For Bruins, essentials are barely there

Do you see improvement?

Have the 2008 UCLA football Bruins come to understand what it takes to run and pass and take advantage of slight cracks at opportunity?

Are they appreciably better now than they were against Fresno State or Arizona or California? (Note: I’m leaving Brigham Young -- 59-0 -- out of this rhetorical query as an act of kindness.)

I have written several times this year about how what matters most in Rick Neuheisel’s honeymoon season will be small signs that the Bruins are inching forward, even if inching forward does not necessarily lead to many wins.


Well, right now -- on a warm night at the Rose Bowl as I watch the Bruins get poleaxed once again -- I have to say that that when it comes to the kind of tangible improvements that most of us look for, I’m not seeing any.

Oregon State was the season’s ninth game. We’ve got real perspective now, a true measure of a team that teased its fans with that first-week upset and then proceeded to knock all wind from the sails with a gunked-up season in which there been no more than a handful of outstanding moments.

This was the ninth game, but it looked like the third, the fourth, the eighth.

Offense? There’s still little to none of it. No sustained drives of any magnitude. (As I write this -- third quarter, Bruins down 17-3 -- the public address announcer just solemnly told the crowd that with that last completed pass, the Bruins are now one for 10 on third downs, which was met by derisive applause.)


Defense? It’s still all over the map: very good at first, then average, and then, as the legs tire from being on the field all day with little break, pretty bad.

Coaching? Neuheisel and Norm Chow, the big guns who rode into Westwood promising a new day, seem to have no clue how to reach the offense and also seem generally befuddled.

“We just got our butts handed to us,” said Chow, standing in a corner of the locker room after the 34-6 loss.

A question came: Are you getting better?

His face tightened. “No, I felt like we were improving a couple of games ago, but we have flattened off. . . . The guys are trying hard, we are just not getting it done. . . . [The last few games] we played some awfully good teams, a lot more mature and older teams. . . . You don’t make excuses, you just keep fighting.” (Yes, that last part of the quote, about UCLA playing good, veteran teams, did seem like an excuse, even though Chow followed by saying there were no excuses, but as noted above, he seems befuddled.)

Neuheisel offered similar thoughts but was a touch more expansive, complaining about the poor play by the offensive line, a haggard and weary group who have been scapegoats all season long.

Let’s slow here for a moment and think about how this team is being led. A thought: I’m hoping for the best from Neuheisel and his staff, but I’ve seen nothing so far to make me feel that this year’s team is being coached much better than it was in 2007, when most said the coaching was utterly atrocious.

The Bruins, particularly on offense, are no stronger, no faster, no smarter and no meaner, and they have not become more disciplined. Yes, last year UCLA graduated some very solid players, and the 2008 Bruins tend toward the young side. Yes, the offensive line may not be as talented as it could be. But isn’t an important measure of a coaching staff the ability to develop talent, no matter what kind of talent it is?


Take the much pilloried Kevin Craft. Could it be that the new coaches have done their junior college transfer a disservice by jumbling his mind with negative thoughts?

A moment from this game: First quarter, crowd still settling, Craft blows up a drive by morphing from the good passer he appeared to be in the first few plays to a guy who overthrows his receiver on a third down by the width of a Hummer.

On the sidelines, as has become his habit, Neuheisel appears ready to blow a gasket.

He flails his arms. He talks loudly and his cheeks redden. Craft walks toward his coach looking like a little kid who has just been caught stealing candy from the corner store. They appear to squabble for a minute or so, and then appear to settle on something approaching “let’s agree to disagree.”

It went on like this the rest of the game. Craft would come in, look decent for a while, fold, then walk over to the sideline and get peppered by his head coach. It’s gotten to the point where I’m beginning to wonder: Is Craft -- a solid kid who transferred to Westwood thinking he’d ride the pine, only to find himself starting after injuries -- beginning to tune his head coach out?

If that’s the case, are his teammates beginning to do the same thing? Nine games in, having shown little spark and little to nothing in the way of improvement, they sure are playing like it.