SAN DIEGO – When Jim Mora took over a struggling UCLA football team, he did what every coach does in his first few months: he preached of changing the “culture” of a program. For the most part, it looked like he was actually doing it instead of reading off talking points at an introductory press conference.
No more seniors were going “over the wall.” Fall camp would be in the sweltering summer heat of San Bernardino. Practices would be early in the morning. Tough talk with players translated into sharp performances right out the gate during non-conference play.
“From the first time Coach Mora walked in and we first met him, everybody knew that this man was about business and he was serious,” cornerback Aaron Hester said. “You can just feel the vibe bouncing off of him and we bought into what he said.”
[Related: Watch UCLA vs. Baylor highlights]
With UCLA failing to show up in a 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday night, however, it’s apparent there’s still work left to be done in Westwood. For the third straight season the Bruins ended the year on a three-game losing streak.
And the ending wasn’t pretty, either.
The Bruins couldn’t block on offense nor tackle on defense. What should have been an exclamation mark to a turnaround year wound up as the loud thump of the door closing on the season – by the second quarter.
“We’ve got a long ways to go to be the team we want to be. That team we want to be is a national champion,” Mora said. “Tonight showed us 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.”
If you look at the season overall, there’s plenty of evidence that the program is heading in the right direction. UCLA repeated as South Division champions and was minutes away from the Rose Bowl and conference championship. It’s also one of the youngest teams in the country.
Still, Thursday night was quite the speed bump on the road to progress. When the defense wasn’t giving up a season-high 49 points, the offense kept digging the hole deeper.
Baylor entered the game with just 13 sacks on the season and wound up with six against a patchwork UCLA offensive line (they were missing two starters for most of the game). Brett Hundley looked out of rhythm all night despite putting up decent numbers (26-for-50, 329 yards, three touchdowns) and setting a new single-season school record for passing yardage. Tailback Johnathan Franklin looked nothing like a Doak Walker Award finalist, averaging just 2.4 yards a carry.
Perhaps most appalling: against the 119th defense in the country, UCLA went only 1-of-17 on third down. As disappointing and confusing as a road blowout to Cal was earlier in the season, the bowl game may have been the biggest sign yet that the young Bruins still have plenty of growing up to do before they’re deserving of some time in the spotlight.
“We’re not at our best when we can’t run the football,” said Mora. “Certainly not having two of our starters is a factor, but it was also in the way (Baylor) played. They played physical and aggressive and well.”
The late-season slide means the offseason will be filled with plenty more questions than answers. Rightfully so, given the manner of two of the Bruins’ final three losses. Mora has his work cut out, and though he focused on the here and now after the game, he appears well aware of what needs to be done to get the team where he wants it to be.
Hundley’s effectiveness, the offensive line’s progress, a big win over rival USC and a new school record for points scored on offense appear to be a good foundation to start with when walking into the office next week with 2013 on the calendar.
“Nine and five, who would have thought coming off of last year?” said Hester. “We came a lot further than we did (last season) and I’m proud of this team.
“This is just starting, we’re at the infant stages of what we’re going to be. It’s just a glimpse. We didn’t even have a full year with Coach Mora. I think that it will be next year and the year after that when this program really blossoms and you’ll see the effects of the culture he installed.”
The culture has changed in Westwood, but UCLA wasn’t ready for primetime on Thursday night. It just might take some more time for it to fully take hold.