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The Morning After, Part 1: Virginia

UCLA's 2014 football season starts off with a flawed win that didn't feel very satisfying to anyone. And that might be the best thing about it.

The Bruins got out of Virginia with a win, but no one seemed very happy about it.
The Bruins got out of Virginia with a win, but no one seemed very happy about it.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Like everyone else, I‘ve been counting the months and weeks and days until football season, and not just because I love football, but because of how bright our future looked.

I couldn't wait to see this team, lauded with the highest expectations for U.C.L.A. football in over 15 years, chocked with the talent and experience and leadership to take this program to all time heights.

Even the crazy old loons on ESPN, who can usually only manage three letter thoughts like SEC and OSU and *$c were picking U.C.L.A. to be among the elites this season.

And after Southern Cal spent the week embarrassing itself, we went into the 2014 opener on the highest of notes that I can remember for any season in 25.

And then we played the game.

Holy crap, was it ugly. Bruin fans were shocked and outraged. That game raised more red flags than Moscow in 1917.  We certainly didn't see a top 10 national title contending team that we were expecting.  Our team dropped passes and committed lame penalties and floundered about on offense against a struggling program all game long.  The Bruins looked nothing like the program of the last two years where things were pointed in the right direction but rather looked a lot like the teams of the previous decade that underachieved and disappointed.  Only a great defensive performance and some pretty benevolent play calling by UVA in the 4th quarter allowed us to escape Charlottesville with 7 offensive points and a win.

During and after the game, the experts in the threads blamed the failure on, at various points, Mora, the old Mazzone, the young Mazzone, Klemm, the regressing QB, the running backs, the offensive line, the receivers, the kicker, The Drive, and/or the refs, and also came to the inescapable conclusion that that the Bruins have sadly already been eliminated from any long term goals like the college football playoff, the Pac 12 championship game, the Pac 12 south title, the trogan game, and any other game except Colorado - although I think one person even questioned that last part.

As frustrating and perplexing and disappointing as that game was, it's a good thing we won, because the alternative would have been unbearable.  Could you imagine what that post game would have looked like?

Speaking of unbearable, I left right after the game to go spend 12 hours (for an 8 hour shift) at work so I had a lot of time to sort of forget about the game and to let it sink in on its own.  Then afterward I came home to watch the post game interviews by the coaches and read all the gnashing of teeth on BN and all the rainbows and unicorns on FB and see the fanbase turning on itself a whole one game into the season.

And after all this time to reflect and consider, I have come to this conclusion...

That game the best thing that could have happened to us.

Yup.  Thank goodness we sucked and still stole a win.

Here's why. This team and coaching staff is in uncharted territory. We expected a good team returning this year but the hype has gone viral and the predictions for this team have been higher than ever before. There's no way the team can escape the news around them. They know where they are ranked and who is picking them to play in the final 4.  And at some point, that sinks in.

I hope yesterday was a revelation that they aren't quite ready for the spotlight. They need to stop listening to the hype and get back to work. Hard, dirty, yeoman's work. What this team needed is a heavy heavy dose of reality to show them what they can be, and what they will be if they aren't playing to their capability.  And I think they got that yesterday.

This game should have been a big wake up call to the coaching staff.  In the areas where they have an effect, they failed yesterday.

There were some astute comments in the post-game thread about putting the players in the right place to succeed. Repeated runs into the back of the right guard as he's being driven into the backfield once again are not examples of how to succeed. Leaving your hypermobile QB in a collapsing pocket is not a good way to succeed. Brandishing an OL that is repeatedly beaten by simple stunts with no help from extra blockers is not a good way to succeed.  If a young player is overmatched, leaving him in rather than trying someone else who has proven successful or has experienced college game speed is not a good way to succeed.

Those are some of the things that should have been a wakeup call for the coaches. And we'll see. Mazzone already admitted he didn't call a very good game. Mora admits that the concern over the OL is warranted. Klemm needs to really consider if he has his best offensive line on the field, not just his best 5 linemen.  There is room for the coaches to improve upon yesterday and they at least paid lip service to those issues, but we've discussed these issues before, too. The fixes are there, and if they do that for real, then the long-term goals are still in play.

This game should have been a big wake up call to the team, too.  I give them a bit more slack than the coaches because they are 18-22 year old kids who haven't been in this position before, but some of the issues are on them. If our receivers catch the balls thrown right to them, our QB's numbers go from a respectable 20-34 for 242 yds to a pretty impressive 26-34 for 300 yds. If the offense can deal with the basic simplicity of a snap count, third downs become more manageable and more get converted.  If our defense can line up on our side of the ball, maybe we get off the field on third down another time.  If our offensive linemen can pick up stunts and quit giving up 5 sacks in a game, or if our D line, as well as they played against the run, can get more pressures and any sacks of their own, then we win the field position and ball control battles. If they do those things, our drives get extended and turn into points, and the defense doesn't face 90 plays.  We score more, give up less and the final result looks a lot more comfortable and reassuring.

The players need to not worry about what everyone else is saying about them. They need to simply make the plays they can. The formula exists for this team to be successful, but they need a lot of improvement in execution to get it there.

And finally, this game should have been a big wake up call to the fans.  Because, let's face it, why were we all so apoplectic yesterday with an opening day win on the other side of the country? Well, guess who bought into the hype just as much as the coaches or the players? It was us. All of our outrage in the game and after is proof that we all bought into the hype ourselves. Whether it was from the media or just our long dormant hopes for an elite football team finding an opportunity to unfurl, we expected a lot more than we got.  We wanted a 50-0 blowout and everyone was unsatisfied with a close win.

And to a degree, that's a very good sign. We have come to believe in more than a penalty and mistake filled squeaker of a win over what is probably a mediocre at best ACC team. There were comments yesterday that this was no better than the Dorrell and Neuheisel years. That's wrong. Five years ago, we would never have been so dismayed at an 8 point win at Virginia. Now, that 8 point win is a rather embarrassing performance.  And that shows that this team has come a ways since then, and it shows that we aren't anywhere close to where we expect to be.

But there also needs to be balance.

There is a phenomenon in aviation called pilot-induced oscillation, or PIO.  My dad was a propulsion engineer for NASA for 40 years, and while I failed to follow his wise example for a career, I did learn a lot of things about flying. It occurs when a pilot gives a command to a plane, for example, pushing the stick forward to push the nose over and descend, but then doesn't get the expected response due to the degree of lag between the pilot's command and aircraft's response, and then repeats the command one or more times in order to provoke that response. Once the plane responds though, it now pushes over much more than the pilot originally intended on account of the excess commands. In response to the excessive response by the aircraft, the pilot then overcorrects by pulling back on the stick and repeating the pattern in the opposite direction.  These alternating responses and overcorrections make the plane porpoise in a sine wave pattern of dives and climbs instead of maintaining the straight glide path originally intended by the pilot. It's a very inelegant way to fly a plane, and in poorly managed cases can cause loss of control of the craft.  Crash and burn.

Once PIO begins, the way to escape it is to quit pushing the stick. The plane will equilibrate on a path and will tell you where it's really going to go. Then the pilot can adjust the actual flight path accordingly.

The excess hype pushed us too far in one direction. When we didn't get our expected response by our team yesterday, we pushed on the stick. And we still didn't get the expected response and we pushed the stick more.  We pushed the stick and pushed the stick and pushed the stick some more. Of course, our inputs aren't going to change much on the field, but they will do a lot for our own peace of mind. And right now the mood of the fanbase is in a fluctuating wildly from pregame yesterday to post game last night.

I'm really bummed in our performance yesterday. But I do know our QB is fine and it wasn't the kicker's fault and no coaches should be fired today. But I'm suddenly unsure about a lot of the rest of the questions, so now I'm curious to see how the team responds because what we see the next couple of games will tell us a lot. Is this a team that will accept its dose of humility and refocus on the basics, things like moving after the ball is hiked and not before, or catching and securing the ball before turning up field, or counting to 11? Will the coaches recognize their failures in play calling and quit running into the middle of an O line that is getting pushed backward, or to keep a running back in the backfield to pick up the extra rusher, or to call quicker developing plays when the QB has minimal time to throw? Or is this a team that is simply overhyped, with coaches who seem like good likeable guys but who can't X and O well enough to compete with the best, and players who are at U.C.L.A. because they aren't at Alabama or OSU or Florida State? The fans are hoping for an elite season. Is this team up to the task?

The biggest part of the frustration is simply just not knowing what we really are.  But I think we'll get the answers soon. Stop pushing the stick and see where this team levels out. Then we'll know what we have.