(This week's video features The Solid Gold Sound of the UCLA Marching Band playing "Mighty Bruins." I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to pick a band and song for this week's post. Let's look at the spirit squad while listening to the song we play after scoring touchdowns.)
Thursday, 2:53, pm …
I’m just now getting around to writing this morning’s Pregame Guesses post. By the time you’re reading it, I’ll be on my way to the Bay Area to attend our game against UC Berkeley. It’s hard to believe that this will be my first ever Northern California UCLA football road trip, but it is. And I mention it right here up top to frame the rest of this post to remind readers that despite what might seem like a huge dollop of melancholia about our football program, I remain a fan and plan to cheer for the team just as hard tomorrow as I did last Saturday.
And I’ll get to last Saturday in a second.
Before I do, though, I wanted to note that when I started writing the Pregame Guesses post, it was more of a fun thing to do, a way to get up for the game the next day. I spilled quite a few words poking fun at our opponents and the cities and towns they came from. I’m not Jim Murray (ask Fox71 and Classof66 who Jim Murray was) but those posts were sort of in his style, the way he’d make fun of Cleveland before the Rams played the Browns. I’ve been trying to figure out when the posts evolved, when they became more introspective. For one thing, I think I loosened up a bit. My mandate from our editor and my colleagues was to capture the mood of the program, the zeitgeist of UCLA football. I took that to heart and tried to do just that. I don’t claim to be some Zen football philosopher; these posts in my opinion completely fail as often as they achieve even a modicum of success. I just thought it was interesting that what went from something fun and jovial has become something to avoid as I make more and more of an effort to avoid thinking about our football team altogether.
Remember, I’m driving 400 miles to watch us play tomorrow.
That sense of avoidance was manifest even while we were winning. We were 4-0, but it was the most uncomfortable, shaky 4-0 of all time. We came in to the season ranked high, then sort of struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis. Two wins were two wins, but you sort of had the nagging feeling that a really great team would have flattened the Cavaliers and Tigers. Then we beat Texas without Brett Hundley, a good thing even though the Longhorns are not having a typical Longhorn season (or what you mythologize a typical Longhorn season is supposed to look like) and we needed our defense to create an atypical number of turnovers and points to do it.
Then we beat a ranked Arizona State team easily and I allowed myself to start feeling pretty good. Instead of comparing this year to Karl Dorrell’s ten win squad, things started to seem more like 1998, when we kept finding a way to win until we didn’t versus Miami.
But ASU played us with their backup quarterback and rang up a zillion yards, so while we won the game, there was still a nerve in me that tingled. "What if Ish Adams didn’t make a pick at the end of the first half and run it back for a touchdown? What if he didn’t score on a kick return? How long could we count on our defense to just keeping taking the ball away and scoring?
This last is something I thought about a lot. I kept trying to convince myself that maybe this defensive trait was real. Maybe we were a team that gave up a lot of yards, but made up for it by forcing lots of turnovers? Maybe we could count on the special teams to consistently create points and field position? Maybe this was our team’s identity?
Or maybe it isn’t.
I’ve written a bit, maybe more than a bit, about our team having a defensive identity. "Jim Mora is a defensive coordinator, unlike most of the head coaches in our league," I noted, while opining, "Our team’s identity will be one of defense, not offense. This will set us apart in our league."
Well, mea culpa time. I was wrong. Jim Mora is not the quasi-defensive coordinator, using his powers and skills to see to it that we have the best defense in the conference. What we know now is that he is letting Jeff Ulbrich run the defense, except when he jumps in and pisses his first year DC off and said DC has a fit on the sideline. I’m not going to dive back into that mess, except to note that it told me I was wrong about defense being the defining quality of Mora football because Mora is a defensive minded coach. What I know now is that Mora is not a play caller; he’s a CEO-type head coach. And as someone once noted in reference to Jack Del Rio when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, having a CEO as head coach means you’re paying a guy millions to give pep talks. (Just so you know, I’m not literally saying that all successful head coaches literally call every play on one side of the ball or the other. I am saying that head coaches are more or less involved with scheming and play calling, though some literally do call their own plays. But all you have to do is see that Ulbrich is running a different defense than Lou Spanos to know that our defense is not a Mora signature.)
Mea culpa’s aside, it was difficult to enjoy fully the Arizona State win because Utah always just feels like a tough out. We beat them more than they beat us, but it never feels easy.
And they came out and beat us. And they exposed us, in a way. Because we had success on them when we just turned our athletes loose and let them outplay Utah, as evidenced by the two long bombs that went for touchdowns. But their coaches had our number all day long and it was enough for them to beat us. It’s telling that the game felt like we were blown out, but we actually almost beat them on a late field goal that was simply outside our kicker’s limited range.
Even at that, I looked forward to the Oregon game. Maybe Utah was a "trap game?" I don’t even believe in trap games and I let myself believe that maybe Utah was one.
Oregon was always going to be the test. Maybe a well-coached team like the Utes could upset us; even the best teams sometimes lose to a capable conference opponent. But the quality of the Ducks team wasn’t going to catch us off guard. Even more than that, Oregon has been our white whale. Mora’s team had a fine record in his first two seasons, but had notably not beaten the better teams on our schedule. Oregon was one of those better teams we had yet to beat.
The game was a measuring stick.
And, sadly, we really didn’t measure up.
I went to the game with a couple of friends. We bought tickets from a guy on the way in. Didn’t even check where they were, just knew we felt happy we got them for under face value.
Turns out they were in Section 14. They might as well have been in Autzen Stadium. I can’t lie: we felt a bit of trepidation at kick off. Either we were going to win and have the sublime pleasure of being surrounded by disappointed Ducks or we were going to lose and it was truly going to suck having to deal with all those green and yellow yahoos. We hoped, at the very least, we’d compete.
Please let it be a good game.
We did not compete and it was not a good game. It was a low point.
I can tell you exactly when my spirit cracked. (Did I mention I was going to the game tomorrow? U-C-L-A Fight Fight Fight!!!)
We won the coin toss and elected to kick. That strategy sometimes works, but it’s dumb against Oregon. The only way to beat Oregon is to keep the ball away from them. They score a lot of points. But we deferred and they went right down and scored a touchdown and just for fun went for two and we were down 8-0 before half our fans could get their e-tickets scanned by the Rose Bowl’s geriatric stadium staff.
So, we go into halftime down 21-10, but we’re getting the ball to start the third quarter. This is why you defer, because you want the opening drive of the second half. This was a very deliberate strategy on our part, because we chose to let Marcus Mariota have the ball first. It was not an accident. It was on purpose.
But I was, amazingly, still hopeful. Score a touchdown to start the second half and it’s a four-point game. Anything might happen at then, we could still win this game.
Here is how that drive, that crucial drive went:
A first down pass from Brett Hundley to Devin Fuller lost a yard.
A Hundley run on second down that picked up five.
Another Hundley pass to Fuller for 10 yards and a new set of downs.
A Hundley pass to Thomas Duarte gained nine yards.
A Paul Perkins run that lost a yard.
And on third and two, a Hundley ran for a yard.
Then, fourth and one on our own 37, Mora brought out the punt team and Matt Mengel kicked one 43 yards, fair catch.
On the most important drive of the season, we ran six plays and gained 23 yards. We ran about three minutes off the clock and decided that, even though we were already down 11 points, to give Oregon the ball back.
And all the Ducks did was drive 80 yards in ten plays in under three minutes to make the score 28-10. They would go on to score two more touchdowns after that for a 42-10 lead.
By the time we got back on the scoreboard, the game was effectively over. That we ended up with 20 fourth quarter points to make the final score appear competitive is irrelevant. We got blown out. At home. It’s too bad.
That sequence that started the third quarter feels like a turning point. We planned for that moment in the game. We risked giving the conference’s best offense (and the team that did whatever they wanted against us last year in Eugene) the ball and they put an 8 on the board. But we wanted that first drive of the second half. But it was clear that we had nothing special planned. There was nothing different about that sequence than just about any other. We called some of our basic plays. We played at our regular pace. We picked up a first down. We punted on fourth and one.
I’m not going to rehash the rest of it. There’s nothing left to discuss.
I’ll just note (again) that I was wrong about our team’s identity and that I’m mad at myself for letting myself believe things would be different this season.
I’m still hoping for the best. I’ll still cheer for the team. But I’m going to have to see something new, something more, to convince me that it’s not just all more of the same. I’m willing to accept the sadness that comes with being a fan of a team that loses some games. But I choose not to experience the disappointment that comes with being a fan that truly believes, because at the moment – I’m sorry to say – I just don’t.
And with that, here your Pregame Guesses, UC Berkeley Golden Bears edition:
- True or False: UCLA will have a player who totals at least 100 receiving yards.
- Name a Bruin who recovers a Bear fumble.
- What number will be higher: Eric Kendricks tackles or Jordan Payton receptions.