Friday, December 28, 2012

UCLA Long Ways Off From Elite Level

This is a game in which nothing is generally guaranteed, a game where a team can dominate so well all season, and then derail in a meaningful game during bowl season. In a season where UCLA pushed and shoved around everybody in the Pac-12, the Bruins had this amazing ability to make strides for an unimaginable season, a relentless run that eventually made them relevant — more relevant than crosstown rivals USC, mind you.

Thursday night’s game was a blowout no one ever imagined. Baylor pummeled UCLA 49-26 in a Holiday Bowl that was expected to be a mesmerizing event. Almost exactly a month removed from their mammoth upset against USC, the Bruins worked themselves into BCS conversations. Promises were conceivable, dreams were nearly fulfilled and winning turned into a reality. This all happened before the Bruins turned stale and unraveled on national television, in front of a national audience and disappointed UCLA fans, who were looking for answers throughout a game that left many scratching their heads in absolute shock.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” coach Jim Mora said. “But we’re on the right path. … The team that we want to be is a national champion and tonight showed us just how far we have to go, but we’re determined to get there. We’re heading in the right direction, but we’re a long ways off.”

Bruins fans, many of which were disenchanted and lost for words, witnessed UCLA’s worst game all season. The Bruins were trounced by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl in a neutral site that felt like a homecoming with seas of blue and gold in the stands from a large UCLA turnout. The game was played in San Diego, California, where this particular bowl game is held every season, but the site of the event didn’t matter, well, at least not to Baylor.

It was one of those nights where the Bruins were flat and phlegmatic which surprisingly resulted in a no-show, lacking alertness and competitiveness we weren't accustomed to all season. It took one loss, an agonizing lapse to realize that UCLA isn’t ready to play for a national title. With a surreal ending to the Bruins season Thursday night, UCLA still needs a lot of work to be patted on the back and a national title hopeful in the upcoming years. Now that UCLA has Mora, who has proven himself the ideal coach to lead the program, the Bruins can emerge from a time when they lacked a mental capacity and couldn’t recruit the best in the country to build a national power that could dominate college football.

Let’s hear it for the Bruins … when they’ve come so far to dispel fears and inferiority, and finally can stand up to Oregon, USC, Arizona State and everybody else in Pac-12 country. Unfortunately, though, UCLA fell sound asleep on the worst night. Not even drinking and glass of milk or reading a bedtime story about “The Story of the Three Bears” would have been enough to keep these Bruins wide awake. The bottom line is that the kids never came out to play, and saw a journey of sheer dominance abruptly come to an end. At long last, they weren’t ready and encountered stronger and hungrier Bears.

It’s sad and somewhat humiliating to see what’s happened to UCLA in just one game — just as it’s lamentable to see the rebirth of a football program slip at the worst time. And aside from the Mora era, which began this season and changed the culture overnight at UCLA, nobody has been more fantastic than tailback Johnathan Franklin and quarterback Brett Hundley, who became UCLA’s first black leading passer since Jackie Robinson threw for 444 yards as a running back in 1940. It’s too bad a horrible night, a painful night — needless to say — erased a splendid season. It’s too bad an appalling night smeared the Bruins’ hopes of winning a bowl game to conclude what was a storybook season, and what was supposed to be a close, tight game they would win.

Mora, however, kept the team together and handed the ball to a 19-year-old quarterback, realizing that Hundley was already a strong leader with a sense of humility as he developed into one of college football’s top quarterbacks. He led the Bruins through Pac-12 conference play, but unfortunately losses to Stanford in the regular-season finale and the Pac-12 championship game followed by the Holiday demolition — made it clear that UCLA is not strong or fast enough to play for a BCS title, not just yet. Maybe one day the Bruins will be complete, but not at the moment, losing to a much faster and stronger team and annihilated in every facet of the game.

Entering this game, Baylor was ranked 119th on defense, and somehow, someway the Bears pressured and harassed Hundley. He was taking snaps on a frigid night in Southern California, he was trying to scramble outside the pocket and stay mobile, as he was pressured the entire game by a pesky Baylor defense that couldn’t stop anyone all season. And then, just like that, Hundley was knocked to the ground for a sack and loss of yards. This wasn’t the first time UCLA was dismal and found themselves in a hole this season — the last time it happened was against the Cal Golden Bears.

Last month, however, much of the discussion was around UCLA, considering that the season was successful after making a loud statement on a season in which the Bruins won nine games, beat USC and played for the Pac-12 championship. At one point, down 35-7 against Baylor, UCLA fans and players still believed there was plenty of time to compile points on the scoreboard for an epic comeback, but Baylor’s running game couldn’t be stopped. The public is no longer buying into the UCLA hype, followed by an unexpected blowout that sent the Bruins back to reality. Never mind that they fought hard to the end against Stanford. Never mind, although it was a huge win over a Big Ten school, that they beat Nebraska for an impressive victory. Never mind that they put together a comeback in the final minutes to win on the road at Arizona State.

Hundley was, well, stifled and couldn’t do much on offense — versatile or not, mobile or not. The night for Hundley wasn’t too kind, but he passed for 329 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers, which was pretty good considering that he was pressured and bullied worse than a harmless kid at a school bathroom. And unbelievably, he couldn’t avoid sacks and hard hits that sent him to the ground, he couldn’t make plays while under duress.

Time after time in this game, his torpid offensive line didn’t shield him, he was running for his life and rushing his passes that were mostly incomplete. As for his duel-threat partner, Franklin -- who wasn’t nearly the brawny running back he was against USC -- he had just 34 yards on 14 carries. What was clear was this offensive line let down UCLA, but that’s what can happen when two offensive linemen are bothered by injuries in the first half. From there, the night was over for the Bruins. There isn’t any other way to put it, and pain and simple, the Bruins disappeared when so much was at stake and when they could have certainly had bragging rights over USC.

Mostly though, in this game alone, the Bruins were stopped on third downs and were forced to punt, which raised Baylor’s momentum. So when the Bruins punted five times, it usually resulted in a Baylor touchdown, from the speed of Glasco Martin or Lache Seastrunk. It wasn’t long, since UCLA couldn’t disrupt anyone on the Baylor offense, before Baylor scored on three consecutive touchdowns and, just like that, the Bruins were out of the game. There was plenty for Baylor to be proud about, such was Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, who passed for more than 4,000 yards before he obliterated them. After all of this, it’s more obvious now that UCLA missed safety Tevin McDonald, who was suspended for the bowl game because of undisclosed violations.

As it turns out, Baylor had a well-constructed game plan and executed it brilliantly against UCLA, in which Mora never had a strategy or game plan of his own to protect Hundley. It was a gut-wrenching end to what was a good season, and there is no doubt the Bruins will rank in the Top 25 with hopes they can emerge into BCS elites.

They were all so close, but not close enough.