In his first season as the head coach of UCLA football, Jim Mora appeared to be taking the Bruins in a new direction. A year after Rick Neuheisel’s last Bruin team’s "over the wall" mentality lead to a series of embarrassments culminating in a 50-0 loss to USC in the Coliseum that finally got Dan Guerrero to issue the pink slip, Mora’s Bruins whipped Lane Kiffin’s team 38-28 in the Rose Bowl, with an exclamation point delivered by linebacker Anthony Barr.
The Bruins had bested the Trojans for the first time in five years and it wasn’t an ugly upset like 13-9 either, but a full-scale, all phases of the game, sound defeat. Things would be different in LA from now on, it seemed. Long live, Jim Mora!
Exactly a week later, the Bruins would get a visit from #8 Stanford in the Rose Bowl, a preview game of the Pac-12 Championship that would be rematched six days later in Palo Alto. The Cardinal handed Mora two defeats in less than a week—the first not close at all, the second painfully so. Solve one problem and there shall emerge another.
It was said after his first three seasons, posting nine or ten wins in each and a three-game a win streak over USC, that Jim Mora had a Stanford Problem. Mora’s Bruins could beat the teams they were supposed to beat (well, save for about one a year), but couldn’t crack into the elite of the conference. The elite was defined by David Shaw’s program in the Pac-12 North. The Bruins didn’t have to worry about Oregon every year, but Mora, now almost through five seasons as the head coach of UCLA, is averaging 1.2 losses per year to the Cardinal.
His chief problem was also his main crush. He would tackle the problem head on by remaking his own program in their image.
For about 59 and a half minutes into the annual tilt against the Cardinal, it almost looked like Jim Mora’s Bruin makeover was going to work, despite signs for worry even in the previous three games. Then Ryan Burns found JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the endzone and fended off the new-look Bruins, who would be exposed for their offensive deficiencies as the season went on. The months-long makeover would prove to have been a fool’s errand as Mora and Kennedy Polamalu went back to the spread and even tried to throw the ball 70 times in a game to get something out of the remnants of a poorly thought out schematic transition. In the end, it worked about as well as extracting water from a stone.
The result of his missteps in trying to take on the Stanford Problem is a losing season, UCLA’s first in five years. In trying and failing to solve the Stanford Problem, he seems to have created a USC problem again. And maybe a Colorado problem. And certainly a Washington problem. Or actually, not any of those things.
What Jim Mora has now is a big old UCLA Problem.
Did UCLA Miss Its Chance to Be Elite During USC’s Down Years?
After Pete Carroll’s run of conference championships in the 2000s, the power in the conference shifted to the North. Only Oregon and Stanford have won the conference since USC’s last title, and only Oregon and Stanford have won since the conference expanded to 12 teams. (That will change this year.)
While Mike Garrett and Pat Hayden were struggling to hire competent adults to replace Carroll, there was a vacuum of power created in the southern division of the Pac-12. With Mora’s team representing the Pac-12 South in the championship game his first season, and beating USC to get there, Bruin fans couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the new coach would fill the void left by Carroll’s departure to the NFL.
The talent in the conference, and especially the Southern Division, comes from Southern California, and while USC was flailing across town, UCLA could emerge as a power and have first dibs on the top local talent in the recruiting rich surrounding areas.
Instead, UCLA from 2013-2015 had control of their own destiny but lost the division title in the last or second-to-last game of the regular season, and four teams from the South have played in the conference title game in the last four years. This year (fingers crossed) there will be a fifth team representing the South, if Colorado can beat Utah at home next week.
With Clay Helton at the very least able to get the kids to bed on time, USC is now playing like a top ten team and poised for a resurgence of power. While I’m still not sold on Helton as the next great college football coach, mere competence can go a long way at a program with such a storied history, recruiting kids who can still remember watching Reggie Bush. In Boulder, Mike MacIntyre appears to be creating something special, turning around a conference doormat into the potential Pac-12 South champion. In the meantime, UCLA is sliding.
Meanwhile up North, the division is shifting from a Stanford and Oregon division to a Stanford and Washington division, the South may be heading towards being a USC and Colorado division.
There can really only be so many elite teams in each conference, or division, or part of the country, at one time. Three or four that trade contender type seasons one or two at a time. They stay among the elite until eventually the coaching level starts to drop, or the head coach maybe wants to try an opportunity somewhere else.
If Jim Mora was capable of taking UCLA to the elite, it sure is starting to feel like he missed his shot.
Do We Have to Talk About the Game Now?
All else being equal, the team that wins the turnover margin usually wins the game. All else was not equal on Saturday night in the Rose Bowl.
After a quick touchdown drive, a drive into field goal range (but the kick was blocked), and a touchdown after an interception returned to goal-to-go territory, UCLA had three consecutive three-and-out drives before a fourth drive where Mike Fafaul took a knee to end the first half. Sam Darnold orchestrated two touchdown drives and a field goal drive, tallying 16 points (a missed PAT) during the span that UCLA couldn’t even get a first down. Down 9 at the half, the game felt already over.
USC’s offense was always a step ahead of the Bruin defense, and their athletic receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and De’Quan Hampton were able to make plays on 50-50 balls even when the Bruin defenders were in the right place. The Trojans were able to convert on 12-21 third downs, and twice converted fourth downs. That means that two thirds of the time that the Bruins were able to force a third down, the Trojans were still able to extend the drive. They converted twice on third-and-eight plays, once on third-and-nine, once on third-and-twelve, and on their first touchdown drive, facing a third-and-17 play, got close enough to the chains to convert on fourth-and-one.
The Trojans punted twice all game, one of which came on their second-to-last drive in garbage time. Stefan Flintoft punted 7 times. I guess the good news is that despite punting that many times Adoree Jackson only got 16 yards on punt returns for the game.
USC had the ball for 43:47, to UCLA’s 16:13. USC gained 527 total yards, to UCLA’s 266 yards.
The Bruins got their butts kicked.
Oh God, Does There Have to Be Another Game?
Next week UCLA and Cal, both 4-7, will face off in Memorial Stadium up in Berkeley. The Bruins opened as favorites, but have beaten the spread only twice this season. Mercifully, kickoff is scheduled for 4:00pm local time.
One more game and then there is the offseason (unless at 5-7 UCLA’s APR earns them an invite to one of the too many bowl games).
At the very least, Mora will have to make changes in the offseason to the offensive coaching staff and it’s got to be a total house cleaning. He’ll have to hire an offensive coordinator who can put together a competent scheme, he’ll probably have to go after JC and/or grad transfer ranks to get offensive linemen in fast and, then, not lay waste to what will potentially be his last season with Josh Rosen as his quarterback.
The seat will be hot as Jim Mora tries to prove that 2016 was an aberration. The once open South looks to have powerhouse programs emerging in USC, and maybe even Colorado, while Chris Petersen’s Huskies may be the class of the conference for years to come.
Can UCLA compete among the elite while Mora is at the helm? Or is it time for Dan Guerrero to go football coach shopping...again?