UCLA Loses, But There is Hope

The Bruins fell into some of their well-worn issues of the last four years in losing to Illinois in the Kraft Stop Hunger Bowl, 20-14, but there were some rays of hope...

While UCLA was playing in the Kraft Stop Hunger Bowl, which it ultimately lost 20-14, I received a bunch of texts from friends saying they thought it was a horrible game.

For whatever reason, I didn't agree. The defense had a decent performance, which wasn't common this season. The offense struggled, but it was against the #7-ranked defense in the nation. It was also refreshing to watch interim coach Mike Johnson on the sideline.

And it was good to watch the game from perhaps Jim Mora's perspective – considering what talent he'll have to work with next season.

UCLA really didn't look "bad" until about halfway through the second half, after Kevin Prince threw the pick six.

Perhaps it's just the fact that I know UCLA is going to have a new staff, and it's not mired in the previous dead-end staff of the last four years, and that it's a New Year, that the game just didn't seem that horrible.

You have to give UCLA's defense a little credit. It's played against some offenses comparable to Illinois' this season and looked quite a bit worse. The Bruin D gave up a few big plays that hurt them, like one when they were unable to bring down Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on a scramble, or the bad zone blitz in the fourth quarter on Illinois' touchdown pass. There was the annoying cushion. There were missed tackles. The defense definitely lost its fire in the second half.

But the defense had a number of big plays itself, particularly a few tackles for loss.

It was also good to see someone like Glenn Love, a senior, having some good moments. He absolutely blew up a tailback screen with his athleticism.

Looking at it from Mora's eyes, let's consider the guys who are returning next season. The two cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price had good coverage games. In two successive plays in the second half they each shut down Illinois' big-time threat A.J. Jenkins one-on-one. Redshirt freshman safety Tevin McDonald showed he might have the best defensive instincts on the team, being in the right place to make plays throughout the game. Sophomore defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa had a big stop on a fourth-and-one where he blew up his defender, who was holding him. Sophomore defensive end Keenan Graham clearly showed he deserves playing time, getting into the backfield and doing a good job of containing Scheelhaase on a couple of plays. Redshirt freshman linebacker Eric Kendricks was around the ball all game. Sophomore Jordan Zumwalt looked good at middle linebacker, being in position and making some plays.

The offense clearly wasn't good but it wasn't a complete horror show. In fact, you could make a case that it wasn't too bad until Prince's interception. From a scheme standpoint, Johnson was hamstrung by the Pistol (he really couldn't install a new offense in three weeks of bowl practice), but the play-calling wasn't horrendous, with a good, creative sense of down-and-distance. There seemed to be only one zone read called all game (which failed miserably). Against one of the best defenses in the country, and one of the best pass rushes, Prince had a decent amount of time to throw. There were just a few plays where the execution broke down. Prince missed some throws, but he also made a couple that were dropped.

It was good to see a well-respected senior, Derrick Coleman, go out with a little flash. Even though we've been as critical of Nelson Rosario as anyone, it was good to see him end his UCLA career with a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

Again, channeling Mora, he has to like that he has guys like Johnathan Franklin, Joseph Fauria, Shaquelle Evans, and Jordon James returning next season. James had a potential touchdown reception but Prince missed him by about a foot. Fauria was UCLA's most effective, go-to receiver.

Prince, though, to be frank, had a poor game. He did make some very good throws, particularly the touchdown pass to Taylor Embree, but he made too many poor ones. It only highlights easily the biggest personnel issue that Mora will be facing: whether Prince ultimately has enough talent to get it done in Mora's new offense next season under new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

If you, though, stepped back and tried to get a general impression, you'd say the Bruins were more athletic than Illinois.

It's clear that Mora will have plenty to work with – that the cupboard is anything but bare. And it was also clear that the players have some heart and fight, that they kept on playing with intensity throughout the game (unlike the Bruin basketball team).

It's fitting, too, that this was the type of performance – one in which UCLA showed it had talent but under-achieved – to end the 2011 season on the last day of the year. That embodies the last four years of UCLA football.

But it's now a new era, the Jim Mora Era, and it's New Year's Eve, a time for renewed hope.

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