The confounding large-scale struggles of UCLA football are well documented, and yet, there’s no sign that the 2016 season is moving the needle in the right direction.
It’s startling enough to realize that this UCLA season is going nowhere quickly, which will put the Bruins two seasons away from a 20-year Pac-10/12 Conference title drought. Why is the outlook so bleak for UCLA, even though the Pac-12 South champion might finish with three losses?
UCLA — already the bearer of two conference losses — is exquisitely unlucky in one respect: Two teams which entered this season as complete mysteries — Washington State and Colorado — have played better than many expected. Wazzu lost at home to an FCS team (Eastern Washington) to start the season. Colorado was an unproven entity before the season began, but Mike MacIntyre has clearly improved the program. In most years of the Jim Mora, Jr. era in Westwood, a Wazzu-Colorado double would mean two wins. This year, it could easily mean two losses. It’s going to take a massive effort for UCLA to finish 6-3 in the Pac — the Bruins would need to go 5-1 in the second half of the season.
Yes, the outlook is that grim, but it’s not even the most disturbing aspect of the Bruins’ failed campaign.
What’s more arresting and alarming about this paucity of pigskin prowess in Pasadena is the source of UCLA’s stagnation.
Anyone who recalls the long arc of failure drawn by UCLA football over the past 18 years is well aware that while Karl Dorrell was a lightweight coach who was in over his head, the Bruins went with a proven coach and pulled in a quality offensive coordinator in subsequent years.
Rick Neuheisel did well at Colorado and won a Rose Bowl at Washington. This was not a gamble; this was UCLA turning to an alumnus who had demonstrated his competence as a coach. Moreover, Neuheisel had quarterbacked the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win in 1984 against Illinois. The program turned to a man who knew and appreciated what it meant to win the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl. Neuheisel didn’t choose a second-rate offensive coordinator, either; he tabbed Norm Chow, who presided over the potent USC offenses which brought the Men of Troy an AP No. 1 finish in 2003 and a BCS championship in 2004.
A Neuheisel-Chow combo should have worked out for UCLA, but it didn’t.
Why? The Bruins couldn’t protect their quarterbacks, who constantly got injured. UCLA couldn’t recruit or cultivate performance on its offensive line.
Fast forward eight years since Neuheisel and Chow came aboard in 2008. Under Mora and offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu (who also had prior coaching experience at USC), the Bruins’ offensive line is still getting punished. Bruin quarterbacks are still getting injured. It’s true that Josh Rosen should have been able to throw away a ball late in Saturday night’s loss to Arizona State, but the fact that he was injured on the play (due to his refusal to bail out earlier than he did) cannot obscure another fact: He was on the run for much of that game. This is the same Arizona State defense which allowed 55 points to Texas Tech and got bludgeoned by USC’s offensive front.
More context on UCLA’s offensive front: Stanford’s defense was boat-raced on Saturday by Washington State. UCLA scored only 13 points against it.
Still more context: Chris Petersen and Washington inherited the same stagnant “sleeping giant” situation Mora inherited at UCLA. In two and a half seasons, Petersen has developed and recruited a powerful offensive line which is enabling quarterback Jake Browning to stuff the stat sheet.
This raises a rhetorical question: Is there anything a good coaching staff can do at Washington which shouldn’t be expected of a UCLA coaching staff?
These are not rhetorical questions: Why can’t Mora and UCLA get it right? Why has this staff been unable to fix what Neuheisel couldn’t solve? Worst of all, why is UCLA floundering despite the inability of USC to re-establish itself in the post-Pete Carroll era?
That last question points to the severity of Jim Mora’s failure in Westwood. It’s not just the absence of a conference title. It’s not just the frailty of the offensive line and its inability to protect quarterbacks, year after year. It’s not just the lack of success at a time when USC is scuffling. It’s all of these things taken together, compounded by the reality that Utah and the Arizona schools — indeed, the Pac-12 South as a whole — has lacked a single heavyweight team since Pete Carroll left.
This should have been UCLA’s decade of opportunity, a period of renewal and resurrection after the (NCAA-fueled) fall of Troy, and in the midst of the Arizona schools’ chronic inconsistencies and Utah’s well-known struggles on the offensive side of the ball.
Yet, UCLA languishes with no end in sight.
This plan isn’t working. One wonders how much longer Jim Mora can afford to preside over a program which is adrift, searching for answers that simply aren’t emerging.