UCLA Not Ready to Smell Roses

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It doesn’t smell like roses for the Bruins, and they won’t be playing in the Rose Bowl. Jim Mora’s time is coming, but when are his Bruins going to finally have a coming out party in the Pac-12 and bid for the Rose Bowl, or a national championship game?

Jim+Mora+Arizona+State+v+UCLA+QQ9Okv3OZAtlThe moment still has yet to happen, even though Mora has changed the football culture in Westwood. If the Bruins, who were looking to creep into the BCS picture, somehow came back from a 22-point deficit to beat Arizona State, they’d have earned Rose Bowl consideration. But, again, the Bruins fell out of contention entirely Saturday night with a 38-33 loss to the Sun Devils, one win away from a New Year’s Day matinee.

The game exposed a lot of weaknesses on the Bruins defense that are suddenly too late to fix now that they won’t have an opportunity to control their own destiny in winning the Pac-12 South. Losing one game, in a pivotal moment, the Bruins took a step backwards when they were one step closer toward tasting glory. It’s not going to happen now, and UCLA’s aspirations ended at home, unable to beat a lower ranked team. They couldn’t beat the Sun Devils, who clinched a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, when the stakes were high. They couldn’t do it, and it’s probably one the Bruins wish they could have back.

The Bruins, coming off a three-game winning streak in ways that ultimately put them in position to bid for the conference championship game, faltered embarrassingly by falling short. The Bruins, when it’s all said and done, will qualify for a crappy bowl game and not a major BCS event, allowing it all to slip away. It would have been really nice for UCLA to play for roses, but at this point, it will have to settle for less.

After all, something is better than nothing, right?

Sure it is.

But knowing these football players from every institution around the nation, they don’t only want a piece of the pie. They want the whole pie. There’s another game Saturday afternoon against their crosstown rivals USC. But the Bruins still won’t get the whole pie, even with a victory over the Trojans in next weekend’s annual rivalry showdown. This night began with an ugly start for the Bruins, falling behind 35-13 at halftime before making it a game in the second half. It doesn’t matter that the Bruins rallied back to nearly master the improbable because it obviously wasn’t good enough and the late turnaround went to waste.

This season ended as painfully as last year’s Holiday Bowl annihilation, and every time it seems like the Bruins have made progress, they take a fall — one that’s normally humiliating. The only thing UCLA players could do when it was over was watch an Arizona State team dance and celebrate on their field and in front of the Bruins home crowd. The Bruins pulled within five points early in the fourth quarter, come to think of it, with a chance to send Arizona State players back to the desert with tears running down their faces, but it was a bit too late.

And the Bruins didn’t win this game, in part because of falling behind 22 points in the first half, and in part because of waiting too late to fight back. The game was over when Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 37-yard field-goal try. The thing is, the Bruins had missed opportunities, and it hurt them on a night when they were moving a step closer to smelling roses. There’s no arguing that UCLA has come a long ways after being mediocre and awful. It’s worth pointing out that, in the last couple of years, the Bruins have won eight of 11 games and energizes a fan base in so many ways as UCLA fans clad in blue and gold nearly fills the Rose Bowl.

This is apparently somehow the greatest the Bruins have been for the first time in years. These Bruins are out of the conference championship totally, and could have made the loudest statement, but we all know a lusty group of Arizona State fans roared louder than anyone at the Rose Bowl. A lot more praise, a lot more consideration goes to the Sun Devils. The Arizona State players were really pumped and raced down the field to celebrate with their crowd, while UCLA players held their heads down in despair and walked slowly into the tunnel. No matter how you slice it — and for what it is — the Sun Devils may earn a trip to Pasadena.

img24271404It would be wise not to overlook this Arizona State squad, nearly pummeling the Bruins on Saturday, feeling as if it should play on Jan. 1 2014. The game started with a 76-yard scoring drive for the Sun Devils, and then linebacker Carl Bradford returned an interception 18 yards for an early score. With the seemingly emerging quarterback Taylor Kelly operating a high-powered offense at a dangerously fast pace, ideally suited for the role, he connected with Jaelen strong on a 19-yard pass to extend the ASU lead 35-13. It wasn’t necessarily astute for the coaching staff to decide to move UCLA standout freshman Myles Jack exclusively at running back, because while he gained 86 yards and scored a touchdown, he was missed at the linebacker spot as Arizona State inexorably carried the ball and were a nightmare for the Bruins.

The Sun Devils, for the most part, relied on their ground attack and made a strong case in the Pac-12 conference. Running back D.J. Foster did damage inside the red zone with his three-yard touchdown run to give Arizona State the lead. If this seemed bad, UCLA fans seemed even madder, with stares of disbelief sitting in the stadium stunned silent, disgusted with the fact that the Bruins were getting smashed. In the midst of it all, when it was time to sprint off the field and into the tunnel for halftime, the Sun Devils taunted and yelled at UCLA fans.

Still, what’s particularly unreal about all of this is that UCLA has struggled in mediocrity for many years, until Mora was brought in to resurrect the football program. It’s the most surprising thing, when the most disappointing thing is the fact that the Bruins have not been to the Rose Bowl game in 15 years. This is a fan base that knows how it feels to suffer for years — ache and pain from the inferiority that crippled an excellent program — and if you finally feel better about UCLA football, this could be a sign of good fortune moving forward, but not at this very moment.

471-rR0Yh.AuSt.55The Bruins will have to wait another year. Hoping to improve as a quarterback, Brett Hundley completed only three of nine passes in the first half, but he had a much better second half and completed 15 of 17 as he nearly led the Bruins to a comeback. Such athleticism, versatility and maturation appear to have had an impact on Hundley. He led the Bruins on a 79-yard scoring drive to start the second half, and moments later they scored after Arizona State’s Alex Garoutte fumbled the snap on a punt. And all of a sudden, the Bruins had made it a game by cutting into a second-half deficit after a fourth-down pass to freshman defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and a 65-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter.

For all we know, the Bruins may be unstoppable in a couple of years, and for a program that has every reason to believe it can triumph over just about any football team in the nation, right now isn’t that time.

We’ll see when next season rolls around.

They can still play for pride. Now it’s about beating USC.

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