UCLA's Magic is Real

NOV. 22 -- The Bruins ran over USC, 38-20, in the Rose Bowl Saturday night, physically dominating the Trojans, and UCLA Head Coach Jim Mora is clearly after bigger things...

One time is potentially random.

Twice is possibly a fluke.

Three times is domination.

On Saturday, UCLA laid a pretty good stake to the claim that it owns L.A., thoroughly beating USC for the third straight year, 38-20.

All is good.

Wherever you go in Los Angeles, Bruin fans, you now can again feel like you own it. And it’s completely cumulative, this ownership. Three times is practically like paying-off-the-mortgage ownership.

And the win was absolutely no fluke. Even after Brett Hundley threw a pick-six on his first pass of the night, and you thought it could be a night of Bad Brett, once you watched a couple of series, just about every Bruin in the house said to themselves, “We got this.”

BBS (Battered Bruin Syndrome) is officially cured, by the way. And Jim Mora is the Jonas Salk of BBS. If there’s anything that’s close to a BBS vaccine it’s that game Saturday and the two UCLA-USC games preceding it.

We know BBS is cured because you, indeed, did mutter to yourself, “We got this.” If you had BBS you would have been overwhelmed with worry that UCLA was going to somehow concede the game to the Trojans. So, the fact that you didn’t (for the most part) proves BBS is dead.

And thanks to walk-on receiver Sam Handler, so is the sword-stabbing of the Rose Bowl field. Handler, nicknamed Sunshine by his teammates, stood on the UCLA logo before the game and wouldn’t allow the guy in the Halloween Trojan outfit to stab the field with his play sword, and then Handler was escorted off the field by security. Handler, then, after the game, can be seen in the post-game celebration video, with “Three-Peat” written into his abs. Handler has earned a place in the book of UCLA folk heroes. We suspect, too – and this is completely speculation – that the micro-managing, all-encompassing head coach might have been the idea man behind Handler.

In the game, UCLA was clearly the better team, and it wasn’t close. The Bruins are practically a different team from when we first saw them back in August and early September, having developed in just about every facet of the game.

And like we said, it wasn’t a great night for Hundley. He’s thrown some gems recently and, comparatively, it was just a decent but not great game for him. So, if someone had told you when UCLA was 4-2, coming off those two losses to Utah and Oregon, that UCLA would dominate USC on a night when Hundley wasn’t his sharpest and be poised to win the Pac-12 South Championship, you would have gotten out your BBS and beaten that person with it.

Hundley put up some great numbers, 22 of 31 for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns, with one rushing TD, against that one interception. But again, the offensive scheme is very forgiving. Hundley did make some key throws, but he missed a few, too, and came close to throwing a few other picks. It’s a testament to how far this team has come in a couple of months that it can play so dominantly with Hundley just being okay. We said a few weeks back that the remainder of the season was mostly about Hundley, and whether he’d be able to play well, and we completely take that back and admit we were wrong. This team has gotten so good in so many ways that whether it wins or loses – or dominates in a win – doesn’t depend entirely on Hundley.

I’m sure Hundley is relieved a bit. That’s a heavy burden to carry. And you can easily see that he’s had some of that burden relieved in the way he plays. If there’s been one key to the season turnaround (if we can call it that), it’s that Hundley obviously feels so much more protected in the pocket now than he did a month ago. The touchdown throw he made to Eldridge Massington in the third quarter would have never happened in early October – in which Hundley stayed in the pocket, with his eyes up, with the pocket collapsing a bit, and he stepped and threw a strike.

Conor McDermott (Steve Cheng, BRO)
Give credit to Hundley, of course, but there can’t be enough credit given to UCLA’s offensive line and particularly the catalyst of the offensive line’s emergence – left tackle Conor McDermott. Yes, pass protection has many layers to it, but when McDermott was inserted into the line-up for the Cal game the team has been different since. If you don’t think an offensive lineman can make that big of an impact, here are the Ripples of McDermott: At about a 99% clip, McDermott locks down the right defensive end and protects Hundley in his blind side; the rest of the offensive line becomes stabilized in pass protection; it enables the running backs to more easily pick up a blitz; Hundley feels more comfortable and trust his pass pro; Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone now can utilize his scheme the way it was designed, with the quarterback being able to stay in the pocket and make progressions; UCLA’s offense is now dynamically multi-dimensional, and opposing defenses struggle to scheme against it and are on their heels; the offense scores more and takes the pressure off UCLA’s defense; the defense, now with more security, can take a little more risk and Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich dials up more pressure, using more blitzes and stunts; the defense gets more negative plays, and it stops down more drives and…

UCLA dominates and wins.

Pretty simple. While you can’t, obviously, attribute the team’s entire growth soley to McDermott, you can attribute a pretty good chunk of it to him. And here’s some big news that’s going to literally make every UCLA fan reading this get out of their chair and jump in the air. We’re hearing that there’s a very good chance McDermott is granted another year of eligibility because he sat out the majority of his first two seasons due to injury. In other words, McDermott can probably be considered a redshirt freshman. Are you in the air right now?

The offensive MVU (Most Valuable Unit) of the USC game, however, was probably the wide receivers. They were absolutely fantastic, not only getting wide open with no drops, but they saved Hundley’s butt a number of times on sketchy throws. While Mossi Johnson has been emerging for about a month, you could probably make the case that this was a bit of a coming-out party for him, getting 5 catches on the night and being a man after the catch. One receiver screen to him in the third quarter was one of the best receptions of the year, when he was caught behind the line of scrimmage, broke some tackles, squeezed through a small opening and gained 22 yards for a first down – and then was facemasked at the end. Mossi is a Man. Devin Fuller, too, probably had his best YAC of his career in this game. When the not-so-good Brett shows himself in the beginning of the game, Mazzone goes to his not-so-good-Brett offense, which consists of short, horizontal passes and the run game. For a long time in this game you could have easily called it, with Mazzone running Paul Perkins and then throwing a receiver screen to Devin Fuller over and over. The fact that USC’s defense couldn’t defend it was astounding since everyone in the building knew what Mazzone was going to do. We, up in the press box, practically should have headsets since we were calling the game play-by-play. So even with the defense keying on Fuller, he did well to break tackles, particularly one play in the second quarter where he gained 31 yards by running hard after the catch. Jordan Payton was his usual stud self, Thomas Duarte had two big catches, one for a 57-yard touchdown. And Devin Lucien got wide open a couple of times, one for a 10-yard touchdown pass. And again, there were some key catches that could have very well have been disastrous.

Mossi Johnson (Steve Cheng, BRO)

Give it up to Paul Perkins, who bested his USC counterpart, Javorious Allen, to move ahead in the Pac-12 rushing race, with Perkins gaining 99 yards to Allen’s 60. On this night, it was pretty clear who was the the better running back. Perkins had one of his best runs of the season – and that’s saying something. He was caught behind the line, made his one move and then blew through a hole with would-be-tacklers bouncing off him for an 11-yard gain and a first down.

Mazzone, as we said, can sometimes over-compensate when he sees he has not-so-good Brett at the beginning of the game. It was pretty mind-blowing how he called the Perkins/Fuller offense for so long. A principle of Mazzone’s playcalling, though, is to set up plays for later in the game, and he did it in this game, too. He consistently ran Perkins in a conventional zone run time and time again. Then, really out of nowhere, after USC is conditioned into UCLA running around right end, Mazzone calls a counter, with the entire offensive line going right like it was the same conventional run call, but Perkins went left, and it resulted in a 10-yard touchdown run.

Defensively, every unit played exceptionally well. USC was held to 276 total yards, and actually gained about 50 of those yards in garbage time. The Bruins got six sacks, the most for a game this season. It held USC’s strong running game to 62 yards on 33 attempts – that’s 1.9 yards per attempt. USC’s offense averaged just 4.1 yards per play, which in the world of BRO’s statistical analyst, Alex Mokover, is really bad – or really good for the defense. The defensive line, particularly Eddie Vanderdoes, was huge; the linebackers might have played their best game as a unit, and while the secondary allowed a couple of big plays, they were also responsible for at least four of those sacks because they were coverage-forced. Against USC, Ulbrich went more with UCLA’s base defense of the 3-4, and that gave true freshman linebacker Kenny Young more time on the field, and more opportunity to shine. If there’s a guy on the field that looks like he’s gone so far beyond college football and is ready for the NFL it’s Eric Kendricks. It’s one thing to be able to scheme really well, and Ulbrich and his defensive coaches had USC’s defense sniffed out, but it’s another to have a guy like Kendricks who can execute that inside linebacker spot so well that the scheme works like it did Saturday. Kendricks seemed to know where the pass was going before USC quarterback Cody Kessler did. Deon Hollins had his best game as a Bruin, getting a sack, pressuring Kessler consistently into making bad decisions, and making some great plays all over the field.

The one element that has continued to emerge with this defense is how physical it is. When you add athletes who are hitters like Young and safety Tahaan Goodman, the hitting happens. Kendricks, too, has become a head hunter. If there was one aspect of the game in which UCLA clearly looked liked it was on a different level than USC it was in its physicality, and not just defensively, but offensively, on the offensive line and even down to the receiver blocking.

If there’s an indication that this team has developed it was that penalties weren’t a factor in the game. Through most of the game when it counted, UCLA had committed just two penalties, one on a USC extra point, and the other was a highly-questionable holding call on McDermott. UCLA, did, then, commit a flurry of penalties in garbage time, which essentially kept it from running up the score into embarrassing territory. But the lack of penalties, especially in a big, emotional game – the type previously when UCLA was flagged quite a bit – is another indication of considerable maturation for this team.

The team has definitely grown up. Our baby’s all groweds up. When it comes to the program having predominantly young players and suffering from youth and inexperience, you can definitely say, on this issue, UCLA has definitely turned the corner. From here on out, going into next year, UCLA is no longer a young team and all the trappings of youth might actually be behind Mora’s program.

The USC win puts UCLA even more firmly in the driver’s seat for a Pac-12 South Championship, in control of its destiny with one more game to go, against Stanford next Friday. It’s not a stretch to say UCLA has a realistic shot at the College Football Playoff if it were to beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, which is something that is imaginable now, given the type of football this team is playing.

So much has changed, and turned around. As it can always happen in sports, this team put some things together in the last month. You always hear coaches talking coach-speak about doing just that, and the vast majority of the time it doesn’t come to fruition. But sometimes magically it does. And this has been a magical run in the last month. It seems like every championship team needs a little magic on its side, and this team has that now. It might not be something as ethereal as magic, thoughl in the case of the Bruins, it has clearly been a more down-to-Earth matter of the team working hard – and as a result maturing and developing.

Three wins against USC in three years for Mora: If there’s anything that indicates things are different now and that Mora has proven himself as a winner on the college level that’s it. Well, at least for the fans, and not Mora himself. It’s not even the stat of potentially having another 10-win season, or potentially being the first team in UCLA history to get 11 regular-season wins, or have the team competing for the first College Football Playoffs. It’s the fact that Mora doesn’t get caught up in beating USC, that he treats it like another step in his conquest for bigger things. It projects the precise mindset of what it takes to make UCLA a true winner. The fact that Mora has been able to make the USC game just another game is the biggest indication that he truly is the savior of UCLA football.

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