Bruins Can't Finish

UCLA ends the season with a Shamu-like belly flop in losing to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl, 49-26. The question is: How big of an impact will this game have on the program?

The review of this game needs to start with the sentiment that I know every Bruin fan watching the game was thinking:

How about calling a screen?

Okay, got that out of the way.

UCLA laid a huge egg in the Holiday Bowl, 49-26, to finish with a loss embarrassing enough it takes some luster off an otherwise successful season.

It didn't take all of the luster off the season. But it's certainly not shining as much as it was just a matter of a couple of days ago.

Perhaps it's Battered Bruin Syndrome, but most Bruin fans are feeling that the College Football Gods just couldn't give Bruin fans an ultimately good feeling about a football season.

The College Football Gods aren't really to blame, however. The football program is. One of the things that the football staff emphasized all year was to "finish," and that's not the way you do it. The players didn't finish the season, and neither did the staff.

That was was a badly played and badly coached game. The team was clearly not prepared. Was it that the team and the staff didn't take the bowl game entirely seriously? We had a little bit of an inkling of that. We don't have enough information to really make that assertion completely, but there wasn't the same sense of urgency at the bowl practices as there was leading up to the USC game and the Pac-12 Championship against Stanford. The feeling from the program was that the Holiday Bowl was, well, just a holiday in San Diego. Over the course of the season, we perceived at times that the staff was over-confident, in its scheme and the capability of its players, and that got it into some problems in terms of gameplan and personnel usage. That felt like a factor in this game and its preparation, too. Regardless of why, when UCLA took the field Thursday, it was certainly clear the team wasn't ready to play, either with a good mental approach or armed with an effective game plan.

It reminded you a bit of the Cal game in Berkeley, when the team looked like it just wasn't comfortable on the field, and what the coaching staff was attempting to do with its game plan didn't match the game, and then had very little and very late adjustments.

It certainly didn't even resemble the program that, just a few weeks ago, looked like it was laser-focused to play against USC and Stanford. You could see and sense a hunger. In this game, the team appeared more like they were fat and happy after a big holiday meal.

I guess they'll have to print more t-shirts in the off-season that say "Finish."

It was a confluence of different factors that contributed. There was definitely a lack of urgency and hunger. The offensive game plan was particularly head-scratching. Quarterback Brett Hundley finished 2012 with perhaps his worst performance of the season, and then if you combine that with UCLA losing 2 1/2 starters on the offensive line that was enough to give Baylor a considerable advantage.

It's just too painful and nauseating to get into too much analysis of what went wrong offensively. But even though UCLA's defense gave up 49 points, the responsibility of the loss is laid at the feet of UCLA's offense. UCLA's defense had to go up against the #1 offense in the country, so its performance was in the realm of what you might have expected. But UCLA's potent offense completely failed against the second-worst defense in the nation. The game was billed as a shootout, but UCLA came to the yard without a gun. How could you anticipate that the offense that gained 284 yards on the ground against Stanford, the #3 rushing defense in the country, would gain just 33 yards against Baylor's rush defense, which was 89th in the country and giving up an average of 190 yards per game? Let that sink in: UCLA gained 284 yards on the ground against Stanford, but just 33 yards against Baylor. That's like UCLA's running game getting shut down by Hawaii, Middle Tennessee or New Mexico State, all of which are giving up less less rushing yards per game than Baylor. How could you expect that UCLA would allow six sacks against a team that had 13 previously on the season? 32% of the sacks Baylor got on the season they got against UCLA. That's like getting overwhelmed by the pass rush of Wyoming, Akron or Navy, all of which have better pass rushes than Baylor. It's inexplicable. Yes, some of it is due to UCLA's loss of the offensive line starters. But it just can't be the only reason for such an epic offensive fail. This was clearly an epic offensive scheme fail. Baylor's defensive coaches had a far superior game plan from the outset of the game. They came into this with about the same caliber of defense as Arizona, the team that UCLA ran up 66 points and 611 yards on. But UCLA's offensive scheme made them look like Alabama. Here's the thing, too: Once it was clear UCLA couldn't provide adequate pass protection, the UCLA offensive brain trust continued to call plays as if it were. The match-up wasn't going as expected, okay,we get that, but UCLA's offensive coaches couldn't handle that curve ball. After UCLA lost its OL starters and Baylor was easily getting to Hundley, the play-calling needed an adjustment, as in some plays that compensated for it.

Like a screen. Maybe just one. We know it's in the playbook, we've seen it this season. Like Hundley tucking and running, by design. Like a zone read. A bubble screen. Definitely less pass plays that required play action and a pump fake.

If there's one aspect of Noel Mazzone's offense that we can say we clearly don't care for is the fact that it never moves the launch point. At least by design. In this game, Hundley kept taking conventional drops, even after it was clear his pocket would collapse like a house of cards. That's just plain stubborn, and not adjusting accordingly to maximize your team's ability. It's like in basketball insisting on playing a man defense when you have a team that's clearly better suited for a zone.

Silver lining: Perhaps the impression of Mazzone's offense in this game will dampen the interest of any prospective program that was interested in hiring Mazzone as a head coach. It wouldn't be fair, of course, since Mazzone's offense and playcalling is generally very good, but there have been some gameplanning hiccups this season, in probably four of UCLA's 14 games. And it's s shame that UCLA's offense concluded the season by hiccuping all over Jack Murphy Field Thursday.

Hundley didn't have a good night. He didn't throw the ball well for the most part, clearly didn't see some open receivers, made bad decisions on getting rid of the ball, and didn't take advantage of some scrambling opportunities. He threw for 329 yards, but he threw the ball 52 times, and completed just 50% of his throws. The performance enabled Hundley to set the UCLA single season passing record for yards at 3,740, surpassing Cade McNown's record from 1998 of 3,470, which Hundley definitely earned this season. But it was an unbefitting way of setting the record, in a high-provile game where he played poorly.

It was a tragedy that this is the game Johnathan Franklin, one of the most respected Bruins in recent memory, has to experience as his last in his UCLA career. Luckily the 194 yards Franklin gained against Stanford a few weeks ago, when he looked like Superman doing it, is a far more vivid and emblematic memory of Franklin as a Bruin that can't be supplanted.

This game does cast at least a little doubt about the UCLA program, and the strides it's made this season. You thought that the UCLA football culture had changed, that Mora had instilled a different mentality and approach to the game. There is still enough evidence that that's true, but this game was bad enough that it allows a little bit of doubt to creep in. And that's a horrible thing, as a fan, to have creeping into your mind as you embark on a long off-season. And it's especially a horrible thing to have creep into the mind of recruits. The coaching staff can certainly spin this to recruits, claiming that the Holiday Bowl was a clear indication that UCLA needs an upgrade in talent, and you, five-star recruit A, you're the missing piece to the puzzle. If you're an elite defensive back prospect and you were watching that game you have to think you have a very good chance of starting next season as a true freshman. Heck, you might have started this season. But that pitch would be quite a bit more compelling if UCLA had finished the season with the performance it put in against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and then it had been at least competitive against Baylor. That would have upheld the notion that there was now, indeed, a hunger and a killer instinct in the program.

That it could finish.

Now the coaching staff will have to sit down in many living rooms over the course of the next five weeks before Signing Day and convince recruits of it, having to overcome the last impression those recruits have of the 2012 Bruins. Most recruits, like fans, will probably lay the responsibility of this game at the feet of the coaching staff. When a team comes as ill-prepared to play in a game like this, in terms of its intensity and focus as well as its gameplan, you have to look to the coaching staff. So, Mora will have some 'splaining to do.

It's not appropriate to over-react, and believe this will dramatically damage UCLA's recruiting, but it does make the pitch a little more speculative, with recruits having to take a little bit bigger leap of faith.

Perhaps, too, the game was a gift from the College Football Gods, in terms of making Mora look quite a bit more human, and less attractive to any prospective suitors. How's that for a positive spin?

Since recruits will have to take a little bit bigger leap of faith, we think that Mora has, through the course of this season, earned the fans support in also taking a little bit bigger leap with him, too. The poor showing in the Holiday Bowl is regrettable, and horribly timed, leaving a lasting taste for the off-season that wasn't indicative of how good the season tasted for the most part. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the program under Mora not quite being there yet. As we said after the first loss to Stanford, the program turned the corner, but it certainly hasn't arrived at its destination.

Hopefully one year very soon the program will have come far enough that it will be able to cap off a season in style.

It still needs to learn how to finish.


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