UCLA Bruins Swallow an Owl in Houston, Begin Jim Mora Era with a Win

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UCLA Bruins Swallow an Owl in Houston, Begin Jim Mora Era with a Win
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It was rejuvenating, entering the season knowing the product was at least going to be different. It felt like a sea change all winter and spring in the interviews with Jim Mora and the returning players. Then there was the fall training camp in the desert at San Bernardino that everyone who spoke of claimed a team was forming from the drilling and new discipline.

It all seemed sort of like a transfusion: new blood into a good body weakened by too much recycling from a stagnant bank. It was good to have someone from the outside, like Mora who came from the NFL, take over the program. 

There was plenty to like for a first trot around the track with the new system installed. There was something different about the performance on the field and the intensity along the sidelines. There was a hell of a sustained effort from everyone, including the coaches. It felt a little like UCLA football used to feel. 

It was only Rice; but it could easily have been a disaster. Look what happened to Pittsburgh against Youngstown State. What if the Bruins had lost, and today was about rationalizing how it was just the first time out with a lot of brand new pieces. It's not like UCLA plays schools from football's lower division to tune-up. Of 120 schools in the top tier, only Notre Dame, USC and UCLA have never played a 1-AA or FCS school. That speaks to the expectations in Los Angeles, which are what they ought to be. 

I thought the game phases were good too, except for the three points-after-touchdown blocked in the first half. Otherwise, the units moved sharply through their cycles. The attention to detail was apparent late in the fourth quarter, with the game well in hand, when Jeff Locke hung a punt that bounced and rolled dead at the 2-yard line. 

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The kick sequence was executed the right way, with serious intentions, and for no better reason than it was the proper way to play the game. That is a small thing, but it is a change. 

UCLA's top running back, Jonathan Franklin, is an elite player. He's fast and tough. He runs hard, and he is playing out his last chance to make the program a contender again. He'll be a desperate man all season, which makes him invaluable to his teammates and coaches: the intensity of his effort will motivate more than words possibly could. 

His numbers against Rice were gaudy: 214 yards on 15 carries and three touchdowns. That is more than 14 yards each time he was given the football. He bolted on scoring runs from 74 and 78 yards in the first half. 

The Bruins scored three touchdowns in the game's first six minutes. It was not only exciting but seemed to auger extremely well, when Brett Hundley sprinted for a 72-yard touchdown on the first snap of his career. 

Hundley was not locked in all night, though, but why should he be in his first game with new coaches and systems all around? He threw late and behind a couple of receivers on third downs, and laser-shot a bad interception to Rice's Cameron Nwosu at the end of the first half. Hundley finished 21 of 28 for 202 yards and two touchdowns. That is a very promising start to a career.

And the Bruins' defense stole Hundley's interception back two plays later, when they blew up an Owl's wildcat package and forced Turner Peterson to fumble the ball away. Damien Holmes scooped it up for the Bruins and ran-in a 44-yard touchdown—with a convoy of blue and gold for a rearguard—to put UCLA ahead 35-24 at the half. 

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UCLA should have had 38 points, but three extra point kicks had been stuffed by Rice. It wasn't a bad place to be broken in, though, for Ka'imi Fairbairn, UCLA's freshman kicker from the Sandwich Islands. 

The coaches love him. After the first two kicks had been blocked, Fairbairn came on in the second quarter and thumped a 27-yard field goal high and hard through the uprights. He looked as confident as a kicker can look. The point-afters were an opening game malfunction that were probably tinkered into shape before the game ended. 

Rice has a bad defense, generally, but I liked the explosive offensive production anyway. You're supposed to light up bad defenses. Explosive plays did not happen in 2011, or 2010, or 2009, or ... how far back does it go? It's like coming from a cave into the light when you believe your team has a legitimate chance to score on every play. 

The Bruins finished with 646 yards of offense: 303 passing and 343 rushing. The 49 points were the most scored since 2005! There should have been 56 points on the board, but a fine sideline touchdown pass from backup quarterback Richard Brehaut to Damien Thigpen was called back. The official threw a flag for unnecessary roughness against freshman Devin Lucien. 

Lucien de-cleated Phillip Gaines, Rice's best cornerback, 30 yards away from the play, with Gaines looking the other way. It was a cheap shot, and the official made a respectable call. It was as good a place as any for Lucien to learn a lesson about sportsmanship and intelligence, and how a lack of it can cost his team a pound of flesh. 

Lucien, wearing number 15, looked like a bright young playmaker in other spots. He caught a third-down pass early in the fourth quarter, wheeled sharply and dug up the sideline, accelerating quickly. If he hadn't nicked the paint with his foot and been called out of bounds, he would have picked up a big first down for the Bruins. Later, he pulled-in a 32-yard pass one-handed up the boundary. It was an amazing catch. 

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Shaq Evans caught four passes and looked like a player, too. Jerry Johnson, the big possession wideout, caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hundley. Redshirt freshman running back Steven Manfro is definitely going to contribute to the offense this year. Other than dropping a wide-open, 33-yard touchdown pass down the sideline, Manfro was ready to go, returning kickoffs and handling the ball out of the backfield.  

The only offensive piece that might have been underutilized was tight end Joseph Fauria. Fauria is a real weapon and can deliver a scoring payload. He has a huge frame, runs like a wideout and has excellent hands. He caught three balls on the night for 53 yards and caught a touchdown on a fourth-down play from the four yard line. 

That touchdown catch by Fauria came at the end of a drive I hope foreshadows the season for the Bruins. In previous campaigns, a setback like a dropped touchdown pass meant the team didn't score. But Fauria's touchdown came after Manfro dropped what was, in all honesty, one of the most wide-open touchdown passes I've ever seen. He was more open than Jackie Smith, and the ball was better thrown. 

On the next play, Hundley hit Evans on a sharp inside slant for a big gain. Then running back Jordan James went up the middle for seven yards. Damien Thigpen, a receiver, was handed the ball to put UCLA at first-and-goal. A false start set the Bruins back five yards, and the cameras cut to Mora on the sideline, shouting "dammit!" over the bad execution when the team had gathered momentum and pace.

Three more plays got UCLA back to the four yard line, where Mora decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down. Hundley found Fauria near the front corner of the endzone and threw the ball high. Fauria went up and snatched it from over the head of an Owl's defensive back for the score. It was a great sequence to watch following the dropped touchdown and bad penalty.

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The touchdown catch bolstered what Fauria told Scott Reid from The Orange County Register in the run-up to the game: "It's going to put us on the map," he said. "It's going to show that UCLA is a little different now. Different offense, different defense, different mindset."

The defense played pretty well, too, and that is where UCLA will have to be steely if their season is going to pan out. Rice does have an offense with experience and continuity, so it was a decent first test. The Owls moved the ball well in the first half. Their quarterback, Taylor McHargue, and his best target, Sam McGuffie, are good players. Their running back, Peterson, is a tough kid. 

There were a few tough kids on Rice's side, including McHargue, who was pulled late in the fourth quarter. I don't know how good they'll be over the course of a year, but they were tough. It would be hard not to respect McGuffie. At a listed 5 foot 11 inches and 200 lbs, he showed he could hang in the Big Ten when he got on the field for Michigan back in 2008. 

After he realized it wasn't going to work in Ann Arbor, he left for Rice, another elite academic school, and has played well since getting to Houston in 2009. McGuffie caught a touchdown pass in the game and got up from a punishing, almost unnecessarily brutal hit by UCLA strong safety Andrew Abbot at the beginning of the second half.  

Rice picked up 358 yards on 34:15 of possession time. In the end, McHargue led Rice in passing and rushing. He was 17 of 28 for 172 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. Sheldon Price grabbed the interception. McHargue ran also 22 times for 95 yards. 

UCLA's defensive secondary looked a little shaky at times, especially at the corners, where the experience is supposed to be, but that was partly a matchup problem with McGuffie drawing free safety Tevin McDonald on Bruin's cover zero blitzes. It was a cover zero that Rice threw one of their touchdowns against. 

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Rice had the ball too much—but UCLA scored quickly on four of their touchdowns and gave it right back. There was a lot of room in the middle of the field, and Rice used it at times, especially when UCLA missed on their edge pressure. 

Still, in the second half, Rice did not score a point. It seemed like about half of their offensive players were moving gingerly in the fourth quarter. They'd been worn down and beaten-on all night, and it showed.  

UCLA sacked Rice's quarterbacks six times. Senior defensive end and team leader Datone Jones had two. Anthony Barr, a linebacker converted over from offense, had one. Barr looked naturally vicious, a good attribute in a defensive player. Also getting a sack was defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, linebacker Keenan Graham, freshman defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy and linebacker Damien Holmes, who had a big night, and was the defensive player of the game.   

It was sort of a thrill and depressing to see Rice Stadium. I wasn't sure it was still standing. It's a legitimately historical venue, but it's getting old. The stadium is big, but the university has vacuum sealed a "Rice Owls" embossed tarp over both endzone sections, and cut the capacity of a 70,000 seat stadium to 47,000. The crowd at the game was probably 12,000. Those upper decks were enormously vast and empty. 

The stadium should be preserved, though, maybe like a Civil War battlefield, as the site of the complete route of the Minnesota Vikings by the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII. For the Minnesotan, it is a memory passed into the collective unconscious of every football-loving heathen born onto those fine, cursed prairies. There will be no more Super Bowls there, but there will always be that historical footnote.    

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