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The Morning After, Part 5: Utah

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All those things we harped on…QB protection, play calling, giving up too many yards, penalties, relying on opponent's mistakes…well, they didn't all fall our way last night. And now you see the result.

We finally found a team that had a plan, made plays, and didn't make mistakes. Ouch.
We finally found a team that had a plan, made plays, and didn't make mistakes. Ouch.
Kevork Djansezian

Line wins games.

Just ask Utah.

Oh, and ask our O Line coach, while you're at it. And maybe our DC, too. And definitely the Head Coach. See what they have to say about last night's game.

For any of you who are either not sophisticated enough or not brave enough to generate an honest analytic thought and instead rely on the lame crutch that we must always say only rosy things about our teams, or if discussing legitimate opinions about this football team which could be seen as criticism is just too negative for you, do both yourself and myself a favor and stop reading right now. I don't need you expressing your football ignorance by calling me names on Facebook again this week.

Alternatively, you could just admit that you do it because you're as disappointed as I am, and it's less painful to criticize me than it is our football team.  That's transference, and it's a legit coping mechanism. I'm not here to say, "I told you so". I'm here to help us all heal. So if that's what helps, then pile your frustration here. I've developed broad shoulders over my years as a Bruin.

I guess we can say we should have seen this coming. I looked up "trap game" in my Webster's and there was a picture of us. Apparently we've lost the game before Oregon something like 6 times in a row. I would ask exactly what we have been looking ahead to all of those times since we haven't even rebounded to beat them since 2007. That must come under another definition. Like perennial underachievement. Then with all the top 10 upsets in college football today, and with us playing so close to the ledge this season against not so powerhouses like Virginia and Memphis and this year's Texas, why did we think we would be immune to losing a game we should have won?

But this year was supposed to be different on multiple levels, both in how we've improved, how our schedule sets up, and especially how Oregon is really banged up and aren't themselves. I mean, have you seen their offensive line?

But once again, in the most quintessential Bruin way, our dreams of a CFB playoff and a Heisman Trophy quarterback took a punishing blow tonight. I try hard to keep things in perspective each week, to get as much of a night of sleep that I ever get, and to let things filter out the next morning before sharing my thoughts. And after doing so, this one still really really hurts.

I have felt like this just a couple times. The first time was in 1988 against WSU in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins were #1 and we had Troy Aikman and about 15 future NFL'ers on the team and somehow we choked away a big second half lead and fell behind in the closing minutes. The dream season of a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy was on the verge of crashing down. Then Aikman hit someone, maybe Charles Arbuckle, on a deep pass down the middle and the Bruins got themselves down to the 6 yard line with enough time for 4 plays.  I was praying, well, screaming actually, from the first row behind the band next to tunnel 6 for a quick slant or a rollout or bootleg for an easy stroll in to the endzone with the short field there, but we ran four straight plays of Troy taking a 5 to 7 step drop where there just wasn't enough room on the field for that kind of pass scheme.  All 4 passes fell incomplete, WSU walked out of the Rose Bowl with an upset win, and our number one ranking was gone.  And then I had to drive to Lancaster. Ouch.

The second time was a decade later in 1998 when we played our makeup game at Miami with a chance to go to the first BCS bowl with another Heisman candidate quarterback. I was working in the surgical ICU at the downtown trauma hospital that day but got to see most of the game, including the play where Melsby went down, and then his knee hit the ground, and then the ball came out, and then the refs gave the ball to Miami, and Edgerrin James still hasn't stopped running, and then that season was gone. And then I had to spend the rest of the day and night in the hospital. Ouch

Those games hurt because they shouldn't have ended the way they did, and each loss took away an incredible and unique opportunity for our football program.  And those opportunities are so rare and valuable it's even worse when they are wasted.

Just like this one.

Well, maybe we weren't there just yet. Despite all the Positive Pollys accusing us of being Negative Nellies, we've been cautioning about the red flags since the season began. Just last week in our blowout win against ASU, I felt that the game was closer than the score because we gave up about a third of a mile in offense but were blessed with some killer turnovers that made the final score look better than the game really was. So when last night's game happened and all those breaks that went our way in the first 4 games didn't happen: when we didn't get a single turnover, when we instead gifted a touchdown to our opponent, when we couldn't get off the field on 3rd down enough, when we couldn't tackle their ball carriers on the first or second try, or when we couldn't stop their pass rush 10 times, well, now you see what I was worrying about. Despite being loaded with talent, there have been reasonable concerns about the offense, defense, and special teams all year.

And on cue, there was our defense making another backup quarterback look special last night. First it was Virginia's backup, then Texas's backup, and last week ASU's backup (btw, great Hail Mary, Berco. Love you, man!). And this week the Utah coaches had the stones to pull their starter after just three offensive series and lo and behold, with their backup QB, their offense took off.

Well, ran off is more like it. In this game, Utah ran the ball 55 times and threw it 18.  Pattern? Trend? Tendency? Or just one dimension that we never bothered to adjust to and stop.  Utah's starting QB had one carry, and a wide receiver had 2 carries. Every other carry in the game was by a single RB or their backup QB. Those two accounted for 52 carries and 239 yards. So someone please ask our defensive coordinator why we didn't make some sort of adjustment to the fact that only two guys carried the ball for pretty much the entire damn game, and especially on their final drive for their game winning field goal. Just what did our coaching staff think they were going to there, start flinging the ball around the yard. Who accounted for the QB on running plays? Why didn't we have 8 or 9 or 11 men stacked in the box? Why did our ends and OLBs get caught inside so often? Why did Utah run for 6 and 13 and 18 and 1 and 5 and 15 and 3 and 3 yards on that last drive? Oh, and zero passes. What did our coaching staff do to adjust and fix that?

And then there was the other side of the ball. Utah has been a blitzing team all year, and it's no secret that our offensive line hasn't handled the blitz very well. They also haven't handled simple stunts from just the defensive line very well. They have had trouble run blocking in the interior. Sadly, it wasn't much of a surprise to see us running over the right guard over and over and over, and going nowhere and nowhere and nowhere. We've seen that sort of stubbornness and absence of insight from our offensive coordinator often enough to be infuriated, but not be shocked. But even with the struggles in pass protection, surrendering 10 sacks is incredibly shocking. For an offense that features one of the best quarterbacks in college, our inability to keep the defense off of him is appalling. Granted, probably at least 3 of those sacks were on the QB for holding the ball too long or not going through progressions quickly enough, but come on. Have you ever seen a drive with three sacks on 3 plays followed by a punt? That's the kind of nonsense you see in an SEC out of conference game. Calling it embarrassing isn't strong enough. It's more like incompetent. But I don't blame the players entirely. They were all highly regarded recruits with plenty of D-1 offers, so I can't believe that they are just that bad. We have to ask what is our offensive line coach teaching, or not teaching these kids, because there is a lack of progression and development in the O Line that is very surprising. And with the O Line "playing" the way it was, where was our OC making play calls like screens or quicker routes or rollouts to at least try to compensate for it? What did our coaching staff do to adjust and fix that?

I don't want to be too harsh on the place kicker. It's an awful lot to ask a college kicker to make a 50 yarder with no time to win a game, but I hate to ask whether anyone was surprised when he didn't? He is improved over his first two seasons, but is it enough? If we claim to be an elite team, we need to have elite players who will make the plays that win games. I don't know if we even have anyone on staff who is coaching our place kickers, but have we seen enough growth at that spot? What has our coaching staff done to adjust and fix that?

And if I'm pointing fingers at the defensive coordinator and the offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach and the kicking coach (if we even have one), then there has to be a giant arrow at the head coach. These assistants are his picks. Their failure or success reflects on him, and they reflected very very poorly last night. For the OC, it's a recurring story. For the O Line coach, it's becoming clear that this is a coaching problem. For all of his incredible recruiting successes, there is very little improvement along his OL on game day. And while this is our DC's first year in the role, it shouldn't be terribly difficult to change his personnel and formation to counter what the offense is doing, especially when it is doing the same thing over and over.

There is no doubt our U.C.L.A. football program is better under Coach Mora than it was under the previous coaches. He certainly appears to be a good man and a good role model for our student athletes, and the culture around the program is better than it has been in years.

But it isn't clear that Mora and his coaching staff are good enough for this program to be elite.

Last night, I saw one team play with desperation and intensity for 60 minutes, one team consistently break tackles and fight for extra yards, one team make tackles at the line of scrimmage, one team consistently pressure the opponent, one team have a game plan that specifically exploited the weaknesses of the opponent, one team that made early and dramatic adjustments when things weren't working, one team that clearly had its players better prepared, better motivated, and better coached.

That team was Utah.

This season is by no means over. The Bruins have the talent on the roster to beat anyone on their schedule and possibly anyone in the country. But my worry is that this team hasn't played up to its potential this year, and I'm pretty sure that the thing that is holding them back from reaching that potential is the coaching staff.

But that staff is probably not going to change before the Oregon game, and so I'm not sure if we'll ever get to be the type of team that we really could be.

I have to amend my line.

Line wins games. And so do coaches.