looking back, Cal was an aberration – a poorly played game against a motivated opponent. It was the kind of game that happens to good teams all the time, but when it happened to us it caused a great deal of consternation and felt like a harbinger of doom.

I really liked typing "harbinger of doom" – just so you know.

I’ve read a lot of comments about the Cal game, here and on the message boards, not to mention more than a few aggravated email threads. When we were 9-2, the Cal game was seriously lamented as the game we should have won. Oregon State, too, though the Beavers were just good enough that losing to them was not enough to drive Bruins fans crazy. But the Cal game? Who didn’t want that one back.

But I have a different theory.

After the Cal loss, we won five game in a row, capped by the win over USC. That five game streak was the best stretch of football we had since the 10-win season in 2005 and was the best football we played since Cade McNown was our quarterback. And my theory was that the Cal loss might have been necessary for the five game winning streak to commence.

I also think that the Cal game and the five that followed was what separated this Jim Mora team from those that were coached by his predecessors.

You see, I think we learned a few things from the Oregon State/Cal losses and that Mora and his offensive brain trust (Noel Mazzone, Adriam Klemm) solved whatever it was that Oregon State and Cal did to them up front and the kids up front improved and that was the main difference between the way we played the first part of the season and the way we played after that.

I can’t say enough good things about the way the offensive line came together. Torian White, Xavier Sua-Filo, Jacob Brendel, Jeff Baca and Simon Goines began the season as a liability and ended the season as a team strength. By the time the second Stanford game rolled around, they were matching the excellent Cardinal line block for block. Say what you want about Johnathan Franklin – and I’ll say that I’ve never, ever seen a senior running back improve that much from his junior to senior seasons – and say what you want about Hundley – and I’ll say he’s the best quarterback we’ve had since #18 – but they don’t do what they do without the offensive line doing their jobs.

Look, we caught a few breaks along the way. Burkhead missed the Nebraska game. Arizona State’s stud linebacker Will Sutton didn’t play against us. I’m pretty sure that Star Lotulelei, Utah’s stud defensive tackle was hurt when we played them (he only had two tackles in that game), though I guess we had our share of injuries and stuff like that balances out. I think we had a very easy schedule, all things considered.

But in the end, we beat almost every team we were better than, we learned a lot from the two times we were upset and we played a Stanford team that might be one of the five best teams in the country almost even on their home field, only losing when they made a couple of plays more than we did.

I watched the Rice game in a dive bar, got heatstroke at the Oregon State game and watched almost the rest of the season in my living room. I’m watching the Holiday Bowl from the cheap seats (thanks Central Ticket Office). This team earned my attendance in San Diego – they played to my expectations and instead of imploding after a couple of bad games as they would have done last year (or the year before that, or the year before that), they figured out what was wrong and got better as the year went on.

After all those lousy seasons, I have nothing to complain about.

No one else should either.

With that, here are your Pregame Guesses: Season Recap, Not A "Harbinger of Doom" edition:

  1. What do you think was the turning point of the season?
  2. Who is your Most Improved Bruin nominee?
  3. What assistant coach is most responsible for the successes this season?