On Tevita Halalilo’s Injury and Second Guessing Jim Mora


Adding to the preposterously high body count two weeks into this college football season, UCLA freshman offensive lineman Tevita Halalilo broke his ankle in the waning seconds of the game against UNLV and will miss the rest of the year.

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Jim Mora took some grief from fans and media alike for running a play in that scenario, when a kneel-down would have ended the game with the same score but no injury. Mora has responded with characteristic testiness and defensiveness, at which I can only sigh. I’ll repeat the sentiment that I’ve voiced before: ‘Dang it, Jim. The media, while not necessarily on your side, can be a useful tool to communicating with the public. There’s no need to antagonize them every time they question you; instead, relish the opportunity to explain yourself and convince doubters.’

RELATED: On Jim Mora; his ambitions, his treatment of players, and his relationship with the media

I don’t think taking a knee was as absurd an idea as Mora seems to, and I would have had no problem if that’s what he decided to do. There’s a cost-benefit calculation behind the decision to pull the starters in the fourth quarter, and the cost of injury to key players greatly outweighs the benefits of more yards or points in an out-of-reach game. That same principle extends down to the third and fourth string, as well. If Mora had called for the victory formation, his assessment that the risk of injury was too high would have been a sensible one.

But I also have no problem with the decision to run plays in the waning moments of a blowout. This is how a team builds depth, by giving the third and fourth string playing time in low-stakes, game-speed situations. If one of the starters goes down later in the season, the backups will have benefited from having seen the field against a live opponent, and they’ll be more ready to step into starting roles in coming seasons.

Oct 11, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins coach Jim Mora reacts during the first quarter against the Oregon Ducks at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mora also tapped into that paternal role I’ve mentioned before. From the LA Times:

"Mora defended using walk-on players who have few chances for playing time.‘They go out on the field and bust their butts every day,’ Mora said.Mora cited Nick Pasquale, a walk-on receiver who died tragically two years ago when struck by a car. He had appeared in his only game as a UCLA player the previous night.‘I learned a valuable lesson two years ago when Nick Pasquale died,’ Mora said. ‘The lesson is everybody deserves a chance to go out there and play. Nick’s dream was to play in a UCLA game. We got in a position where we put some guys in who hadn’t played a lot and we got Nick in for a game. That is something his family going to cherish forever.’"

Obviously, Halalilo is not a walk-on, but a blue-chip recruit with a potentially fruitful playing career in front of him. So he had more at risk, football-wise, than a guy like Nick Pasquale. But you have to get guys on the field and playing in order to realize that potential and develop them into the players you recruited them to be.

Yes, that decision resulted in a nasty injury this time, but the injury risk is inherent to football. I want to clarify that I am not making the argument that the game has gotten too soft or that we do too much to protect players. As we learn more about injuries, and as modern training makes players stronger and faster and more able to inflict serious injury on one another, it is only appropriate that we take added steps in the interest of player safety; we limit legal hits, penalize dangerous play, strengthen head injury protocol. These are all necessary measures to reduce the risk of injury within the game and keep it from devolving into a barbarous morass of senseless violence.

However, the attitude that not taking a knee is irresponsible lets the risk of injury become the defining factor of football, as if the game itself is a necessary evil to be minimized. UCLA ran 96 plays on Saturday, and Halalilo’s injury occurred on play number 95. Criticizing Mora for running those final two plays is saying that football itself is intolerably dangerous, and that the only reasonable way to play the game is to have less of it.

Conferences and trophies and playoffs and pageantry and rivalries are what make the game great, but they are ancillary to the core activity: two teams meeting to play football. If the actual playing of football is the part of this sport that is unacceptably risky to you, then I might suggest that your objection is more to the sport as a whole than to this or that coach’s decision to kneel or run a play.

All that said, I wish Halalilo a speedy recovery, and I look forward to seeing him contribute in the years to come.

Next: Bruins Move to 10 in the AP Poll

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