UCLA Football: Young Bruins Have Everything to Play for and Oregon Saturday

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UCLA Football: Young Bruins Have Everything to Play for and Oregon Saturday
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A hydrogen bomb did not vaporize UCLA's season in Palo Alto. The team got beat by No. 13 Stanford, defending conference and Rose Bowl champions, a team refocused the week after a surprising road loss against Utah.  

It is the perfect place for the UCLA team—5-1 overall (2-1 Pac-12 South) and AP no. 12, with every goal full intact—and its fans to refocus the energy and walk back into the arena ready to brawl. 

Saturday’s loss will become over the next two seasons one of those moments looked back on as a place where this team was forged.       

"I thought this was just a really difficult loss for this football team," said Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr. in a postgame press conference (video posted on Bruins Sports Report). "I thought we fought hard. You know we struggled to get things going offensively the way we're capable of getting things going, and that's not like us." 

"That's a very good Stanford football team, as we all know, but at the same time we're a good football team and we had some chances late and we couldn't quite get it done. Sometimes it goes that way. The important thing is that we all as a team and coaches that we look inward and try to find the answers within." 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Had chances late is right. It was not anywhere near UCLA's best performance—with 74 yards rushing on 30 carries and 192 passing yards on 24 completions—but it trailed just 17-10 and possessed the ball with six minutes left with an opportunity to tie the score.

And how easy do you think that is? The scouting guru Todd McShay, who is as close to the top of his profession as anyone can get, thinks Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason and Stanford's barrel-aged players are the best unit in America at disguising coverages and the intentions of their front seven before the snap. 

The most obvious result of that defensive effort was Brett Hundley playing a little frantically, which will happen to a second-year starter against a legitimately elite program. He turned the ball over twice and the offense misfired as often as it hit its targets. 

Mora said it was the best defense they had played all season. That should be enough.

In the bigger picture, Hundley is struggling marginally with his downfield accuracy, especially under pressure. But he is completing 67 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns against six interceptions and a rating of 152.5. 

Sophomore center Jake Brendel is having his own problems getting Hundley the ball cleanly, which is an irritating glitch but a hiccup you have to believe will be fixed.

This should be explicit: There was nothing about Saturday's game to erode any confidence in Hundley as a player who can lead this team to glory. If he is as smart as he seems, he has this year and next to write his history in Los Angeles.

There is no question UCLA is ahead of schedule with tremendously talented youth up and down its depth chart. 

At one point Saturday the Bruins had their third-string tackle knocked from the game two plays after their second-string tackle—replacing a solid sophomore starter in Torian White, who is lost for the season—was hurt. This is an offensive line that starts two true freshmen on the right side, a sophomore center, a junior left guard and a sophomore left tackle.

That was the front echelon of UCLA’s protection against a salty Stanford defensive front starting four juniors and three seniors. Every player will be better the rest of the way for having stood in the face of it. 

Talking about the game itself, you cannot leave out the one-hand, backhanded touchdown catch made by Stanford's Kodi Whitfield against bracketed double coverage on a 37-yard pass fired on a line. I’ve watched Pro Football Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter practice that catch 20 times in a pre-game warm up and the ball is thrown three-quarters that speed without coverage.  

Odds are better than even it will be the greatest catch anyone makes all season. It was a massive moment in the game. The only thing is to tip your cap—but if Whitfield does not perform a miracle the game is likely 10-3 or 13-3 Stanford after that drive and everything looks different.    

Added to that, Erik Kendricks, a veteran anchor in the middle, was hurt and missed the entire second half. The defense played with a big heart all game against a powerful physical football team. 

The new coaching staff—in Westwood for all of one season—reversed UCLA’s trajectory so instantly that now a single loss feels like doom. But no one actually involved with the team is letting that pessimism poison the blood. 

"I am very confident in this football team and I'm excited to go to battle with them again next week," said Mora. 

Over the preceding 10 seasons UCLA's 65-63 record, mediocre enough by itself, does not show how the heart and energy had been sapped out of the program.

Of four bowl games between 2003-2007, the Bruins were 1-3, with the win over Big Ten bantamweight Northwestern at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

From 2008-2011, they missed bowl season twice, beat Temple in the Eagle Bank Bowl in Washington D.C. and in 2011 lost their eighth game of the year to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Eight losses is the most in the history of college football for a bowl team.

None of this was fun.

Over that period the Bruins were 1-9 against USC and took a 50-0 demolition from the Trojans in 2011. One year later, in the first year of the Mora regime, UCLA flipped that result with a dominant 38-28 victory.

Just for some context on how fast the sea changed and why the smart fan would keep their cool, look at Stanford from the time Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2007 until now. In his first two years, the Cardinal went 4-8, finishing seventh in the Pac-10, and 5-7 (sixth) before running off records of 8-5 and 12-1 in 2009 and 2010. 

Both were second-place finishes in the last two seasons before the conference expanded. Harbaugh lost his first postseason game to Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl. He never went undefeated.

David Shaw—in the fifth and sixth years of a continuous system, beginning with Andrew Luck as his starting quarterback—has gone 11-2 and 12-2 for two first-place ties in the North. Shaw lost the Fiesta Bowl his first year before winning the Rose Bowl last year. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Now go back to the top. UCLA in its first season under Mora is ahead of where Stanford was in its third year under Harbaugh, winning nine games and the Pac-12 South division. Historically, both programs are similar, with Stanford playing in 13 Rose Bowls to UCLA's 12. 

So College GameDay goes next week to Eugene, Oregon, where UCLA faces the unbeatable Ducks. Good, that is what the young team with big aspirations wants. Steel sharpens steel, and for a program rising, these are the games that make you.

"I expect we'll respond very well to this today,” said Mora Saturday. “It doesn't get any easier for us, but it's a great challenge and those men in there are great competitors.” 

Even with a loss next week at one of college football’s most imposing road stadiums, this team has sights set on 10-2 with a rematch against Stanford or Oregon in the Pac-12 championship.

These Bruins have everything ahead of them. 

 

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