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The Morning After, Epilogue: Kansas State

Ten wins, back to back bowl wins, and beating the #11 team are all good things. Really. But like the post game handshake, there is still a feeling that this season didn't end just how it should have.

A good season, yes. A great season? Depends...
A good season, yes. A great season? Depends...
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Usually the epilogue provides some sort of closure to a story. But not in this case. Instead of providing any answers, this one basically repeated the theme we've seen since the kickoff at Virginia.

If you want to understand 2014 U.C.L.A. Football, the 2015 Alamo Bowl pretty much covers it all.

After a season of relative ups and downs the Bruins once again showed their very best and very worst, but this time they appeared in the same game, within the same half, and even a couple times on the very same play.

A game that began with a demonstration of what we all hoped for this season ended as a realization of what we all came to expect this season, and a first half of cheers was replaced by a second half of curses and averaged out to a finale of a somewhat unfulfilling sigh of relief.

So even when we cap a season with a bowl victory over the number 11 team in the country, and we get our 10th win of the year, and we end our second season in a row with 10 wins, and we see our first back to back bowl wins since 1987-88, accomplishments that would all seem to be worthy of glee, it still can't be completely wine and roses for U.C.L.A.

Well, maybe roses is a bad choice of words there.

It didn't start that way. In fact, the first half of the game was easily our best 30 minutes of football this season.  The offensive game plan was creative and unpredictable. The defense was hungry and attacking. The team was focused and intensive and fast and everything we thought they were back in August. We raced out to a lead that looked like a Kentucky - U.C.L.A. basketball score.

Too soon?

But as happened all too often this season, the Bruins failed to handle prosperity well, and last night it was a turnover and penalties and an inability to get off the field on D and a resilient Kansas State team that admirably squeezes every ounce of accomplishment it can from itself that nearly made a comeback for the ages over a Bruin team that once again managed to squeeze only about the first half of its accomplishment from itself.

Coach Mora said earlier this week that Oregon is not the standard for Pac-12 Football.  Now on the surface, that's an absurd statement, because Oregon is on a very very short list of schools that is pretty much the standard for everyone else in the world of college football right now, not just the Pac-12.  But I do get where Mora is coming from. I get that he expects U.C.L.A. to set and play to its own standard and not to worry about anyone else. In general, I agree with that outlook, and Coach's definition of success would agree with that, too. But when you look at the path of this football program, one which has certainly trended upward over the three years that Mora has been in Westwood but which still suffers from the same maddening inconsistencies and faults, I think it's also fair to hold U.C.L.A. up to the Oregons (and Ohio States and Alabamas and TCU's - see what I did there?) of the college football world for comparison and see where we are falling short.

For the defensive intensity of the first half, there was the defensive softness of the second. For the offensive efficiency of the first half, there was the offensive impotence for much of the second. For the sharp focus that the Bruins started with, there was the recurrence of the usual array of idiotic penalties. For the outstanding preparation and play calling that opened the game there was the absence of response to KSU's second half adjustments. For the intensity of the head coach and his laudable loyalty to his players, there was a very bad look in the immediate post game.

Action and reaction. Yin and yang. Good U.C.L.A. football and bad U.C.L.A. football. It's another one of the mystical forces of the universe.

Sure, emotion on defense that leads to 7 sacks by 4 different players is great, but without discipline that becomes penalties that extend drives, negate punts, and call back interceptions.

Sure, beating Kansas State is always respectable, but contributing mightily to a comeback that nearly erased a 25 point lead and having to recover what was almost the greatest onside kick in history takes away some of the luster.

Sure, Mora was right to defend his players from a couple near cheap shots on our center and QB on the final kneel down, but there is a time and place to have that conversation with the opposing coach and the end of game handshake isn't it (and I'm fine with the timeout).

Sure, 10 wins is great, and in retrospect we probably shouldn't be so quick to criticize the Bruins for losing to Oregon midseason (although Arizona found a way), but that same forgiveness cannot extend to the Utah and Stanford games. How easily could 10 have been 11?

This was a season with some baby steps of improvement and some scattered slips back. Progress, but not the great leap forward that we were hoping for. Oregon, that non-standard, took their next step forward by winning the Pac-12 Title, running away from their opponent in the Rose Bowl, and landing in the College Football Playoff Championship game. That sounds like a standard I'd like to see us meet.

Of note, Oregon won the Alamo Bowl last season. So there is that.

In the end, I feel the jury is still out on this program and whether Jim Mora has all the tools needed to elevate it to the championship status that he himself has said on many occasions is his goal. Jeff Ulbrich's defense improved during the year, but will he develop into a championship caliber DC? Noel Mazzone has been around long enough that I don't expect we'll see much change with him, so will a new face at QB and a more experienced O Line and a great running back crew and a good if not game breaking WR corps be enough on offense for a championship run? Our place kicker quietly had a pretty solid season but can he make that money kick like Utah this year or Stanford two years ago next time? And what about the penalties? The lapses in focus? The second half doldrums? Will the coaching staff change? How will recruiting finish? Will this team progress or is 10 wins the ceiling?

Just when I thought the epilogue was going to give me some answers, it went back and just rehashed the same old questions. I guess we'll have to wait until the next chapter to see which way the narrative goes.