Now the Lord had said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on UCLA and on their football program.” That 11th plague that nobody has heard of is the plague of penalties. Yes, holding, chop blocking, pass interference, false starts, and all the other things that make the trigger happy PAC-12 refs so giddy that they can’t help but throw shiny yellow handkerchiefs into the air.
Let’s not be the ones to cry over spilled milk, but lets also be honest: spilled milk can suck. We’ve all been there, and so has UCLA. Against ASU last year, they would have benefited from the holy grail of sippy cups I bought last week. One deep throw, one chance, one overthrow, and one holding call that cost UCLA the game. Of course, quarterback Brett Hundley did overthrow his streaking and wide open receiver on the second to last play of the game, but even if he completed the pass, it would have come back. What did UCLA miss out on as a result of their sloppy play? Without putting too much weight on that holding call, and taking into account their other penalties and other games, they missed out on a shot at the PAC-12 championship, a rematch with Stanford, and a more importantly, a possible Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day. Now that the implications of penalties have been made clear, let’s move forward.
Jim Mora has likely said the same to his team, “Let’s move forward”, but they should do so with a grain of salt. They can leave the sloppy play in the past, but for it not to return, they need to remember it, work on it, and commit to changing it. Experience is the key to solving the issue, and boy, do the Bruins have that.
But can the high octane Bruins play things safely without playing it safe? In short, yes — but the breakdown is a little more complicated. To understand what the coaching staff want’s UCLA to stop, we need to first understand what they are encouraging. If I had to sum it up in one word, I would say that the coaching staff is expecting physicality — but I’ve got pages to fill, so let’s look closer.
Physicality is a trait applicable to any position and player on the team; for each, it comes in different shapes and sizes. For the defensive backs, it might mean playing the receivers tighter, closer, and “in-your-face-er”. With that comes the expected pass interference and occasional holding calls, but that’s okay. Flawless football isn’t possible, because in ridding yourself of penalties, you sacrifice the intensity of the game, and the same goes for bringing the intensity. It’s a “pick your poison” type of situation, and Jim Mora has made it clear that UCLA is opting in favor of the intense side of things.
For the running backs and full backs, it’s both mental and physical. Two questions arise when you transition to a more physical running game. The first questions a runners mental ability to lower their shoulder and take the hit — but the second questions their strength and weather or not they can sustain the hit. The strength and conditioning team at UCLA has been working hard to bulk up and strengthen players — just look at Brett Hundley from his inaugural campaign to last season —
and they will continue to do so. With Jim Mora’s hard nosed yet intentional coaching style, Bruin fans have little reason to worry as far as the physicality of their running game goes.
Then come the Big Boys. Caleb Benenoch, Ben Wysocki, and their linemates on the offensive side of things, along with Eddie Vanderdoes, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and their crew on defense. With another year in the books, each and every starter on these Bruin lines should have a little more experience, leading to successful blocking without holding calls, or great pass rushing without penalties. Of course, you’ll see some face-mask grabs and late hits on the quarterbacks (which goes for linebackers to), but just like pass interference, that’s part of what it means to be tough. Sometimes it takes Anthony Barr making helmet to helmet contact or Jordan Zumwalt knocking the opposing quarterback out of a game to set the tone — but with both those guys NFL bound, it’s going to be up to the whippersnappers like Myles Jack to make a difference.
Though expectations for the Bruins are all over the place this year, you can put your money on one thing, in the most important season in recent years, you are about to witness the strongest team in recent years.