Because your humble UCLA writer loves these Bruins as much as you do, and because this UCLA writer was as confident as you were about a Rose Bowl berth, not much has been discussed regarding the Bruins’ 27-24 loss to the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Palo Alto, CA.
Because the loss stings. Imagine stabbing your shin to the tune of a nine-inch long, one-inch deep gash and then pouring a gallon of rubbing alcohol on it. That’s what it feels like.
But it must be re-visited, and though hindsight is 20/20, there are moments in the game — you can literally count them on one hand — in which wrong decisions led to a narrow Stanford victory.
The most salient? UCLA head coach Jim Mora’s decision to kick a field goal from 52 yards out, relying purely on their freshman kicker’s talented, yet raw, leg; that kick missed by a yard or less and it essentially sealed the game for UCLA with 40 seconds to go.
The kick came on a fourth-and-four in Stanford territory, about 10 yards away from the redzone. The alternative option was to go for the first down with 47 seconds left in the game, which would’ve given the Bruins ample time to take one or two more shots downfield (or pass down the middle to set up an easier field goal for Fairbairn).
The rationale behind taking the kick was that the odds of converting on fourth-and-five were reminiscent of a coin-flip and had the Bruins failed to convert, they wouldn’t have had the chance to tie the game at all and Stanford would’ve won without having to defend an attempt from UCLA at a game-winner.
And to a degree, that’s fair. Conservative as all hell, but fair. Although UCLA had been running up and down Stanford’s front seven all game, the Cardinal had forced UCLA to punt the ball on the previous two possessions, which resulted in just 35 yards combined.
But going for it might’ve led to a far different outcome if the Bruins had converted the fourth down. Worst-case scenario (that involves UCLA converting, of course) is the Cardinal hold UCLA to no yards gained afterwards and Kaimi Fairbairn has a 47-yard field goal as opposed to a 52-yarder, one that might’ve been more accurate from a slightly shorter distance.
Conservatism in college football will be looked down upon, and for good reason. The notion of “playing to win” is one that is valued and highly successful. The risks are higher but so is the reward, and in some cases, taking the risk actually is the safer option.
Kaimi Fairbairn has converted just one field goal longer than 35 yards and his kicking has been a constant topic of discussion among UCLA fans. He had a game-winner from about 35 yards out against Arizona State earlier in the season, but besides that, his ability to make kicks late in close games is largely unproven.
Fairbairn narrowly missed the kick, which suggests he would’ve made it had it not been for a poor snap or perhaps a muddy field.
In the end, hindsight’s 20/20, and if Fairbairn makes the kick, we don’t have this discussion.
And until UCLA gets to a Rose Bowl, this decision will likely be on the back of UCLA fans’ minds whether they like it or not.