Stop me if you’ve heard this before:
Only one half of the team had a good game.
UCLA looked undisciplined.
An opponent made adjustments while UCLA did nothing.
A game of individual brilliance undone because the player wasn’t perfect.
Lack of execution.
Players put in poor positions.
The Bruins lost as a ranked opponent to an unranked opponent (4 straight times!).
This all could have applied to any loss in the Jim Mora era at UCLA, and maybe that’s the most damning thing about this loss.
Let’s start with the obvious: UCLA lost in part because Josh Rosen wasn’t perfect, which is more damning of this coaching staff than anything Rosen did on that field. And to be fair, he was still pretty damn good - 34/56 for 463 yards and 4 touchdowns (plus one more touchdown on the ground). Yes, there were 2 interceptions, but focusing on those as the reason for the loss is missing the forest for the trees.
Because, at the end of the day, the UCLA offense was still more-than good enough to win this game. They put up 45 points on the road; that should win you most games. The running game even looked the best it has in 2 years! The offense scored 6 touchdowns and added a field goal; when they had to punt, Stefan Flintoft pinned the Tigers deep, landing 4 of his 5 punts inside the 20. The offense was as good as you could have asked for.
If you’re pointing fingers, it has to be pointed at the defense, and at the defensive coaching staff. Yes, there were some injuries, but at this point in the Mora era, with the amount of talent that has been recruited into that defense, that excuse rings hollow. Let me list this out for fun:
UCLA lost an NFL-drafted cornerback, and replaced him with a 5 star.
UCLA lost a 1st round defensive end, and replaced him with 2 5 stars.
UCLA lost 2 NFL interior linemen, and replaced them with 2 4 stars and a JC transfer.
Need to replace an NFL linebacker? Throw a bunch of 4 stars at the problem.
The point is that UCLA’s defensive 2-deep is littered with talent. Gone are the days where a single injury would cripple an entire half of the ball; the talent should have turned the defense into a football equivalent of a hydra.
UCLA’s defense allowed 560 yards against Memphis. This comes on the heels of previous game performances where Texas A&M gained 471 yards and Hawai’i gained 515. Let me repeat that really fast: the University of Hawai’i came to the Rose Bowl and gained 515 yards on a UCLA defense. There was a lot of discussion in the aftermath of that Hawai’i game that the Rainbow Warriors had gained a lot of “empty yards”, that the defenses issues were not a big deal because the offense was so good. I even made a point to address this issue in the Eye Test last week, because if we’ve learned anything from the Mora era, it’s that the losses are usually preceded by plenty of warning signs.
Now, to be fair, UCLA’s defense had their best day against the run. After an opening run of 80 yards, the Bruins would hold the Tigers to 82 yards for the rest of the game. That’s not bad! Of course, UCLA immediately switched to a 5-2 set after that opening run and kept bringing safeties into the box to sell out against the run to the detriment of the pass defense. And Memphis recognized that fact - Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson was able to pick apart the undermanned Bruin secondary, throwing for 398 yards and 6 touchdowns. Memphis also took advantage of UCLA’s newfound commitment to dominating the line by calling a few screen passes for huge touchdowns.
If you want a microcosm of the game, consider the end of the 1st half. UCLA had just scored a touchdown to take the lead with 1:12 left in the half, and in 35 seconds drove 72 yards down the field on just 3 plays and scored a touchdown to head into the half with a 27-24 lead. Any time UCLA’s offense recaptured momentum in the game, the defense was more than willing to give it right back.
Now, if there was one play that was a microcosm of the Mora era, it would be this one:
Not exactly the pursuit speed UCLA might be looking for at LB, especially given that this TD gave Memphis the late 2Q 20-17 lead. pic.twitter.com/q39algq8mm— Rob Rang (@RobRang) September 16, 2017
Krys Barnes is not exactly a true freshman. This is his sophomore season, and he started his 2017 by leading the team in tackles last week. He’s also not untalented - Barnes was a composite 4 star recruit, the 9th best inside linebacker in the nation coming out of high school, and held offers from programs like USC, LSU, and Oklahoma.
Yet on this play, he started out looking completely lost, misdiagnosing the play, and then gave up on pursuit.
I don’t even know how to approach this, realistically. There’s an obvious failure of coaching here, in that Barnes, who was going to start this game thanks to the injury to Kenny Young, looked completely unprepared. And then there’s the lack of effort from Barnes once the screen became obvious. It was just mind-boggling.
It was also so UCLA.
Everyone has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to losses like this. Some blame coaches, some blame players. Some people like pull a muscle defending the underperforming coaches and players. Some people even try to play to history, saying things like “remember how bad the last two coaches were?” or “this is just the UCLA program now.” I’m not going to litigate any of that - I’ll save that for others.
As for me personally, I bury myself into watching other games. My best friend is a USC fan, so we talked a ton about their game with Texas, while her boyfriend is a Washington State alum so I watched a bit of their matchup with Oregon State. At some point in the past few years I ended up with a Clemson hat, so I adopted them as something of a second team, and enjoyed their dominating victory over Louisville.
I also watched 2 of the late-night games, and they were as damning for the Jim Mora era as anything I watched during our game.
In the first one, first-year coach Justin Wilcox led California to a victory over Ole Miss, giving them 2 victories over Power 5 conference teams to start the year. The preseason prognostications for the Bears had them as one of the worst teams in the conference, but through 3 games it’s become blatantly obvious that Wilcox and his coordinators know what they are doing.
The fact that Wilcox is even in a position to turn Cal football around so quickly speaks to the level of accountability that is somehow present in Berkeley and doesn’t exist in Westwood. Cal’s AD and boosters were tired of their previous coach, so they got rid of him (in a way that even saved them money!) and went out and got a young up-and-coming coordinator with a lot of upside. It’s a commitment to winning football from a program that, historically, has not had much success. And it’s a move that makes me absolutely livid when I hear from UCLA fans who believe this program and the fans should be happy with Jim Mora because “the program hasn’t been great for a long time.” It’s the equivalent of going to a former 5-star restaurant, getting served average food, and then having the wait staff tell you to stop complaining because “at least we started warming the food again.”
Oh yeah, I watched another game: Stanford versus San Diego State, a game in which the Aztecs statistically dominated the visiting Cardinal and won. Here is a partial list of teams that have beaten the Cardinal since UCLA last won in their matchup:
Utah (multiple times)
San Diego State
This year’s Stanford team looks like one of the worst iterations of the Cardinal under David Shaw; they can’t throw, have a suspect run defense, and are missing the key playmakers that made past teams so dangerous.
And yet I’ve seen this story before, and I still have no faith in UCLA winning when they meet next week. I think there’s a saying that goes something like, “fool me 9 times, shame on you. Fool me 10....”
The question, of course, shifts to “What now?”
The answer, of course, remains “Hope for the best.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Dan Guerrero isn’t going to fire Jim Mora in the middle of the season, because that would involve feigning an interest in the football program. Jim Mora isn’t going to fire Tom Bradley during the season, because he’s loyal to a fault (if you think I’m kidding, ask yourself how Kennedy Polamalu was allowed to call plays for an entire season). Less and less UCLA fans will stop showing up to the Rose Bowl on Saturdays, choosing to spend their money elsewhere. After all, the Dodgers are the best team in baseball, the Angels are in the wild card hunt, the Rams look much-more improved, and the Chargers.....well, they exist. Plus basketball is just around the corner, and hockey is starting preseason games. This is the reality we live in.
One of the questions that Bruin fans will constantly be asking themselves is “Did UCLA miss their chance?” and the answer is undoubtedly yes. A USC with sanctions was already a gift. Getting two of the best quarterbacks in school history to play for 6 straight years helps even more. The baseball teams were average. The NFL wasn’t in town. There was no competition for the limelight.
And they blew it.
Jim Mora’s record at this point stands for itself. One division championship in 5 years, no conference titles, no New Years Six bowl games. Arizona under Rich Rodriguez has accomplished more than him. USC went through 4 coaches and sanctions, and still made it to the Rose Bowl before him. Washington hired a new coach who took them to the College Football Playoffs within 4 years. Oregon already had a coach that had taken them to the Playoffs, and fired him for a really bad season.
At this point, we know exactly who Jim Mora is as a coach. He’s a good, not great, CEO-style coach who lives and dies by the quality of the coordinators he hires. He’s a great human being, and has been a fantastic ambassador for UCLA. Under his leadership (and let’s be honest, Mora was the driving force here), UCLA moved into the modern era, getting state-of-the-art facilities and updated training regiments. He helped guide the program out of the gigantic hole it was in, and pointed it towards respectability.
And he’s probably reaching the end of the line.
But that’s a decision that seems destined for the end of the season, so for now, all we really can do is hope. Hope that things get better. Hope that the defense improves in a hurry. Hope that the offense can find a balance and not rely on one person to be perfect. Hope that people recognize their jobs are on the line, and perform their job at a level that reflects that. Hope that it’s not too late to turn the tide, to change the course the program appears to be on. Hope, hope, hope.
Hope for a better tomorrow, because the past has not been all that great.