Following UCLA's stunning overtime victory over the 18th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, expectations have soared for this young Bruins team. But while positive thinking and "relentless optimism" were the main reasons for the upset on Monday, here are two words of advice for Bruin fans: Slow down.
The point is, despite the great win, the Bruins still have tons of holes and issues. Primarily, the injury bug struck again in a big way against the Vols.
Senior captains RB Kahlil Bell and TE Logan Paulsen were both injured, as was senior WR Marcus Everett. All three are starters, and all three were to play big roles in the offense this year. Paulsen is out for six to eight weeks, while the forecast on Bell and Everett is still unclear.
The Bruins do have talent at these positions that can step up, but the leadership is something that this team needs on the field.
A surprising concern was the run defense. The pass rush was phenomenal and mostly came from DTs Brian Price and Brigham Harwell. Yet the Vols racked up 177 yards on the ground, averaging an absurd 5.2 yards per carry. Tackling was the culprit, but the Tennessee RBs got to the second level too often.
In order to keep up with spread-option Pac-10 teams such as Oregon and Washington, or just smashmouth power teams like USC, the run defense will have to improve.
Finally, the offense. Everyone is talking about how Kevin Craft is the new savior of the program—and maybe he is. But he will need help, and the running game was completely nonexistent.
Bell was able to pound out two to three yards every run due to his experience and patience, but the young backs (Raymond Carter, Aundre Dean, etc.) don't have that patience. As the primary back, Carter got stopped behind the line multiple times.
This isn't necessarily Carter's fault—the run blocking was pitiful—but a savvy veteran like Bell is what UCLA needs to be able to move the ball on the ground. If Bell's ankle keeps him hobbled for a while, the ground game will continue to struggle.
One more tidbit about the special teams: With the blocked punt and the FGs in OT, to the naked eye it seemed as though UCLA dominated the special units. Not so fast, my friend. Tennessee completely dominated both the kick and punt return games. The Vols broke off several long returns, and the Bruins got nothing at all.
Don't forget, the Vols' game tying field goal was really the result of a poorly executed squib kick that gave Tennessee the ball near midfield.
But I don't want to be a killjoy. The season started out much better than I, or any Bruin fan, could've hoped. Any honest Bruin will tell you that we just hoped for a competitive performance. We got that and more.
It's great to see the Bruins playing with toughness and passion—two things often missing in the Karl Dorrell era. The O-line played above expectations, and the freshmen were phenomenal across the board, SS Rahim Moore and WR Taylor Embree in particular.
While this stunning win may not mean a Pac-10 championship is on the way this year, it shows that Dan Guerrero made the right call with Rick Neuheisel. The coaching staff is tops in the country, and the talent is getting there. There'll be some growing pains this year, but in 2009 and beyond—look out country.
The football monopoly in LA is (nearly) over.