It was one of those devastating type of games.
It was the type that hadn’t really happened in the Jim Mora era. But it happened Thursday night against Stanford, with the Cardinal thoroughly beating up on UCLA, 56-35.
It’s the type of game that has fans wondering about the state and direction of the program. And you’re entitled – because it was a game in which your team looked completely over-matched in almost every phase.
And it comes right after (well, with a bye in between) UCLA got beat pretty badly by ASU, so questions about this UCLA team are natural. UCLA started out the season with top-ten and even possibly College Football Playoff expectations, so the last two games are tough to take when they are absolutely crushing those expectations.
It almost makes it worse, too, that this time around it was the UCLA defense that was the true weak link. Two weeks ago it was the offense against ASU, but Thursday against Stanford it was the defense that got run off the field. Literally. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey set a Stanford record for most rushing yards in a game with 243.
It was the most points ever scored against a Mora-coached UCLA team.
There are some things that have to be mentioned, if we’re going to be completely fair. UCLA has suffered season-ending injuries from three defensive starters; it suffered some more injuries in this game, too, that compounded the losses; and the officiating in the game was absolutely atrocious, and really hurt UCLA in critical times in the first half when the momentum was still a bit in question.
But despite the injuries, UCLA still was easily comparable in talent with Stanford in terms of the players it did field. And the penalties did have an effect on the game, but probably weren’t enough to affect the outcome.
So, there are questions.
The problem is that there aren’t clear answers.
After three and a half years of not being able to get over the Stanford hump, the predominant question is: Does Mora have the schemes UCLA needs to beat Stanford? Can you attribute it to being under-manned, or is it the scheme?
The data is stacking up. UCLA has lost to the Cardinal all five times under Mora, and the program is getting no closer to figuring out how to match-up with them. In fact, you could say it’s getting further away if the last two games against the Cardinal (this one and the devastating 31-10 loss in the Rose Bowl last year that dashed UCLA’s Pac-12 South Championship hopes) are any indication.
This time there were some injuries on defense going into the game. But wouldn’t a superior game plan have compensated for the loss of key players on defense? It seems that UCLA didn’t alter its defensive scheme very much Thursday. There weren’t any perceivable tweaks. It appeared that UCLA, again, believed, given the personnel it had at its disposal, that essentially the same defensive game plan we’ve seen UCLA attempt against Stanford before was sufficient to get a win.
On one hand, there are UCLA fans who are going a bit irrational on the BRO Premium Message Board after the loss. But even the most balanced view would draw a conclusion that UCLA under Mora just isn’t armed with the right defensive scheme to beat Stanford. And if you combine that with the points we raised after the ASU game, the question, then, becomes: Does Mora have good enough schemes on either side of the ball to take UCLA to the next level of success in college football?
We’ve repeatedly stated the obvious about Mora’s program, that he’s brought UCLA to a high level of success, particularly when you (shudder) remember the Dark Era of the two coaching staffs that preceded him.
UCLA fans should be grateful, just like we pointed out in the editorial Wednesday on BRO. Mora has given UCLA an elite coach in so many ways: his CEO-like leadership; his classy representation of the university; how he’s changed the culture of the program to one of toughness, hard work and dedication; an elite level of recruiting, and so much more. All of those elements are in place for the program to go to the next level.
But being grateful as UCLA fans also doesn’t preclude you from wanting to see UCLA get to the next level of success under Mora. And after a game like this, it seems very evident that there needs to be some degree of analysis and evaluation about how to do that. Mora’s program is at another crossroads and that is: Are both his current offensive and defensive schemes good enough to get that job done?
And as a result, figure out Stanford.
You’d have to say, too, the rate that UCLA commits penalties is another element that needs to be taken to the next level. As we said, the officiating was poor against Stanford, but there were still an excessive amount of calls that were legitimate and back-breaking.
Thursday’s loss to Stanford is the type of loss that can only be erased from the collective memory if the rest of the season is, well, excellent. UCLA would need to probably go undefeated through the remainder of its schedule to erase the memory. If it did that, the Stanford game would then legitimately be an aberration rather than the norm. At the end of the season, you would think back on it and appropriately attribute it to a game where UCLA’s injuries and penalties, and some bad officiating, were the primary forces in an aberration on the season.
UCLA has a chance to do that, to redeem itself, and redeem its schemes to a degree. It will have to show, even with its injuries, it has the better scheme on both sides of the field against its remaining opponents.
If not, upgrading the schemes is something that has to be on the table at the end of the season.
Looking at the bigger picture, projecting the program over the next couple of years, UCLA should have superior talent. Josh Rosen, despite the one bad interception, played an exceptional game against the Cardinal. He clearly is an elite talent, and will probably be among the small handful of the best quarterbacks in the country over the next two years – a Heisman Trophy-level talent. There is a very high-level of talent around him, too – easily enough to have UCLA competing at a top-ten level nationally and potentially knocking at the door of the College Football Playoffs. It will be a matter of whether UCLA has the offensive and defensive schemes to harness that talent.