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UCLA Football Season Preview
Lately, being a UCLA football fan has required an extraordinary amount of patience and persistence. Every year, the Bruin faithful summon up the courage to believe that this year will be the breakthrough that we’ve been waiting for. And for most of the past ten years, we’ve been teased. Like a Michael Bay movie, we keep buying a ticket foolishly holding out hope that this time it will be good, even though deep down we know at the end of the day all we’re going to see are a bunch of things blowing up.
I L-O-V-E all things UCLA. I’ve been spending Saturdays at the Rose Bowl for nearly 20 years, lived my undergrad years in Westwood, use the term ‘Bruin’ in most of my online handles, and drive around in a blue car with a blue alumni plate on it. I hate anything to do with USC, even to the extent that I refused to even consider going to USC for grad school because I thought the mere name would sully my resume. I am as passionate a fan as you will find.
(Before all of you SC fans decide to flame me and say how phenomenally awesome your football program is, let me acknowledge that I have begrudging respect for the SC program based on its tradition and its recent run of success under Pete Carroll, so I will not take any digs at the hated Trojans. If however you decide to start talking smack, I will be forced to respond with endless reminders of ’13-9’, ‘First to 100’, and ’11 NCAA basketball titles’.)
But while I may not be a totally rational fan, I am a reasonable fan. Which is why I enter this football season with great trepidation, despite the fact that expectations are very high.
Henry posted a few weeks ago how excited he was about the prospects of the Bruins’ season, with our twenty returning starters and stellar defense. I wish I could say I shared his enthusiasm, truly believing that the team will run the table and be sitting at 11-0 heading into Rivalry Week. On paper, this team has a ton of talent, worthy of its #14 ranking, a reasonable schedule, and a legitimate expectation to finish at least second in the Pac-10. The team has the most experience of anyone in the conference, with as many as eighteen senior starters. I really want to be optimistic. But let’s just say that through all of the years of following the program, and in particular after watching UCLA during the Dorrell era, I’m a little skeptical.
In my view, it’s a pretty simple gauge as to whether optimists or the skeptics will be vindicated. The season hangs on two simple words.
For those of you not in the know, Olson is the 24-year old junior starting quarterback for the Bruins. Touted as the number one QB prospect coming out of high school, he transferred to UCLA from BYU after one season and two years on an LDS mission. When it was announced that he was coming to Westwood, the buzz within Bruin Nation was tremendous. He was going to be the savior of the program. And after a first game performance against Utah last season when he threw for over 300 yards, he was being anointed as the 'Southpaw Jesus'. But the sensational debut proved to be his high point of the season, with inconsistent performances and a season-ending knee injury in early October marring what was supposed to be a coronation.
Generally, I hate overemphasizing the quarterback position. It gets all of the glory and deemphasizes the importance of the other 21 guys on the field. However, it is not hard to look at the recent history of the Bruins and notice the correlation between the inconsistent on-field performances and the inconsistent play at the QB spot. Since Bruin legend Cade McNown graduated in 1998, the position has been held by luminaries such as Drew Bennett (who was so bad he moved to WR), Ryan McCann, Cory Paus, Matt Moore, and Drew Olson. Not exactly going to stir up the echoes of Troy Aikman with that list (though Drew Olson had a pretty phenomenal year in 2005).
The reason I bring up the quarterback issue is the fact that the offense pretty much sucked last season. Let's face it, UCLA is not traditionally known for its defensive prowess, so the fact that the defense was so solid - especially the defensive line - was a revelation. And yet, the team ended up a mediocre 7-6 because it couldn't score any points. Sure the stats look respectable. But for the most part, the offense suffered from a line that couldn't create any holes for Chris Markey, the total absence of a vertical threat and red zone playmaker, and horribly unimaginative playcalling (yo, Svoboda, this isn't Tecmo Bowl, you can run more than four plays). There was a reason Justin Medlock led the country in field goals.
Which leads us back to the quarterback. A quarterback is to an extent limited by the weapons around him. At the same time, a great quarterback is the one guy who can elevate the level of his teammates by virtue of his abilities. And no knock to Ben Olson or Pat Cowan, who played admirably as Ben's replacement, but there was nothing great about their play last year. It was average. And average doesn't get you ten-win seasons and BCS bowl appearances like what the Bruins aspire to this year.
The defense should be excellent again this year. Defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker has an aggressive scheme that capitalizes on the Bruins' team speed, with monsters like Bruce Davis and Brigham Harwell upfront, Reggie Carter at the Will linebacker, and Trey Brown and Chris Horton in the secondary. It looks so excellent, in fact, that it completely pwned (yes, I used the term pwned) the offense during spring and fall practices. And therein lies the big question mark. Can the offense, with a new coordinator in Jay Norvell, open it up and score points consistently? Will the big nasties like Shannon Tevaga and Chris Joseph actually push somebody off the ball this year? Can a guy like speedster Terrence Austin stretch the field? Or is it going to be another season of three-and-outs and drives stalling at the 20? Because if those field goals start turning into touchdowns this year, it could be one helluva season.
The one person that controls this more than anyone is of course Ben Olson. If he's able to fulfill the immense promise that was projected for him six years ago, he can lead the team to the promised land (no, this isn't just a recap of Necessary Roughness). But with Cowan out for most of the season with a hamstring tear suffered last week, if Ben doesn't step up, there is no backup plan.
For much-maligned coach Karl Dorrell, it's his Degree all-in moment. Although he has a stellar recruiting class coming in next season (currently #2 by both Rivals and Scout), if he can't win at least nine games with this roster, it's not ever going to happen, especially considering how much they will lose next year. You can count me in the camp of those that like Karl the man, but are not impressed with Karl the coach and his conservative, play-not-to-lose style. I riffed on the state of the program last season during their abysmal four-game losing streak, and all of that still holds true. Enough with the inconsistency. We're tired of being an also-ran. Time to go big or go home, Karl.
I was watching last year's UCLA-USC game on DVR the other day, and after the Trojans' last-second Hail Mary attempt fell incomplete, Brent Musberger made the comment about how the 'gutty little Bruins' rose up to pull off the colossal upset. It was meant entirely as a compliment, but any longtime fan that has seen the program in its better days felt indignant, rather than affirmed. How the hell have we fallen so far to be viewed as 'gutty little Bruins', as if we have no business competing with 'mighty' USC, a David slaying Goliath? This is freakin' UCLA, not San Jose St (no diss to the Spartans). We're not some little directional school in some po-dunk town, we should be good every effing year. I'm not saying compete for national championships every year as they expect at Heritage Hall (though I expect that for us in basketball), but I mean a lot more than just winning seven or eight games.
This is the season that will define which direction the program heads. A regular player on the national scene amongst the Goliaths once again, or just an occasional blip on the radar with the Davids. Whether future autumns will be full of tailgates and 8-claps, or just a distraction until the beginning of basketball season. Ben Olson, it's up to you.
No pressure or anything.
The Bruins open the season on Saturday in Palo Alto against Stanford at 12:30 pm (PRIME).
AP photo by Danny Moloshek