Remember before the season started and the Bruins were ranked #7, Brett Hundley was making the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the Bruins were the trendy "dark horse" pick to win the conference and make it to the inaugural College Football Playoff? Three games later, the Bruins were stumbling out of the gate, picking up close wins against average-to-mediocre opposition, with a lot of questions building around the program and whether they were able to handle the crush of elite expectations.
But, they survived and won, and they came into tonight's game - a Thursday night showdown against #15-ranked Arizona State in Tempe on "blackout" night - and when Bruin teams of the past would implode, these Bruins put together a dominating effort in all three phases of the game, finally living up to the pre-season hype and expectations. Without any doubt, tonight's UCLA squad put together the best game we've seen from any Bruin squad in a very long time. Big plays, a varied offense that actually included throwing a slant over the middle to beat an aggressive blitz, a strong defensive effort, Ishmael Adams playing absolutely out of his mind on special teams and defense, and most importantly, a big road win with no one getting hurt.
Things got off to a slow start in the first quarter, with UCLA falling behind quickly 17-6. But once the second quarter came, everything began to click and once the Bruins got rolling, they could not be stopped. It was a welcome change from UCLA teams of the past - when the Bruins would let leads slip, let opponents stick around games, when they lacked the killer instinct. Tonight, Ishmael Adams made a huge play to close out the first half, returning a bad Bercovici pass all the way for a huge TD to give UCLA a 27-17 lead at half. When teams of years past would come out slow and let Arizona State hang around (with UCLA managing to win thanks to the heroics of Kai Forbath or Justin Medlock), the Bruins came out in the second half and put the knife right to the throats of Arizona State - scoring on the first play from scrimmage to put UCLA up 34-17. Not content to let Arizona State's next FG go without answer, Ishmael Adams snapped off a 100 yard kick-off return that effectively ended the game - psychologically, the Sun Devils were done and beaten.
Best of all, even up 41-20, Mora and his Bruins didn't let up, running off another 21 points to just emphasize the gulf in class between the Bruins and the rest of the Pac-12 South. There is no doubt - this was the most satisfying UCLA win in a very long time. And while some may say this wasn't the best Arizona State squad in recent years, especially with Taylor Kelly out, this Sun Devils squad is still very talented - and make no mistake, Mike Bercovici will be the Sun Devils' starting QB next year - he is a Pac-12 starting QB quality player. Arizona State didn't lose this one - the Bruins went out and earned it with a hard-hitting win.
There is still a lot of room for improvement - some slow-developing plays need to find their way out of the Mazzone playbook, the stupid penalties have got to end (lining up in the neutral zone should never happen), and there were still a couple of drops that need to be cleaned up, but if this is the UCLA team that shows up every week, the Bruins might just play themselves back into the Pac-12 conference crown and College Football Playoff picture.
Big win for the Bruins and boy, does it feel good to finally see the UCLA squad we were waiting for all summer finally show up. Let's hope they keep this level of effort and focus up the rest of the way - if they do, it should be a very elite and very special year for UCLA football.