In 2011, weeks before UCLA hired Jim Mora to helm the program, the Bruins lost 50-0 to USC. At the time, it felt like a number of things. Awful, certainly, for UCLA fans who'd been through the 12 losses to the Trojans in 13 years. But it also felt almost like a cleansing -- here, this is the ritual that needs to be completed for UCLA to rid itself of the Neuheisel. While nobody sane would watch that game again, two years into the Mora era, that 50-0 loss looked decidedly more necessary to give fans a competent football program.
Now, five years into the Mora era, UCLA is coming off another wildly uncompetitive loss to a surging USC team -- orders of magnitude "better" than 50-0, but given the context of where the two programs were as recently as nine games ago, not out of the realm of valid comparison. UCLA has now lost two straight to the Trojans under Clay Helton, and the game was less competitive this year than it was a year ago. There was no cleansing feeling to this one -- it was simply awful, through and through. And considering that just two seasons ago, UCLA was coming off of its third straight dominant win over the Trojans, there was an element of surreality as well.
Of course, there are some mitigating circumstances. UCLA maybe would have looked a little more competent offensively if Josh Rosen had played -- perhaps UCLA would have even generated a first down somewhere in the second quarter. But, then again, perhaps not. UCLA fundamentally broke its offense in the offseason, electing to go to a pro-style offense, and it is very clear now that UCLA never had the personnel to competently run that sort of offense. Pushing Noel Mazzone out was eminently justifiable. He had effectively stopped recruiting, and his game planning and play calling were both significant issues in the day-to-day running of the offense. But hiring a first-time play-caller to run an offense wholly different from what this team had played before -- an offense that UCLA had not recruited for in any meaningful way -- has been nothing short of disastrous.
It was particularly awful in this game, after the first quarter. UCLA's script to start the game was surprisingly effective, with varied runs and passes and even a fun trick play where Jordan Lasley took a lateral to throw across the field to Brandon Stephens. But once the script was done, sometime in the second quarter, the offense stagnated badly, with the same sort of issues that we've seen all year: inexplicable running back rotations, play calls that don't fit the personnel on the field, and virtually nothing but conventional drop backs in the passing game that left Mike Fafaul scrambling for much of the final three quarters of the game.
The effectiveness of the offense at the beginning of the game made it all worse, because it showed that with the proper mix of play-calling and personnel usage, even this disaster of an offense could be reasonably effective. When UCLA opened that first drive with Bolu Olorunfunmi and Jalen Starks, its two biggest and most powerful backs with the best chance of generating a push on their own, I let out an audible "ah-ha!" because I assumed that UCLA understood what we all have come to understand: UCLA's offensive line resembles a trash can, so it's necessary to run your biggest, most powerful downhill backs out there. Then, of course, UCLA rotated in Nate Starks and Sotonye Jamabo, proving that there was no essential plan, and then started running Olorunfunmi and Starks lateral to the line of scrimmage, proving that there was no rhyme or reason to any of the personnel usage.
The sequence that ended with a 4th and 1 punt near midfield with UCLA down 30-14 deserves special note. At the time, there were about seven minutes left in the third quarter, but UCLA's offense, which had been very bad for a quarter and a half, was finally generating some positive yardage, with Fafaul hitting Caleb Wilson on a couple of key receptions. Then, when UCLA got near midfield, the Bruins faced a 3rd and 2 and brought in J. Starks. Once again, I thought this meant that UCLA had some understanding of the situation, bringing in their 245 pound back to drive the ball upfield two times in a row to get the first down. I was wrong. Instead, UCLA ran J. Starks on a stretch play, which is an interesting utilization of a 245 pound power back, and he was obviously stuffed. Then, on 4th and 1 at the UCLA 46, down 16 points in a game that was quickly getting away from the Bruins, UCLA punted. It was a very bad decision by any reasonable mathematical standard, and if you subscribe to the notion of "feel" and "momentum", it was an even worse decision. It effectively surrendered initiative to the Trojans, who then went on, no joke, a 9:02 field goal drive, grinding UCLA's defense, which was already gassed, into a fine powder by the end of it.
That sequence was just so fundamentally bad, and so indicative of many of the issues that have plagued UCLA this year, that it doesn't even necessarily require additional explanation. UCLA has been sub-optimal on 4th down for most of the...well, recorded history, but certainly the Mora era as well. But this decision effectively surrendered the rivalry game to USC midway through the third quarter down by just two scores. That was legitimately bizarre.
Really, leaving aside the importance of the game for UCLA fans, this one resembled the way UCLA has performed much of the year, except this performance came against a significantly better team than any UCLA has faced this year (yes, USC looks a whole lot better than Texas A&M looked at the beginning of the year). It was a completely nondescript offensive effort, and while the defense played hard and well for a good period of the game, they ran out of gas. Against this team, given the ineptitude of the offense and the quality of USC's offense, the defense ran out of gas earlier than in other games this year, but even still, the Bruins had timely turnovers that would have given them a shot to be in the game if the offense had been anything above average.
We have to give shout outs to Takkarist McKinley, who has played like a warrior poet all season and was a gamer in this one. USC ran away from him so much that we have to think it was a really frustrating game to play in, but he still made an impact. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also flashed a bunch, and it's exciting to think what he'll look like next year, since he's developed each year. UCLA wasn't able to generate much of a pass rush because USC's offensive line is, simply put, very good, but it wasn't any fault in those two guys. Offensively, Lasley is clearly a potential star at receiver for the Bruins, and that's been clear for several games now (he's averaged 16.5 yards per catch on 26 catches over the last six games).
These two programs are very clearly moving in opposite directions at the moment. UCLA's star quarterback just spent half the season on the sideline with a throwing shoulder injury, while USC's star quarterback is a redshirt freshman who is drawing not-crazy comparisons to a variety of star NFL quarterbacks. USC's offensive line is mostly juniors, and unless they all make decisions to leave, they'll be very tough to play against next year as well; UCLA's offensive line might get slightly better next year, but the Bruins really need to consider hitting the grad transfer market hard again. The Trojans' defense, under Clancy Pendergast, will very likely be a top 25 unit again next year, regardless of personnel losses; UCLA's could easily take a step back, with three key players in the secondary graduating, Jayon Brown leaving, and Takkarist McKinley and, most likely, Eddie Vanderdoes both moving on as well.
This is all somewhat reversible, of course. UCLA could close strong on the 2016 class to help replenish the talent, and then the Bruins could also make some significant changes on the offensive side of the ball. At this point, that is necessary. Staying the course after putting together one of the most unwatchable offensive products in recent memory should simply be off the table as an option. This offensive line is not going to be so significantly better next year that UCLA can attempt to run this same style of offense again. And the amount of fan apathy that will surround the program if UCLA's offense is that bad again is not something that's fun to consider. Being bad is one thing; being unwatchable is another. Fixing the offense has to be the No. 1 offseason priority, with whatever No. 2 is pretty far down the priority chain.
But it is fair to consider whether UCLA has missed its USC-being-weak window, though. Like we said up top, the Trojans look like the best team UCLA has played this year, and while we think all the playoff talk is a little wacky (the games at the beginning of the season count, too!), we've watched enough college football this year to say that USC is playing better than all but a few teams in the entire country. It is very much ending like that 2002 USC team that went to the Orange Bowl to kill Iowa, and looked like the best team in the country by the end of the year. And what happened after 2002 is not pleasant to consider.
So, UCLA can fix its own issues, and rebuild its offense, and get Rosen back healthy, and put together a complete team again next year. But contending with a USC that is back to performing up to its talent level on the field is not something Mora has had to do at UCLA, and it's going to be interesting to see how UCLA deals with that, especially coming off of a 4-8 or 5-7 season. If we have one overarching piece of advice, the coaching staff should approach the team as if it is a new staff, and consider this a rebuilding project. Analyze the personnel and assistant coaches from the ground up, and bring in an impartial analyst to provide their feedback. Then design schemes that make sense for that personnel, and bring in the necessary coaches to run them. UCLA's talent isn't bad, despite how lopsided the result was last night -- using the right schemes and playing the right players will go a long way toward fixing UCLA's issues.
UCLA is now 4-7, and thinking about it last night, this season will likely end up with the worst record since 2010, and likely the most disappointing year since 2007. That year, UCLA was a top 15 team to begin the year, and then finished with Karl Dorrell being fired en route to 6-7. UCLA was not picked as high as that this year, but the fall has been harder. The Bruins were expected to contend in the Pac-12 South -- instead, they'll finish 4th or 5th in the division. The Bruins, with Rosen, were expected, at least from a national perspective, to have one of the best offenses in the country -- instead, UCLA has arguably the worst rushing attack in the country. It is astounding to consider that as recently as the 2015 preseason, we were talking about UCLA as a dark horse playoff contender, and now we are talking about a 4-7 team that will end up starting a former walk-on at quarterback for six games.
Now UCLA moves on to the Who Cares Bowl to take on fellow 4-7 disappointment California, which is also fresh off of a defeat to its rival (congratulations on the scheduling, Pac-12!) Whether UCLA wins or loses, looks competent or not, plays hard or phones it in, barely matters. In theory, UCLA could make a bowl game as a 5-7 team, but we don't have the stomach to look at APR rankings on this Sunday morning. A demoralizing crap bowl game against some MAC team just doesn't quite get the juices flowing, and while the extra December practices would be nice, using December to recruit and really plan out a new offensive direction for next season would probably be the better utilization of time.
UCLA needs to nail this upcoming offseason to the tune of a deep and talented recruiting class, a revamped offensive attack, and a hard pursuit of any talented offensive linemen on the grad transfer circuit. The Bruins still have a lot of talent in the program, but the window for UCLA to break through into a Pac-12 Championship caliber team has narrowed considerably, and, unless UCLA absolutely crushes this offseason, we're concerned that window could narrow into the barest crack that not even the vapors of UCLA fans' remaining hopes could fit through.