Opportunity noun def: an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done; a favorable juncture of circumstances; a good chance for advancement or progress (from Merriam-webster.com)
On September 13, 1862, Barton Mitchell, a corporal with the 27th Indiana Regiment, Union XII Corps, US Army of the Potomac, found an envelope on the ground in a field outside of Frederick, Maryland. The envelope contained 3 cigars which were the least of the value of its contents. The real prize was the piece of paper that surrounded the cigars. The paper, titled Special Order 191, was a hand written note from General Robert E Lee to his commanding generals describing his plan for splitting the Army of Northern Virginia into 5 parts and the specific routes and schedules that each of those Corps were to take as they moved north into Maryland. It was Lee’s playbook for an invasion, and now the Union had a copy.
The paper was forwarded up the chain until it reached General George McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and Lee’s counterpart in the North. Recognizing the importance of the information, he was reported to have said, "Now I know what to do. Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."
Although Lee did this on his advance northward, dividing an army in the face of a unified enemy is a really big no no in military tactics. All that is necessary is for the opponent to attack each of your small elements one by one, thus wiping out your entire force. McClellan was handed the blueprint for how to do this to Lee's army. It was a singular opportunity to end the Civil War.
McClellan promptly choked. He was by nature an overly conservative tactician with a tendency to severely overestimate his opponent’s strength. Despite this incredible opportunity to erase Lee’s army, he became riddled with doubt, was slow to respond, and was excessively cautious when he finally did move. That delay and the meager response alerted Lee who recognized his vulnerability and quickly reunited his army. The two sides subsequently met four days later at Antietam Creek where for the next three days the blues and the grays slaughtered each other in numbers never before or since matched in any American conflict. Though Antietam was a Union victory, Lee’s army survived, ensuring that the slaughter would continue for almost 3 more years.
I’ll allow that watching Utah demonstrate how to beat Stanford last week doesn’t quite reach the same level of historical import as the Union army finding Special Order 191 in the grass. But it also wasn’t like UCLA had no idea how to score points against Stanford. And to go with the game plan, the Bruins certainly had the offensive weapons capable of getting it done. And best of all, Stanford was ripe for the picking. But when the time came for the Bruins to execute the plan, they fumbled. Their attack was conservative, piecemeal, and ineffective. And with that, the Bruins lost an opportunity they haven’t had in almost a decade.
When I write these things for Sunday mornings, I’ve typically had some time to consider things and to let emotions settle. It helps me keep the lows from feeling as low and the highs from getting too high. Reality usually falls somewhere to the center of the extreme feelings expressed during the game and in the immediate aftermath. But even today it will be hard for me to understand anyone who lives and dies with this team and who watched that game yesterday and who isn’t still sick at what we did - and didn’t - do with this rare opportunity.
Sure, Stanford has been on a great run for several years. They’ve now beaten us 6 times in a row, but yesterday’s game was totally different from last December when it took Stanford playing a nearly flawless game to just edge us out. I was disappointed after that game, yes, but not heartsick and empty. Yesterday wasn’t that game or that team, though.
Compared to recent years, this was a decidedly mortal Stanford squad. They were not the dominant team with big name talent that we have seen the last few years, and we thought maybe we were. But Stanford still did what they always do, grind out a running game behind their big offensive line, control the ball, avoid mistakes, not take unnecessary risks, and play it by the book. They're like that guy in your March Madness pool who just picks the higher seeds all the way through and never goes for any upsets. Which makes it all the more annoying when he beats you.
I’m not a believer in the phrase "They didn’t win that game - we lost that game". No, they were there, too, and the truth is they did win and we (still) lost. But it’s the way we lost that is so frustrating. We had chance after chance after chance to take control of that game. And we never did.
Consider the opportunities within the game that we squandered:
Stanford was banged up on defense and was starting offensive players to fill in the holes. Our allegedly high powered offense went (stayed?) vanilla and performed poorly and couldn’t take advantage of their vulnerability.
Stanford looked susceptible in our first drive to a Bruin power running game which reeled off big yards on our first 3 plays. That running back didn’t get another carry until the 3rd quarter, and that drive was ended by a penalty and two incomplete passes.
We had an opportunity to keep Stanford off the board altogether when they fumbled a pitch on an option play in the red zone, but we failed to simply fall on the ball. Stanford recovered and subsequently got a field goal. It was their only points of the first half in which our defense wsa excellent, but it enough to hold the lead.
On Stanford’s first touchdown, two of our defensive backs had an opportunity to break up the play. One got sealed behind the receiver and couldn’t make the play; the other took a bad angle and was two yards behind the other two and out of the play. Meanwhile, their receiver took advantage of that opportunity to make one of the greatest catches in the history of catching.
We closed the game to one score on the first play of the 4th quarter and then had several opportunities with the ball to tie the game, but mindless penalties, bad play calling, and poor execution wasted every one of those chances. Even when Stanford extended us additional opportunities by going into an offensive coma we failed to make that one single that would have gotten us back in the game.
And this is an incomplete list.
The Bruins proved that it’s not enough for an opportunity to exist. You need to take advantage of that opportunity by being prepared in the first place and then executing when the time comes. For instance, if I run into Salma Hayek, I have to both be ready to say something mindblowing and then to get it out without gagging on my own tongue and passing out. But yesterday the Bruins did not look either prepared, nor could they execute. And that failure is both on the coaching staff and the players, neither of whom appear ready to make that next step from a good team to a great team.
The world road cycling championships were held in Italy two weeks ago. Whereas the more famous Grand Tours favor riders with strong teams and the one day spring classics favor riders with that particular skill set, the world championship is an opportunity for both a country and its strongest riders to work together for the ultimate prize and national pride. This year, as the seven hour race neared the finish line, hometown hero Vicenzo Nibali and Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were three of the four riders in the leading group. Of the 4, Rodriguez was the best climber and Valverde was the best sprinter, so depending on tactics, one of those two looked poised to bring Spain its first title since 2004. When Rodriguez attacked on a hill in the final kilometers, Valverde made the mistake of marking Nibali who could not keep up with Rodriguez, thereby dropping both of them out of contention. The other remaining rider, Rui Costa of Portugal, took that opportunity to separate himself from Valverde, who could have outsprinted him in the end, and was able to stay close enough to the better climber Rodriguez that Costa was able to catch him when the road flattened out with about 900 meters remaining. Unlike Valverde, Costa could definitely outsprint the little climber and Portugal had its first ever world champion. Rodriguez took silver and Valverde got bronze, but Rodriguez’s post race comments tell it all:
"Two medals don’t mean anything. We want to win, and to be so close, and not win, well, it’s something not to celebrate. I don’t know if I will have another chance like this. I don’t take consolation in silver and bronze because we want to win. Both Alejandro and I both have won a lot of races, but neither of us have won a worlds title. We’ve been close, but we want the rainbow jersey. We are missing something – maybe luck – but it’s been impossible to win."
That quote from Rodriguez touches on another facet of why I’m so discouraged about this game. Who knows if or when an opportunity like yesterday will come again? How many Bruins fans thought in 2005 that we’d get another shot at 10 wins and a top 10 ranking in 2006? Or 2007? Or that it would be 8 more years and 2 more coaches? You see, you never know when a golden opportunity like yesterday will come along again – a chance to stay undefeated, a chance to beat a team that has owned you for several years, a chance to show the country that UCLA is back and it belongs, a chance to reassure your fans that all that hope is warranted and justified. The rarity of opportunities like those increases the urgency of capitalizing on them when they happen.
Maybe the biggest part of the frustration from yesterday is that the Bruins may actually be who we are afraid they were. We said all week that this game would tell us a lot about our football team. Well, the suggestion we got yesterday worries me. I think all of us saw this two game road trip as a difficult hurdle, but it's the way we stumbled that is most concerning.
I want to finish by pointing out the silver lining, lest anyone accuse me of being too negative, and before anyone writes off this season, becuase there is always some good news. We still have a lot more going for us than General McClellan or Joachim Rodriguez could say. The good news is that the UCLA Bruins will get another opportunity next Saturday. And taking full advantage of that one could erase a lot of the pain from missing the one yesterday.