1. Old Business (Mikey on the half shell)
It's always nice when a coach like Mike Stoops leaves the field crushed… kind of reinforces your faith in the mostly perverse football gods. I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever I recall the image of crazy old Woody Hayes trudging across the Rose Bowl turf, head down, to shake the hand of Dick Vermeil after the #11 Bruins had put a convincing 23-10 whipping on his #1 Buckeyes. Excuse me but the memory makes me a little ferklempt (talk amongst yourselves).
After SC, Arizona is the conference team I most like to see go down… the harder the better. And it wasn't this way before Stoops. From a strictly practical standpoint, it's more useful to the Bruins for Cal or Oregon to lose (or even Washington if they finally manage to wake the Big Dog), but I just find it irresistible watching Mikey squirm on the hook. Tracy, early on, warned us off this guy and he was right. Stoops would have been even more out of place in Westwood than Jim Harrick (and today it looks as if he might not even be right for Starkville). And wouldn't it be sweet if he wound up back on big brother's doorstep, a charity case? "Hey man, you haven't rented out my room have you?"
It was hard to see on tape whether that D lineman rolled up on Ben Olson's leg through momentum, or if he intentionally took a shot; certainly looked like the latter. But between last year's pile-it-on party in Tucson and this year's incidents with Ben and Christian Taylor, it's no great leap to believe Mikey encourages this sort of over-the-line behavior. So, when he suffers embarrassing losses like this one, or the LSU route, it's kind of like watching the loudmouth, schoolyard bully get fed his lunch.
If anyone still has doubts as to how important coaching and home field is to the college game, please compare and contrast last year's game in Tucson with this one. As if home field isn't enough, chew on the difference between DeWayne Walker's implementation, preparation, attention to technique, and scheming (yikes! I sound like Jesse Jackson) compared to Larry Kerr's. Simply losing Kerr and acquiring a competent DC should have pushed the Bruins up about 30 places in the national rushing and total defense stats, but to get a supersonic jump start like Walker shocks the stat needle into the Twilight Zone. Beyond brains and balls and a healthy Kevin Brown, what's the story? Could it have something to do with trusting the material? Ask your players to execute a fast, aggressive style of play and you may just receive something like we've seen these first five games. To repeat a Walker maxim: You don't have to have great players to play great defense. Whatever happens over the next seven or eight games, and considering the D seems to be improving on an already good thing, I doubt we'll be hearing much of the dreaded "s" word, at least applied to these guys. But then this is UCLA, so you never know.
2. The Cowan factor
Now that we know that unlucky Ben is out four to six weeks, I guess we can start talking seriously about possible future scenarios. (And did I actually hear James Washington say that Ben is "more athletic" than Patrick Cowan? Wrong "JW." This sort of thing makes you thankful he wasn't hired to carry anything heavier than a FSN microphone. And what's up with this army of jock commentators on Fox? They must really come cheap. The only one at all professional was the least gifted athletically: Sean Farnham. Now if Sean could get just a little gonzo he might become our very own Petros.)
BROther JimBru may have been among the first Bruins to give voice to the dreaded phrase, "quarterback controversy," but I'm sure some of us were already discussing the possibility by halftime. I was amused listening to some typically innocent Bruin fan making some typically wet comment Cowan's minutes in the Utah game like, "Boy are we ever screwed if Ben goes down. Did you see Cowan at the end of the game? I mean he throws like a girl." For future reference: do not take "garbage time" seriously, especially as regards to the quarterback, who (if he's not a Trojan, Gamecock or whatever) is not going to get a fair chance to air it out.
I know there are skeptics out there who've had their hearts broken an untold amount of times over the years by their beloved Bruins, and who tend to get a bit testy over any kind of positive practice reports but, believe it or not, though we all know it's not a real game, seeing these guys for five or six consecutive sessions can actually be helpful. To coin a cliché, it is what it is.
Yes, Cowan does have a pretty strong arm; he's the quarterback most familiar with the offense; he's more nimble than Ben carrying the football, not to mention setting up and moving in the pocket; and yes, he is one of those "intriguing," two-star, KD specials. His touchdown pass, on a little half roll left, then throwing a dart back across his body with a defender in his face to a fairly well-covered Matt Willis was a thing of beauty, probably the prettiest Bruin pass play of the year. His slant pass to Marcus Everett for a score wasn't bad either. 20 for 29 and 200 yards wasn't a revelation, but it was an extremely gratifying start and, considering Arizona's defense is probably superior to Utah's, almost as impressive as Ben's outstanding performance in the opener (with the added bonus that nobody's talking about Patrick being "one and done").
It's not some practice spin that Cowan put up a respectable fight for the starting job, but think about it: I mean, given the circumstance of a five-star, solid-gold "savior" like Ben vs. a two-star "sleeper" like Patrick… well, what are the odds? The coaching staff must have breathed a sigh of relief when Ben separated himself towards the end of pre-season camp. Had it gone the other way, can you imagine the pressure on the coaches (and Cowan) the first time Cowan would have screwed up? "WE WANT BEN" would have been echoing all over the Rose Bowl, totally drowning out Jeff Strand's "every man, woman and child." But now Cowan's made the field in comfortable circumstances, if not for the team and the rest of us, at least for himself. He now has a legit shot at the job, and if he plays well over the next very tough slate of games, and if the Bruins pull an upset or two… who knows how this thing will go. Perhaps a replay of the David Norrie, Matt Stevens situation. Anyway, we all know coaches don't like breaking up a winning lineup. Theses are all big ifs of course, but I'm a little superstitious, and Ben obviously isn't the luckiest guy in the world. Just another huge point of interest in this, so far, very interesting season.
3. Yet another shot to turn that corner
When exactly did it start to go so wrong? Probably when Rocky Long left, but we didn't realize it at the time… kept fooling ourselves that the defense was going to mature; the quarterback was going to improve; the new DC was going to finally bring some heat - the old wages-of-hope bit. Every college program goes through the routine at one time or another… and another… and another. Which is why good head coaches are worth all that jack. By the Ohio St. game in Columbus in '99, you could feel it coming apart, and by November, '01 (DeShaungate and the Paus DUI) you knew it was here with a vengeance. And then SC's horrifying rise… Since '99 the Bruins have gone 9th, 5th, 6th, 4th, 5th and 3rd in Pac-10 play, the very definition of mediocrity.
UCLA does seem to have got the knack of winning at home, but in order to get where they want to go, where we need them to be, they're going to have to finally come up with a big win on the road, something they haven't shown any talent for. Just during the KD years, they've blown the Colorado opener at Boulder, lost at Stanford, lost badly at Washington St., blown it against Fresno St. (wherever the wretched Silicon Bowl is played), got killed in Berkeley, blew a game at Arizona St. and another to Wyoming in the wretched Vegas Bowl… and of course that awful performance in Seattle a few weeks ago. We don't even need to talk about the SC experiences. Which is not to say the Bruins haven't won some big games, and some games on the road, only that they haven't won big enough to be taken seriously. "We're number 28!" doesn't quite get it.
Since former UCLA defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti still has a job, Oregon is certainly beatable. It's good this game precedes the game in South Bend, which should be the tougher of the two. Cal stuffed the very dangerous Jonathan Stewart and apparently forced Dennis Dixon to beat them. Result: three picks. Dixon seems to me a prototypical running quarterback, a short passer who throws hard but without a lot of touch downfield. Sure it'll be loud up there, but at least Cowan shouldn't be going against some kind of suffocating defense in his first start, which is always a more difficult proposition than coming off the bench. I notice the line opened too heavily in Oregon's favor and immediately dropped a few points. We'll see.
I hate waiting 'til next year, mainly because it's hard enough to count on this year, never mind who might not be around next year, or who might get hurt, or how the schedule might shake out, or God knows what other unwelcome surprises. I want it now… squeeze every once of juice from this season. The next four games should decide whether the SC game will be meaningful in the very best sense, or whether the Bruins will just be right back in their old place trying to ruin the Trojans' season while making their season with this one game (a loser's proposition). This game in Eugene is a sort of elimination game between UCLA and Oregon, and one more chance again for the Bruins to get some much needed attention. It's about time they come through.