Opposing Views: U Excited, BRO?

These are rare days in Westwood. Though Bruin Report Online (BRO) editor Tracy Pierson dismisses the Bruins’ pending matchup with Stanford as “UCLA’s biggest game since last week,” the stakes are high as ever for UCLA. A win over the Cardinal clinches both a Pac-12 South title and the Bruins’ first 10-win regular season since 1998. Opposing Views welcomes Pierson’s insights on everything UCLA.

The Bootleg: Talk about the significance of UCLA's win over USC last week. Does it surpass either of the previous two against the Trojans? What prompted Brett Hundley to state "UCLA runs L.A." in the aftermath?

Tracy Pierson: It's such a unique rivalry between UCLA and USC, because they’re the only two FBS teams that share a city. If you’re a fan of either school you really can’t escape the rivalry. You experience it at work, at home, on your kids’ soccer field, in Starbucks, etc. UCLA and USC fans feel a bit like they’re perpetually fighting for supremacy within the L.A. area, so when UCLA beats USC three straight years, it feels pretty natural for Hundley to say UCLA “runs L.A."

TB: The Bruins looked lost throughout October, barely beating Cal and Colorado and falling to Oregon while Mora and his defensive coordinator almost came to blows. What happened? What are the biggest reasons for the turnaround?

TP: First, your information is inaccurate. Jim Mora and Jeff Ulbrich, didn’t “almost come to blows.” They argued on the sideline. Mora even held Ulbrich’s head in his hands, so that’s really far from “coming to blows.” Mora coached Ulbrich in the NFL and has known him for over 20 years. Ulbrich is one of Mora’s closest friends and he considers him almost as close as family.

A huge reason UCLA has put it together since it struggled midway through the season is the play of the offensive line. Conor McDermott was inserted at left tackle and he’s been outstanding, which stabilized pass protection, giving Hundley more time to make his reads. With the offense being more productive, the defense has been able to get more aggressive in its pressures. Ulbrich too is a first-year DC, and he’s really found his groove now.

TB: Talk about Brett Hundley 's growth. Better coaching? Better line? Better supporting cast than 2012 and 2013?

TP: Much of Hundley’s improvement over this season can be attributed to better pass protection. UCLA’s offensive line, for the last two years, started an assortment of true freshmen on the offensive line, and this is the first year they have a little more experienced talent. Hundley, too, has naturally progressed, getting better in all facets of the position.

TB: Explain why it was so hard for UCLA to develop a quality QB from the time of Cade McNown (a senior in 1998) until now. Everyone else in the conference enjoyed an all-time great in that time.

TP: It wasn’t so much quarterback development during those years but recruiting poorly at the quarterback position. In Bob Toledo’s last couple of years, he made some bad evaluations and choices in quarterback recruiting, and Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel continued that legacy.

TB: Is football more popular than hoops in Westwood now? If so, when was the last time you could say that?

TP: If you’re characterizing popularity as interest among students and fans, UCLA football has always been as popular as UCLA basketball. It’s just that UCLA basketball traditionally got more media attention when it was winning 10 national championships under John Wooden. Because of that, UCLA became known as a basketball school, but football drives the athletic department, like on most campuses.

TB: How frustrating had it been to lose six straight times to Stanford?

TP: I don’t think most UCLA fans realize UCLA has lost to Stanford six times in a row, but are very aware that UCLA has lost the last three, since those three were so significant. With fans, frustration mostly stems from games that they think their team should have won, and in most cases in the last six instances of UCLA/Stanford games, Stanford was the better team. If there was one game that was probably the most frustrating, it was the Pac-12 championship game in 2012, a game in which most UCLA fans thought UCLA had an edge pretty late in the game but ultimately lost. [TB: Can’t blame Bruin fans for still thinking about that one. The Bruins enjoyed a 461-325 edge in total yards. Without eight Bruin penalties and the game’s only turnover, a Brett Hundley interception returned 80 yards to set up a touchdown, Stanford loses.]

TB: Rank these underachievers in terms of who was most disappointing: Ben Howland's three Final Four teams, Terry Donahue's 1987 and 1988 teams, and Bob Toledo's 2001 team that started 7-0 and No. 3 in the BCS before losing its last four games and missing the postseason.

TP: It’s a slightly odd question, perhaps because of the term “underachieving.” There aren’t too many people I know that would consider three consecutive Final Fours underachieving, even at UCLA, where expectations for basketball success are pretty high. I think even the craziest UCLA fans realize how difficult it is to get to even one Final Four, and getting to three was a pretty big feat. The Terry Donahue team of 1988 was probably the most anguishing of UCLA football/basketball modern history – with the team ranked No. 1 in the country and loaded with talent, led by Troy Aikman. [TB: The Bruins held the No.1 ranking in early November before a loss to a very good Washington State side. A win over a flu-ridden Rodney Peete and USC would have earned a Rose Bowl trip, but the Trojans prevailed and UCLA settled for the Cotton Bowl.] "Underachieving" might apply here.

Probably the one-game memory that sticks in the craw of UCLA fans is the 1998 team’s loss to Miami in a game that was rescheduled until the end of the season because of Hurricane Georges. With a win, the No. 2 Bruins would have earned a spot in the inaugural BCS national time game, but came up short, 49-45. It was thought that if UCLA had played the young Miami team early in the year, when it was scheduled, it probably would have won, and there was also a game-deciding and erroneous referee's call UCLA fans still bemoan. [TB: With the Bruins clinging to a 45-42 lead in the fourth quarter, Danny Farmer appeared to hit the ground before fumbling the ball. But the officials ruled fumble, and the Hurricanes drove for the winning touchdown.]

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