UCLA fans are in a quandary.
Two years ago, Bruin fans would have been begging to blow out Cal 37-10. But now, those same fans are making the transition to being the fan base of a top-ten program, and with that transition comes a higher level of expectation and scrutiny on the Bruins' performance.
The remnants in your mind of Dorrell/Neuheisel Era fandom are saying, "It was a win! The negative fans are being too critical. Brett Hundley threw for a career record 410 yards! We're 5-0, baby! Ranked top ten in the country!" It's kind of an off-shoot symptom of Battered Bruin Syndrome.
And it's all true. Going through what UCLA fans went through for those long 10 years should make you appreciate what you now have, no question. It's just like with anything else in life: You learn through tough times. If there's one takeaway from the Dorrell/Neuheisel, or Dorheisel Era, is that we should relish these years, these moments, when UCLA is so good that it's a disappointment to beat Cal by 27 points.
So, appreciate what we have. UCLA is 5-0. They'll be top ten this week.
On the other hand, you'd be remiss if you didn't recognize…
There is no getting away from some cold, hard reality here. If we're going to be good, well-rounded, intelligent fans of a top-ten team in the nation, we have to get used to realistic and sobering analyses of our team. Remember, we've always maintained, from day one here, that you have to judge a team from expectations. Given a team's talent, its coaching, how well did the team perform on any given day?
We'd have to say, on Saturday, not well.
Now perhaps expectations are too high. We'll concede that point. But what would you rather have: 1) A team who really doesn't deserve to hang with the top ten teams in the nation and is a pure over-hyped pretender, or 2) A team that legitimately has the talent to be a top ten team but is under-achieving?
We'll take #2 any day. And we think this is the case with our 2013 Bruins.
We do believe that UCLA has top-ten national talent this season. After watching enough college football (an average of 12 games a weekend), the Bruins do have the level of talent to compete among the top ten teams in the nation.
But so far this season, the team's performance hasn't yet realized that potential. UCLA, really, has yet to put together a good game. Here's the season in a nutshell: It beat Nebraska with one truly great half, and the win over Utah was good (especially taken in light of Utah's win over Stanford), but you wouldn't call that a good game; while the other three games were wins over three pretty bad teams, and all three games were a bit disappointing, in terms of UCLA's true dominance on the field, given its talent, not the score or the stats.
So, again, the Dorheisel Brain Remnants can look at it: "Great! We haven't put together a good game yet. Just wait until we do. And hopefully it will be against Stanford and Oregon the next two weeks."
That's a completely valid thought that we completely appreciate. But it only has validity if you, then, balance it with some reality about Saturday.
UCLA's offense against Cal wasn't good. It faced one of the worst defenses in the country, ranked 121st going into the game, and UCLA gained less yards and scored less points than its average on the season. These are the types of games where UCLA's offense needs to fatten up on points and stats and, against Cal, it went on a bit of a diet.
There was, of course, the elephant in the room: UCLA's rushing attack. Usually you can get an elephant through some of the holes UCLA creates in its running game but not Saturday night. The offensive line wasn't great in its run blocking, and the tailbacks weren't great in running with the ball. Again, put it in perspective: this was against the 99th rush defense in the nation. This wasn't Ohio State or Wisconsin – or even Stanford. This was a bad rushing defense that was devastated by injury. UCLA's rushing game should have been able to run over Cal with one hand tied behind its back. We'll break down more literally what we saw after re-watching the game a few times in our unit-by-unit analysis, but it's not difficult to conclude that was a bad performance by UCLA's running game. 78 yards on 34 carries, to average 2.3 yards per carry. That felt a little bit like Baylor.
The passing game? Yeah, it looks good on paper. Hundley threw for a career-high 410 yards on an amazing-looking 31-of-41, for three touchdowns and no interceptions. From just a stat perspective, it appears Hundley had a phenomenal day.
One of our mantras here at Bruin Report Online, remember, is: "Don't be a stats scout." And it's amazing how, really, what a brilliant little axiom that is. Truly, it can be interpreted in many aspects of your life. It means: "Don't just look at the numbers in any situation in your life or you won't get the full picture." It's almost John-Wooden worthy. We digress, but how great would it be if Coach, at some time, would have said, "Be quick but don't hurry," or "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," and in his next breath said, "Don't be a stats scout."
It definitely applies to Hundley's performance Saturday night. Given the competition, and what Hundley should have done in this game, it wasn't a great performance by him. He threw for 410 yards, but he probably should have thrown for 600 yards. We've been saying since his first game at UCLA that he doesn't have a great natural feel in the pocket or great vision, and this game was an example of it. He also is inconsistent in his accuracy and touch, and it showed here, too. You can look at the 10 throws he missed and there were probably five of them that weren't difficult throws – that if he had made them the score would have been, minimum, 49-10.
It's a weird situation for UCLA fans when they hear some national pundits hype up Hundley for the Heisman, or to go exceedingly high in the NFL Draft. We, on one hand, love the hype the UCLA quarterback and the program is getting. It, of course, greatly helps the program and boosts recruiting. But (wink, wink) we all know the emperor is relatively naked. Not completely; perhaps he has a g-string on or something. But when it comes to the NFL Draft: whatever pundit ever talks about Hundley going really high in next spring's NFL Draft, like in the first round, just know either that the pundit is high or you should never, ever put any stock in anything he says. Again, we're not saying we don't think Hundley is a good quarterback. We've praised him exceedingly for the last two seasons, and recognize that he's close to the "savior of the program" that he was hyped to be. Without him, UCLA is no way even sniffing the top ten in the polls. But let's also recognize that he has a very long way to go to playing in the NFL. And this isn't even motivated by trying to convince the NFL scouts out there that Hundley needs to be advised to come back for his redshirt junior season. There is no ulterior motive here. Brett Hundley simply isn't good enough – yet – to make the jump to the NFL, and it wouldn't be the prudent move. As we said, he isn't great naturally in his feel or vision, and he needs more development. He has shown flashes – like the first half of the Utah game was, perhaps, the best 30 minutes, in terms of feel and vision, he's ever shown at UCLA. So, he's making strides. But strides at quarterback aren't a straight 45-degreee angle up the chart, but are more of a zig-zag look. Last week in the first half of the Utah game, Hundley definitely zigged, but this week against Cal he zagged.
If there was something else that stood out about the disappointing offensive performance it was the playcalling. This was a game full of play-calling head-scratchers, and we'll get more into that in the unit-by-unit. Really simply: When your team has pretty much proven through two quarters there's something amiss in the running game, and that you're able to pass pretty easily, it would be time to abandon the balanced offense and air it out. I thought the two-minute offense to end the first half, where UCLA used 8 plays to go 73 yards in 1:55, and didn't run once, was going to be the proverbial light bulb going off. Perhaps the coaches recognized that Hundley was struggling to see his receivers downfield, but the Bruins went right back to their run-oriented attack in the second half. Results: UCLA gained a total of 12 yards in its first three possessions of the second half. The only reason it got a first down was because of Cal's penalties, and the only reason it scored was because it converted a field goal out of an interception by Randall Goforth. And it only got a field goal – not a touchdown – because it couldn't move the ball by insisting on running. Yes, there was also the element that Hundley made some of his worst throws of the night in those first three possessions of the second half but, like was seemingly evident in the two-minute offense to end the first half, if on Saturday night you give this offense more chances to move the ball throwing it rather than running it you'd probably be more successful.
Using stats to put UCLA's offensive performance in perspective: UCLA gained 488 yards against Cal, when FCS Portland State gained 553, in Berkeley, against a Cal defense that wasn't so depleted by injury.
It's now to the point that it's time to worry about the UCLA offense. Yes, we realize that Pac-12 teams are going to do a better job scouting and scheming against UCLA's offense. But again, it's all about expectation: There is no way UCLA should not have been able to run the ball against Cal, even without Torian White, Jordon James or even Johnathan Franklin. When it couldn't run, there is no way that UCLA shouldn't have torn apart Cal's practically walk-on secondary through the air, and put up touchdown after touchdown and racked up 600 passing yards. Right now, heading into the Stanford game, there have been enough legitimate reasons for UCLA fans to worry about the UCLA offense. Will Hundley, hopefully, zig more than zag the rest of the season? Was this an aberration for the offensive line, or is the loss of White that substantial? Was the loss of Jordon James really that impactful?
It's funny, too, because, if you're talking about an aspect of the team that has exceeded expectation it would have to be the unit that we naturally had the most doubts about going into the season – UCLA's secondary. Cal's Jard Goff was averaging 360 yards throwing per game, and UCLA's defense limited him to 215 yards. Yes, so much of that was due to the pressure UCLA put on Goff, but the credit for a vast majority of it has to go to UCLA's young secondary. They are playing exceptionally well on the season, and did so in this game. Cal's big receiving tandem, Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, were almost non-entities in this game, getting just 35 and 42 yards receiving. UCLA's secondary didn't allow either one of them in the endzone, or any Cal receiver, for that matter. UCLA's defensive backs were in blanket mode for most of the game, and not only in lanes and being disruptive, but were very good at keeping two of the most dangerous YAC guys in the conference buttoned down after they caught they ball. Remember when a good pass defended by a UCLA cornerback was pass interference? That's a thing of the past with Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau. Remember when bad angles and bad tackles were the norm for UCLA's safeties? Not any more with Goforth and Anthony Jefferson. A trait of a good secondary in coverage is when it appears like the DBs know where the receivers are going to be, and where the quarterback is going to throw the ball, and UCLA's secondary definitely looked like that Saturday night.
But, getting back to the under-achieving, there are still the inexplicable penalties. Apparently Jim Mora asked the ESPN sideline reporter at halftime if she has any insight into why UCLA is penalized so much. While UCLA getting highly penalized in some of its previous games this season didn't have a big impact on the end result, in this game it did. It was pretty much keeping Cal within striking distance for most of the game. The debilitating penalties have to be chalked up also to this team not playing up to expectation.
And that leads us to the biggest takeaway from Saturday night: We really don't have a good feel for this team, five games into the season and 5-0. More accurately, we really haven't seen this team close to playing up to its potential. It's played a few good halves here and there, but hasn't put together a good, even-close-to-complete game. On one hand, it's disappointing. You can see the potential, in terms of the talent and the schemes. You look at this team, on paper and on the field, and you look at its competition, and you can honestly say it should be better than it's been. That has made some of the wins this season a little hollow, with a sneaking suspicion that UCLA, because it's under-achieving, could be setting itself up for a fall. But on the other hand, if this is under-achieving, what's over-achieving, or even just playing up to expectation? The one unit of the biggest pre-season worry, the secondary, is turning out to be a considerable strength. UCLA is 5-0 and, realistically hasn't played a really good game yet. So, naturally, it follows that: What happens when UCLA actually puts it all together?
As a UCLA fan we're currently a bit of a schizophrenic lot, with one side of the brain still immersed in Dorheiselian chemistry, which results in us appreciating that UCLA is 5-0 with a top-ten ranking, while the other half of the brain is steeped in worry-inducing chemicals.
Hopefully our multiple personalities can meld into one over the next two weeks after the UCLA light bulb goes on in Palo Alto and Eugene and the Bruins play up to expectation and put it all together.
Heck, if they don't play up to expectation and we still have all of these doubts but they beat Stanford and Oregon, we'll be fine with our SBP, Split Bruin Personality. We'll take it all the way to a top-five ranking and a shot at the national championship.