Former Teammate: Old friend, new nemesis

Update: UCLA 51 – OSU 28

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nce upon a time, UCLA recruited two freshman as quarterbacks. Both were highly rated high school students, both in the top 20 of their class nationally. As you can imagine, this was quite a coup by the Bruins. But developing two quarterbacks at the same time seemed counter productive so the coach had one–Matt–redshirt his freshman year. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a redshirt means that a college student can be a member of the team, practice with the team and receive his scholarship, but he cannot play in a game. This allows the player an extra year of eligibility, a fifth year as a senior–for example, a redshirt freshman is usually a sophomore in school. The other advantage is that the team has extra time to develop a talented and promising student-athlete who might otherwise be a bit raw or undersized.

This was the case with Matt on both counts. He was tall, but a bit scrawny, and he had only begun to play the quarterback position in his senior year in high school. He had little discipline at the position–little patience to read the defense before delivering the ball–but his athleticism allowed him to play at an exceptional level and incited many colleges to go after him. UCLA won out. Drew, the other quarterback, had been a quarterback most of his football life. He knew how to lead and he was already pretty big as a freshman, so he remained on the team as a true freshman, the backup of the senior quarterback, Cory.

Everything was hunky-dory–well, as hunky-dory as a team that had self-imploded the previous year could be. Cory was a highly touted QB who turned out to be a bust; a DUI and involvement with a team parking lot scandal will change many young men. But as a senior he was the best the Bruins had and Drew backed him up, until the fifth game of the season when Cory broke his arm. Drew was called on and he performed adequately for two games when suddenly he was sacked hard and injured his shoulder. Left without a quarterback, the coach turned to Matt, asking him to give up his redshirt year for the team. Reluctant, Matt relented, wanting to be a team player. And lo and behold, he led the Bruins in a victory over Stanford in his very first start. This had the makings of a Cinderella story, except for the fact that the coach was a jerk.

The Back Story: Coach BT had proven for the past few years that he was only concerned with his own reputation, his own job. In 1998, he blamed the final losses to Miami and Wisconsin on his Defensive Coordinator and fired him. The following season, when the offense sputtered, the Offensive coach got the ax. In the year before Matt and Drew, a great running back named DeShaun had improperly “borrowed” an SUV long term from an actor. He viewed it as a favor. The NCAA viewed it as an infraction. But before the NCAA even ruled, the coach decided to sit DeShaun down. He was being strict, he said; he was being true to the spirit of NCAA sportsmanship. DeShaun was punished. Fortunately, we had other running backs; none as great as the DeShaun, but adequate, we thought. Then we lost three games in a row.

Before the last game against our arch rival U$C, another incident came to light. Cory, the quarterback had been arrested for a DUI during break the previous winter, but had failed to tell anyone in the administration, including the coach, about it. An arrest needs to be addressed with disciplinary action; an arrest that was kept hidden for months really needed to be addressed. A young man makes a mistake and drives drunk. Okay, say you’re sorry and let’s move on. But to hide it for almost a year is a different matter. This is not a mistake; this is a deliberate attempt to hide the truth. Despite the fact that we were playing our arch rival and had no decent quarterback to play in his stead, Cory should be suspended. But Coach BT could not chance losing. The season would be a disaster. So he made up an excuse about young men needing second chances and played him. As you can imagine, the uproar in the media and among fans was great. The coach was inconsistent; indeed, the coach played favorites. The fact that DeShaun was black and Cory was white only exasperated the situation. The Bruins, with Cory at the helm, ultimately lost to an out manned U$C team 21-0. On TV, you could see that the players were not playing very hard: missed tackles, fumbled balls. It was a debacle.

Fast Forward: So after Matt leads UCLA to a win over Stanford, there is a buzz among the faithful. Is matt the One? Is he our quarterback of the future? No. the next week, Drew is okayed to play by the medical staff and Matt sits down again, having burned his redshirt for the team. For one game. At the end of the season, after UCLA loses again to their dreaded nemesis, Coach TD is fired. He isn’t even allowed to coach the team in their final bowl game; that’s how bad it was. He had taken the Bruins to the edge of greatness in 1998 and then went into free fall for the next four years. UCLA decides to hire one of its own, Coach KD, a former wide receiver for the Bruins in the 80s and assistant coach for teams such as Washington, Colorado and the NFL’s Denver Broncos. Matt wanted to transfer to another team. He had burned a year of eligibility already and did not really want to play for a coach who had not recruited him. But Coach KD talked to Matt and his dad and convinced him to stay another year, to try out his West Coast Offense (WCO).

Matt agreed, albeit reluctantly.

During Spring practice the following year, Matt performed horrendously. He had obviously not studied the voluminous playbook that is the WCO, and Drew out-performed him in every drill. Drew was the next quarterback, everyone touted. This lit a fire under Matt. He studied the playbook hard, learning as much as he could over the summer. And in Fall practice, he beat out Drew by a hair and was named the Bruin starting quarterback a week before the season began. But Fate is a fickle thing. In the second quarter of the first game of the season against Colorado, Matt twisted his knee and was sidelined for a few weeks. Coach KD, not wanting to discourage Matt, said publicly to the media that no player would lose his position due to injury, meaning of course that Matt would still be the starter when he came back. Of course, Coach KD did not anticipate Drew winning four of the next five games.

I’m fine, my knee’s okay, Matt told Coach, but Coach KD found it difficult to tinker with success, to mess up the chemistry the team seemed to manifest with Drew. Matt began to make his case with the press: I’m good to go. I can play. Coach promised that a player does not lose his status due to injury.

Under this pressure, it only took one bad game by Drew for Coach to make the change back to Matt. But Matt sucked. He played two games and he performed miserably, far worse than Drew. So Coach decided to put Drew back in. Matt did not manifest his displeasure on the sideline or in practice. And while he did not say anything untoward about anyone, it was clear that he was upset. In the last game of the season against our arch rival, Drew was not having a particularly good game. The Offensive Coordinator talked to Coach via his headset, asking whether they should put in Matt in the last quarter. Coach told him no: “Drew needs this time to gain more experience for next year.” Unbeknownst to both coaches, Matt also had his head set on and heard their exchange. He ripped off his headset and retreated to the locker room.

The next day he asked for his release, and Coach DK gave it to him…

Matt was lost. He thought of becoming a baseball player and was even drafted by the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (?!?). But after a year in a community college, he decided that he wanted to play football after all, and through his former high school coach, found his way to Coach Riley and the Oregon State Beavers, where this year as a starter, Matt has led them to a 4-2 record and a stunning win over the California Bears.

Guess who we play today? Matt Moore and the Oregon State Beavers. And Drew is our senior quarterback. All week long the above story–which is mostly my recollection of things–has been rehashed to death by the LA media. One reporter from the Press Enterprise even tried to goad Matt into saying something volatile–something like, I have a grudge against Coach KD. But to his credit, Matt has remained calm. So has Drew.

So the stage is set. Two players who vied for the same position will now play against each other leading different teams. It is a time to settle, once and for all, who is the better quarterback. Drew or Matt. I should mention that for the last two years, many fans and media have painted Drew as a mediocre player. Indeed many have lamented the departure of Matt, citing Coach KD’s ineptitude. (For the record, I have always believed in both KD and Drew) But Coach KD has brought stability to the program. The Bruins have had mediocre season the last two years, but he has brought discipline and responsibility; accountability and pride. He has brought teamwork to create a Team. It should not be a surprise that a significant number of players from the previous years have quit or transferred, unable to uphold the integrity that Coach KD demands. As an alumnus of UCLA, I am proud of the work he has done. For his part, Drew has never flinched, moped or complained about the criticism he has endured and the pressure put on him. He has been a class act throughout. I am truly impressed by this young man, and I am glad that he is now playing the best football of his life. He is 7th in the nation in QB efficiency. He has 15 touchdowns against thee interceptions, has let the Bruins to a 6-0 start and a #9 ranking in the first BCS, and has been named a semi-finalist for the Unitas Award for the best quarterback in college. Still, college football is a game of heart and spirit and guts. Matt Moore has every chance of upsetting us today.

And I’m sure–despite his cool demeanor this week–he would just love to do it.

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