Heartbreak but Perspective

UCLA can't quite grasp the berth in the Rose Bowl, losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Gamek 27-24, but it proves something about out-playing the Cardinal...

It was a heartbreaking way to end the Pac-12 season, just a few plays and a few bounces of the ball away from the Rose Bowl.

But after UCLA lost to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game Friday night, 27-24, you have to look past the initial sadness, bitterness and flat-out anger, and put it in perspective.

That was a helluva game, to cap off a season that far exceeded expectations.

You can dwell on the few things that happened in this game -- just a few key plays and decisions -- that seemed to give the edge in the game to Stanford. We'd be remiss not to point them out. But come on: Did you ever imagine 11 months ago, in Jim Mora's first season as head coach, that he'd turn around the UCLA program so dramatically the Bruins would not only be playing in the Pac-12 Championship game for a berth in the Rose Bowl -- but actually out-play Stanford in the game?

Appreciate that for a moment. Let that sink in. Your UCLA Bruins have been utter trash for over a decade, completely incapable of even remotedly competing with the best in the conference. I'm going to bring this up just to give you perspective: 50-0 was last December. Not even a year ago. But Mora, his staff and this year's players built a team in seemingly a blink of an eye that, in the conference championship game, was the better team on the field.

Mora is the college football coaching savant.

It's completely crazy to contemplate what he's accomplished in less than a year.

Before we continue with the realization and revelation of the season and this game, let's mention the decisive moments in Friday that we know everyone could be second-guessing.

UCLA's up 24-17, a few minutes into the fourth quarter, and owns the momentum of the game. It's third and 15 at UCLA's 26; shut this down, hold the Cardinal toa field goal, and with about 11 minutes left in the game you have the lead at 24-20 and the momentum. Stanford's offense lined up in a spread, and UCLA's defense was clearly confused, with its defensive backs scrambling to get in the proper alignment. UCLA had plenty of time to call a timeout and set its defense, but the play went off and UCLA's blown coverage allowed Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan to loft a 26-yard touchdown pass over the outstretched hands of Sheldon Price.

That wasn't even the entire poor decision. It was two-fold.

It's now tied 24-24. And the momentum now is up for grabs. And momentum is really key here. In the 13th game of the season, on a rainy night on a muddy field. The team with the intangible advantage is probably going to have the edge.

Stanford kicks off, to UCLA's suspect kick-off return team. It was clear that it's unlikely if a UCLA kick returner fields the ball in the endzone that he'd be able to return it beyond the 25-yard line, where the offense would start after a touchback. But freshman Devin Fuller fields the kick and returns it to the UCLA 8-yard line. In the post-game interview, Mora said, paraphrased, that it's not his way to not allow a player to have an opportunity to make a make ao play. We understand, and great appreciate the aggressiveness since it comes after a long era of Bruin conservatism, but in this instance, it's not really conservative to merely take a knee in the endzone but completely logical.

Jeff Baca then gets called for a hold, and UCLA is now backed up to its own four-yard line on a first and 14. And this is where it happened: The Stanford crowd, all 20,000 of them, get pumped up by UCLA being pinned in its own territory. It was probably the only time in the game the crowd was actually loud. The all-important momentum of the game is now clearly ebbing toward Stanford. You could feel it seep out of the UCLA players and into the Cardinal.

Then, there are a few questionable play calls, two horizontal throws, mostly because they were backed up so far. But the series was probably lost even before the calls and before Baca's (actually questionable) hold call. It was lost when UCLA chose to return the kick and start the possession at such a deficit. For an offense like UCLA's, there's a huge difference between starting at the 25 yard line and the 4.

It was probably the difference in the game. It was definitely the difference in allowing Stanford to seize the momentum after the touchdown pass. The crowd then energized the Cardinal and the game was the hands of Stanford.

There are, of course, other decisions you can second-guess. Spiking the ball on first down with about a minute left in the game at Stanford's 39-yard line. It proved to be a huge decision, since UCLA would probably have rather managed the clock and have that down back, because it would have then been a 3rd and 5 at the Stanford 34, rather than fourth. That one more down would have given UCLA a chance at a first, or at least a few more yards to given its place kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn a better chance at a game-tying field goal. And then you could second-guess the decision of going for the 52-yard field goal, a distance Fairbairn had never made, on a wet, rainy night. What does UCLA have a better chance of executing -- that field goal or a first down on fourth-and-5? You could also second-guess the decision to have Jordon James on the field instead of Franklin on that last critical drive. You have perhaps the most valuable player in the conference -- in terms of his value to his team -- in Johnathan Franklin, who had already run for 200 yards on the day and was clearly the most impactful player on the field. There was the bad decison by Brett Hundley to throw that ball to Joseph Fauria, into double coverage, and shot. Some of the blame for that might have been due to the call, too; it was called when there was a particular moment of considerable rain, which might have made it quite a bit more difficult to execute, when UCLA was rolling in its running game. UCLA had earned the game's momentum mantle, but gave it away with that interception, and it took the entire second and third quarters for the Bruins to seize it again. Not only because of the score, but because of the momentum: If that interception doesn't happen UCLA clearly wins this game.

We can also second-guess many little decisions. The big deciding factor in this game was momentum: who would seize it at the most opportune time to then make the few plays to decide the game's outcome? UCLA had the momentum for most of the night, but seemingly gave it away at the beginning of the fourth quarter, just long enough for Stanford to take advantage and win a game in which they were out-played.

That's the way sports goes sometimes. It's definitely never fair. Teams can win that don't deserve it that day.

Yes, UCLA was so close. And you were probably already making premature Rose Bowl plans, and it's tough to erase that dream from your mind once it was there.

But again, step back, re-set your perspective and remember where you were and how you felt 11 months ago. Heck, just three months ago.

And where you are -- and your UCLA program -- are now.

Yes, it would have been sweet for Mora to take UCLA to the Rose Bowl in his first year as head coach. It would have been almost surreal for UCLA to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 14 years. It would have been nice to buy all that Rose Bowl gear. It would have been like UCLA's Final Four in 2006, where you kind of had to pinch yourself when you saw "UCLA" as one of the four teams included on the Final Four banners flying around Indianapolis.

But, years from now, when you look back on this season you'll almost certainly remember it as a great accomplishment. Because it is abundantly clear the UCLA football program has turned the corner.

And after the depression over the game dissipates, you'll probably remember it as a positive memory. Really. Despite losing, UCLA out-played the #8-ranked team in the country, which earlier in the season out-played the #1 team in the country, Notre Dame. It out-gained Stanford 461 to 325. Only the #1-ranked team in the country, on its home field, limited Stanford to less yards (272). It gained a mind-blowing 284 rushing yards on the formidable Cardinal defense, which was routinely hailed as having the best front seven in the country. Really, at this point in the season, with how far Mora and his staff has taken these Bruins, UCLA could probably play just about anyone in the country tough. This game should be remembered as the one where UCLA earned the rep as being a legitimate national player.

Even though a Rose Bowl berth would have resonated deeply in recruiting, this game will go a long ways toward UCLA's future. It givs UCLA cred with recruits. You can't now rationalize that the USC win was a fluke, that the Bruins merely took advantage of a USC team that turned over the ball and gave the game to UCLA. Stanford didn't give away anything Friday night, they didn't turn over the ball once, didn't make practically any mistakes, and the Bruins out-played them. UCLA was probably the less-talented team, but they were better on this night. That kind of stuff goes a long way with recruits -- with them recognizing that UCLA now has some real coaching. This was a team that was out-played a week ago by Stanford and then, mostly because of the coaching adjustments, out-played the Cardinal -- the better team -- six days later. That's, really, miraculous. How is it possible that UCLA goes from getting out-gained and pretty clearly out-played last Saturday to then out-gaining and out-playing the same, beter team six days later? Coaching has to be about 90% of that equation. Mora and his staff, even despite the poor decisions we noted above, did a miraculous job of coaching and preparing for this game. For recruits, it won't matter that UCLA didn't go to the Rose Bowl that much, but that the UCLA coaching staff proved it has some big-time chops. Not only in drawing up a gameplan that turned around the Bruin-Cardinal match-up in six days to get it tilted toward UCLA, but they completely got the best out of this team, to dramatically over-achieve on the season.

This game is a putting-it-in-perspective achievement. Realize some things. Stanford is a top-1o program, the equivalent of which Mora's program wants to become. The Cardinal started their renaissance five years ago, under Jim Harbaugh. In his first season at Stanford they went 4-8. Second season: 5-7. Then 8-5 and 12-1, and then under David Shaw, who has been good -- and smart - enough to keep it going: 11-2 and 11-2. UCLA, comparatively, is in its first year of such a renaissance, but instead of 4-8 or even 5-7, UCLA posted a 9-4 record. That's actually skipping ahead a couple of steps. It's like I said, Mora is kind of a college football coaching savant. He accelerated the process, considerably. Remember, the UCLA players have only been in their new offensive and defensive schemes under the new coaches for less than a year. You could see over the course of this season even how they improved so much by getting more familiar with the schemes. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks went from a confused, tackle-missing weak spot on the field to literally the team's most indispensible defensive player, worthy of all- conference honors. The coaches even had to get to know their players -- get to know guys like Damien Holmes, Andrew Abbott, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and, of course, Anthony Barr -- and see them in game situations to recognzie what were the best ways to utilize them. This defense went from a pretty questionable one at the beginning of the season to one you have confidence in to create third downs and get stops. There are very few long runs from scrimmage now, and more stuffs this season than UCLA fans have seen in the past ten seasons combined. On offense, the team hasn't even gotten that deep into Noel Mazzone's playbook. Even though freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is a little bit of a savant himself, his inexperience limits the playcalling. He simply doesn't see the entire picture at times. And if you're talking about talent, UCLA clearly pulled off this season without a great wide receiver, and with an offensive line consisting of three freshmen. Again, put that in perspective: If UCLA had put an offense on the field with three freshman offensive linemen anytime in the last 13 years it would have been the stuff of Bruin nightmares. But Offensive Line Coach Adrian Klemm actually put together a serviceable offensive line, one that did enough for this offense to be ranked 24th in the country. Imagine what it might be like a couple of years down the road, when Klemm has considerably more talent, and al of it competing for playing time, and it's experienced and seasoned? There's a basic tenet of football: The offensive line, even moreso than a quarterback, determines how good your football team is. If you have a dominant offensive line, your offense is going to be good, no matter how good your quarterback is, and if it's good it's going to keep your defense off the field, and it won't matter how good they are. UCLA has just emerged from the darkest era of Bruin offensive lines. Klemm will bring in upward of eight freshman offensive linemen with the 2013 class, some of which are more talented than the players he has on the starting OL right now. Just fantasize a little how good UCLA's offensive line is going to be once it truly gets it roling under Klemm. There is a good chance that, within a relatively short span of time, UCLA could have the type of scary, dominant offensive line that is the key to winning national championships.

UCLA was the better team in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game than its top-ten-ranked opponent, and it did it with limited talent. Again, perspective. Look at it this way: Jim Harbaugh's first-year Cardinal team wouldn't have stood a chance of even staying on the field against Shaw's 2012 Cardinal team. UCLA's equivalent team, with the benefit of its savant coach, was the better team and out-played them.

And again, this is, realistically, just the beginning. It's only going to get better.

If you're a recruit and you watched UCLA this season, and you watched the Pac-12 Championship game, you'd have to see a rare opportunity.

UCLA's administration, too, simply better step up and pay Mora and his staff. You've found the savant and he's accomplished what is a miraculous job in his first season as a college football coach. After flailing around with a series of pretenders you've found the guy. This would be the biggest, massive fail in the annals of UCLA sports if the UCLA administration didn't corral the cash to keep Mora and his guys in Westwood.

We've taked about perspective and takeaways after just about every game for the last 14 seasons. From the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game you can take away the most pronounced perspective ever in that time: UCLA football is now in the national discussion. With its performance Friday night, it freakishly teleported itself from just turning the corner to an unfathomable distance down the road. To really dig up an old Bruin Report Online axiom, it appears the Sleeping Giant has awakened.

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