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Pregame Guesses: Utah Utes Edition

Last week's loss to Cal was frustrating on many levels. The question now is, will the Bruins learn from that game and bounce back against Utah.

Bob Stanton-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

I Got You - Split Enz - Live 2006 (via ParkoLifetimeRocker)

(This week's video is "I Got You" by New Zealand band Split Enz. Why? Because we "earned a split" against Colorado and Cal. Plus, I liked this song when I was at UCLA and we were good in football.)

For me, the most frightening, most disappointing moment in last Saturday’s debacle against Cal came early in the fourth quarter. We trailed 14-29 and had driven from our own 12 yard line to the Cal 11. On third and six, Hundley threw an incomplete pass to Joseph Fauria, bringing up fourth down.

Consider the situation: We were on the road and playing poorly – we’ll get to the reasons why in a moment. But we had just put together one of our better drives and were deep in Bear territory. We were down two touchdowns – though we needed at least one two point conversion to actually tie the game.

I really thought this was a turning point not only in the game but also in the mindset of the program. This was an opportunity to go for it, try for the six points and maybe turn the six into eight and be right back in the ball game one score down. This was the point in the game when the prior two coaches played it safe, kicked the field goal and then, I guess, hoped they would still score two touchdowns to win the game.

But Jim Mora had a chance to make a statement. He had a chance to show everyone, his players included, that he was willing to take a risk in order to get back in the game. It was both a moment for bold strategy aimed at winning the game and also a symbolic moment to indicate that things really had changed for the UCLA Bruin football program.

They haven’t.

Mora ran the field goal unit back on the field, Fairbairn made the kick and guess what – we were still down 12 points and still needed two touchdowns to win the game.

Think about this for a second: On a night when we really struggled to move the ball, we had the chance to score a touchdown and reduce the number of touchdowns we needed to win from two to one, but instead we kicked a field goal and reduced the number of touchdowns we needed to win from two to two. This move by Mora couldn’t have been more disappointing to me.

Oh, wait, there’s one other thing.

We were 4th-and-six from the Cal 11. This means that we were actually in a spot that was hard to defend. Fourth and goal from the five is a tough spot, you must gain the full five yards and Cal only needs to defend the endzone. In the latter hypothetical, the Bears can drop their d-backs into the endzone, spy Hundley and just make sure a running play doesn’t catch them off guard.

But 4th-and-six from the 11 is a different animal. In that situation, Cal has to defend the whole endzone, obviously, but they also must defend against us throwing underneath or running the ball for a first down. Finally – FINALLY!!! – what would be the worst thing that could happen if we failed on the fourth and six? Cal would have had the ball deep in their own territory with almost the whole fourth quarter to go and we would still need the same two touchdowns we needed after Fairbairn kicked the field goal.

I don’t even have to look up Mora’s post game remarks to hear him defend the move. Let me just take a guess:

"There was still plenty of time left in the game," said hypothetical-Mora. "We felt that we had to come away with some points after the long drive to keep the momentum going. Plus, we knew we would eventually need the field goal to win the game."

It’s probably unfair of me to criticize hypothetical-Mora for comments I am asserting he hypothetically made. But, that’s the same lame logic we’ve been hearing from coaches for nearly a decade now, so you’ll just have to excuse my cynicism. (And if he really was quoted as saying he made a mistake going for that field goal, then I stand corrected. But I bet he didn’t.)

Nestor made the same point in the immediate aftermath of the game – citing not only the same point of the game that I am, but an earlier "go for it or kick it" situation as well. He wrote:

The key moment of the game I thought was when the Bruins down 7-10 had a 1st and 10 at Cal's 23 yard line after a quick run by Jet Ski. Instead of sticking with Jet Ski, Noel Mazzone kept trying to be cute with Brett Hundley, and had the Bruins at 3rd and 12 at Cal's 28. Right at that point, I though the Bruins should have operated as if they had 2 downs to work with (not depending on Kai'imi Fairbarn). Instead Hundley threw an incomplete pass and then Mora inexplicably went with his freshman kicker who not so surprisingly missed a clutch 46 yard old kick. But that whole sequence reeked of the same old Donahue/Dorrell/Neuheisel conservatism that made UCLA football irrelevant for last 10 years. It gave the impression of a scared, vanilla head coach, who didn't have any confidence in his offense and took the safe call with the kicking game (imagine the kind of coach Mora would be if actually had someone like Kai Forbath on his roster, LOLz).

Mora made the exact same Donahue/Dorrell/Neuheiselian conservative decision in Q4 when the Bruins were down 15. We had a 4th and 6 and were threatening around the Bears' 11 yards. Instead of going for the TD and closing it within one score (8 points), Mora again went with his kicking game. Even after the made kick Bruins were down by more than 1 score. That was a decision that didn't make any sense, and yet it did if you pull back a little bit and view Mora as just another bland, vanilla, average, journey-man NFL coach.

The fourth quarter moment really took the air out of me. Until then, I held out hope and maybe even believed that Mora was something more than the prior coaches. And, I suppose it’s still possible that he is. But in that moment, he acted as they would.

I don’t know. I was about to write that the move reeked of playing the percentages, of making the move that keeps you your job, instead of taking a chance to win the game. But, it doesn’t even make sense as a percentage. As I said – we had a really good chance to score a touchdown on that drive and cut the lead to one score. We were driving; we had a tiny bit of momentum. In what world were we going to take the three points and still score two more touchdowns to win the game?

There is something else on my mind this week and it doesn’t have anything to do with last week’s or tomorrow’s game. Permit me a small indulgence, I’ll get to Utah in a moment.

The aggravation I felt as I was writing about Mora raising the white flag by kicking that field goal triggered a recollection of Dan Guerrero’s latest blog. Menelaus wrote about it earlier in the week.

I can’t tell you how insulted I felt when I read that our AD feels we "earned a split" against Colorado and Cal. Aggravated and insulted was how I felt when I read that. I mean, seriously, does Guerrero think we’re stupid? Does he think we don’t know the difference between a weekend trip to the Bay Area in basketball where we might feel OK about "earning a split" or a baseball doubleheader where we dropped the first and then came back in the nightcap. The Colorado and Cal games were two distinct trips, the team traveled home after Colorado. They were separate events, not a road swing. And – BTW – even if you contort yourself into understanding what meant by "earning a split" he had it backwards. If we lost to Colorado and then beat Cal, you might say we "earned the split" because we came back to take the second game. But in this case, we won the first game. It might even make sense if one said after the Colorado game that we’d "earned at least a split on the two road games" because winning is earning something. But to write it after the loss? This not only offends me as a sports fan. It offends me as someone with a UCLA degree and as someone who speaks and writes the English language.

Why couldn’t he tell the truth? Or tell mostly the truth, with just a little positive spin? Here’s one way how:

"No one was more disappointed than I was about the result of the Cal football game. But it’s just one game. Coach Wooden defined success by doing one’s best and if you look at it that way, the team succeeded. They practiced hard last week and played hard against Cal. It just wasn’t their day, it happens. As a former college baseball player, I can tell you there are days when you strike out three times and boot a couple of ground balls. But the best players and the best teams dust themselves off, learn from their mistakes and come back even stronger. And that’s exactly what I expect to see next Saturday against Utah."

How hard was that?

And, really, that’s not too far from how I myself feel. Yes, the team made mistakes. Hundley made a lousy throw on a backward pass and Cal recovered. Shaq Evans cut short a route and Cal picked Hundley off. Someone blocked a Bruin into Manfro and he muffed a punt and Cal recovered. Those are bad plays, but they are not necessarily indicative of a lack of discipline. They are mistakes and mistakes can be corrected. There is no reason why this team can not learn from its mistakes and come back even stronger against Utah.

Two main factors keep me in "wait and see" mode. One, Hundley is a redshirt freshman. There are more than a few examples of freshmen quarterbacks succeeding. But there are more examples of freshman starters who got better over time. There are just moments when Hundley plays, for lack of a better word, young. It’s eerily similar to Cade McNown as a true freshman and even as a true sophomore. He didn’t pick the lock on playing the position until his third year as a starter. There is something about Hundley that gives me hope that he will improve. He doesn’t look lost. He doesn’t have a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes. He’s confident. He’s cool. He’s just making errors that (and maybe I’m just hoping) are more a lack of experience than a lack of talent or skill.

The other factor is the offensive line. It’s not good. I really loathe picking on the players because deep down they are just college kids, but the simply fact is, the offensive line is not very good. I don’t want to get into the "are we a young team" debate, but I think it’s fair to say the offensive line lacks experience. They lack cohesion. Their performance against Cal invoked their performance against Oregon State. The Bears used blitzes and stunts and really abused the middle of the line, most of the pressure appeared to come right up the middle. We were not able to run the ball as a result and Hundley often did not have time to throw the football.

The offensive line question has been hanging over the season all along. It was clear, even in the spring game, that they couldn’t block anyone. In that scrimmage, the defense played like two formations all day and maybe never blitzed once and they still put pressure all day on Hundley and the other quarterbacks. They were taking it easy on the offense. Oregon State and Cal were not. No one else will take it easy on them either.

There isn’t much Mora and Adrian Klemm can do about it at this point. They’ve already moved Ellis McCarthy over for some plays. There aren’t any redshirting linemen who will save the day if they decide to play them. But it does look like the fears we all had when we were making our season prediction, with the "if the offensive line comes together" sentiment a specter hanging over every prognostication, came through. We all worried that this unit's shortcomings could weaken a perfect storm of a weak conference schedule and winnable non-conference slate of games. To this point, they’ve hung on well enough to beat the weak teams, but against a good OSU squad and what is probably a better-than-their-record Cal team our worst fears were realized.

I don’t blame the kids or the coaches. They are working hard. I believe that. They are just inexperienced as individual players and have not unified as a group. The light might go on any week this season or we might have to wait until they all grow up a year to see any improvement.

Will it happen tomorrow? Like I wrote last week, I don’t know.

I have to say, it's particularly frustrating that six games into Mora's first season, we're in "must win" mode. I feel like that was the week-after-week standard throughout the tenure of the last two regimes. Every game was a must win. If we just win this one, we'll be okay. Well, here we are, at the halfway point of the year and Utah is a "must win." I can't even remember what it's like to feel confident week in and week out. Honestly, I feel like I haven't felt good about a game since 1998.

As for Mora’s tacit surrender last week, I’m going to – for the moment – give him a pass. Maybe it wasn’t just a continuation of the lame crap we’ve been dealing with for a decade. Maybe it was just a decision he made in the moment and it’s a decision he won’t make again. I guess, in the end, I see no reason why I shouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt – so I will.

For now.

And with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Utah Utes edition:

  1. What number will be higher: UCLA offensive touchdowns or UCLA field goal attempts?
  2. Will UCLA exceed 60 yards in penalties?
  3. Which Bruin receivers will catch three or more passes?