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The Morning After, Part 5: UCLA vs. Arizona State

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For the second year in a row, UCLA turned in a disheartening performance at the Rose Bowl following a big win in Arizona. Are injuries finally catching up with the Bruins, or is there a fundamental problem with the program that underlies UCLA's early October woes?

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Like the rest of you, I navigate to Bruins Nation on Sunday morning in the autumn to read gbruin's "The Morning After." Reading Greg's reflections on the game coupled with his gift for seeing the bigger picture helps keep the ups and downs of UCLA football in perspective. And for those of us who take defeats hard, the doctor's "The Morning After" helps ease our disappointment following a loss. So for those of you looking for relief from the pain of yesterday's disheartening performance against the Sun Devils, you'll be sorry to learn that the doctor is out this week.

Just like our football team, Bruins Nation follows a "next man up" philosophy, or in this case, "next person up." Unfortunately, I don't have Greg's wisdom or his skill with prose. I'm a whiz with numbers, but not so much with words. Nevertheless, I'm pinch hitting for Greg this week. I'm the Ivan Murrell to his Hank Aaron.

I wish I could tell you the reason for yesterday's loss. In spite of what I see as a fundamental human desire for simple answers, I think it's pretty rare that simple explanations are enlightening. But at the same time, a long, detailed list of everything that went wrong yesterday would be misleading. For example, missed tackles in the second half have to be put into the context of a depleted defense forced to defend for far too many minutes. Because UCLA's flaws are intertwined, superficial examinations don't provide particularly useful insights either.

There were some obvious problems, though. Our kickoff coverage unit that had been superb through our first four games was poor. Our offensive line, which had been the foundation for everything good about our offense in our first four games, lost the battle in the trenches. Our bruised, battered and thin defense eventually wore down as ASU dominated time of possession. None of those units alone lost the game for the Bruins, however.

In both victory and defeat, it's a team effort. It's tempting to blame a particular player for a fumble, a missed tackle, a dumb and costly penalty, or any other mistake, and declare that his miscue cost  the team a win.  But the truth is that everything that led up to that critical play, and everything that followed was a consequence of team effort.

It's also tempting to blame the offensive coordinator when plays don't work, even though the success of a play depends critically on proper execution. And while it's certainly fair to question the game plan itself, it's still just one part of what went wrong yesterday.

Identifying scapegoats may be satisfying in helping us feel like we know what went wrong, but it tends to be counterproductive in finding and enacting solutions. I appreciate Coach Mora's assertion that responsibility for problems starts at the top and extends to everyone on the team. In my opinion, his postgame comments show that he gets it:

"We have to own it. It starts with me and our staff and our players. We have to get better and learn from it and move on. I do appreciate that our team has tremendous heart and fight, but that was not enough tonight... We have to find a way to rebound and we will."

There were no excuses and there was no finger-pointing. When asked directly about it, Coach Mora acknowledged the loss to injury of key defensive starters, but he didn't use it as an excuse. "You have to find a way to get it done," he said. Exactly.

Coach Mora also mentioned the connection between the start of the fall academic term and UCLA's recent struggles in their first game in October in the last five years--since 2011, the Bruins have lost 4 of their 5 games in the first week of October. But again, he didn't offer that as an excuse. What he said about the connection was "we've got to figure it out." I couldn't agree more.

I don't know if Coach Mora and his staff can remedy what ailed the Bruins yesterday evening. "We have to find a way to get it done" is an expression of good intentions, not a recipe for a cure. And to be honest, I'm not sure that a cure for everything that went wrong yesterday is possible. But if the Bruins are going to get back on their feet and renew their challenge for the Pac-12 title, a fair fraction of those problems have to be solved.

I was very fortunate to have a high school basketball coach that followed and preached Coach Wooden's teachings. We didn't lose many games, but after any loss, he would stress the importance of moving forward. His favorite saying was "You learn more from your losses than your victories." I always found that claim to be true, but then again, because I bought into the idea of it, I applied myself to make sure that I learned valuable lessons from each defeat.

Of course, that's the way that learning works. It doesn't happen by showing up. Learning happens through opportunity and application. It happens through hard work.

I don't doubt that the Bruins will learn their lessons from their disappointing performance against Arizona State. The student-athletes who represent UCLA football are intelligent, hard-working, determined young men. With a week off, the Bruins have time to learn from their mistakes, to heal their bodies, and to get back to playing consistently solid, strong, fundamentally sound football.

The season isn't over for the Bruins. Far from it. Only one Pac-12 South team has a winning conference record. UCLA is tied for second place in the South Division, half a game behind Utah. But for the Bruins to win the Pac-12 South title, they simply can't turn in another performance of the quality that we saw against Arizona State. UCLA's margin for error vanished last night.

Just over 12 months ago, in "The Morning After" following a 35 point victory over the Sun Devils, Greg wrote this:

"Let's not accept in a win what we wouldn't in a loss."

The following week, the Bruins lost to Utah.

Yesterday's loss to ASU followed a 26-point triumph over Arizona last weekend that exposed some of the Bruins' flaws. Did we fall victim to accepting in a win what we wouldn't in a loss? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that we need to see yesterday's loss as a symptom rather than as the problem itself.

A year ago, Greg concluded "The Morning After, Part 4: Arizona State" with this:

"If we want to be Champions, we still have a lot of work to do."

That observation is just as true today as it was a year ago. It's time to get to work, Bruins.