Who Are These Guys?

SEP. 17 -- The Texas game is one UCLA, just a few years ago, would have lost. But Jim Mora's program has a new attitude, one we haven't seen in Westwood since 1975...

Coach Jim Mora may disagree, but it’s not always the final score that takes the measure of a football program. Of course, you must first win the game. That’s understood. Winning puts you in the conversation, determines your right to sit at the Captains Table. Beyond that point, the question becomes how long can you hold onto your seat?

In my opinion Alabama, at the moment, is the Big Dog, the program that’s sustained excellence over the longest period of time… and vs. legitimate competition (BYU need not apply). Then Oregon, Florida State and Auburn, followed, in no particular order, by Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Baylor, LSU, Michigan State, Georgia and the Bruins. (Both SC and Stanford have taken a precipitous drop.) Call them the 11 Best 11s. And call UCLA the new boy - the program that’s come farthest in the shortest amount of time. Evidently, there are still doubters, and who can blame them considering how often UCLA has been the “dark horse” which inevitably disappoints, finishing way up the track. Professional pundits and national media types hate to be seen as getting it wrong. They think we’re all dying to hear their picks, which we’re not. Then again, picking college football games, particularly if you’re over-serious (and/or money is involved), is a great way to kill the pleasure of supporting a team… that is if you ever had a team.

Except for each succeeding game, I don’t worry much about the Bruins. But I do worry a lot during the course of each game. There were points in the Virginia, Memphis and Texas games that I thought the Bruins would lose to any one of them. Imagine how you would’ve felt losing to a three-touchdown underdog or to the “horribly depleted Longhorns.” That feels worthy of pulling-your-hair-out. That all three opponents may have been underrated, especially Texas, wouldn’t have softened the blow much. Mora, his staff and the team are not the only ones around here who have expectations. Anyway, it’s far too early to be worrying about post-season prospects, which won’t keep us from doing it. The Pac-12 is going to be brutal… hopefully, even for Oregon.

*****

I thought it was funny the way Jerry Neuheisel tried deflecting all the halftime uplift, all the talk about hanging in there, we’ve got your back, all that business. His response seemed like, come on guys, I am not Rudy! I can play this game. (I should admit I was scared for him.)

Noel Mazzone and Mora had been giving him a steady diet of conservative calls, quarterback “management” 101. Now, little by little, they began giving him more challenging stuff. The passes occasionally started coming out vertical instead of horizontal. The much-maligned offensive line began muscling the Longhorn front, seemed to have found something good on the left side. Finally there was even some deception: Neuheisel rolling right as Texas was looking for Myles Jack moving left, then found Nate lese on a pretty little touch pass. Big Nate looked as if he was playing the JV team. Suddenly, the Bruins were dominating, grinding on the Longhorn’s defensive front. Despite losing the only fumble of the game, despite losing 100 yards courtesy of the zebras, the Bruins took the second half, 17-7, and thus the game. The crowning moments were Ishmail Adams’ 45-yard punt return, Cameron Judge’s thunderous block springing Adams free and, of course, Neuheisel’s “pump ‘n go” to Jordan Payton. Jerry dropped it right in the bucket, and Jordan looked like he could’ve caught it blindfolded. Sometimes it pays not to have the strongest arm.

Was it during the post- game revelry that the sideline chick half-seriously wondered if there could be a “quarterback controversy?” Nah, she was just kidding.

*****

In the bad old days, the underperforming years, the Dark Ages, the Bruins would’ve lost this game. UCLA football used to tip toe up to greatness, then fall on its face. If it weren’t the officials, it was the secondary getting clowned by Lady Luck - two defensive backs running into each other, allowing the winning touchdown. Or O.J. taking that memorable, nightmare run through the entire Bruin defense. Or Wayne Cook running out the clock vs. Wisconsin in a January Rose Bowl game, Or an 8-0 UCLA team winning five thrillers in October, then soiling the season with a 52-14 hosing at Arizona and a 66-19 crucifixion in the Coliseum… that, and so much more. And people wonder about Battered Bruins Syndrome. This Texas game was the sort of game we became used to, dreaded when it came down to the nub: winning the hard way, losing heartbreakers, thanks for coming, thanks for playing, all that leftover, middle class, Victorian rubbish. Good riddance.

*****

I wouldn’t want to push it, all this “Goodbye To All That.” We’re only into year three of the new regime. Tommy Prothro went to the Rose Bowl and beat a legendary #1 Michigan State team in his first year. Red Sanders beat SC 39-0 in his second year. Dick Vermeil won 9 games, tied 1, and beat #1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl game. These are the Big Three that all UCLA football coaches will be measured by. There’s lots of “serious wood to be laid” between now and genuine elite status, but this team, these players especially, are something new in Westwood. It’s a new attitude we haven’t seen here since 1975.

Meanwhile, I guess we’ll all have to stew in our own juices until we see #17 warming up in Tempe. Either that or Neuheisel will have to do an encore.


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