Jim Mora (Photo: Steve Cheng)

Stanford Game Looms Large for Jim Mora's Program

Sep. 23 -- There have been other games called the biggest of the Jim Mora era at UCLA, but looking at this one Saturday against Stanford, this is really the one -- again...

We’ve labeled many games of the Jim Mora Era the biggest game of the Jim Mora Era.

At the time, they were.

Right now, the game this Saturday against Stanford clearly is.

http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/1596457-subscribe-to-bruin-repor... Mora is in his fifth year, and has had good success at UCLA.   When he took over in 2012, he turned around what was a moribund UCLA program for the 10 previous years, changed the program’s culture, recruited well, and put UCLA in the conversation as a consistent contender in the Pac-12 South.

Everyone would agree, however, that the “next step” has yet to be taken.

The next step is winning a Pac-12 Championship and, at least, getting in the serious national championship conversation (at the end of the season as opposed to the beginning of the season).

The roadblock is Stanford. 

The Cardinal, right now, is at the place that you would call UCLA’s “next step.”  Under David Shaw, who has been at Stanford one year longer than Mora at UCLA, the Cardinal have won four Pac-12 North titles and three Pac-12 Championships, and have been in the national championship conversation about as much as you can as a Pac-12 team. 

Stanford, in 2012, literally was the roadblock to UCLA winning the Pac-12 Championship.  UCLA had lost to Stanford the week before and the two teams then played again for the conference championship, with UCLA losing, 27-24, in what was a very winnable game for the Bruins. If we all would have known that it was going to be the one time UCLA got that close to beating Stanford and winning the Pac-12 Championship over the next several years we probably wouldn’t have believed it.

David Shaw (USA Today Sports Image)

Stanford, too, has gotten more dominant in the annual match-up, to the point last season it pretty much was a rout when Stanford ran over the Bruins, 56-35.   UCLA was ranked 18th at the time, and Stanford just 15th, and it was the second loss of the season for the Bruins, relegating UCLA to the unranked and nationally unconsidered.   It sent Stanford on an opposite trajectory, to ultimately end the season ranked #3 in the nation. 

Stanford, too, represents, at least to a degree, a program that is winning the right way and one the UCLA community approves of.  Sure, it lowered its admission standards for football under Shaw’s predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, but it still is the toughest program for a recruit to qualify for academically in the Pac-12 (with UCLA being second toughest).  It’s not USC or Oregon, which accepts any recruit who qualifies with the minimum NCAA standard academics (and probably some without it).  So, it’s a program that the UCLA community admires, doing things in a way that meet UCLA’s own standards.

And that probably makes the losing streak sting a little more.  Previously, UCLA always had its academic admissions standards as an excuse, the primary reason it couldn’t quite win at the highest level in college football.  But now Stanford has refuted that.  If Stanford can do it, with their admission standards, there’s no reason UCLA can’t. In fact, Stanford, in a way, has the program that many in the UCLA community feel UCLA should have. 

This game, too, will have impact on a national scale. Mora’s UCLA program has gotten a reputation for under-achieving, and just being not ready to take that next step into the national limelight.  The national media religiously pumps up the Bruins every pre-season, only to then openly regret doing it when UCLA doesn't ultimately live up to their expectations.

And the program that has stepped in and taken up the limelight that could very well be UCLA’s has been Stanford, and rightfully so. 

This all has to resonate deeply with every UCLA player and coach. Stanford undoubtedly has become a very personal game for UCLA.  There isn’t one player on UCLA’s roster that has beaten Stanford.  UCLA, under Mora, has lost to Stanford five times in four seasons.  On top of that, Stanford has topped UCLA eight times and seven years in a row.  UCLA's true freshman defensive tackle Boss Tagaloa was 10 years old the last time UCLA beat Stanford. The only UCLA player or coach who knows what it feels like to beat Stanford is UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure, who was director of on-campus recruiting under Rick Neuheisel in the 2008 season, which was the last time UCLA beat Stanford.

UCLA has suffered losses at the hands of the Cardinal and then watched on TV as Shaw and his players hoisted the Pac-12 Championship trophy – what they’ve failed to achieve so far in Mora’s tenure.  Mora has to seethe when he sees that dopey tree.  Heck, one of the primary reasons UCLA changed its offensive and defensive schemes for this season was to match up better against Stanford.

For UCLA, Stanford must be the Newman from "Seinfeld" for the UCLA program. Every player and coach must occasionally shake their first and say with disgust, “Stanford!” 

We don’t know, but we would bet that UCLA has been saving up some things for this game.  UCLA probably drew up the three game plans so far this season with one eye on the Stanford game, setting up some plays for this game.  You have to expect that we’ll see some wrinkles from UCLA that we haven’t seen yet this year.  

If UCLA loses this game convincingly, it stays relegated to the unranked and unconsidered, and in so many college football observers’ mind reinforces that UCLA just doesn’t have what it takes to get to that next level.  Also, Mora had unflagging support from the UCLA community in his first three seasons – up until last year’s disillusionment when the Bruins lost to USC and Nebraska to end the season, and did so in a demoralizing fashion.   If UCLA loses Saturday, only a Pac-12 Championship – and perhaps beating Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game – could restore enough luster to make up for it.  A loss, clearly, would be a considerable blow to the Mora era. Unlike the previous games we called the “biggest of the Mora era,” this is in Mora’s fifth season and there is less early-program optimism to buoy the UCLA community after such a Stanford loss.  This deep into the Mora era, the optimism meter is naturally running lower.    

Josh Rosen (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Let's say UCLA plays Stanford tough but loses. While it's not exactly a win, it's probably still one of those moral victories for Mora's program.  While it wouldn't resonate nationally, in the UCLA community it would indicate that UCLA is making up ground and is competitive with the flag-bearing pace-setter of the conference -- and reflect well juxtaposed next to USC's result against Stanford a week ago.  It also wouldn't dramatically hurt UCLA's chances to win the South and the Bruins could still possibly get that second shot at the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship. In other words, all would not be lost, with the season and the program. 

If UCLA wins this game, it could be a whole new world. The Bruins would be 3-1, would undoubtedly jump into the national rankings and, with its schedule, be the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 South.  Heck, if UCLA went on a winning streak, the one over-time loss against a ranked Texas A&M team in College Station would be in the category of a “good loss” on a resume of a team looking for post-season consideration.  To get the win Saturday, UCLA’s offense and defense will have to play well, and all of this will contribute to more opinions that Mora’s changes in his coaching staff, schemes and game-planning were critical and even brilliant.  It would mean that UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen had a great game, showing he can play at the highest level of college football and is capable of taking UCLA there. A win could fill up the optimism meter for Mora’s program once again.

A win against Stanford Saturday could be considered UCLA finally getting to the next level and, dare we say it, turning that proverbial corner.  


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