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Pregame Guesses: Pac 12 Title Game Edition

UCLA played what seemed to be an uncharacteristically conservative game last week against Stanford; they'll have to play with more reckless abandon to reverse the outcome this week.


Jerry Garcia Band - Tangled Up in Blue [HD] (via thepitts3463)

(This week’s video is Jerry Garcia Band performing Bob Dylan’s "Tangled Up in Blue." Great song, great performance. Garcia was a Bay Area guy. We wear blue. Get it? I once saw Jerry Garcia Band at Pauley Pavilion and they gave a really great show.)

Yesterday’s news regarding Joshua Smith is an incredible distraction when trying to write about tomorrow’s Pac 12 Championship game. I find myself studying this blog and the message boards with the same intensity that I’d use to stare at a multi-car pileup on the side of the freeway during rush hour. It’s disturbing and disgusting – but absolutely fascinating at the same time. It’s gotten so bad, I must admit, that I’m actually enjoying the implosion in a weird, self-flagellating, masochistic way. Thank heavens for Direct TV – at least I won’t be tempted to watch the actual games. (Just to be totally transparent, I’m writing this Wednesday afternoon/evening, so "yesterday" is really today. But since you’re reading this on Thursday, it’s "yesterday." So, I’m writing this is after Smith quit the team and hours before the team played its game with Cal State Northridge. For all I know, a full on riot broke out at Pauley Pavilion during the game and the Smith news is not even the most significant thing that happened in hoops this week.)

But, I have an unpaid job to do, so I’m going to forget about hoops and concentrate on football for the rest of this post.

My initial impression of last week’s loss to Stanford was that we just got beat by a better team. Stanford is very talented and very physical. It also has to be pointed out that despite their coaching transition two years ago from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw, their players have been in the same system for a while now. Hard as it is to believe, Jim Mora has been UCLA’s head football coach for less than a year – it seems like forever, doesn’t it – and despite a nine win/we beat Southern Cal season that has already met most folk’s preseason definition of a "successful year," he still is only just beginning to establish everything he’s like to do with the program. Take a listen to his interview with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd from Wednesday, he basically makes that exact point.

The above actually creates a sort of paradox in how to view the season. Truthfully, if you told just about anyone that UCLA would win nine games and win the Pac 12 South outright after beating Southern Cal and would face Stanford (instead of preseason conference favorite Oregon) in the Pac 12 title game – they would have taken it. This team hadn’t won more than six games or even covered the spread against USC during the prior regime. Nine wins, including the Trojans and the Cornhuskers? Who wouldn’t have settled for that?

But now that we’re here, who wants to settle for that. I’m not sure if you know this, but this team has an opportunity to do what literally no UCLA team has ever done. It has the chance to win 11 games in one season.

Bet you didn’t know that, did you?

Yes, it’s a bit easier to do in 2012 than in the past because there are potentially more games to be played than there were historically, but that doesn’t change the fact that no UCLA team and no UCLA coach has ever won 11 or more games in a single season. Jim Mora and the 2012 Bruins are at nine wins with two to play. Do the math.

Back to last week’s games, a couple of things bugged me and I’ll take this opportunity to vent a bit.

The first were the two punts in the first half that came on fourth and short on the Cardinal side of the field. On the first, Brett Hundley punted after it looked like we might go for it and he pinned Stanford at the one. On the other, Jeff Locke kicked and Stanford took over inside their own 15 yard line.

Viewed one at a time or even as a pair, I can make the case for punting in those situations. We were playing well at the time (we punted) defensively and the score was either even or still close (look it up if that detail matters). I guess Mora figured he’d play the field position game, force Stanford to go the length of the field and hope the defense would hold quickly.

Those two punts are not the reason we lost. But the decisions seem strangely out of character for the way we’ve played all season. All season long, we’ve had a bit of a "go for it" approach. We went on a fourth and forever against SC and Hundley hit Shaquille Evans for 20 yards and a first down. In a year when we seem to have played very aggressively, these two punts were oddly passive.

Hundley seemed to play passively as well. First of all, it’s obvious that he needs to learn how to get rid of the ball and not take so many sacks. (Note: Stanford leads the nation in sacking the quarterback, fwiw.) But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about all those times it appeared he had plenty of room to run and simply didn’t. That seems even odder than the punts. Hundley has made plenty of plays with his legs this season, his ability to run is one of the reasons we have nine wins, it’s something he established on the first play of the season against Rice. But against Stanford, he simply didn’t take advantage of what appeared to be open space.

I have no explanation for this. Maybe what looked like room to run on television wasn’t as obvious from field level. I don’t know. I’d hate to think he was told not to run as much, for the life of me I can’t fathom what the reason would have been for that.

All in all, I’m going to stop short of faulting the team’s overall effort. I think they played hard. But there was a pretty big difference in the way the played against Stanford and the way they played against USC and I suppose we can all formulate our own reasons why we seemed to play our most conservative game of the season. The one take I won’t accept is that we played to lose to … ahem … duck Oregon.

So, what about tomorrow?

If I were a Stanford supporter, I wouldn’t be all that worried about UCLA. The game moves to their home field. They beat UCLA without doing anything particularly fancy. They just played straight ahead, old fashioned football and wore the Bruins down. They’ve already beaten USC and Oregon in Eugene. They played Notre Dame even, losing only in overtime and that was before they made a quarterback change. If Stanford is confident, they’ve earned that right.

But I don’t think they should be too confident. We played poorly last week and sure they get some credit for that. But not all. We’re capable of playing a much better game and if we cut down on the turnovers, avoid all those penalties and play with a little more – I’m not sure – Fire? Energy? Passion? Nerve? Reckless abandon? … we can make it a much closer game.

And with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Pac 12 Title Game edition:

  1. Which defense will record more quarterback sacks?
  2. Who will catch more passes, Zach Ertz or Joseph Fauria?
  3. Which two teams will meet in the 2013 Rose Bowl?