Well, we won, so that was good. Jim Mora and our Bruins escaped Pullman with a narrow 44-36 win over a Cougars squad that represented the classic trap game that would have resulted in a merciless beat-down (see the 59-0 loss to BYU) or an epic choke job (see losses to Notre Dame in 2006 and 2007) during the Dorrell and Neuheisel years. Which brings me to the main point: we are moving forward and improving as a program under Jim Mora. The talent on the roster is being utilized properly (read: Anthony Barr at OLB, Jordan Payton and Kenny Walker getting reps at WR, XSF being slotted to LG, etc.). The offense is dynamic and the defense, when they click, can shut down the most prolific offenses (read: Arizona).
Which means there is no excuse for losing to Southern Cal on Saturday. None. Saturday marks a simple proposition for Jim Mora: win or fail. The success of his first year at the helm now turns on Saturday's result. Before the season was close to starting, we laid down the marker for success this year:
We have to have similar high expectations for a program, which has a track record of 17 conference titles and the longest winning streak in our rivalry with Southern Cal. We get that it is unrealistic to expect a conference title in Mora's first year, but it is realistic to expect a big season given that we have 7 games at the Rose Bowl and a schedule where except for Southern Cal, the road game against Washington State shapes up to be the toughest game of the year.
We should expect Mora to go into the Southern Cal game with an 8 or 9 win team (which is improving through the season) and then ride the emotion of 70-80,000 Bruin fans in the Rose Bowl (it will be up to Chianti to make sure that he puts together an outreach/campaign plan so that we have that many fired up Bruins at the Rose Bowl) to get Bruins over the hump against Troy. That will be the only way Bruins can finally begin to undo the decade of damage inflicted on Bruin football tradition by Guerrero and rest of the incompetent leadership at UCLA.
Mora has brought the Bruins into this week against Southern Cal with 8 wins. Looking back at the two losses, there's a very strong argument that UCLA should have won both of those games: Oregon State is a good football team, but they are nothing special, and the 27-20 loss at the Rose Bowl was a very winnable game. As for Cal, that team has the best coach they've had in decades (I'm excited for Cal to fire Tedford and end up with some loser re-tread and for them to sink back into the mediocrity of the Holmoe/Gilbertson/Snyder/Kapp years) and yet their team is horrible: for us to get spanked that bad in Berkeley was just unacceptable. That should have been a UCLA victory.
This UCLA team is pretty good. The freshmen are really hitting their stride (especially Hundley, along with Payton, Walker, and Goforth), while Southern Cal is flailing away with the most mediocre team they have had in years. Objectively, look at the rosters for both UCLA and Southern Cal in 2006 (the year of 13-9) and for this year. Karl Dorrell, the most clueless head coach in our history, was in charge. Our starting QB was Patrick Cowan, a true Bruin, but not exactly a higher-end college QB. Our offense was focused on Chris Markey (RB), Brandon Breazell (WR), Marcus Everett (WR), Logan Paulsen (TE). Our defense had ATV, but he was just a freshman: that year, our defense was built around a defensive line of Bruce Davis, Brigham Harwell, Justin Hickman, and Kevin Brownm with Christian Taylor (MLB), Eric McNeal (S/OLB), Chris Horton (S), Dennis Keyes (S), Trey Brown (CB), and Rodney Van (CB) behind them. Look at our roster now: Brett Hundley is going to the NFL, there is little doubt about that, and he's advanced beyond his years in his understanding of the game. Jet Ski is UCLA's career rushing leader. This is the best offensive line we've had in years, led by XSF (the best offensive lineman we've had probably in decades) and Jeff Baca. Fauria is an absolutely unstoppable beast (when he's focused) and our receivers (Shaq Evans, Jordan Payton, Kenny Walker, Devin Lucien, if he returns this week) are light-years ahead of who we had catching the ball in 2006. The defense is on-par, if not better, than 2006's edition. Abbott and McDonald are legitimate NFL prospects, our linebacker corps (Kendricks, Zumwalt, Holmes, and Barr) is an absolute wrecking crew, and the DL might be the only place that the 2006 team had the edge, but not by much. Obviously, Justin Medlock was a better kicker in 2006 than Fairbairn is now, but the kid has gotten himself in a groove since his early season struggles.
Now look at Southern Cal in 2006: John David Booty was their starting QB. Like Barkley, he came in with a lot of hype and high expectations, but hasn't lived up to it. He was throwing to Dwayne Jarrett (formerly in the NFL), Steve Smith (won a Super Bowl with the Giants), and Patrick Turner at WR, with Fred Davis (an NFL starter until his injury) at TE. Their OL was ridiculous, with Ryan Kalil, Jeff Byers, Kyle Williams, Sam Baker, and Drew Radovich, all guys who are either currently in the NFL or who had some time in the bigs. Now, look at their defense in 2006: Sedrick Ellis, Fili Moala, Lawrence Jackson, Kyle Moore, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga, Kevin Ellison, Terrell Thomas, Josh Pinkard, and Taylor Mays. Every single one of them are either playing in the NFL or spent multiple years in the NFL. And don't forget the coaching: they had Pete Carroll. Yes, he was a cheater, but he still won. Lane Kiffin, on the other hand, cheats (deflated balls, anyone?) but sucks at it. I don't think you'll find anyone, Trojan fans included, who find their current head coach to be anywhere close to their former head coach. Oh, and don't forget: Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel aren't in charge anymore. That's a huge upgrade for us. If Karl Dorrell can beat Pete Carroll 13-9, then Jim Mora has no excuse on Saturday. None.
We beat that Southern Cal team in 2006. This year's version has some very good players (Marqise Lee, Robert Woods), but they are not the juggernaut that we faced in 2006 (and certainly not on the defensive side of the ball). Their offensive line is weakened, their depth is suspect (except at WR), and their defense is nowhere near what we faced in 2006. Remember?
UCLA's Eric McNeal Interception vs. USC (via jtthirtyfour)
There is no excuse to lose to the Trojans this year. Not at the Rose Bowl. Not with the talented roster we have.
It's WIN OR FAIL for Jim Mora on Saturday. This season will not be a success if the Bruins choke at the Rose Bowl against a very beatable Southern Cal team on Saturday.
So, with that said, let's get to the bits and pieces of news floating around the UCLA-iverse at the beginning of this work week. Here's the Bruin Bites for this Monday morning:
- As we feared, the Bruins took a step back against Washington State this Saturday. But they clawed out a tough road win in a difficult environment against a team that always gives UCLA difficultly. But as you can imagine, the grades for the Bruins this week by WWL's Peter Yoon weren't as clean as they were following the beat-down of Arizona.
- In case you missed it, the squeaky win over Washington State kept UCLA stuck at #17 in the AP poll, getting jumped by Nebraska (despite the fact we beat them earlier this year). The Ducks climb to the top spot, followed by K-State and Notre Dame.
- Also, from the ICYMI files, the opening night at Pauley Pavilion had Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea performing the national anthem, decked out in a baby blue "Free Shabazz Muhammad" shirt. All that despite the fact Flea took classes at hated Southern Cal.
- Finally, the Orange County Register has a rivalry game preview with a lot of quotes from Coach Mora, talking about the intensity of the rivalry, defending Barkley and the Trojans' passing attack, and at the tail-end, talk about the uniforms for the game: no word on whether UCLA and Southern Cal will both wear home uniforms (the tradition) this Saturday. Let's hope Chianti Dan doesn't screw this up like last year, rolling out (admittedly, very good looking uniforms) the now infamous "surrender whites" for the rivalry game against Southern Cal.
Alright folks, those are your Bruin Bites to start this rivalry week against Southern Cal with. Fire away with your thoughts, takes, and additions in the comments thread.