What a Difference Two Weeks Make

After two consecutive losses, the criticisms and second-guessing emerge, but college football is about winning, and if UCLA and Jim Mora get more wins they have the power to erase it all...

The fallout from Oregon-Ground-Zero has pretty much landed in two familiar camps: the loyalists and the not-quite-loyalists. The former, despite these last two killer losses, see light at the end of the tunnel if this, that, and the other thing changes. The latter see something more threatening, find this scene too familiar, too “Groundhog Day” if you will. There is a tiny third group who have chosen to back off a bit, maybe even find some dark humor in such extraordinary week-to-week goings-on as we’ve witnessed lately, yet still remain involved enough, curious enough, to watch all the games and, of course, risk being temporarily bummed. But soon enough, it’s on to the next game. (The players and coaches aren’t the only people who have a 48-hour rule.) Like a compellingly good read, they’re anxious to see what happens next which, in this case, is the Cal game in Berkeley. So whadda yah think? Should be a “ball burner.”

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We should’ve been more concerned with that freight train bearing down on us from Oregon. As it turns out, rumors of a dead Duck were greatly exaggerated. (You don’t hunt the Duck, the Duck hunts you.) And some other signs were a little off-putting: Virginia and Memphis had not been good news, and Texas was mostly the triumphant drama of the Neuheisels, father and son. But the Arizona State experience trumped everything, particularly if you overlooked the horrendous yardage totals the Bruins gave up (and are still giving up). But with all those 80-yard long-gainers, who wanted to dwell on the negative? Coming out of a long, hot summer, this was a tall, cool drink of water. (Hey, maybe Bercovici was the second coming of Dan Marino.) Clearly we gulped it down too fast – easy to do when you’ve been in the sun too long. Anyway, reality descended, and nineteen seconds into the fourth quarter, UCLA fans were streaming out to the parking lots. What a revolting development this turned out to be.

Actually, the Bruins had earned a conditional reprieve just before halftime. After one more bumbling start, UCLA climbed into the game on Brett Hundley’s sixteen-yard scramble: 21-10, and the Bruins receiving the second-half kickoff… shades of Nebraska last year. (Have you noticed how the Bruins so often throw a damper on your halftimes with their usual slow starts? Such are the wages of loyalty to this remarkably unlucky program.) Hundley opens the third quarter with two accurate slant passes for two first downs, then scrambles for what should’ve been a first down. But he dives prematurely. Second-and-one and it’s another zone read stuffed. Third-and-two and Hundley comes up short by less than a yard. Jim Mora doesn’t even hesitate. Out comes the punt team: “Here comes the Maserati, Marcus Mariota, and the Oregon offense. Indeed… Oregon scores three straight touchdowns after which the Bruins score three near meaningless ones. Cue soundtrack: one more door being slammed in the face of UCLA football.

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The pressure looks to be getting to Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. We’ll never know the exact words Mora and Ulbrich exchanged, but Ulbrich’s actions were obviously out of line, and, if appearances and post-game apologies are to be believed, it’s already water under the bridge, though not for the media, which will likely squeeze a few more days out of it. The more important question is what to do with Ulbrich’s infernally inept defense. Hopefully he’ll get some help fast.

Mora has pretty successfully planted the idea that one game is no more important than another. It’s a useful idea, but it flies in the face of human nature, particularly with young athletes. “This was definitely one of those games that could shift the perception of the program,” said Miles Jack. “It was what we worked for, one of those program-changing games. When you think of top Pac-12 teams, you think of Oregon and Stanford. Games like this are what flips the script.” Yeah, and that’s a problem here given recent history, the power of the media, national perceptions and the presence of the “Final Four” (not that the Bruins have a realistic shot at the latter). First on the agenda should be regaining respectability and once again erasing that underachieving “soft” label which has resurfaced with a vengeance.

UCLA has now tumbled out of the Top 25, all the way from a #7 or #8 pre-season. Jack continued, “We’re still in the hunt. If we find a way to get to the conference championship game then we will have ascended.” Of course he’s talking about winning out. Right now that seems unlikely, but they do have a couple of winnable road games coming up at Cal and at Colorado. If they can manage those hurdles then we can start talking about each succeeding game as it comes. The players seem to like the idea of playing from behind, backs to the wall. Perhaps it will loosen them up. But if they truly have their eyes set on elite status, they’ll have to embrace winning from in front.

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It seems to me Brett Hundley has always had “special handling.” The local (even some national) media have gone out of their way to praise him. Whenever he’s asked even a slightly penetrating question, he blithely ignores it, as if he hadn’t even heard. Even for a jock celebrity this is exceptional. I used to compare him to Rodney Peete because of his confidence, because you could never get him down. Now his slipperiness isn’t only confined to the field. With the exception of his great ASU performance, he hasn’t looked anything like a Heisman candidate, and even in Tempe he had all sorts of time to throw. We all know his weaknesses. They’ve been rehashed here over and over. Now he has seven more games to work them out and be mentioned in the same class as Mariota (and some others). For the benefit of the team, I hope he works them out.

*****


Jim Mora’s world seems to have changed some since Utah and Oregon. The Bruins had returned home after road wins at Texas and ASU. They certainly lost some luster in the Utah loss but they were getting Oregon in the Rose Bowl and all would be forgotten with a victory there. (They were only a three-point dog, after all.) But oh, what an egg the Bruins laid. Much worse than the smaller egg they laid the week before. The Bruins are now the most conservative team in the conference save Stanford. And the Trees play the role more convincingly. Ever since Hundley’s elbow injury, are we perhaps seeing the sharper edges of Mora’s personality? I suppose it’s that famous passion, the stuff that makes him so popular, the everyman business, the straightforwardness, the sincerity of everything he says and does. The fans still overwhelmingly approve, but the cranks are beginning to stir. Some chinks in his armor are beginning to show. One hopes it’s all a temporary setback. A snip here, a dropped stich there, and perhaps we can begin to forget the last two miserable weeks. Big wins, done with great style, are what college football is all about - something like what Oregon did to the Bruins, or UCLA did to ASU. If things were ever to go completely south (remember this is UCLA football we’re talking about) I think what I would miss most is Mora’s creatively profane way with words… certainly not, at this point, his choice of coordinators.

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