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Why UCLA Lost To Stanford: Jim Mora and the NFL Mindset

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In the wake of last night’s loss to Stanford, let’s examine what happened.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As I sit down to dissect last night’s football game, I am reminded of a quote from economist John Maynard Keynes. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes wrote "Worldly wisdom teaches us that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."

What does that have to do with UCLA football? Well, let’s just say it explains a lot including why Jim Mora will never win a national championship at UCLA.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about how UCLA’s Blue Chip Ratio should lead to success. And, yet, here we sit. UCLA is four games into the season and they’ve won 2 and lost 2.

There is very little doubt that, to most Bruin fans, this year’s team is underperforming. The talent is there. So, let’s look at why the team is underperforming.

SB Nation football analyst Bill Connelly likes to argue that winning in college football takes three things: talent acquisition, development and deployment.

In general, development is on a pretty level playing field because NCAA rules limit how much time teams may practice each week.

When it comes to talent acquisition, UCLA Coach Jim Mora has done a good to excellent job of recruiting talented players to come play for the Bruins.

And, that leaves us with the issue of deployment.

As I sit here, with the disappointment of last night’s loss still fresh, I cannot help but think that last night’s game was lost due to "deployment issues."

In other words, there were critical strategic mistakes made by Coach Mora in last night’s game and that resulted in Stanford coming back to steal one from the Bruins in the last minute of the game.

No, I’m not talking about changes to what the Bruins were doing on defense. Both Mora and DC Tom Bradley said after the game that they hadn’t changed what they were trying to do on defense, unlike last week when Bradley admitted that he softened up on defense.

I’m talking about the overall conservative philosophy that Jim Mora developed as an NFL head coach.

Week after week in the NFL, teams play extremely conservatively. They play not to lose a lot more frequently than they play to win. It’s the NFL mindset. If you turn on your TV this afternoon, I can almost guarantee that you’ll see it.

While that might work in the NFL (and I’m still not saying that it’s the right way to go), it works even less in college football.

As an example, let’s take a trip across town to visit our friends from Southern Cal. On Friday night in Utah, the Utes got the ball at their own 7 yard line with 5:30 to play, trailing 27-24. That’s when Kyle Whittingham’s team drove 93 yards to score with 16 seconds left to play.

Not once but twice on that drive, Whittingham made decisions to be play aggressively, rather than opt for the conservative move, which, in all likelihood, could have cost the Utes the game.

On fourth and one from the Southern Cal 35 with 3 minutes left, Whittingham went for it. Now, Whittingham’s other option would have been to try a 52-yard field goal to tie the game.

Instead, Whittingham decided to go for it.

Utah gained 3 yards on the play and the drive kept going.

On the next series of downs, the Utes found themselves again in a fourth and one. This time, they were on the Southern Cal 23-yard line with 1:20 to play.

Once again, Whittingham could have sent out his field goal unit to tie the game and, probably, send the game into overtime. What did he do?

Whittingham kept his offense on the field and they willed a 5 yard run by Zack Moss to move it to the 18-yard line. On the next play, Troy Williams found Tim Patrick for the game-winning touchdown giving the Utes a 31-27 victory.

Now, let’s compare that to last night’s game.

After Stanford kicked their third field goal of the night to make the score 10-9 Bruins, UCLA got the ball back on their own 25 with about 11 minutes to go after a touchback on the kickoff.

At this point, all UCLA really need to finish Stanford off was a nice, long, time-consuming touchdown drive. As I sat there in the stands, I knew this was the case and I sent out a tweet to that effect from the Bruins Nation twitter account.

After all, a touchdown would have put UCLA up by eight points with time running down, meaning that Stanford would have to put the ball into the end zone and gone for two just to tie the game.

UCLA drove down the field and did a pretty good job eating up the clock, although I wouldn’t have minded if they had taken a little more time.

They drove all the way down to the Stanford 18-yard line and that’s when the Bruins lost the game. With it 4th down and 2 on the Stanford 18-yard line and UCLA with their collective foot on Stanford’s neck, Jim Mora opted for the conservative call. He sent out the field goal unit and freshman kicker JJ Molson delivered the three points to make it 13-9.

And, that’s when Bruin fans started thinking that this game was done. The Bruin Twitterverse exploded with tweets about 13-9 comparing last night’s game to the 13-9 victory over Southern Cal.

The only problem here is that the game wasn’t done. There was still six and a half long minutes to go and Stanford had the ball.

Again, the UCLA defense heard the bell and came back onto the field to force a Stanford three-and-out with less than five minutes to go.

"Alright...no problem...we can just run down the clock and this one will be over," thought just about every Bruin fan inside the Rose Bowl.

And, the Bruins started doing just that.

They ran four plays which moved the ball 32 yards and took another two minutes off the clock.

But, the Bruins then faced fourth down and two yards to go from their own 46-yard line and the "play not to lose" NFL mindset of head coach Jim Mora once again showed its ugly head.

Out went the UCLA punt team and, subsequently, so did the Bruins’ victory.

And, that, my friends, is why Jim Mora will never lead UCLA to a national championship. It’s his conservative NFL "play not to lose" mindset.

That brings us back to the Keynesian quote I started this article with.

When Mora eventually leaves UCLA either on his own or because he was fired, he’ll leave with his conventional reputation intact and someone else will hire him because, while he may not have succeeded at bringing a national championship to Westwood, he will have failed conventionally.

To be sure, this morning, Bruin fans are waking up and thinking about how the team came soooooo close to winning yesterday and how they played with such heart and blah, blah, blah.

Why? Because that’s the mindset of most of the UCLA fanbase. They are so conditioned to not winning that they just accept a loss like yesterday as par for the course.

Instead of doing that this morning, I challenge everyone to think about what an aggressive coach would have done.

Now, I’m not arguing that it should be taken to an extreme, even though there is some statistical evidence that suggests coaches should never punt ever.

I just want you to think about what could have happened if UCLA went for it on fourth and two from the Stanford 18 and/or fourth and 2 from their own 46. Go ahead. Run the scenarios through your head.

Almost every single one results in a better result than last night and none of them results in a worse result.

In closing, I want to call to your attention the fact that UCLA has now lost its last four games against Power Five opponents. The team’s only two wins in that stretch have been against a Little Five school and a former Little Five school which is now an independent.

So, what exactly is the bottom line?

The bottom line here is that something is wrong with UCLA football at this time and it’s about time that Athletic Director Dan Guerrero do something about it. Given that Jim Mora will never win a national championship at UCLA and that, at this point, he is incapable of beating any Power Five opponent, something must be changed.

While I like the character that Jim Mora teaches to his players, that isn’t a reason to keep a football coach. Winning is. And, Jim Mora has squandered his talented recruiting classes by failing to deploy them effectively.

It’s time to cut bait.

Think about what Kyle Whittingham could do if he were at a school like UCLA.

Go Bruins.