October 23, 2009

Bruins hit the road in search of No.4

What was it we were saying before the Oregon game and before the Cal game as well? Oh, yes - stay at home on defense, don't overrun those gaps, and wrap the guy up when you tackle. As we said about Drew Gordon in basketball, don't try for the spectacular play at the risk of giving up a big one as a result; take care of the basics; get the job done.

Two weeks in a row now that hasn't been the case. There have been several excellent analyses by Blitzers and good comments by head coach Rick Neuheisel make that clear.

Some things stand out and they are we opened the season 3-0 against inferior opponents and since then, we've gone 0-3 versus better opponents.

So half way through the season the Bruins are 3-3, but it's still hard to take. Especially, when the Bruins have been just a handful of plays each game away from being able to win.

Big score versus Cal? Yes, but if the Bruins' young quarterback just throws that fourth quarter pass to a wide open receiver instead of trying to aim it, the Bruins are in position to be right in the thick of it, trailing by only five, at home, with lots of time left. If UCLA score a touchdown of course.

But the offense is beginning to show signs of life. Yes, those games missed by Kevin Prince really set things back and as with many young teams, the ability to focus for 60 minutes, playing with ferocity but under control at the same time, play after play, is just not there yet.

They're have been comments about schedules - the Bruins won three and were pretty instantly overrated and the opposition just didn't merit that sort of confidence. Then UCLA lost three and reviews went right into the tank.

Again, probably an over-reaction.

UCLA has won three of their first six, with six more games to go. Best not to get too high or low without considering how tough the previous opponents have been.

The Stanford game was a let-down because many who picked UCLA to win six on the season thought we had a chance to take that one - to get us to seven or even as one of the six. Here comes another key match-up. No, the Bruins aren't likely to be favored in this one either.

Arizona's going well, just came back to beat Stanford in a shoot-out, 43-38. Nick Foley completed 40 of 51 pass attempts and Nic Grigsby did his thing, breaking loose for a long one (yes, just as running backs the last two weeks have had breakaway runs against the UCLA defense).

But the 'Cats are still one of the many mid-Pac 10 teams. This isn't Oregon or Cal. This is a team UCLA figures to have a chance to beat. Perhaps for that seventh win on the season that would actually secure a bowl berth for the Bruins. Maybe for the sixth win that avoids a losing season and represents a 50 percent improvement from Coach Rick Neuheisel first year. Hopefully.

A loss, with the trip up to Corvallis to take on Oregon State the following weekend, would set the Bruins up to have a five game losing streak heading into the last third of the regular season when - wonder of wonders - they may well find themselves favorites again for the first time since that third game of the year.

Grigsby's a key here, especially with the Bruins' propensity for getting overly juiced up, overrunning plays, and failing to fill their assigned gaps. Not to mention killing lapses in the fundamentals of tackling. But that may not be the most important key.

Arizona is a team that's going to try to dink and dunk you right down the field. There aren't very many long passes here. It's what UCLA wants to do with its young quarterback only more so. Yes, it will set up the long pass if you go to sleep on defense, but it's designed to move those chains and keep moving them, wear you down a bit, keep your offense in the spectator ranks, and score with some degree of efficiency.

The Bruins need some success on those key third down plays. They have to cover their men, but also wrap up the guy with the ball when they get a chance. CRN was talking a lot of tackling practice this week. Have to hope the lessons are mastered.

On over-running plays - obviously, that has something to do with what offenses are doing, setting the Bruins' defenders up for the cutback. Arizona's offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes' offense does that as well as anyone.

Some of the Bruins' problems stem from linebackers playing with their hearts and not enough with their heads. Some is inside, when the defensive ends rush wide and then Brian Price and Jerzy Siewierski, trying to make something happen, both spin to the outside trying to get through, opening up a gap through the middle large enough to accommodate a band formation at halftime. Discipline, discipline, discipline - a real key for the Bruins - and, obviously, not just in this game, not by a long shot.

On offense, the Bruins showed improvement last weekend (against a defense that wasn't as good as the one UCLA faced the previous week, of course). Arizona's defense has been vulnerable to giving up points, however, which does bode well for UCLA's young offense.

However, the 'Cats stopped the Cardinal twice late in the game to preserve their victory last weekend. That of course highlights the Bruins' season-long inability to convert drives into the red zone into touchdowns as opposed to field goals. It won't get any easier as this game will see them without a second offensive starter as Nick Ekbatani will likely get the start replacing an injured Eddie Williams, who is out an estimated four weeks with a broken bone in his ankle, but Stanley Hasiak could also log minutes if his ailing ankle is alright.

As it is, they are winning national kicking honors for All American candidate Kai Forbath. But if they could push it across more - receivers run the right routes, make the catches when the ball does come their way, hold onto the ball when hit - they'd have a much better chance to win more games.

So, Saturday's game in Tucson brings the same old script back into play - the Bruins' defensive weaknesses so far give Arizona chances to put points on the board. And the Bruins, on offense, have to find a way to take advantage of the opportunities Arizona's defense offers them. Playing the gaps. Staying home on defense. Scoring some touchdowns instead of putting everything on Forbath's shoulders.

Same old, same old. Pretty easy to see why Arizona is favored (opening line is by 9 as per the Sporting News). Also, not so hard to see why Bruin fans can get our hopes up yet again.

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