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The Morning After, Part 7: UCLA vs California

The Bruins posted a big win over what looked like a good Pac-12 team, a week after getting killed by what looked to be a good Pac-12 team, a week after blowing a game against what looked like good Pac-12 team, a week after blowing out what looked like a good Pac 12 team. Got it? Neither do I.

Here's one player who, unlike his team overall, has gotten consistently better every year.
Here's one player who, unlike his team overall, has gotten consistently better every year.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

So, you all realize the losing streak was obviously on Bruinette, right? I mean, I haven't written this after any losses this year.

Yup, nothing like throwing someone who graciously came to your rescue two weeks in a row under the bus for a cheap laugh. That's how I like to start out an article.

Seriously, first and foremost, sincere thanks to Bruinette for covering me the last two games. Work and travel and family obligations kept me from seeing either game live or having any block of time afterward to write about the games. I knew she'd do an awesome job, as she has a great mind and is beautiful writer, though I do feel awful for reproducing all her post concussive symptoms by allowing her to relive that Stanford game. That'll set her recovery back another week all by itself. But she was awesome through it all. Too awesome maybe, because with the prospect of being Wally Pipped, I figured I better show up for duty this week.

U.C.L.A. 40, Cal 24. Voilà.

The losing streak isn't really on her, of course. It's on Mora and his staff. As was last night's win.

I have a coworker who is fond of saying, "The only thing constant is change." He says this a lot, most frequently in response to whatever new idiotic policy or procedure that gets imposed on us by people who work in cubicles and look at spreadsheets of budgets all day, while those of us who work in trauma rooms and look under the bed sheets at the sick and the wounded all day and all night and all weekend and all holiday bear the brunt of their ridiculous and unconstructive mandates.

But I've not figured out how to apply that phrase to our football program. It's year 4 of Jim Mora's tenure. We have new players each year. We have a few different coaches each year. There are different teams who are rising and falling within the conference each year. But the MO of Mora's teams has been remarkably consistent. Start the season well with some encouraging wins that make you think this is the year that we take that next step. Move into the top 10 in the national rankings. Then, Boom, two game losing streak, one to a team we ought to beat and one to a team we never beat. All great intentions fall to the floor, the fanbase gets irritable and starts buzzing about coaching changes, and we realize that we're exactly where we were the year before. Not significantly better. Not significantly worse. Where's the change?

Game to game, the Bruins are so inconsistent, but year to year, we look to be right where we always are. It's weird when consistency really isn't. How can the Bruin team that scored on 6 of 7 first half possessions against a good (I didn't say great) Arizona team and on 7 of 7 first half possessions against a good (not great) Cal last night be the same team that got run out by a good (not great) ASU team and embarrassed by a good (and probably great) Stanford team?

Normally, consistency would seem to be a good thing, but it's really only a good thing when the level of consistency is high. You could say Stalin was consistent, so it's really more about the level of performance rather than simply being reliable. We know we can be a very very good football team. We've seen it several times this year. Maintaining that level of excellence consistently is the issue. And I don't know the secret to doing it.

For instance, how can a team blow a 3 goal third period lead and lose on opening night and then score 5 unanswered goals the very next game to win? It's maddening - though that's a specific subject for a different blog. How can I hit a golf ball 300 yards on one drive and dig a trench on the tee box on the next hole (this is why I gave up golf years ago and bought a nice road bike and have been much happier and healthier since). How can my cell phone signal go from three dots to one dot as I sit still in my room? That doesn't seem physically possible. Or how can U.C.L.A. be ranked #7 and then be unranked just 2 games later?

I was discussing the topic of consistency once with one of the other dads in my son's youth hockey organization. I took his input seriously since he has an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup and a Rocket Richard trophy on his resume. And though I was musing at that time about the inconsistency of 11 and 12 year olds, he explained that consistent excellence is something that even professional athletes have trouble attaining. He pointed out that even the greatest players in the world struggle to maintain consistency, and ultimately it's the players and teams and coaches who minimize the lows who are the ones who succeed the most.

Being consistently not crappy is the key at every level of competition, he told me. By the fact that the players make a roster shows they have the skill and ability to be good at that level. It's the ones who can minimize the distance from their top level of play to their lowest level who are successful in the long run. Sure, there are always some players who were simply better than others, but across an entire roster, he felt that there really wasn't a huge drop off from the first place teams to even the below average teams in terms of overall talent. The top teams were the top teams because they would play well consistently because they would avoid the big swings, so that even on their "bad" nights, they were still good enough to beat teams who were prone to wider swings in their level of play. That meant they never went on prolonged losing streaks. They beat teams who weren't as mentally tough when adversity hit. It wasn't just "my best beats your best". It was also "my worst beats your worst".

That dad credited a couple of his coaches and mentors along the way for teaching him how to focus on the mentality and actions needed to make sure that the lows were never too low, which would allow his skill to come out to make the highs even higher. He also pointed out that good coaches knew where a team's or player's pitfalls were and designed systems to cover for them and eventually correct them.

There was a lot more to it, but the bottom line is that one important key to success is raising that bottom line. Just don't ever be awful. Easier said than done, of course, but it makes sense. Think of getting an Eye Test grade where your range can be anywhere between A- and B-. You may not be an A+ capable team, but you're never getting any Cs. Your average grade ends up halfway between a B and B+. Now take another team that can range anywhere between A+ and D+. That team's average grade falls below a B. When things tend to even out over the course of a season, that first team with the lower ceiling finishes higher, and maybe that's a very oversimplified picture of why a certain team hasn't taken a step beyond its current plateau.

The mindset of a fan is very different from the approach of an elite athlete. It's easy to watch the TV and ask why that receiver dropped that easy catch, or why that cornerback lost track of his responsibility, or why that lineman didn't move his feet and reached and got flagged for holding. We all know that receiver can catch and that the corner can cover and that the lineman can block. "I know that player can make those plays, I've seen him make those plays, so why did he miss that one?" Most athletes intend to do their best on every play, but they all have that range from their very best play to their very worst. The athlete must always be trying to maintain that high level while learning from the low points, and to put them both behind quickly and focus on the next opportunity. Just keep reaching for that ceiling and don't dwell on the floor.

That's something the Bruins haven't figured out yet. The range from their best games to their worst games is still pretty huge. It's wide enough to allow an ASU team that doesn't look as talented to make more plays and fewer mistakes and win while blowing out a Cal team that probably isn't very different from ASU. But the one thing that does appear consistent is our inability to take that step to elite status.

It's that consistent inconsistency that still appears in year 4 of Coach Mora's reign that makes me unsettled about the future of this program. We went for a 4th and 1 at midfield last night with spectacular results. But we are still collecting yellow flags like they are some sort of currency that we keep in place of having points on the scoreboard. A more consistently good team would cut out those low points with he penalties. Our offensive game plan and performance looked great last night with a good mix of run and pass and points of attack on the defense, but we've seen it struggle for long periods this year, too. A consistently good team would have fewer times the offense stalls. The defense which was gashed last week put the clamps on one of the conference's best passing attacks last night. We are still beating teams in the second tier of the conference and we are still losing to teams in the second tier of the conference. A consistently good team beats all those teams it is supposed to, and catches the great teams when they aren't on their A+ game. If you want to trust that hockey dad, championship teams are the ones that can consistently eliminate those low points. And it's pretty clear that U.C.L.A. isn't there.

The one consistent focal point in this reign of inconsistency is the coach. The QB is different. The running backs are different. The linemen and linebackers and secondary are different. Heck, the punters alone were different from last week.

There is no question that U.C.L.A. Football under Jim Mora is better off now than it was 5 years ago. If you deny that, you're either not being intellectually honest or you're trying to force a square agenda in a round hole.

The real questions is: Considering the variability in the coaching and the low points this team is capable of, is this brand of U.C.L.A. Football good enough for you? That's what we should be asking and debating. Is recruiting good enough or are we still losing too many key recruits to a mess of a program across town? Are our players representing the 4 letters on and off the field in the manner we want and expect? Are the results on the field good enough to satisfy you and your desires for this program? is this program still going the right way?

The inconsistency makes this very hard to give an answer. Some days, the answer to all 4 of those questions is yes. Some days, the answer to all 4 is NFW. That makes it hard to draw much of a conclusion on the long term prospects of the consistent parts of this program - the coaching staff. But it seems to me that when I look at our football program, the only thing consistent is where we seem to get to each year, 9 or 10 wins, just short of a Pac-12 title game, and a mid tier bowl.

If one secret to raising the level of success is just to not suck as bad or as often, is that something we can attain? Can we stop the drive killing penalties? Can our coaches come up with a winning game plan each week? Can we look mentally ready for every opponent? And damn, can we keep our players on the field? Ok, I'm not pinning that last one on the coaches. But the rest, well, it's there every year.

Our football team's high is plenty good enough. It's the lows that are dragging us down. Imagine what this team would be it we just limited our own mistakes against ASU and Stanford - if defensive schemes and execution account for the read option, if we avoid penalties and turnovers, if we don't drop passes. It doesn't require a Heisman QB or a completely healthy defense. The team is already good enough. The whole look and feel to the season is different if we could simply raise our floor and make the lows not so low.

We can keep looking for signs of a change in our program, but the depths of those lows appears to be, sadly, awfully consistent. It's year 4 and I think we are what we are going to be. So Bruins, is that good enough for you?

Maybe all that inconsistency answers that question