September 14, 2010
Teams facing an early turning point this weekend.
There's no denying after Saturday's 35-0 whitewashing by Stanford that UCLA is in trouble at 0-2 – an ugly 0-2 at that – with no obvious breaks on the horizon to catch its breath or pick up a little steam. But coach Rick Neuheisel isn't exactly in a position to lament his team's bleak prospects:
The coach is disappointed and a bit uneasy, but not discouraged. Neuheisel insists the Bruins have enough time to turn around their season and the program's direction in a benchmark year for any coaching staff.
"There's still reason for optimism," Neuheisel said Monday. "There's no reason to throw in the towel. What other choice do you have? Goodness gracious, there's 10 games left. We still want to be optimistic. We still have a number of talented players on this team, and we're going to continue to get better. If we relax and make the plays we're capable of, good things will happen."
"The schedule being what it is, we've got to do what we can, and not listen to the external forces that are saying we're terrible, because it doesn't help us," Neuheisel said.
Of course, he's right: There's no time to for the Bruins to waste envisioning the sulfuric fireball of a season that seems to await them after coming up woefully short in winnable dates with Stanford and Kansas State, two of the games they clearly needed to take another step forward in Neuheisel's third year. But as one of those skeptical external forces, I have all kinds of time to spell out the writing on the wall, piece by piece:
• The quarterbacks. Between them, sophomores Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut have completed fewer than half their passes and have the Bruins sitting dead last nationally in pass efficiency. Prince, settling into his second year as a starter under renowned QB guru Norm Chow, has veered ominously into Freshman Juice Williams territory with a 39.5-percent completion rate, and outside of a late, desperate, 65-yard touchdown drive at Kansas State, he's completed just 13-of-36 for 94 yards, three interceptions and zero scores. That's worse than last year, but not by that much.
• The attrition. As usual, the offensive line is an ad hoc jumble of leftovers after multiple starters have fallen by the wayside, although the factors assaulting the lineup this year are doubly impressive for their breadth and variety: Tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, a full-time starter as a true freshman, left for a Mormon mission last winter; veteran Jeff Baca and once-hyped recruit Stan Hasiak were ruled academically ineligible just before the season; and center Kai Maiava, a former freshman All-American at Colorado who started all but one game last year, is out for the season with a broken ankle. On the other line, defensive end Datone Jones is out indefinitely with the obligatory preseason foot injury, leaving the front seven with only one other returning starter, linebacker Akeem Ayers.
• The run defense. The Bruins were one of the worst in the Pac-10 against the run last year, despite leading the conference in tackles for loss and featuring two players in the middle, tackle Brian Price and linebacker Reggie Carter, who went in April's draft. Kansas State took advantage by ripping off 347 yards rushing before sacks, 234 by bruiser Daniel Thomas, the Bruins' worst effort against the run since being torched for 430 yards by the Reggie Bush-led USC juggernaut in 2005; Stanford pounded out another 211 on the ground last week.
• The general, you know, blah. The Bruins have been the picture of mediocrity in the standings, 46-42 over the last six years (good for a perfectly bland 61st nationally out of 120 teams over the same period) and four finishes within a game of .500. But it goes beyond the record: They've also failed to put a single quarterback, running back or receiver on the year-end All-Pac-10 team – or in the draft – since 2005, with no candidates on the horizon.
• The schedule. There are plenty of persistently mediocre outfits with quarterback issues and a few untimely injuries that aren't throwing in the towel, but they're not staring down a week-in, week-out gauntlet that they already seem unqualified to face. Based on their first two games, with the winnable, momentum-generating opportunities against K-State and Stanford already behind them, the Bruins figure to be underdogs in at least eight and possibly nine of their last ten games – all but Washington State – beginning with Houston's visit to the Rose Bowl on Saturday. After that, it's on to Texas, and then to an unrelenting Pac-10 slate that could leave them sitting in the neighborhood of 3-9 or worse by year's end.
Of course, every Saturday is another chance to turn it all around, starting with the Cougars in the Rose Bowl. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.