Now the Jim L. Mora era in Westwood can begin in earnest.
And not a moment too soon, as after the UCLA Bruins’ disappointing 20-14 loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl before what looked like a fairly sparse crowd at San Francisco’s AT & T Park, Mora, who was at the game, cannot come soon enough as UCLA finished 2011 with a 6-8 record – losing its last three games – that has left Bruin Nation most frustrated and very much ready to turn the page and start a new chapter.
Interim coach Mike Johnson did have the Bruins ready to play and fighting, especially the defense as they only gave up three points in leading 7-3 at halftime and through much of the third quarter; unfortunately, there are two halves in a football game.
At first glance, one may look at Kevin Prince’s statistics and say that he didn’t do so bad, completing 14 of 29 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
But as they say, looks can be deceiving as the Fighting Illini’s defensive unit’s ranking of 7th in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision was seen to be warranted, Illinois giving up only 19 net rushing yards and pounding Prince with five sacks, All-American defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus getting two of them to bring his nation-leading total to 16.5 and setting the single-season record for his school.
Watching him play and dominate, it’s safe to say that Mercilus is ready for the next level, and we can expect to hear him announce that he’s entering his name in the NFL Draft within a couple of weeks.
The fact that the game turned with another one of the many costly mistakes that Prince has made all year, a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by Terry Hawthorne that put the Illini up 10-7 in the third quarter, in which Hawthorne saw the pass coming all the way (shades of his pick-6 to Utah’s Conroy Black on November 12th), solidified the deception of Prince’s performance, as he showed once and for all that his arm, which had little zip on too many passes as he failed to connect on most of his long attempts, is just not strong enough to have long-term success at the BCS level.
Too add to this conviction, one of his two scores was of the too-little-too-late kind, a 38-yard strike to Nelson Rosario with less than a minute left in the game.
On the other side, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse, who earned player of the game honors, was everything that Prince wasn’t as he accounted for 249 total yards, 110 on the ground on 22 carries as he led all rushers. His 60-yards touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins in the fourth quarter, which pushed UCLA’s deficit to 20-7, was the nail in the coffin as he showed that when it came to ability and stepping up, Scheelhaase was – and is – simply a better quarterback that Prince.
And he had a stronger arm to boot.
Outside of tight end Joseph Fauria’s five catches and Rosario’s touchdown, no other Bruin set the world on fire; Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman combined for 68 rushing yards, approximately half of Scheelhasse’s total, though Coleman averaged five yards a carry and got some good runs.
Believe me when I say that Coleman, who was clearly the brightest spot for UCLA’s football team this season and is without a doubt the team’s most valuable player, will be sorely missed, off the field as well as on.
The best thing to say about this game, this loss, and this season for that matter, is something that I remember Henry Aaron saying when he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974: “I’m just glad it’s all over with.”
The UCLA community and its fan base can now put the inconsistencies, disappointments and frustrations of this football season behind them and look forward to starting over with a new coach, a new regime, and hopefully a new culture and a new attitude, because it was painfully clear that whatever was being done was not working, and that things needs to change.