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Pregame Guesses: Southern Cal Trojans Edition

Jim Mora says that tomorrow's rivalry clash is "just another game." He's wrong. But approaching the game with that attitude might prove to be the key to victory for the Bruins.


X - Los Angeles live at the Blank Club (May 8,2012) (via azianpunksk8er)

(I snuck out of my UCLA orientation to see X at the Florentine Gardens in East Hollywood. This song is called "Los Angeles." This band has meant an awful lot to me over the years. LIke the Beach Boys before them and Guns n Roses after them, they represent this city and they do it well. If you don't understand why I picked this video and this song this week, you haven't been paying attention. Go Bruins.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing Bruins Nation’s Pregame Guesses column. Longtime community members will recall that this feature was actually started by the folks at Halos Heaven, who do/did a Pregame Guesses column before Los Angeles Angels games.* In the beginning, we actually tried to keep track of who was "winning" and thought about giving prizes for who had the most points, but we’ve gotten away from that. Mostly, the guesses part of Pregame Guesses are besides the point. The column is really just my opportunity to riff on the state of the program – my chance to capture the zeitgeist of UCLA football at any given moment.

It’s an honor, really, that my fellow bloggers allow me to have my say and provide a prime spot on the front page each week for me to air my feelings. That’s a real advantage and I’m grateful. But there are some disadvantages. Sometimes the point I planned to make gets made by others – both front pagers and readers in the comments and fan posts – and it’s back to the drawing board for me, trying to find another topic to riff on. Other times, momentum builds behind a particular narrative and it leaves me wondering just how loyal I need to be to the conventional wisdom.

That sort of happened this week.

This week I find myself really wrestling with the notion that tomorrow’s game against USC is a season-defining, or even a program-defining, moment.

Let me go back to the Washington State game and try to delineate my thought process.

I was actually very happy with the Washington State game, even though it was a pretty sloppy way to win (we needed multiple blocked kicks on special teams for one thing) against a pretty bad team. But that’s actually what good teams do. They win even when they don’t play their best. You have to remember: As UCLA fans, we don’t see every game played by all the teams we think of as "great." We see Alabama’s record or LSU’s record and notice a few of the scores of their televised games and assume every game is a blowout. But they aren’t. Sometimes some also ran SEC team gives the Crimson Tide or the Tigers a real battle – but the cream rises and the better team wins. That’s sort of the way I see the Washington State game. We played kind of crappy, got off to a big lead in cold weather, then sort of laid back against the ropes and let WSU punch us for the final few rounds, just hoping to escape with the win and not get beat up too bad in the process. Point is: Sometimes good teams have a bad week but still come out of the game with the W. We aren’t Alabama or LSU or whoever, that’s the goal, but we’re good and we won despite having an off week. I’m not sure that happens last year – or in 2004.

When that game ended, I started thinking about this week’s Guesses column. My initial thought was that I’d write something along the lines of:

No matter what happens against the Trojans, we’re still a good team. Win or lose, a single game does not define this team, this season, this coach.

But that’s not been the theme here this week, not from my fellow front pagers and not from most of you. The prevailing attitude is that this game is huge, that it’s a "must win." Just yesterday, Nestor wrote a post titled "WIN or FAIL - Southern Cal: "Most Important Regular Season Game" of Jim Mora’s Coaching Career." "It’s simply," Nestor wrote, "(The) 2012 season will not be a successful one for UCLA if the Bruins blow a massive opportunity against Southern Cal on Saturday."

You can’t be any more direct than that.

So, I have to ask myself: Was I that off base on Saturday? Was I simply mistaken in my belief that win or lose against USC, we’re a good team having a good season?

Just so you know, I’m not singling Nestor out here. His was just the first story I saw when I looked for an example to link. This attitude, this way of looking at the game, is the prevailing attitude here and on the message boards.

Over the course of the week, I’ve become more and more convinced that the game is not "just another game" and I should tell you it’s not my nature to be an emotional fan who gets seriously into the rivalry. I probably stand alone in referring to them as plain ol’ "USC" or "the Trojans." That’s just me – I’m not making any point about those who prefer to call them "Southern Cal" just to get under their skin. My style is my style." So, I’m definitely not someone who would say "any season in which we beat USC is a good season."

But there is a compelling case to be made that this game is more important than other games and not just an emotional "they are our rival" reason. This game will impact recruiting. A win tomorrow would mark a win over the best team we’ve played all year to this point, including Nebraska, IMO. It would also be something that Rick Neuheisel was not able to do and Karl Dorrell only did once in five tries.

So, there are real reasons that magnify the importance of tomorrow’s game.

What’s bugging me is this and maybe some of you could address this in your comments below:

It’s perfectly possible we could play a great game, play our best game and somehow not win. We could be successful on John Wooden’s terms by doing the very best we can and something could prevent us from having more points when the final whistle sounds.

I mean, what If the game came down to a last second field goal with us down a point? What if it rains tomorrow and – oh no, bad snap – the kick goes wide? We make the kick and we’re a good team and a rising program and we miss and the eight wins we have don’t matter?

The truth is, I don’t have a good answer. About six hours passed between the writing of this paragraph and the last one and over that time I failed to achieve any clarity.

I’ve always been comfortable with cognitive dissonance. Absolutes are what throw me off track. Truth is, I feel both ways at the same time. A loss tomorrow would not, for me, invalidate the rest of the season. We have played well for the most part. I like the general direction the program seems to be heading. It takes a long time for a tugboat to turn a tanker.

But I will acknowledge as well that a loss would represent a type of failure. Mostly it would represent a missed opportunity. We’re going well. They are not. We’re at home. What seemed like a bad match up a few weeks ago doesn’t seem so daunting at this point.

And a win? A win would make a statement. Maybe not that the monopoly is over – if there ever was a monopoly – but rather that we are now a force to contend with. One win won’t change the fact that they’ve beaten us 13 of the last 14 meeting or whatever it is. And one win won’t mean we’ll win the rest of the meetings going forward. Even if we win tomorrow, eventually they’ll beat us again. And every time that happens, we won’t be able to consider that particular season a failure, if for no other reason than that gives them too much power over our program. Beating USC is important, but I refuse to define our team by that game alone.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone has done that. My shift in perspective over the course of the last six days is, I believe, my recognition of this particular opportunity in this particular season.

The moment is now, we need to make the most of it.

Ironically, Jim Mora’s approach to tomorrow’s game seems 180 degrees from the point we’ve been making all week and the point I’m making this morning. Mora’s approach is that this is just another game. He must know what it means to all of us. He’d have to be numb to not feel that the USC game is not just another game. But he refuses to acknowledge it.

In my opinion, that’s actually the perfect approach. The fact that he is not a former UCLA player allows him the luxury of treating this game no differently than any other has given the team an odd calm in the storm that is rivalry week. The team isn’t worried about logo stabbing. When someone asked Mora about last year’s 50-0 score he asked "Who won?"

I believe sincerely that UCLA will play it’s best game tomorrow. They appear completely focused on the task at hand and for that I credit our head coach.

They have the claim ticket.

It’s time to pick up the package.

With that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Southern Cal Trojans edition:

  1. Which quarterback will total more total yards tomorrow, Matt Barkley or Brett Hundley?
  2. Which team will lead going into the fourth quarter?
  3. The over under is 58.5. I say it's going over. I actually say it's going over 65.5. But we'll stick with 58.5. Do you like the over or the under?

*(In prior years, I always gave them a H/T and acknowledged that they had the idea first. Since I’ve been doing it for a while, I don’t think I mentioned them this year. But, yes – definitely – they started the idea of doing Pregame guesses and I have never denied that I got the idea from them.)