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The Morning After, Part 12: Stanford

Facing a blue and golden opportunity, the Bruins flat performance killed our hopes of a Pac-12 title. Did they also kill our optimism that UCLA Football can ever be something better than we expect?

We won't be Number One this year. Will we ever?
We won't be Number One this year. Will we ever?
Harry How/Getty Images

Well, I guess those vacation days I took over New Years, you know, just in case, can go back in the pool.

The U.C.L.A. Bruins are a good team. Winning nine games is nice and a lot of programs in the country would kill for that. Geez, just a few years ago we would have killed for that.

But this year was not a few years ago. This year had promise and everyone, including the players and coaches who were in the midst of it all, agreed. Competing for the conference title was the goal and anything less would be a disappointment. When your sights are set on great, good doesn't seem so good after all. That's the price of excellence. A 3.0 doesn't get you into U.C.L.A. It's got to be better.

Now, there will still be a lot of people who think 9 wins was ok for this year, and we did after all compete for the Pac-12 South title right up to the last weekend. Personally, I don't think we played anywhere near our potential this season and I wish all fans held higher expectations, but I realize other people will have lower standards and maybe this team did meet their expectations.

I wonder though, are there any fans who got more out of this year than they expected? So with those people and the spectrum of opinions in mind, let me ask this...when was the last time U.C.L.A. Football overachieved in a season?

I've written about how my life is consumed by hockey, my two kids play (my daughter's team plays in about 5 hours, btw) and we love our Colorado Avalanche. We've been Avs season ticket holders since 2002, the year after the Avs last won the Stanley Cup, and during the last 12 years, there have been more down times than up. And prior to last season, probably none of those years would really be considered a success.

In 1996, the Avs moved to Colorado from Quebec a few months before I moved to Colorado from Texas. Having been away from the Kings, and pretty much all sports besides UCLA football and basketball in those pre-internet days, I was ready to adopt the new hometown hockey club and its crop of great young players. That team added an already legendary goalie midseason and that proved to be the final piece to ignite a run at the Cup. The Avs were a very good team that just kept getting better during the season, and that allowed them to keep pushing farther than anyone expected, culminating in a sweep of Florida to win Colorado's first major sports championship.  The Avs stayed around the top of the NHL for the next 6 years, winning another Cup in 2001.

But as that team aged, the playoff exits came about where expected - though far earlier than hoped - and then they quit coming at all. Prior to last year, the Avs were among the worst teams in the entire league for 3 years running. Or, skating, I guess. The salary cap, poor decisions, bad coaches, and ambivalent ownership combined to wreck a once proud and successful franchise.

That legendary goalie returned last season as the team's new head coach and, combined with a good crop of very young talent (the product of years of good draft positions), the Avs started winning. A team that hadn't seen .500 in years was winning on the road, winning at home, and beating the top teams in the league. It lasted all season and picked up speed at the end, culminating in a Central Division title and a #2 playoff seed. Their youth and lack of depth were exposed in the playoffs when a thug's cheap shot shelved our best defenseman and the Avs season ended in a Game 7 overtime. I was there that night and the loss was painful, but the season was anything but. It was the single greatest overachieving team in any sport I've ever played or been close to (if you don't count the 1980 Olympic Hockey team), and as a result, it was as satisfying as any season I've cheered for that didn't end with a trophy.  Coach Wooden's definition of success would agree. When you are expecting to go about 21-61, losing in the first round of the playoffs isn't a moral victory. It's an amazing overachievement.

Overachieving is awesome. I realize it whenever I see my wife.

Man, I wish our football team would approach something like that. Overachievement, that is. Not my wife.

So it's about 3am here and I'm wandering around my house trying to think of something profound to write about this football team and I'm honestly at a loss. What hasn't already been said? One of the down sides of having such a fantastic and involved and intelligent community is that there just isn't much left to say after a while that hasn't been said a hundred times before.

I mean, how often can we write about the mercurial potential of this team - how one week it can breathe fire and raze Troy and the next week it can't even be competitive on its home field with a season of dreams at stake? I just don't know what to say or think or feel anymore.

It's not the disappointment. No, it's the frustration, more than anything. I see those two as very different emotions. Disappointment is just the sadness that comes when some particular result is not what I wanted. Disappointment is what I felt when the Avs were eliminated last spring. Frustration is something far worse. It's a bitterness, a regret, a pain that comes from knowing that the result didn't have to be that way. It's way more insidious and malignant. And yesterday's game frustrated the shit out of me.

After all, it was an outstanding game for 3 minutes and 42 seconds. We kicked off, held them to a 3 and out with the help from one of their cheap little penalties, got the ball back and ran 5 perfect plays for a 7-0 lead. Cue Mighty Bruins and look the hell out, Oregon.

Then what followed during the remaining 56+ minutes was one of the most U.C.L.A. Football things ever. For those who have been waiting all year for the other shoe to drop, here came a size 18 EEE down on our heads. Oh, that shoe was a Nike, by the way. Stanford, a place known for its smarts, doesn't wear adidas.

It was a complete loss. We got pushed around on both sides of the ball by a 6 win team. Line does wins games, right?  As good as we were last week against Southern Cal was as good as Stanford was against us. When we needed to be our most prepared against a disciplined team that had beaten us 6 times in a row, we looked lost on both sides of the ball. When we needed to play inspired, we looked flat. When we needed to be sharp and execute, we missed blocks and catches and tackles. When we needed the fans in the Rose Bowl to stand up and help will this team back into the game, they headed for the exits.

A team that was supposed to be a national title contender couldn't even win its half of the conference. A team that retired the jersey of one of its all-time greats allowed yet another average QB to have a career day against our defense. The worst offense in the conference doubled our rushing yards, surrendered no sacks, had only three incomplete passes, and after the first quarter gave up only three plays where they lost yardage, each a one yard loss on a run play, and the last of those was the QB kneel to end the game. And once again, the pipe dreams for U.C.L.A. greatness in football went right down those very pipes.

Yesterday was an underachievement not just on the day, but on the season as a whole. And underachievement totally sucks.

I read lots of the criticism being hurled at Jim Mora and his coaching staff after the game, and the majority of it is completely deserved. It was sadly reassuring to see similar comments finally starting to surface on the pay sites where there is a greater percentage of sycophants who consider it unpatriotic to look at all aspects the program critically. Granted, the players bear their fair share of blame for yesterday, too. But no matter where you stand in allotting blame, what everyone needs to realize is that we're all on the same side and want to see U.C.L.A. succeed.

And even then, it's not just Mora and company. I was in the stands that miserable day when Aikman and his now retired #8 couldn't score from the 6 yard line in 4 plays and our number one ranking went down the tubes. I watched the makeup game against Miami when the defense couldn't stop a thing and we lost a shot at the first BCS bowl. Both of those teams had great years for the records, but neither overachieved and we are still left with all sorts of what ifs.

I am strangely grateful to Mora and staff that we're in a position to be dissatisfied with a 9-3 record. That actually means we are doing something right. But a 9-3 season is only truly satisfying if that 9-3 is an overachievement, and no way does yesterday's game cap off an overachieving year. Maybe Mora's first season was close, but that 3 game losing streak at the end, including the embarrassing ass kicking by Baylor, wiped that notion away. Last season felt good, but didn't we think we could have or should have beaten ASU and won the South Division and played for the conference, and mostly didn't it prime us for this season?

Only one team will win the College Football Title each year, so I don't think it's totally fair for Bruin to always define a successful or satisfying year by a championship alone. Maybe Alabama or Oregon or Ohio State or Florida State can make that the benchmark, and I hope we get there. But even allowing for some wiggle room near the top, this team still fell short

What is it about U.C.L.A. Football that leaves us so frustrated every year? Are we delusional in thinking that we can compete for national prominence?Will Jim Mora be the one to get us there? Shit. When will we beat Stanford?

Will this program ever be more than we think it can? We've seen underachievement aplenty. When will we see a Bruin football team overachieve?