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The Morning After, Part 11: Arizona State

Thoughts on UCLA Football and how a play or two here or a lack of adjustment or poor decision there can cost you everything you have been building for all season.

With the Pac-12 Ttile gone, the Bruins now absolutely have to beat Southern Cal to make this a successful season.
With the Pac-12 Ttile gone, the Bruins now absolutely have to beat Southern Cal to make this a successful season.
Harry How

In Greek myth, Sisyphus was the first King of Corinth. As arrogant and deceitful mortal kings often did in those days, Sisyphus managed to offend Zeus. Zeus responded by dispatching Hades, the god of death, to bind Sisyphus in some fancy handcuffs and take him to the Underworld. However, Sisyphus tricked Hades into demonstrating the handcuffs on himself, and upon doing so, Sisyphus promptly trapped Hades in a closet in his home. This created quite a problem for the Greeks, since, with Hades handcuffed in Sisyphus' closet, there was no death, and no one could die. Finally some of the other gods got involved due to monetary losses and after some further deception and stall tactics, the mortal Sisyphus met his end. But death was not enough. As punishment in the Underworld, Sisyphus was sentenced roll a large stone up to the top of a hill. The catch was that Zeus cast a spell on the stone that caused it to fall away and roll back to the bottom of the hill whenever Sisyphus neared the top, dooming our brazen mortal to an eternity of futility and frustration.

If you don't think Sisyphus wasn't a Bruins fan, consider that his grandson, who was notable for fighting in the Trojan War, and slaying the Chimera, was named Bellerophon. He also writes frequently for Bruins Nation.

So yeah, It's a U.C.L.A. thing.

As the final seconds counted down last night and Arizona State was clinching its invite to the Pac-12 Title game, the camera panned to the ASU sideline where head coach Todd Graham was receiving congratulations from his staff and players, and one of the television announcers said something to the effect that Graham had delivered a "program defining moment" for the Sun Devils.

It's possible that the same could very well have been said for U.C.L.A. Coach Jim Mora at that moment on the other sideline.

Mora and Graham are an interesting parallel. They both came into the Pac-12 at the same time last season. Both took over programs that had suffered several years of mediocrity. In the 5 years before Graham wandered into the desert, the Sun Devils were a decidedly average 31-31. The decade saw the Devils swing from some 7-8 win seasons to some 4-5 win seasons, with some 6-6 years thrown in. They also had one surprising 10 win season in the middle, but they lost their bowl game that year. Sound familiar?

If you go back even further, you can see the Sun Devils had some very good seasons, the same way we did before the decade of Dorrell and Neuheisel. I know we like to think of our run at the BCS Title in the late 90's (damnit, Melsby was down!) as representative of our impressive football legacy, but also keep in mind that ASU has won a Rose Bowl more recently than we have.

So the path of our two programs hasn't really been too different recently.

Now both in their second years, Graham is taking his team to the Pac-12 Championship Game and Mora is not. But before you consider ASU fodder for the titans of the North Division, consider that if they beat their hated in-state rivals next week, they'll host that Title game at Sun Devil Stadium. You know how Stanford is on the road. How strong is that scent of roses in Tempe right now?

With promise and potential come expectations and hope, and when expectations fail and hope is lost, anger and frustration set in. Bruin fans are rightly searching for explanations. We were getting close, so how the hell did that stone get back to the bottom of the hill?

U.C.L.A. has played a lot of good halves of football this year. The problem is they have never played two of them on the same day. Each good half has been paired with an average to bad to utterly horrid half in the same game. Playing one good half of football was plenty to roll teams like Nevada and New Mexico State and Colorado and UC Berkeley. It was also just enough to slip past Utah and Arizona and Washington and Nebraska. But sooner or later playing half a game isn't enough. It kept us even with Oregon and Stanford for that long, but no more. And finally, yesterday, we met a team that was pretty much our equal. The season stats and records bore that out. Even the score of each half of yesterday's game bore that out. We met a team where the he difference between the two was tiny, and so there was no margin for error. But we still made plenty.

In the end, ASU made a few more plays than us and it was the difference between a defining moment for one program that overcame its past road failures and late season swoons and overachieved its expectations, and a defining moment for another program which once again showed promise but never put it together and fell short of its potential.

Think it wasn't that close? Consider just a few examples of how the game could have changed with just one or two plays.

Our kicker missed two field goals in a game we lost by five.

Our quarterback who had a great second half and nearly brought the Bruins all the way back threw a silly pick 6 in a game we lost by five.

Our offensive line gave up a ridiculous 9 sacks, the seventh of which happened when we snapped the ball 7 yards from a touchdown in a game we lost by five.

Or defense held ASU to only 3 points in the second half, which was good, but which also meant a second half shutout would have been too little and too late in a game we lost by five.

Remember their last second touchdown pass before the end of the first half, or the QB scramble we could have tackled at the three but went for the big hit which the QB dodged just enough to get to the four inch line, enabling a 4th down TD conversion, both plays in a game we lost by five.

I don't know if it was desperation or arrogance that led the U.C.L.A. coaching staff to think that the team was better off taking our starting outside linebacker, our best pass defending linebacker, our fastest linebacker who could match speed of ASU ‘s shifty backfield players, and not play him a single down on defense. If you don't think this made a difference, go back and watch how many run plays ASU went at his position. The last two games when he split time between offense and defense and played about 90 snaps total, Bruins won. Last night he played about 30 snaps total and we lost. We robbed Peter to pay Paul, or in this case, Lou Spanos to pay Noel Mazzone, and the gain we got on offense did not remotely offset the loss we suffered on defense, and we found ourselves in greater debt at the end. Five points short.

There is plenty of fault to go around. The players didn't execute well enough. The coaches didn't have the team ready in the first half. The halftime adjustments were clearly effective but came a quarter too late. The personnel decision, no matter what the head coach said after the game, was a mistake. Fix any one of these areas - make kicks, don't turn the ball over, adjust when a problem occurs, block and tackle, play your best players where they can help the most. Do those things, and we roll the stone to the top of the hill.

Football, more than any other sport, is a team game. In baseball, a pitcher can win a game. On the ice, a goalie can steal a game. In basketball, a star payer can go 1-5 and score and carry a team.

Football is different. There is incredible purpose and order to the apparent chaos of 11 guys running around on each play, so we need each player on each unit to play well and complete his task. And we need all 11 of them to do it all at once. And then we need them to repeat that synchronicity consistently, over and over, for 60 minutes. If we don't do that, our margin of error goes away, and team we are equal with and have the opportunity to beat wins on our field. And they may very well get another game in our own stadium before we do.

In the final words of IE Angel's post game recap last night he wrote this:

but the fact remains that UCLA is still in the second tier of Pac-12 teams not because of talent but because of an inability to put together a complete game of offense, defense and special teams play.

The coaches bear the greatest part of the responsibility. Until the Bruins do that, we are going to keep pushing that stone up the hill, only to see it fail as we nearly reach our goal. Just when we think we have reached the top of the hill, we'll meet someone like ASU, one or two plays makes the difference, and the stone slips away, rolls back down, and we have to go start from the beginning.

I don't know Graham well enough to say whether this ASU team is a fair representation of his coaching ability, although there must be a reason he keeps leapfrogging to better jobs. I would suggest that ASU's 10 win season under Dennis Erickson, same as U.C.L.A.'s 10 win season with Karl Dorrell were not true measures of either of those coaches' actual abilities, hence why neither of them was on the field last night. So will ASU's success stick? Will U.C.L.A.'s struggles fester? Is this the best we can hope for with Mora and Mazzone and Spanos and the rest of the Bruins staff? Will another year of growth and experience and health be the difference next season? How will those coaches define the U.C.L.A. Football program next time?

If we can play a half like the second half last night, or the second half against Nebraska, or the first half against Oregon, then the next step is to play two halves like that. We aren't pushing upward and reaching the top of the hill until we do that and do that regularly. I think we did it in the Pac-12 title game last year. But that was once, and we still haven't seen it this season.

We sure better see it next week, though. It's a must win game if we want this to be a successful season, and if we want to avoid facing the same end of season collapse we saw last year. There's still time to salvage something but the coaches need to figure a way to get full effort and full performance out of this team. Graham got one from his last night. Can Mora do the same?

At least the good news is that Southern Cal got eliminated from Rose Bowl contention last night.

See? We're pretty positive here at Bruins Nation.