Monday, September 13, 2010

The Debacle that is UCLA Football - and Thoughts on Week 2

Here’s the state of the UCLA program: Pac-10 opener, season home opener, Saturday night of “Monster Weekend,” the team is coming off a tough road loss, and could use some home cooking in their place. But, the opening shot of the Rose Bowl for ESPN’s coverage makes it painfully obvious that they are trying to pick out the areas of the stadium where there are actually people in the stands while trying to crop out the huge swaths of un-fannied seats. Yeah, the Rose Bowl is a big place, but if there is really no chance for a UCLA team to even come close to filling that place on a semi-regular basis, it just looks awful to see a major college football team with a fanbase that is so uninspired, that two-thirds of the stadium is empty on a big Saturday night.

Of course, then you watch the Bruin offense, and the uninspired state of the Bruin fanbase (a pretty passive fanbase even in the best of times) makes a lot more sense. Wow, are they awful. The offensive line has been the question mark for the past couple of years, but really they aren’t half bad. But Kevin Prince is simply terrible, the receivers aren’t any better (especially when the only potential playmakers at the receiver spot – guys like Randall Carroll and Josh Smith – sit behind possession receivers like Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario – you know, possession receivers that don’t catch the ball all that well – and those potential playmakers too often seem to make plays for the other team – see Carroll’s fumble on a fancy-nancy end-around in the second quarter) and the offensive geniuses behind this whole thing (head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow) can’t stay focused on what little success they do have long enough to make it work. The Bruins averaged 4.6 yards per rush against Stanford and their two most effective runners, sophomore Jonathan Franklin and freshman Malcolm Jones were even better than that, 6.6 ypc and 7.4 ypc respectively, and given that one of the big reasons the Bruins made their highly publicized addition of the Pistol formation in the offseason was to aid their running game, you’d think that maybe they’d stick with that a bit, especially when it is working and even more especially when the passing game is so obviously not working. Run first, use the run to set up the infrequent pass, and get a little more creative getting playmakers the ball when you do decide to pass the ball – screens and short passes to Smith and Carroll would be a place to start.

And, really, Bruin fans are at a point right now where for the first time in the Neuheisel era, impatience is starting to shine through; the honeymoon period is certainly over. There is some talent here, but the team lacks discipline and the team clearly has conditioning problems. Their defense was gassed in the first quarter on Saturday night – sure, it was at the end of a 14 play drive, and the UCLA offense did nothing to give the defense a rest at all, but the Bruins front seven defensively was just getting dominated in the trenches. Throw in the inability to smoothly substitute defensively without drawing a penalty, or offensive linemen jumping early in key moments, or repeated terrible decisions by the quarterback. UCLA football at present is characterized by unforced errors on the offensive side and getting overpowered on the defensive side.

So, the bright side? Well, I gotta reach for this, but Franklin and Jones are a pretty excellent duo in the backfield and the offensive line, while still not great, is light years better than where they were two years ago. There is upside at the receiver position, but at some point they have to starting catching balls that hit them on the hands and start making some plays. Defensively, there is plenty of talent, but it seems like these guys didn’t put in the work in the offseason to get stronger. And it is too late for that now. Hopefully some of the youngsters (Keenan Graham, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Cassius Marsh) will earn increased reps over the course of the season, but the fact is that if the offense can give the defense a rest every now and then, the defense, while not as good as the last couple of years, has the potential to be a decent side.

The bad side? It’s going to get worse before it gets any better. I can’t imagine holding Houston to any less than half-a-hundred, and then Texas gets their crack at breaking this piñata wide open before they get something of a winnable game with a home game against Washington State. Bruins fans – you may want to check out that Cougar game. The way your team is playing right now, that’s about the only chance at a W on your remaining home slate.

Monster Saturday – I didn’t expect Penn State would be able to play with Alabama, so that one didn’t come as any surprise, but Oklahoma owning Florida State caught me off-guard. I expected that to be the game of the big three (Bama/PSU, OSU/Miami, FSU/Okla) that would have been the most competitive, but Oklahoma owned the line of scrimmage and all their playmakers made plays while Christian Ponder and Florida State stayed in bed. The Miami/Ohio State game turned out to be the best of those three, and it even wasn’t much to get excited about. Jacory Harris made too many mistakes (although none of his four INTs were too egregious on their own, although the four-pack taken as a whole stunk) and that Buckeye team is serious.

The best games of the weekend weren’t the big headliners, but the secondary games: Michigan/Notre Dame and Georgia/South Carolina in particular. Denard Robinson vaulted himself to the top of the Heisman list and cooled Rich Rodriguez’s seat a bit, while in Columbia, Steve Spurrier has got himself a ballclub. Freshman running back Marcus Lattimore is the real deal – a big strong back who knows how to finish his runs, always moving forward, the type of back who will rarely lose yards – the receivers are serious playmakers, a strong offensive line, a couple great bookend defensive ends with stellar corners to boot. The question for this team throughout the year will be quarterback Stephen Garcia. If he can continue to make plays, this Gamecock squad has a chance at a date in the SEC championship game and some serious BCS aspirations.

A couple strategic questions that really bugged me this weekend. First, in that Mississippi State/Auburn game on Thursday night, if you’re the Bulldogs and you’re committed to running a two-quarterback system, why wouldn’t you choose which QB you’re going to put in there more strategically? Junior Chris Relf is a big athletic QB who can make plays with his feet but is not terrifically accurate with his passes. Redshirt freshman Tyler Russell is more of a pure pocket passer. The situation: you’re down three, just over two minutes left, you’ve got the ball on your own 20. You’ve gotta go somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 yards to have a chance to send the game to OT, and along the way, you’ve got some situations where you face 3&10 or 3&14 or 4&10. In those particular situations, which QB of the two you are committed to playing gives you a better chance to succeed, the running QB or the pocket passer? Everywhere else on the field, a head coach will substitute players based on the situation, but for some reason Dan Mullen couldn’t find a way to get Russell on the field for those plays? Even if you’re interested in having Relf on the field on such a drive due to his experience, you have to consider his weaknesses and pull the guy on clear passing downs like the ones mentioned above.

Next, West Virginia/Marshall. You know the story, Marshall has the ball 1st and goal, ready to go in and push their improbable lead to 28-6 in the 4th quarter and to effectively seal the game. Marshall has had some success running the ball with sophomore running backs Martin Ward and Andre Booker, but head coach Doc Holliday for some reason puts in freshman Tron Martinez, a kid who hasn’t even played in the first three quarters. Martinez has a little bit of success, gets a couple carries, get a pass catch out of the backfield, picks up a first down. But then, on first and goal, fumbles, West Virginia recovers and instead of 28-6 Marshall, or even 24-6 with a field goal, momentum shifts and the Mountaineers come back to tie and eventually win in overtime. Certainly Martinez can’t fumble there, but at the same time, I just don’t understand why he is in the game there. If you go up 28-6 and the game is effectively over, then you can get some time for youngsters like this, but in that type of intrastate rivalry game, a win that would have been a huge win for the program and the community, you gotta finish the deal.

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