With UCLA losing to Stanford in Palo Alto, 24-16, it was probably the oddest game of the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA.
It's probably the first time you can clearly say in the last two seasons that the coaches mis-managed the game and that was the difference.
Up until this point, most of the time you'd say that Rick Neuheisel's staff got the most out of its talent. That they were manipulating the situation to get the best results with what they had to work with.
But this time, it wasn't the case. This time, UCLA lost because it didn't take advantage of the talent it had. This one the coaches mis-played, not the players.
The game was pretty simple to analyze: UCLA's offense ran the ball well early, and then Stanford adjusted and stopped the run. UCLA, then, didn't adjust, so the UCLA offense gave the ball back to Stanford's offense repeatedly. UCLA's defense wasn't as good as anticipated against Stanford's offense and, with the fact that UCLA's offense couldn't sustain a drive with a balanced attack, the defense was on the field far too long.
If you're placing blame, which is natural after a loss, you certainly could point a finger at UCLA's defense. Even when it was fresh, it wasn't very good against Stanford's offense. UCLA knew Stanford was going to run Toby Gerhart down their throats and it seemingly couldn't do much to stop it. In analyzing individual players' performances, there again seemed to be some over-pursuit and poor gap coverage, with middle linebacker Reggie Carter being one of the guys culpable. There has been some criticism of the defensive play-calling, and that could be valid. UCLA seemed to run blitz some, but in passing situations went with mostly a four-man rush. Now, there was the fact that UCLA's defensive coaches were trying to protect the true freshman cornerback, Sheldon Price, who got beat on a few plays when left in one-on-one coverage. So, it's a tough call.
You could blame the penalties, too, which severely hamstrung UCLA on both sides of the ball. It stopped UCLA on an early drive and it sustained Stanford on an early drive. Without Rahim Moore's personal foul in the second quarter, Stanford only leads this game at halftime, 7-6.
So, there is plenty of blame to go around.
But, seemingly a good portion of it has to be placed as the feet of UCLA's offensive approach, which was obtuse and strangely out of touch. The offensive coaches didn't read the game well and adjust.
Now, all fans watching a UCLA game have to concede that the UCLA offensive coaches know more about football than the thousands of us combined. So, we are very willing to admit that we possibly have no idea what we're taking about.
But we've given the offense under Neuheisel a pass for the last season and a half, and it's now time for accountability.
In this game, UCLA's offense early was running the ball well. Then, the Stanford defense adjusted, as you would expect. The Cardinal started dedicating more defenders to the run and the holes starting drying up.
But this isn't shocking. This is to be expected, especially by coaches who have been in the game for decades.
It's pretty sensible, then, to keep running until Stanford stops you from doing it. That is, take what the defense is giving you.
That's what UCLA did. But when the holes dried up, and there were some clear indications that there was enough protection for Kevin Craft to throw and that he was throwing the ball well, shouldn't UCLA have opened up the passing game a bit?
It was understandable last season when the UCLA offense was held back by its coaches. When UCLA was confronted with this same situation, it couldn't do anything else last season. They couldn't go to the pass because there was no protection and Kevin Craft was making bad reads, panicking and throwing interceptions.
But in this game, it seemed to be pretty clear that the UCLA offensive line was providing protection. It also seemed pretty clear that Craft was executing well, easily the best he had since he'd been a Bruin. It didn't seem too tough to realize that, with Stanford dedicating its defense to stopping UCLA's running game and daring the Bruins to get it done through the air, the offense would have to balance its attack to be successful and that it had the opportunity to do it. Especially given that the Stanford defensive secondary was suspect.
But it didn't happen.
UCLA didn't ever attempt to throw the ball down the field, except for a couple of misbegotten fades. It really didn't start to throw until it was down 21-6. If you take out the last drive of the first half, UCLA only attempted to pass the ball once on its initial 8 first downs.
Down 14-6, after it had sustained a two-minute drive to finish the first half that consisted of many pass plays – that were successful -- UCLA came out in the second half on its first possession and ran on its first two plays tackle-to-tackle for a total of 2 yards.
This was done knowing full well that every time you gave the ball back to Stanford's offense you were risking you weren't going to see it again for 7+ minutes.
But let's even concede that one, first series of the second half. We understand that you want to test the Stanford defense and see if it were going to allow you all the running room it had in the first half.
So, UCLA gives the ball back to Stanford and, after a flea flicker brought them down inside UCLA's redzone, the Cardinal scored a touchdown, and went up 21-6 with 9 minutes left in the third quarter. UCLA ges the ball back and Craft then threw on first down, for a first down. But UCLA then ran on first down for a loss of 3, which put them in a hole and they went three and out. Calmer heads, of course, would advocate not to panic at this point, but it might be time to attempt to stretch the opposing defense since they've stacked the box against the run – and your short, dink-and-dunk passing game. It wouldn't be panicking, it would tactically be a good move.
But UCLA's offense stayed conservative, the kind of conservatism, as we said, that was valid last season in many games. But in this game it wasn't valid. UCLA's offense was giving its coaches every indication that it could pass the ball, but, for whatever reason, the UCLA coaches didn't see it. Or, perhaps, they're seeing something we're not seeing (like we said, they're smarter than we are).
Or, perhaps, this conservative offensive philosophy that we thought was in place last year merely because UCLA didn't have the horses to do anything else actually is the offensive philosophy of this UCLA staff.
We've heard repeatedly that the coaches would open up the offense when it had the horses and the opportunity.
But it had enough horses and enough opportunity in this game and it didn't do it.
So, at this point, after 16 games of the Neuheisel era, we've been on the honeymoon, and we've given them a pass when they've opted to stay conservative offensively. But the honeymoon is now over – at least in terms of defining the offensive philosophy and scheme. Now, after this game, we've seen enough and have enough information to determine that UCLA's offensive scheme under Neuheisel is a conservative one.
And in this game, while there was plenty of blame to go around, it seemed to be the difference.
I know, calling UCLA's offense conservative is about the dirtiest word you could use to describe it, after coming off a long six years of a mind-numbingly conservative offense under Karl Dorrell.
But, Bruin fans, sometimes you have to use dirty words to aptly describe how it is.
In an effort to be balanced and analyze both sides of the equation, it would be remiss not to consider that UCLA, when it gets back Kevin Prince, its starting quarterback, it could open up its offense.
I'm willing to concede that maybe the coaches just aren't confident in Craft, even after he looked good in the first half of the Stanford game. It's not tough to imagine that, after last season, and knowing him well from practice and film sessions, the coaches still didn't have confidence in him. Perhaps they gave him plays that were within his comfort zone, and if they had done anything beyond it it might have been disastrous.
They chose Prince clearly over Craft as the starter, and in my opinion he's clearly better. So, hopefully we'll see that the coaches' comfort zone with Prince is a bit larger than it is with Craft.
Also, under the coaching-blame umbrella, you have to list the penalties and the poor management of the play-calling and personnel. After a bye week in which the coaches repeated that they needed to clean up the penalties, once again UCLA's penalties were huge in determining the outcome of this game. And, it's inexplicable that UCLA sometimes struggles in the management of the offense. In this game, and in previous games this year and last season, UCLA 1) struggled to get the play in, 2) struggled to get in the right personnel for a certain play, 3) had a number of mis-assignments or busted plays, 4) had to call a timeout to get everything right or 5) wasted precious seconds (in this game, 35 seconds on UCLA's second to last drive) when it could have called a timeout but waited to do it, probably because there was a problem with one of the first four things on this list, or a combination thereof.
UCLA seems to struggle with these issues more than other programs. And you really can't blame the players; compared to other programs, UCLA is generally younger, but its players are generally smarter, right?
There seems to be a problem with the discipline of the team. And that falls at the feet of the coaches.
For most of last season, you could clearly see that UCLA was at a disadvantage in terms of talent. There was a clear talent deficit. But now, this season, and in this game, it's clear that UCLA has some talent. Stanford was good, and actually pretty talented, and will probably fare pretty well against the Pac-10 (I'd be surprised if they don't beat Cal). Last season the primary problem was the lack of talent on UCLA's offensive line, but that really wasn't an issue in this game. Early on, it opened impressive holes for its running backs, before Stanford adjusted and dedicated more defenders against the run, and it provided good pass protection throughout the game. Going up against the best team UCLA had faced yet this season, the Cardinal, it was clear that UCLA's offensive line was now talented enough to enable the offense to be effective. There was no longer the talent deficit on the OL, which is the primary determining factor in how an offense will perform.
So, really, you shouldn't worry about whether UCLA is getting enough talent. It's clear that, in just Neuheisel's second year, he's bringing in talent that can play at this level, and even be among the elite in the conference. In recruiting, the program's on track. It's clear that this season will be a step forward in terms of a talent upgrade, and it's reasonable to expect that there will be another step up for 2010 and another for 2011.
But for UCLA to go where we all want it to go, the issues that fall under the coach-blame umbrella have to be "cleaned up."
And then there is the offensive scheme. If UCLA does continue to upgrade its offensive talent, will it continue to be this conservative? If so, that's going to affect recruiting. Up until now, recruits have signed on to UCLA because of its perceived offensive potential – with Norm Chow as its offensive coordinator and Rick Neuheisel as its head coach. But there's a question of when recruits will begin to see enough of the UCLA offense that they don't have to make a decision about UCLA based on just potential. Hopefully the now conservative tag that the Neuheisel offense has earned will be a pre-mature, undeserved label it will disprove over the course of the rest of the season and the next two years. It can certainly be refuted with just one game of a well-balanced offensive attack that at least attempts to throw the ball down the field.
But, for now, after this game, UCLA's offense definitely will have to refute it.