When Jim Mora was hired as the new UCLA head football coach in 2012, the twice-fired NFL head coach boasted of a new brand of UCLA football. The PR team at The Morgan Center made slick graphics and put up billboards throughout Los Angeles. The slogan would assert an end to the decade or so of mediocrity that the program suffered during the later years of Bob Toledo, and through the reigns of Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel. Jim Mora as head coach of UCLA football would usher in The Bruin Revolution.
From 2012-2014 the Bruin Revolution looked to be taking shape. With Brett Hundley at quarterback and Noel Mazzone’s patented N-Zone spread offense, a fanbase used to seeing its football program finish at or near the bottom of the Pac-10/12 in all meaningful offensive metrics was now beholding an uptempo point-machine. Aggressive defense led by stars like Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks mercilessly blitzed and took out opposing quarterbacks. This was a new UCLA football indeed—physical, fun to watch, competing for conference championships, and part of the national conversation.
Most importantly to Bruin fans, Jim Mora’s football team owned cross-town rival USC, a reeling program led by a different coach, actual or interim, in each of those three years.
If at first the Revolution halted before its final phase could occur—an elite football product that justified national hype—the Revolution took a step back during the 2015 season, and in 2016, the UCLA football program has now devolved entirely to pre-Revolution days.
When we learned from twitter that Josh Rosen—whose talent has somewhat masked the monstrosity that is the offense through half of the season—would not be playing, it felt like a trip back in time to the Neuheisel years. Watching UCLA play a football game was not fun back then, and there was little hope.
You watched the games because you had to, because it was your duty as a fan, but it was about as fun as being a child forced to down a spoonful of malt extract—for about four hours at a time every Saturday night.
You understood the ups and downs of football, and the ups would feel far more sweet if you gamely suffered through the down times. Many of your friends who weren’t as devoted, and will hop back on the bandwagon in 5, 10, or however many years, would pretend they stuck with the team through the worst. They certainly didn’t, but they also had more fun on Saturday nights than you did.
The feeling is back. Call it, The Bruin Devolution.
The Offense Is a Disaster of the First Order
The product of football when the Bruins have possession on scrimmage plays by the eleven men in UCLA uniforms is appalling. Young children should be sheltered, and old lady Bruin fans should not be blamed for injuries sustained from four hours of pearl-clutching.
The problems begin with the offensive line. The linemen don’t know what to do, and in the cases where they do know what to do, they cannot effectively do it. The line not only cannot open up holes in the run game, but often one or two defensive players are in the backfield on a run play before the back—Starks, Olorunfunmi, Jamabo, whoever it may be—even gets the ball.
Former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti—the analyst for the game on ESPN last night—pointed out a play where five UCLA offensive lineman were all blocking the same two players lined up for the Cougars. If football is a game of math, this is markedly careless accounting.
Wide receivers who have consistently dropped passes through the season continue to get playing time, and continue to drop footballs in meaningful situations. Coaches preach execution, but then continue to play those who cannot execute. When do you realize a certain player isn’t reliable, and turn to someone else? Fans are onto which receivers can catch, and which can’t, through seven games of play. When will the coaching staff catch up?
The scheme was supposedly built around a power running attack, but the Bruins are among the worst running teams in all of college football. That leaves an offensive scheme with little cohesion, structure, or philosophy. It is truly a calamity.
After going into the break down 10-0, the Bruins came out with some halftime adjustments that actually worked a little bit. Tom Bradley dialed up more pressure and blitzes in the second half, realizing that the defense would probably need to do more to help the offense score points. The Bruins first touchdown came off a turnover in Cougar territory, though ironically not on a play where there was much pressure, when Luke Falk let the ball slip out of his hands. A short field provided an opportunity for Mike Fafaul to pass for his first touchdown, a 22-yard completion to the Bruins best receiver, Darren Andrews.
Kennedy Polamalu fully abandoned the running game and stuck to a concoction of shorter passes for the fifth-year former walk on quarterback. Fafaul did a great job rolling out of the pocket and finding Darren Andrews, on multiple attempts, for decent gains.
In fact, it was really only when Fafaul tried to take shots deep that he got into trouble; although one nice pass, where Fafaul threaded the needle to Kenny Walker streaking down the sideline, was dropped and could have gone in for six.
The opportunism on defense and the short passes on offense could have been a winning formula. One wonders why this wasn’t the game plan from the outset, considering the Bruins' total lack of ability to run the football, and Fafaul’s lack of experience and arm strength to be taking deep shots down the field.
Have Some Humanity for Mike Fafaul
A guy who is a fifth-year senior, former walk on, backup quarterback lies awake at night dreaming of his opportunity to start—not maliciously, of course, he never hopes for an injury to the starter, but just in case something SHOULD happen, you know. He dreams of being given the game ball, told by the head coach that it's his team now, and leading his team to victory. We saw it happen two years ago with Jerry Neuheisel.
Mike Fafaul had the opportunity last night (he may have it again next week), and his dreams were dashed on national television.
Let’s be clear, Mike Fafaul was fantastic. This is not a guy who has the physical tools of Josh Rosen, and doesn’t really have the athleticism to be a Pac-12 caliber quarterback. If he was in over his head a little bit, it wasn’t his fault for being in the situation. But even considering all that, Mike Fafaul played smart enough and well enough at quarterback to win the game, I believe, if the offensive scheme was competent in the first half.
Kennedy Polamalu more or less blew the first half trying to run the ball. When he adjusted to short passes in the second half, the offense began to churn as well as it was going to under the circumstances, and lead by Fafaul, had the ball twice in the fourth quarter down only a score.
The young man will be deeply heartbroken that he wasn’t able to live the realization of his dream and lead a late game-winning drive, but he was resilient and tough—all the things less athletically gifted players don’t want to hear about themselves, but sorry, he was all those things!—and emphatically exceeded my expectations.
Mike Fafaul is a great Bruin.
Mora and His Assistants
Jim Mora is not an X’s and O’s guy, and that’s okay. He seems to give his coordinators and assistants a lot of latitude to do their jobs, and that, again, is okay. A Bruin unit can be very good with competent scheme and good coaching (see, the UCLA defense). But Mora also seems to be loyal to a fault to assistants that don’t perform.
Jim Mora won’t be fired at the end of this year, unless the wheels totally come off and the team spectacularly implodes, which I don’t think will happen, mostly because the defense is good enough to keep them in games. We’ll also be waiting on pins and needles for whatever we may be able to gleam about Josh Rosen’s injury status. A healthy Josh will be required to go bowling, even if the bowl sucks.
But if Jim Mora wants to continue to coach at UCLA, he’s going to have to clean house on the offensive coaching staff in a way he hasn’t shown a desire to do in his previous four years at UCLA. The offense as a whole is rancid, the running attack is pitiful, and only one year remains with future-top-pick Josh Rosen. It’s hard to make a case for any coach keeping their job who’s had anything to do with the ghastly offense we’ve seen in 2016, except for maybe Tuiasosopo, if he has unique chemistry with Rosen.
Up next, the Bruins host 5-1 Utah at the Rose Bowl, tied for first in the Pac-12 South with Colorado.