UCLA Bruins in danger of regressing
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Just when you thought the UCLA football team was on to something, the Bruins pull something like this.
Just when it looks like the program had made some progress, it stumbles while turning the corner.
Improvement, of course, comes in stages. Little increments, like winning a game at Texas, create forward momentum and get you believing this team can go somewhere.
But losses such as Saturday's 35-7 setback to California have a way of throwing up a wall, stopping the team stone cold and making you think that maybe this team hasn't really made much progress at all.
"We have some work to do," Coach Rick Neuheisel repeatedly said after the game. "I'm going to make sure that everybody understands that we have to have a higher expectation for everything in the program."
UCLA (3-3) had fashioned a three-game win streak heading into this game against Cal, putting it on the cusp of becoming a team that can make some noise in the Pac-10 conference, but Saturday has to be seen as a regression.
Some of the same old problems that plagued UCLA in early-season losses to Kansas State and Stanford reared their heads against the Golden Bears.
Missed tackles, dropped passes, a poor passing attack, penalties and an inability to capitalize on opportunities in California haunted the Bruins on Saturday.
And that wasn't much different from when missed tackles, dropped passes, a poor passing attack, penalties and an inability to capitalize on opportunities were the main culprits in the two losses to start the season.
After showing significant improvement against Houston and Texas and showing the moxie to withstand a second-half rally by Washington State, might UCLA have taken a step backward on Saturday?
"It's not a step anywhere," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "It's just frustrating because we wanted to get a four-game winning streak going into Oregon. I think that would have been great momentum for this program and for this team."
There will be no such momentum, just as UCLA could find no momentum Saturday.
The Bruins fell behind 14-0 against California, but appeared as if they might be able to claw their way back into it. UCLA drove to the California 14-yard line early in the second quarter and ended up punting.
Yes, punting. A holding penalty, a fumbled handoff exchange and a 4-yard loss on a pass play knocked the Bruins all the way back to the California 39.
California answered with a drive that, when you include the lost yardage for penalties, covered 116 yards. It ended with a touchdown and a 21-0 California lead.
"If we were anything like we've been in the last three weeks, it's 14-7 at that time," Neuheisel said.
But they weren't. They were exactly like they had been when they started the season, and that's a troubling place to be for a program that has designs on improving a little bit from week to week.
"You have to be at your best every game, every snap," safety Rahim Moore said. "For us to be the team that we want to be, Pac-10 contenders, we have to be at our best every day. We weren't that today. We were not the team we had been the last three weeks."
The UCLA offense had no answers for Cal. The Bruins, averaging 262.4 yards rushing before this game, had only 26 against a California defense that clearly was judicious in using its bye week to prepare for the Pistol. UCLA averaged 1 yard per carry.
UCLA's air attack wasn't much better. Quarterbacks Prince and Richard Brehaut combined to complete 15 of 37 passes (40.5 percent) for 118 yards.
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And the defense doesn't get off the hook either. California had 15 plays of 10 yards or more. Shane Vereen had 151 yards and two touchdowns rushing and had three catches for 51 yards.
"They came out and punched us in the mouth and we didn't react," safety Tony Dye said. "Whatever it was, people weren't ready to come out and it's unacceptable. We've got to do something to fix that. We've got to come out fast every time like we did against Texas and we did against Houston."
But this team is giving little indication that it can play at that level on a consistent basis. There is something missing, something keeping UCLA from taking the next step. And with games coming up against Oregon, Arizona and Oregon State, the Bruins need to figure out exactly what that something is.
"It doesn't get any easier so we've just got to keep working," offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. "I don't know what that next step is, but we've just got to keep working."
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.