Head coach Rick Neuheisel kicked off the UCLA Bruins' spring game at the Rose Bowl Saturday by telling the roughly 12,000 fans in attendance that the Bruins were going to win the Pac-10 Championship. "See you back here on Jan. 1," Neuheisel said.
After the game, Neuheisel's tone was a bit more subdued, which is somewhat alarming for the effervescent head coach who in 2008 was the poster boy for the "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles Is Officially Over" season ticket marketing campaign.
"It was a defensive night," he said. "[I'm] very encouraged by our team defense and the way we played on that side of the ball."
And the offense?
"The running game, I thought, when we're going to look at the tape, is going to be OK," Neuheisel said. "Some of the down and distances just got away from us because of the inability to get the ball out of our hands and avoid sacks, or complete passes down the field. That's really where it is. I know we can fix that. I know we can fix that."
For Bruins fans, the hopes are still there, but reality settled in midway through the game -- same great defense, same porous offensive line. It's been a standard recipe for mediocrity in Neuheisel's last two 4-8, 7-6 seasons, and unless the O-line gets stingier, the Bruins will be praying for another lower-tier bowl.
Let's take a look at the positives and negatives going into the 2010 UCLA football campaign:
• The running game was somewhat encouraging. Johnathan Franklin rushed for a tough 47 yards in 18 attempts, while Derrick Coleman has emerged as a powerful running back. He had six attempts for 64 yards and a touchdown.
• A solid kicking game. But the kicking unit never has been a question mark. Kai Forbath went 4-for-4 with kicks of 44, 34, 51, and 57 yards, and he looks to be a lock for "automatic" at 50 yards. Neuheisel hinted after the game that Forbath can boot it 60.
• The Bruins' secondary looked fast, matched the wide receivers' route-running stride for stride and there was very little separation between receiver and defensive back.
• Kevin Prince, the projected starting quarterback, looked solid in his mechanics -- he had a very quick release and put plenty of zip on the ball.
• The defense played with a lot of intensity and was especially tenacious at the line, racking up eight sacks. Defensive end Datone Jones looks like a beast and may outshine Lott Trophy watch-listers Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore this fall.
"The previous couple of years, the running game has kind of struggled," Coleman said. "[The coaches are]confident now that the line can move a couple yards when it comes to running. Passing-wise, we've got to get better with the pressure."
• Prince's biggest problem was the lack of pass protection -- especially on blitzes -- which ultimately affected his timing of passes and his stats: 5 of 13, for 73 yards and one interception. Richard Brehaut didn't fare any better going 3-9, for 34 yards.
• The offense. The new Revolver formation was about as threatening as a Nerf gun. Last year the Bruins were ranked No. 94 in scoring offense and lost 28-7 to a mediocre USC team.
• The porous offensive line. Last year, that same unit bore some of the responsibility for a 6-6 regular season record and an EagleBank Bowl date with Temple. How bad was the pass protection? Midway through the game, I asked a Bruins beat writer for the sack total -- "I can't count that high," was his response -- before a terse "Eight" was yelled out by a Bruins team staff member.
Norm Chow, normally a pretty frank coach, was speechless after the game. When asked what he thought of the game, he raised his arms upward and muttered, "arrrgh geesh."
Chow also expressed his frustration with what he felt was the biggest disappointment of the game, saying "We didn't block very well."
Who can blame Chow for being frustrated? He has a realistic plan that depends on an offensive line that can count to three before letting any bad guys get by, and so far, it's not working.