Jim Mora’s UCLA Bruins dropped a frustrating, yet all-too-predictable game to a reeling Arizona State team on Saturday. Coming off of last week’s showcase victory over Arizona, this fits into a worrying pattern.
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I get defensive when media-types talk about the Bruins as being soft, unable to handle success, or reliably disappointing. Talk of, ‘Well, UCLA looks good, but we all know they’ll drop an inexplicable game or two before all is said and done,’ always makes my blood boil. That’s why it’s so frustrating and embarrassing and dispiriting when the Bruins play to type and validate those talking heads.
Jim Mora has undoubtedly done a lot to change the culture of the UCLA football program. It’s more professional; it’s tougher and more physical. The Bruins get up for big games in ways they didn’t under Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel.
But the Bruins still can’t handle success. They drop ‘letdown’ or ‘trap’ games with alarming regularity. Since 2012, UCLA has faced a potential letdown game – defined as a big win followed immediately by a game against a lesser opponent – eight times. The Bruins have lost half of those potential letdown games:
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Of the four potential letdown games that they won, two were non-conference tilts against lifeless cupcakes (including a then 0-2 Houston team), one was against a historically bad Washington State team, and one turned out to be a big enough game to set up a letdown the following week (Arizona>Washington>Arizona State).
Notice also that the four upsets suffered by UCLA were the four most recent letdown opportunities. This is not a comforting trend; it indicates a team embodying it’s negative press.
The Bruins have lost 12 games in Jim Mora’s tenure, all of which UCLA entered as a ranked team. Of those 12, six were to unranked teams (Oregon State in ’12, Cal in ’12, Baylor in ’12, Utah in ’14, Stanford in ’14, and Arizona State in ’15) and another two were to lower ranked teams (Stanford in ’13 and Arizona State in ’13).
Oct 3, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici (2) celebrates with wide receiver D.J. Foster (8) after a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins during the game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Put in other terms, UCLA has played 32 games under Jim Mora in which they were the better-ranked team and have lost 25% of those games. You cannot expect to compete for conference championships if you cannot handle the middling conference teams.
Mora has led UCLA to some great wins – both wins over Nebraska, all four trips to the state of Arizona, Washington twice, three straight over USC, the Alamo Bowl over Kansas State – but the Bruins won’t truly make the leap to an elite team if they can’t reliably take care of business against teams they should beat. Success in college football isn’t all rivalry games and marquee match-ups; it consistency, focus, and professionalism that this team, despite how far Mora has come in rebuilding the culture, still doesn’t quite have.
Obviously there is more to Saturday’s loss to Arizona State than this narrative. The Sun Devils used creative and relentless pressure on the Bruins’ freshman quarterback. The injuries in the defense are mounting up and have started to show. Arizona State’s special teams played spectacular field position football.
But a lot of what happened Saturday can be attributed to the players coming out flat and unprepared to face a very hungry Arizona State team. On its own, this loss was disconcerting; but in light of this larger narrative of the Bruins as ultra-susceptible to trap games, it’s incredibly discouraging.