A team that was ranked in the top 10 to begin the season. A team picked by many around the country to get to the College Football Playoff. A team featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. A team which struggled a bit in the early going of the 2014 season, still winning games, but not in the impressive manner many expected. A team that struggled behind an injured and piecemeal offensive line. And a team which suffered a surprise upset on its home turf in its 5th game last weekend, therefore facing yesterday with no margin of error for its preseason dreams and expectations of a Pac-12 title and more.
Ok, which team am I talking about?
You see how close the U.C.L.A. and Oregon stories were before the game? Nearly identical.
And after the game you can see how far apart the U.C.L.A. and Oregon programs still are. Miles and miles and miles.
I'm torn today between a bit of relief and a lot of dread. Relief in that it's becoming clear just what our program is. And dread in that we're going to have to deal with the fallout of that realization.
For the first four games of this season, I asked each week what sort of team we had this year, because expectations and reality didn't jibe. What we were led to believe in the buildup to the 2014 season didn't match what we saw on the field. We squeaked by Virginia on the strength of 3 defensive touchdowns, and we raised questions about our offense. Our detractors made excuses based on the time zone and the start time of the game and early season jitters and the unrecognized greatness of Cavalier Football 2014. We barely outraced Memphis the following week and we raised questions about the defense. Our detractors pointed out the offense was clearly fixed and we were just nervous in our home opener and the almighty Memphis Tigers would probably hang 40 on the 1985 Chicago Bears. Texas brought more questions and we were told to be patient without our QB. Arizona State gave us the ball over and over and over and over but still rolled up 6 football fields (that's almost 8 Spauldings) worth of offense and we asked questions about what was wrong with this team.
And for having the audacity to even ask the questions, we got the usual vitriol from the unfortunately large segment of our fan base that is satisfied with simply fielding a team, but never has any lofty goals of things like consistent improvement, or championships. I guess those people calling me names on Facebook must have been quite content with their 2.0 GPA. Why aim for A's? That's just so stressful and so unreasonable. Just enjoy the middle of the curve. Real students don't demand the top 10%. Never mind what Coach would have said.
Then, finally, came the one that mattered. The game we had circled on the calendar that would define our place in the pecking order. The one that would show where we stacked up in this #revolution.
And yesterday we saw the same old Oregon, and yesterday we saw the same old U.C.L.A.
The Bruins were never really in that game. We had crippling penalties. We had conservative play calling. We had a player throw a punch. We had two killer turnovers and got none back. We saw our offense surrender 2 sacks, and that it was an incredible improvement tells you plenty. Meanwhile Oregon's injured and piecemeal line keep their QB from being sacked all day. We saw a defense giving up yards all day long. Pundits are saying the Bruins were beaten in all three phases of the game, but they're forgetting the 4th phase we lost, too: coaching.
Of course, we did get the novelty of seeing our defensive coordinator hand over his headset and play cards to his head coach, intent on walking off the field and out on his players and his team. So we can't say there wasn't anything new about that game.
I wrote earlier this week about the difference in the the head coach's tone about beating Oregon between last season and this season. Last year there was a sense of urgency and anger and desperation about the need to finally take the step up to their level. Yesterday there were just excuses and resignation and an absence of accountability, and the gap between the elites of the conference and the U.C.L.A. Bruins looks bigger than ever.
For example, Oregon has now gone 7 years without losing back-to-back games. We haven't even beaten Oregon in 7 years, and yesterday was the third time in that span that our loss to Oregon was the second of those back to back losses. Well, you can't say both teams aren't consistent.
We are one weekend away from the three year anniversary of one of the darkest moments in U.C.L.A. football. In 2011, the Bruins met a winless Arizona team that had just fired its head coach, and then promptly watched the Wildcats score 6 touchdowns on 6 first half possessions and the brawl we started right before halftime was the most fight we put up that entire night. As embarrassing as that game was, I woke the next day with only a few lasting shadows of shame, but more importantly, I also discovered a huge sense of relief. After weeks of analyzing and agonizing the fate of our football coach and program at the time, things suddenly became perfectly clear. It was time to change the coaching staff, and the realization was liberating.
Of course, we had plenty of detractors who argued with us at the time. They insisted we give the staff time and patience, and they got their wish in no small part from our inertial AD. The reward for you and me for that level of mediocrity was 50-0 just a few weeks later. The only good thing that humiliation did was that it convinced just about everyone watching Bruin football that a change was needed. All the debate and angst and division in the fan base over the future of Neuheisel's coaching tenure finally aligned and, for a while, there was peace.
I feel like I had a similar epiphany after yesterday's game. After the last couple seasons of watching this program steadily improve, the Bruins' rise looked like it was starting to plateau this year and that the celling wasn't as high as we hoped for. Sure, things had progressed a lot from that miserable night 3 years ago. We went from getting clowned by a winless Arizona team with an interim coach to getting clowned by Oregon and possibly the best QB in college. It's better, but it's still not that great. Sure, we've come a long way, but walking only partway across the Sahara doesn't necessarily leave you in a spot where you want to be.
I've really wanted to believe in Mora and his staff, but if you look at the trajectory of this program, and consider all the issues with player development, recurring errors, and this season's massive letdown, I just don't see us crossing the desert with this staff leading the way. Beating *$c may be like finding an oasis in the sands, but you can't live on dates forever. You need a pilot to get you across the desert to the destination on the other side. Who can argue that the current staff is getting the job done? All I see right now are miles of sand dunes between us and Oregon, and presumably Stanford. And who knows where UofA and Southern Cal are in the desert?
So on one hand, it is really frustrating to have to constantly consider the possibility that your hopes are an impossibility. Instead, in a way, it's almost easier when you come to the clear realization that your hopes are officially out of reach. I can live with the fact that I won't be picking up Kate Beckinsale and a bucket of chicken wings in my F-22 on the way to tailgate at U.C.L.A.'s on campus football stadium next week (Duh. Of course that's ridiculous. We don't have an on campus stadium). And now that this year's dream of reaching the college football playoff is out of reach, it's actually easier and simpler to think about this team. While I don't see our AD or the head coach making any changes during the season, I can watch each week with the idea that every week is a tryout. Will the DC learn to adapt his defense for the team he is playing and for down and distance within the game. Will the OC utilize the playbook to maximize the talents he has on the roster? Will our O Line coach develop his players into dominant offensive players with good technique? Will the D line coach find a way to get his guys to the quarterback? Will the head coach hold these coaches, and, by extension, himself accountable for their shortcomings this season?
Each week is a tryout and this staff needs to show which, if any, of them are competent to lead a program that will take that next step in being a quality college football team. They can start right away by coming up with a game plan to beat UC Berkeley next week. Right now we have a staff that will get us 8-9 wins and a middle tier bowl on a regular basis. If you are satisfied with that, then we aren't going to share much common ground, and that's where the dread of the upcoming months or years of conversations comes in. It's ironic that Bruins Nation takes so much heat for its vocal desire for excellence in our athletic teams. Our detractors who call us "negative" and worse insults never seem to realize the massive hypocrisy in their criticisms of us. But despite the catcalls, we're going to continue to look at all aspects of our football program and give an honest and reasoned argument for what needs to change. Coach Mora has said he wants this program to win championships. We're fine following his lead on that issue, and that's the right goal to shoot at, but he and his staff still have to prove that they can lead a football team in that direction.
One thing is for sure, U.C.L.A. cannot remain the same and expect to be a champion.