Bruins Have Made Us Care Again

In beating Arizona State on the road, 45-43, in incredibly dramatic fashion, this Bruin team has gotten Bruin Nation to care again...

Let's get the big statements out of the way.

That was the most exciting UCLA game, from beginning to finish, since the 2005 season.

If UCLA ends up with what most observers believe is a successful season, this game will be remembered as UCLA's biggest win in a very long time, and arguably bigger than the win over USC in 2006.

Brett Hundley, with the composure he displayed on that last drive, is a freak of a freshman.

Johnathan Franklin is completely worthy of being UCLA's all-time leading career rusher.

There are probably at least a few more superlative milestones about UCLA's win over Arizona State, 45-43, Saturday, but you get drift.

That was what college football is all about. Two teams digging in, sucking it up in a back-and-forth track meet when everyone has to be gassed, trying to pull out a win that could very well make or break each team's season.

We're still not even close to claiming the program has done that turn-thecorner thing, but at the very least the program is capable of providing its fans a very entertaining brand of football. You'd probably like it to be less exciting when UCLA's defense is on the field, but at least the program can now put an exciting offense out there that can, most importantly, win games.

UCLA hasn't had the talent, scheme, coaching and composure in a long time to win a game like that. That was a game, in the recent past, that UCLA would have conceded to Arizona State on their last drive, and been unable to even approach mounting a last-minute drive to win it.

Like we said at the beginning of the season, the program is just different now.

Yeah, we of course can nitpick some things -- some offensive play-calling at times, the inability of the defense to get a stop when it needed it and some head-scratching defensive play-calling, some huge mental blunders and mistakes that came close to costing UCLA the game -- but talking about them too much would be a massive wet blanket on how Bruin Nation is undoubtedly feeling right now.

Let's start with Mr. Hundley. Not since Cade McNown has UCLA had a player, not just a quarterback, who has this type of game presence and impact. In this game, the comparison to McNown is apt, showing an other-wordly degree of composure and play-making ability in not only the last drive but throughout the game in a way not seen at UCLA since McNown. Hundley was labeled "The Savior" when he came to UCLA and if he keeps doing these kinds of things he's going to live up to it. It really is beyond exciting and almost unfathomable to envision Hundley as a junior in two years, much less a senior.

Many UCLA fans were thinking, to begin the season, that Franklin wasn't really worthy of having his name atop the all-time UCLA rushing list. To many, it just didn't seem that Franklin had that type of star quality. It's time to elevate Franklin's name and reputation among the all-time greats at UCLA, not just because he will have run for the most yards in UCLA history, but because he truly is that good. Perhaps it's because he didn't have the hype as a high school prospect, or because he's improved dramatically so he wasn't always as good as he is today. Regardless, right now, UCLA fans should look upon Johnathan Franklin as they would Gaston Green, Freeman McNeil, Deshaun Foster, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Maurice Jones-Drew, as UCLA royalty.

it truly was a game of momentum and coaching adjustments. ASU started off with the upper hand, UCLA took over the hand in the second quarter, then it seemed like it was slowly seeping over to ASU throughout the second half.

The momentum mostly seemed to go the way of UCLA's defense. When it was porous, ASU seemed to have the edge in the game, but when it stopped down the Sun Devils, UCLA took control of the game on both sides of the ball. The Sun Devils came out in the first quarter almost able to move the ball at will against UCLA's defense, reeling off good-sized runs through good-sized holes. In the second quarter, the Bruin defensive coaching staff adjusted, and stopped down ASU's offense, holding it to only 56 yards and 3 points. But then, when Arizona State got the ball for the second time to begin a half, the ASU offense had again found its footing. UCLA's defense had adjusted in the second quarter, but then ASU's offensive brain trust did the same in the second half, going to effectively running the zone read, and quick, easy passes, particularly screens, which UCLA didn't have answer for in defending. Both offenses tried to utilize tempo to gain advantage. UCLA's defense was better in the second quarter when UCLA's offense had given it a bit of rest. But in the second half, UCLA's defense was on the field a significant time, and ASU's quick tempo was clearly wearing down the Bruins' defense. By the last ASU scoring drive, which put up the Sun Devils 46-43 with 1:33 left in the game, it appeared the Bruins D was done. They were missing assignments and tackles and, even though it looked like they were well aware of what ASU's offense was going to do, they couldn't do anything to combat it.

While it wasn't a great defensive performance, by any means, in a game like this, in which both offenses were seemingly able to chew up a great deal of yardage pretty easily, if you can get your defense to provide you just a few stops it might be enough. And, UCLA's defense did do that.

The offense, though, easily is credited with winning this game. It gained 486 yards against a defense that was allowing just 298 per game, which was good enough to be ranked #1 in the conference and #13 in the nation. It scored 45 points against a defense that was allowing just 18 per game, good enough for #2 in the conference and #23 in the nation. Other than against Oregon, when ASU's defense allowed 43 points, it was allowing just 9 points per home game this season.

Arizona State's defense was probably a bit over-rated and missing its best defender, tackle Will Sutton, so those numbers might be a little more dramatic than realistic. But this was a shoot-out of a game, one in which you assumed that each offense would score just about every time they had possession, and UCLA's offense clearly had a bigger challenge going up against Arizona State's defense -- in Tempe -- than ASU's offense did against UCLA's defense. Given ASU's defense, this might have been UCLA's best offensive performance on the road against a conference team in a very long time.

If we're citing aspects of this game that really embody how the program has changed, that's an easy one: The last UCLA drive. It's, again, difficult to remember the another recent UCLA drive like that one; you probably have to go back to 2005 when they had about four similar game-winning drives. When UCLA took over the ball at its own 25, if this had been any UCLA offense of the recent past you would have thought they had no chance. But at that point, you had to remember that this was a different offense, with a different offensive coordinator, and definitely a different quarterback. And, actually, a different head coach who prides himself on game management. It felt clearly different from the very initial first down, when Hundley uncannily avoided the rush, but then kept his head up to look down field and found Steven Manfro for 14 yards. Franklin then showed he wasn't a step slower at this time of the game, busting off a 9-yard gain. On a third and one, Hundley looked down field, didn't see anyone, and then hit Damien Thigpen perfectly in stride on a swing pass for a first down. Hundley then made some clutch throws, for an 11-yard gain to Shaquelle Evans, and then, in desperation, with the rush converging on him, across the field to Joseph Fauria as he was falling out of bounds. That was a big-time play, for Hundley and Fauria, to get UCLA to the ASU 25, presumably within field goal range, and out of bounds to stop the clock. UCLA OC Noel Mazzone then, smartly, ran with Franklin for a first down, with the clock stopping to move the chains, and UCLA calling a timeout. Jim Mora could be seen on the sideline, instructing the line judge to call a timeout at 4 seconds. Mazzone then again made a great call, for Franklin to run up the middle, not only because he gained 7 yards and made it a 32-yarder rather than a 39-yarder, but it centered the ball on the field to make it easier for UCLA true freshman kicker Kai'mi Fairbairn. UCLA called its last timeout (the timeouts managed perfectly), and Fairbairn, with Jeff Locke the punter/holder having counseled him on the sideline before the kick, calmly punched through the winning field goal.

It was very good work on the part of all involved -- the offense, particularly Hundley, Franklin and Fauria; the playcalling by Mazzone; the game management by Mora, and, of course, Fairbairn. Again, it was the type of drive -- and moment -- we haven't seen much of in a very long time.

It's the type of stuff that builds reputations and legends.

Give credit, also, to the entire Bruin team, for not throwing in the towel when it found itself in a 14-0 hole in the first quarter. Again, in recent years, that might have been too deep of a hole for the Bruins to climb out of on the road against a team with a winning record and a conference-leading defense.

Here's a good stat to indicate how things are different: In the last ten seasons, UCLA has won only two road games against a conference team that finished the season with a winning record (@Oregon State, 2007; @Arizona State, 2006). If ASU finishes with a winning record this season, this will be its third.

But throw out stats, schemes and plays. This is different in the way UCLA fans now view and feel about the program. I'm going to be candid and say that, even though I'm an alumnus, I haven't cared about the team in a long time. The program had lost my heart. Of course, even though I'm supposed to be objective as a reporter covering the team, there's always a fan inside, but that fan had been beaten down pretty significantly over the last decade or so. It actually made it quite a bit easier to maintain objectivity as a reporter.

But I'll admit it -- I found myself actually cheering in this game. I was very emotionally involved, screaming at the TV. I called Dave Woods, and he said, without being prompted, "It was the first time in a long time I actually cared about a UCLA game." I called a few of my other Bruin friends, and they all said the same thing. There is definitely something different about the program now, about the coaches and the players. Seeing UCLA Offensive Line Coach piling on top of the player pile at the end of the game during the celebration. Listening to Jim Mora in the post-game interview with Petros Papadakis on the field, when he was clearly so hyped he could barely contain himself from jumping up and down.

It's difficult to put your finger exactly on it, but this team exudes an image, a work ethic and expectation that makes it different.

It's made us care again.


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