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Pregame Guesses: Pac-12 Title Game Aftermath Edition

The author was really disappointed immediately after the Pac 12 Championship Game, but the ensuing week has put the game and the season in a more refined perspective.

Stephen Dunn

Better - Guns N' Roses - Live at The Forum 12/21/11 (Pro Shot) (via GabrielToscanoGNR)

(This week's video is "Better" by Guns N' Roses, recorded live at The Forum last December. I was at this show -- see if you can spot me. They went on at 1230 am and played until 330. Love this song -- one of my favorites from the Chinese Democracy album.)

This is why I don’t post Pregame Guesses immediately after the game the week before. Because immediately after the Pac 12 title game, these are the notes I jotted down:

I am so disappointed in Jim Mora.

The coach who had a go for broke attitude right though the USC game turned into Terry Donahue/Jeff Tedford/Rick Neuheisel in the two Stanford games.

My first feeling was that the difference in the game was that Brett Hundley made a couple of mistakes and bad throws and Kevin Hogan didn’t. And I still think that’s true.

But the more I think about it, the real difference in the game was that David Shaw went deep on a third and fifteen and got a touchdown out of it and we played for a field goal with the clock running out.

That final drive was so Terry Donahue-esque it is unbelievable. That last drive was George Achicha blocking Norm Johnson’s kick all over again. It was Shawn Wills losing a few yards before Alfredo Velasco missed the winning field goal against USC in 1989 all over again. In both those case, Terry Donahue played for a field goal instead of going for the throat – and a touchdown – and in both cases the strategy failed.

Truly, truly disappointing and honestly scary if that’s the way Jim Mora is going to coach during his tenure here at UCLA.

Well, the passage of time, even if it’s just a week, has a way of putting things into better perspective.

I still remain disappointed with the way that last drive played out. The spike of the ball on first down with the clock stopped was simply an Andy Reid-esque case of clock mismanagement. Playing for the tie and overtime was a strategic error as well, the second time in a week that Mora believed that his defense could stop Stanford when it had to and that we’d win in overtime. But, I’ve come to believe that’s is more hubris than conservative play. That said, when you’re an underdog on the road against a team that player-for-player is likely better than you are, you play to win when you have the ball last, not play to tie and hope you can get it down in OT.

But that disappointment has dissipated somewhat, the bitter edge worn down by a bit of perspective. Oh, don’t misunderstand, it takes me longer than seven days to get rid of that "what-could-have-been" feeling. I could have ordered my Rose Bowl tickets yesterday instead of my Holiday Bowl tickets – but I’m okay now. I no longer see that last drive as a warning flag for the duration of the Mora era; I now choose to view it as either an aberration or maybe just a philosophical difference between Mora and I. Unless it becomes a pattern (and I guess it still could – time will tell), it is not a continuation of the conservatism of our past regimes.

On the positive side, until that final drive we played a much better game against Stanford this time around. I’m no expert, but you might recall I lamented the lack of swing passes and Hundley runs in the first Stanford game. Well, both elements returned in Round Two.

Noel Mazzone really had a good game plan last Friday. Instead of going right at the Cardinal from the outset, we went wide with passes and runs, then when Stanford reacted, we were able to go North-South with more effectiveness.

For the record, this is exactly the type of adjustment haven’t seen in I don’t know how long. Probably since Terry Donahue – he had a knack for halftime adjustments.

Looking ahead, I don’t know what to expect against Baylor. They beat friggin’ Kansas State – so they makes them capable of beating anyone.

And when it gets closer to game time, I’ll probably start to get more excited, attach more importance to the outcome, conclude that it’s a must win to "keep the momentum going" or to "keep the recruiting class intact." But for this week, I’m going to reflect on the good feelings I have about the team at the moment.

No matter what happens in the Holiday Bowl, how can you not be happy you got to watch Johnathan Franklin this season. I don’t remember a running back improving as much as Jetski has this season. He is a totally different back than he was in his first three years, stronger through the hole, faster around the edge.

Or the maturity of Brett Hundley – who had the best freshman season I can remember from a UCLA quarterback. Who was better? Tommy Maddox? Cade McNown didn’t really get things going until his junior year, though he was a four-year starter.

Eric Kendricks exceeded everyone’s expectations, mostly because no one had any expectations about him one way or the other. All he did was lead the team in tackles as a sophomore.

How about Anthony Barr, who went from a miscast fullback to a top rush linebacker. His play on the edge this season was reminiscent of Jamir Miller or Carnell Lake.

And then there is Xavier Sua-Filo. The X man is the best offensive lineman we’ve had in a long, long time and his presence was essential to the growth the offensive line had during the season. And speaking of the line, Jake Brendel matured into a fine center – I can’t wait until he and Carl Hulick battle it out for the position next year. Hulick is a stud, if he doesn’t play center he’s going to challenge seriously for Jeff Baca’s guard spot.

We’ve got a few weeks until San Diego. I ordered my tickets, I’m sure you ordered yours, too. Yes, it’s been a rough few weeks, but I just give credit to Stanford – they are a talented, well-coached team. It would have been great to beat them and we definitely could have – but there is no shame in the way we played and no shame in losing a couple of games to them.

But, all in all, I feel the program is headed in the right direction. Nine wins and a dominating performance over the Trojans. Anyone of us would have taken that back in August and no one should throw it back now that we’ve got it.

With that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Pac 12 Title Game Aftermath Edition:

  1. Who was your favorite UCLA player this season?
  2. Other than the Holiday Bowl, which bowl game are you most interested in watching?
  3. Other than Anthony Barr's sack of Matt Barkley, what was your favorite play this season?