UCLA vs WSU: A Loss for the Ages


I hope you enjoyed the particular version of UCLA Football you saw on Saturday night against Washington State. It’s currently being encased and shipped to a museum as the perfect encapsulation of the Jim Mora era at UCLA. Decades into the future, Bruin fans can know the ins, outs, highs, and lows of this program under Mora, all from watching UCLA vs WSU.

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Let us count the ways in which the Bruins played to type:

  • Did the team drop an infuriatingly sloppy game to an unranked foe? Yep.
  • Was the game riddled with baffling penalties and stupid mental mistakes? Yep.
  • Was the loss at home in front of a disinterested crowd? Yep.
  • Was the offensive play calling bizarre and unmatched to either UCLA’s talent or the game situation? Yep.
  • Was the defensive scheme soft and easily exploited in crunch time? Of course.
  • Did Mora find someone else to blame for the loss, such as the opponent’s dirty tricks or poor officiating? You know it.

I’ve covered this ground before, so I don’t need to rehash here, but this is what you get with a Jim Mora-coached UCLA team.

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But that alone would not be enough to merit this game’s inclusion into the time capsule of UCLA football. No, the game also bore the hallmarks of all of the good things that Mora has brought to Westwood:

  • The team was ranked, entering the game at 7-2, which Mora’s teams almost always are – after a decade of .500 ball.
  • The Bruins were by far the more talented team on the field, with great athletes well down the depth chart.
  • They played tough and dogged football, never being taken out of the game or mentally giving up.
  • There were flashes of brilliant play and significant player milestones.
  • There were touching moments that demonstrated Mora’s genuine love for his players.
  • As in the previous three seasons under Mora, UCLA was (and still is!) in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 title.
  • A fourth straight nine-win season and a third straight ten-win season are both still within reach, for the first time in program history.

Nov 14, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins coach Jm Mora reacts in the third quarter against the Washington State Cougars in a NCAA football game at Rose Bowl. Washington State defeated UCLA 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To wit, the reasons these games are so disappointing is because we know that this team is so good, and that’s due to Jim Mora and the culture change he wrought in this program when he came on board. Let me reiterate: UCLA football is currently in its best or second-best stretch in its 97 years of existence, comparable to the mid-’50s teams under Red Sanders (one of which won a national title), even with the inescapable ugly losses every year.

The question we, as supporters of this team, have to ask ourselves is whether or not we’re satisfied with this as the ceiling for the program. We know by now what we’re going to get from this team. Is it good enough?

I was planning on getting into this more in the offseason, but one of the things I’ve never liked about either the BCS or the playoff system is that by making a national championship more universally accessible, we’ve made national championships a more universal measuring stick for teams and coaches. That’s not a realistic standard for all but 10-12 teams in a given year.

Nor, frankly, is a national championship all that important to me. The 1990s were a special decade for UCLA that I will always remember fondly, but I don’t ever remember knowing who won the national title each year. I do remember Tommy Maddox and JJ Stokes and Donnie Edwards and Skip Hicks and Jonathan Ogden and Danny Farmer and Cade McNown. I remember going to two Rose Bowls, and having that be a really big deal. I remember beating USC eight years in a row and how much that meant to me.

Those were great years for this program because the Bruins were meeting reasonable-but-still-worthy goals: win rivalry games, contend for the conference title every year, and win the conference every 4 years or so (with the Rose Bowl berth that comes with that). I really do think (and so does Dan Guerrero) that these are still the most appropriate goals for UCLA Football:

  1. Beat USC (and to a lesser extent Cal and Stanford).
  2. Contend for the conference (and division, now) every year.
  3. Win the conference every few years.
  4. Do it without scandal, cheating, or cutting ethical or academic corners.

I think if they can do that, every so often the stars will align and UCLA will be in the national title conversation. If/when that happens – great! It’ll be a season we remember forever.

I’m not saying to embrace mediocrity. I am saying not to let the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world define what success looks like for UCLA – those people are nuts; don’t be like them.

But that’s not a healthy yearly goal or standard for any team or fan base. For fans, it creates bitterness and embarrassing message board meltdowns, and it robs us of appreciating the players and victories and accomplishments that we should be basking in as fans and supporters. How impoverished will we be if, in ten years, we only remember these teams as disappointing or frustrating, instead of reliving the joy of watching Johnathan Franklin, Brett Hundley, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Datone Jones, Myles Jack, Paul Perkins, Thomas Duarte, Josh Rosen, etc., all do their thing?

For the team, it creates unnecessary pressure and, at worst, results in continual staff turnover as coach after coach fails to meet an unrealistic standard. That’s how you become Syracuse or Purdue, teams that were on the national scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but are now mired in obscurity due to a failure to build continuity, recruiting relationships, or even an identity.

Now, UCLA hasn’t won the Pac-10/12 since 1998, which is sub-optimal – although they were a field goal away in 2012. But other than that, the program has met these goals every year under Jim Mora and is still positioned to meet them this year. Losing to Washington State hasn’t knocked UCLA out of contention; the Bruins can still play their way into the Pac-12 championship game. And they still have a chance to beat USC. The loss was disappointing, but it doesn’t derail the season by any means.

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I’m not saying to embrace mediocrity. I am saying not to let the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world define what success looks like for UCLA – those people are nuts; don’t be like them. Hold our players and coaches accountable to our expectations, and leave the theatrics – the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, the cognitive disconnect between who they are and who they think they are – to the Trojan fans. Besides, we’ve got enough of that with the UCLA Basketball team; we don’t need to bring that attitude over to the football side of the house.

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Yep. That sounds about right.