Sept 3, 2011: Houston 38, U.C.L.A. 34
Sept 15, 2012: U.C.L.A. 37, Houston 6.
What a difference a year makes.
Actually, what a difference a new coaching staff makes, since for the last 10+ seasons, a new year didn't make much of a difference after all.
Hands up...how many of you thought the Houston game should be a cruiser for us? Now, if you all are being honest, I would see a lot of hands out there. Except that I can't, because this is the internet, and I can't really see anyone out there. But virtually, I'm imagining a lot of hands. Mine is up, too.
Of course there are a lot of obvious differences between our games with Houston last year and this year. Case Keenum has gone from shredding our defense last year to practicing (only) with the Texans this year. Last year's game was in the hot and humid armpit that is Houston and this year we basked in the hot and dry Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. Last year's game was the season opener and this time we had a couple games under our belt to work out some kinks. In last year's game, we played soft on defense, made some key errors in the kicking game, and generally didn't play very well.
And when you get down to it, we didn't play very well last night either. The offense turned the ball over way too much. Our young and injured OL wasn't great. Our young QB showed his age against a defense that practices against our offensive system every day. Our star running back was the main target of that D. Our suspect secondary faced an aggressive pass-happy offense.
Even with all of that, we won by 31, and it wasn't that close. The defense really won the day last night. So that's the first reason I was happy with the game. Wins always make me happy. But despite the score, I saw Mora's expression on the sidelines a few times, and he didn't look so thrilled. I'm pretty sure that Coach Mora and his staff are fairly concerned with the turnovers and mistakes and missed opportunities and poor execution and reduced intensity last night. I'll bet Coach Mora isn't very happy today.
And that's what makes me happiest of all.
Last night's sloppy game showed me another big difference between last year, and all those years before, and this year. Last year's sloppy games didn't end with 31 point wins that were never ever in doubt for even a second. Last year's sloppy games produced 4th quarter squeakers over San Jose State and Oregon State and Washington State, and outright blowouts to Texas and Utah and Arizona. But this is a different year, with different leadership, and this really looks like a different football team and program.
Though you aim to play your best game every time out, I don't think you can realistically expect to be perfectly sharp every week all season, so I was curious to see what our team would do after an emotional win that started a stampede to get back on the Bruin bandwagon. With a new found hype and a long missing national ranking and after a really high profile victory, how would this team come out in what looked to be an easy game?
Like Nebraska last week, we've had other big wins over the years. The Rick Neuheisel era started in 2008 with a tough OT win over Tennessee. I watched that game (naturally given all the Houston connections here) just outside of Houston on the wall of an empty warehouse while Hurricane Gustav was making landfall nearby. My Colorado Urban Search & Rescue Task Force was deployed with with the Tennessee Task Force that night, and those guys found a satellite link to the game, fed it to a laptop, and ran a projector off that. Those guys do love their Vols. And I loved watching that game as the storm swept in that night, thinking that U.C.L.A. football was finally going the right direction. Gustav turned out to be pretty mild. Unfortunately, so did those Bruins.
The next Saturday, our task force was driving south on I-45 South into Galveston just after Hurricane Ike had smashed up the island when I was told that BYU had smashed up our team 59-0. Luckily, I guess, I had other stuff on my mind to offset the imploson of what a week before seemed like a promising start. Two more losses followed that game and any pretenses that the turnaround was imminent were blown away like the beachfront homes on the Island.
Unfortunately, those crashes to reality were to become a familiar pattern.
The next season started on a high with another win over Tennessee, 19-15 in Knoxville. We won at home the following week, but then dropped the next 5 games and slunk back to mediocrity.
The hope inspired by the Eagle Bank Bowl win at the end of 2009 was squelched early the following season by a 31-22 opening day loss to Kansas State and a 35-0 ass kicking by the Lucky Cardinal.
In 2010, we surprised many with a win over #7 Texas in Austin, but that high was followed by a predictably unimpressive win over hapless WSU at home, and then 3 consecutive losses, compounded by the revelation that Texas was really pretty bad that year. 2011 was in a sense merciful by being forgettable the whole way through.
This pattern was going on before Neuheisel, actually. We saw it with Karl Dorrell's teams, too. The Bruins' biggest win of the decade (and that tells you something about our decade) was 13-9. Instead of a turning point, our next game was a 44-27 loss to Florida State just to put us right back in our place. The start of the next season saw 2 wins to begin and a #11 ranking, but just when Bruins were feeling good we got smoked 44-6 beatdown at Utah. Two more wins got us to 4-1 and a #25 ranking before that pathetic loss to a winless Notre Dame in Pasadena. We disappeared from top 25 for 1,801 days. Until this year, this week.
The point of all this is not to wallow so much in the the ups and downs, and more downs than ups, of the previous two coaches, but to show that there looks to be something different in the makeup of the current football program. I don't blame Achilles when he said on Friday he was waiting for the other cleat to drop following this promising start. It always has before. Compare those previous downs to last night's down, though. Last night was a classic trap game and we were primed for a letdown, and sure enough, we were kind of flat and didn't execute well. But even with that, we still ran up a pretty big win. If that's what our bad games are going to look like, I'm ok with it.
But I'm even happier because I'm sure Coach Mora isn't satisfied today. His frustrations please me. Of course, he's taking the win too, but I'm sure he and his staff, like us, saw a lot of things in last night's game that need correcting. Anyone think Mora isn't going to be all over that? So far, the team has responded well to this staff and its attitude. Now I expect Mora to reinject some urgency into the team, and I expect that will be key for next week, because we will need to be much sharper next Saturday. Oregon State is off to a good start, including a win over perennial power Wisconsin, has a very good coach in Mike Riley, and they didin't play this weekend, giving them two weeks to prepare for our Bruins. Last night's game won't beat OSU by 31. It may not beat OSU at all.
But that's what different about this year. I don't think we'll see last night's performance next week. For that, I give the credit to Jim Mora and his staff. They have been the difference this year.
Ryan Nece was the sideline commentator for the Pac-12 Network (you DirectTV peeps will have to trust me on this and then call your provider) last night. He said at the top of the broadcast that during practice this week, Coach Mora talked to the team about "humility and opportunity". Mora stressed the importance of keeping the fast start in perspective, of not admring our headlines, but taking advantage of our position to keep moving forward. Those were the right messages, and that mindset let us run up 37 points on a bad offensive night, and get us pretty easily through a game that probably would have been a faceplant in previous seasons. Instead of scuffling with an overmatched team and slipping past them by a score for an ugly win, we put them away early and it was never close, despite playing a pretty sloppy game.
The Bruins will go back to work on Monday, and during the week Mora will publicly issue a bunch of noninformation on injuries and positions and say that the Bruins will have to play better next game. Inside Spaulding, though, I'm sure Mora and his staff will be preaching the blunt truth to our players, and that is they have to be better next week. I am confident the coaches will get the players to clean things up and get refocused for next Saturday's conference opener.
Who thinks Mora will have the Bruins ready for Oregon State next week? Let's see those hands
Good. Now, since all those hands are up, it's 8-Clap time. Readyyy, and 1, 2, 3, 4...