The UCLA football program has approached a few crossroads in the last three seasons under Head Coach Karl Dorrell.
The game at Washington State in 2003. The games against Cal and Washington State last season.
Then it seemed like UCLA had come to a crossroads and taken the right path when it beat Oregon in Eugene last season, and then played #1-ranked USC tough in the regular-season final game.
But then there was the sudden u-turn a few weeks later when UCLA under-achieved and lost to an under-manned Wyoming team in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The win yesterday over Oklahoma, 41-24, looks like another approach to a crossroads and a turn down the right path.
Let's just hope that the program won't do any more u-turns and it's permanently on this road.
Because, damn, it's a fun road to be on.
We said last week that this was the biggest game in Dorrell's UCLA coaching career. And while there is a legitimate point to make that some of the luster might have fallen off the accomplishment because Oklahoma isn't really Oklahoma, it still is Dorrell's biggest achievement at UCLA.
The actual win over a good but not great opponent doesn't itself prove that UCLA is an elite team this season, but because of so many other factors it will probably prove that Dorrell might have turned the corner in his program. Beating Oklahoma, even in an off year for the Sooners, gets you considerable recognition – recognition that resonates with the media, fans and recruits. For whatever reason, it's a recruiting year where there are many elite recruits that really like UCLA and this is a kind of game that validates the program in their minds. Dorrell himself now projects an image of a reputable head coach, a kind of guy that kids want to play for, with a staff that's running imaginative and dynamic offensive and defensive schemes. Heck, The Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers made it a point to spell Dorrell's name right this morning in his column.
And when UCLA wins, and beats someone like Oklahoma, don't those Bruin uniforms look like a million bucks?
UCLA just starts to feel like an elite program. Even though our resident historians might nitpick about it, the aura of UCLA seems like it deserves to always have a place among college football's elite. UCLA just looks the part.
Now, if it can consistently play the part.
You wouldn't say that it played the part completely Saturday, but there was definitely enough there to get you to believe that UCLA is potentially on its way.
While Oklahoma might not be Oklahoma completely, they do in fact have a pretty good defense, and UCLA's offense put up nearly 400 yards on them. UCLA's offense was good enough, in so many facets – in player efficiency, talent and scheme – that it might be safe to say that it is the one facet of team on the field that might live up to an elite status.
First, you have to start off with the scheme. Offensive coordinator Tom Cable showed a diversified and imaginative scheme and play-calling last week against Rice, and he did it again this week against Oklahoma. Oklahoma, like Rice, put 8-9 guys in the box, trying to stop UCLA's running game and tempting UCLA to win the game by passing, and Cable's game plan immediately capitalized on it. UCLA won this game not through Oklahoma's turnovers or mistakes, but through the efficiency of its short passing game. Even though Oklahoma set up many of UCLA's scores with blunders, UCLA wouldn't have been able to capitalize on them unless its passing game was clicking.
It seems the days are gone when UCLA stubbornly tries to establish the run, continually running into a stacked box. It wasn't even a matter of UCLA coming out and trying to run initially and then going to the passing game. It was evident that Cable drew up the game plan to come out throwing and that's what UCLA did, effectively. Every one of UCLA's scoring drives was sustained primarily by the short passing game, with Drew Olson spreading his passes out to 10 receivers. The short passing game took over from the running game as the workhorse of the offense.
It's the smart thing to do. You always hear coaches talking about taking what the defense gives you, but UCLA's offense, in the last two games, has turned it into an art form. Oklahoma put 8-9 guys in the box, and then had to sag its cornerbacks off of UCLA's receivers. So Olson takes a three-step drop and hits his receivers on 10-yard hitches for easy first downs. Works for me. As long as you have sure-handed receivers like Marcus Everett, Andrew Baumgartner, Brandon Breazell and Joe Cowan (yes, Joe Cowan), it's an easy game of pitch and catch down the field.
While we're sure the UCLA offensive minds love to see Maurice Drew run the ball, it's pretty certain they're hoping that every defensive coordinator they face over the next two months schemes the same way – and gives this efficient UCLA passing offense the short passing game.
Why couldn't UCLA's offense do this before? It might be because there is a new quarterback under center. Drew Olson as a senior is just plainly a different quarterback than Drew Olson as a junior or a sophomore in this offense. We told you in the pre-season that he looked different, more poised and less hesitant, and it's proven to be true. Olson was 28 for 38, for 314 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, and easily the player of the game. His grasp of the offense is now really clear, finding his secondary receivers with ease, knowing where to scramble to get more time to find a receiver, and throwing the ball better than he has. Yes, he still tends to throw the ball behind receivers at times, and he went into a bit of slump in this game in the second quarter, but when the UCLA offensive line gives him time, he's quite a bit more accurate than he was in his first two seasons.
There's always been a knock on Olson that he can operate the offense well in flashes, but can't step up against elite defenses or in big situations. He looked completely comfortable picking apart Oklahoma's defense Saturday. He looked like a leader when he was chewing out offensive tackle Ed Blanton for jumping offside. When the offense sputtered a bit, he looked calm and poised getting it back on track. After watching him in the first three games, you now would trust him in a clutch situation to get the job done, far more than before.
The offensive line, indeed, at first glance might not get a great deal of praise for this game, gaining only 83 yards on the ground in 30 attempts. But that would be a cursory evaluation of their performance. We said going into this game that the OL's performance would be the key, and it truly was. Olson was sacked just two times, in the first half, and it didn't appear an Oklahoma defensive player came near him in the second half. When Olson gets enough time his accuracy improves dramatically, and the OL gave him the time.
And when it comes to the ground game, the OL, if you actually analyze their performance and not draw conclusions from the statistics, did well. Ostensibly it looked like Oklahoma's front seven were beating UCLA's OL, but it truly wasn't the case. Oklahoma's stacked box is what limited UCLA's running game. It's tough when you're five guys, five offensive linemen, and you're blocking against eight or nine defenders. But if you watch closely, even on the plays when UCLA had a run stuffed, the OL run-blocked well against the Oklahoma DL. The few times when UCLA called a running play and Oklahoma wasn't in a stacked box, the UCLA OL opened considerable holes. The first time this happened was with about 5 minutes left in the first half, and Drew ran over tackle and gained 7. It appears the next time it happened was in the fourth quarter, when Drew busted the game-clinching run, going for 38 yards deep into OU territory with 3 minutes left, up by 34-24. In fact, the running plays on the drive, including Drew's 9-yard touchdown run, were against a standard front seven for OU.
After the game, some fans were stressing over UCLA's OL and their ability to run-block, but watching the game closely, it's not something you should worry about. If the UCLA offensive line has to run-block against a standard front seven, it's pretty clear they'll do well.
If opposing defenses stack the box, to try to stop UCLA's running game, the UCLA passing game has now proven that it will beat you.
This is definitely turning the corner for the UCLA program and its offense. When was the last time you could make this assertion about a UCLA offense. 1998?
Praise also has to go out to UCLA's receivers. Marcus Everett looked very good, particularly on a one-handed, grab-it-from-behind catch for a first down. Joe Cowan caught a few balls where he was smacked pretty hard but held on. Brandon Breazell, all 160 pounds of him, caught a quick out and bullied his way past two OU defenders to get to the first-down marker.
The touchdown throw to Marcedes Lewis was a great call, culminating the key UCLA drive of the game, putting them up 27-17 at the beginning of the third quarter. At that point, the momentum seemed to be shifting a bit toward OU. Perhaps Olson's best throw of the day was on that drive, when on third-and-13 on UCLA's own 14-yard line, he hit Andrew Baumgartner for 22 yards and a first down. Olson had good time in the pocket, and threw a perfect strike to the sure-handed Baumgartner.
The injury to Junior Taylor is highly unfortunate. The television replay was one of those Joe Theismann-, Bobby Valentine-types, where you wince watching it. He'll get a MRI sometime in the next couple of days, but it's expected that it could be a serious injury. UCLA's set of receivers, though, proved in this game they'll be able to fill in the void left by Taylor's injury.
UCLA's defense isn't going to be anointed elite any time soon, but they certainly played a good game Saturday against Oklahoma.
In fact, you could make the case that, while UCLA's offense sputtered in the second quarter, the UCLA defense kept UCLA in this game. For almost two quarters, from the middle of the first quarter to just about the middle of the third quarter, UCLA's defense limited OU's offense to just three points over the course of 8 OU offensive series. In that span, UCLA's defense did this in successive order: 3 and out; 4 and out; forced and recovered a fumble; OU drive ends in missed field goal; 3 and out; OU drive ends with a field goal; 3 and out; and a 5 and out.
Key here was not only the 3-and-outs, but the fact that UCLA made OU drive the field and didn't give up the big play, specifically to Adrian Peterson. Probably one of the most empowering times in this game for UCLA (and deflating for OU) was UCLA making OU have to drive the entire field in the second quarter, taking up 14 plays and 5:37 minutes, only to have their field goal kicker miss his attempt.
UCLA had some big defensive plays, and not just the obvious ones, such as Dennis Keyes' big hits that forced Peterson's fumble and the fumble of quarterback Rhett Bomar that Spencer Havner scooped up for a touchdown in the third quarter. UCLA had an astounding 15 tackles for loss, which were instrumental in creating those 3-and-outs.
The way UCLA's defense looks like they'll be this year is not the stout, tough-in-the-trenches type that consistently stops running backs within three yards and then creates third-down-and-fives. It looks like it will be more the type of offense that gives up 7-8 yards on a run, then on the next play catches a running back behind the line for -4, and gets its third-and-fives that way.
This is so because of the combination of personnel on defense and the scheme defensive coordinator Larry Kerr is utilizing to try to maximize that personnel. UCLA doesn't have the horses in the middle of the line, which tends to allow those 7-8 yard runs. To make up for the lack of size and experience at defensive tackle, Kerr is gambling quite a bit with blitzes, which tends to also catch ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. It's pretty clear that Kerr knows he's not going to beat most teams in the trenches, so he has to get his defensive team speed in pursuit to enable some gang tackling.
If there are still some Kerr critics out there, it seems uncanny that you could watch the OU game and not think Kerr called an aggressive game plan. He was blitzing on just about every other play, blitzing from different spots, with different personnel, and zone blitzing. In fact, there was a couple of times he got burned because he was over-aggressive, particularly on one third-and-15 in the third quarter where half of UCLA's defensive personnel were blitzing and Bomar scrambled under it and ran 18 yards for a first down, a big play on a drive that led to an OU touchdown.
It definitely is a new era when there are times during a UCLA game you catch yourself thinking – "It's third and 15, don't blitz, just sag off and don't allow them to get a first down."
The defensive tackles, interesting enough, were better against OU than either San Diego State or Rice. You wouldn't say that, by any means, they got the best of the OU offensive line, but they got beat less in this game than the previous two. Brigham Harwell, who still played too high at times, had a better game, looking quicker, more explosive, and more able to get pass his blocker. Chase Moline is holding his ground better.
UCLA's best defensive lineman right now is clearly sophomore defensive end Nikola Dragovic. We knew he was a very good pass rusher, and he continues to be, but he's playing very well against the run. He's getting more effective using his quickness and getting off his block, and is the best at containing his edge. He had a number of plays in the second half that were instrumental in shutting down OU drives, where he beat his blocker and contained the end, and either made the tackle or turned the running back inside.
UCLA's best set of defensive downs was in the first half, after OU had driven the field and had a first down on UCLA's 13-yard line. The d-line held its own at the line of scrimmage on two successive plays, and Bomar missed a pass on a third down, before OU missed the field goal attempt.
We said going into the game that the defensive veterans up the middle would have to have good games to stop OU, and they did. Justin London had his best game in a while, slicing through OU's line repeatedly to stop ball carriers behind the line. Spencer Havner was steady, and Jarrad Page was great in pursuit and making tackles. Keyes, of course, had the defensive plays of the game.
Freshman John Hale started at the outside linebacker position, the thought being that he naturally is a better pursuer and tackler.
UCLA's defense still tends to miss too many tackles, the most frustrating being on pass rushes where sometimes two Bruins look to have a good shot at wrapping up the quarterback, only to miss the tackle.
Overall, though, if going into this game you would have said that Adrian Peterson would be held to 58 yards on 23 carries, you would have bet your house on UCLA. Peterson, in fact, looked frustrated and seemed to lose his composure, trying to dangerously lateral the ball when caught behind the line on one play. Perhaps the biggest triumph of the game for UCLA: Petersons' longest run from scrimmage was 11 yards.
Perhaps the other aspect of UCLA's performance in this game that truly was a difference-maker was its obvious determination and heart. There were a number of times in this game where UCLA easily could have folded a bit, and gone into a funk, but it doesn't appear that that's part of this team's mental make-up. OU had just easily scored on a 56-yard reverse, UCLA's offense was sputtering, Justin Medlock missed a field goal, Junior Taylor was out, and Maurice Drew couldn't gain a yard on the ground. UCLA easily could have said to itself, "Okay, another big game and we aren't up to it. Let's just accept our beating quietly." But it didn't seem to phase these Bruins. It's almost as if Drew Olson & Co. have been through so much adversity that nothing can get them discouraged at this point. You have a real feeling that if this team got down to anyone by three touchdowns they'd keep playing like the game was tied.
Much of it has to be attributed to Olson. Everything he's gone through -- from a struggle of a sophomore year, to being labeled as the quarterback who would never get it done at UCLA, to the serious knee injury, Olson looks like he's tough as nails now. He comes off like Ed O'Bannon in 1995, after O'Bannon had suffered through the humiliation of the loss to Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1994. This is not to draw comparisons to UCLA's championship basketball season, but O'Bannon had that look in 1995, as Olson has now – that of a warrior.
And the head coach, Karl Dorrell, is starting to have that look of a winner. Two years ago, he had the deer-in-the-headlights routine down. Now he's on the sidelines, waving his arms, urging the crowd to make noise as the UCLA defense tries to stop Oklahoma on a third-and-one (and did, actually). He's getting in the face of referees when it's warranted. He's high-fiving players as they come off the field. He's joking with T.J. Simers.
UCLA just seems like it should be a winner – from playing in the beautiful Rose Bowl, those rich uniforms, the history of talent like Troy Aikman, Kenny Easley and Cade McNown, to doing things the right way, like running a clean program with good student-athletes and having class not to run up the score on a downtrodden opponent when the trend is to pile on the points.
Hopefully, the Bruins can continue to look like this the rest of the season.