The UCLA Bruins have reached the midway point of their season still searching for an identity.
The Bruins (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) have traversed the emotional spectrum with the highs of a victory over Nebraska to the lows of Saturday’s 43-17 loss to California. UCLA heads to the second half of the season without having given much of an indication about just how good this team is.
The offense, with running back Johnathan Franklin churning out yards, ranks No. 8 in the nation at 529 total yards per game. A 72-yard rushing performance against Oregon State and a four-interception game against Cal, however, are enough to give pause. The defense can be a yo-yo from half to half, so who knows what is going to show up on that side of the ball.
It adds up to a team going through a transition with a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes and a new way of doing things. In other words, it’s a team going through growing pains.
“That is still a process for us,” first-year coach Jim Mora said. “What we’ve got to do is just continue to push, push, push and get to the point where we can be consistent and be efficient week in and week out and not make mistakes.”
It’s hard to say with any accuracy just how good UCLA has been in the first half. The shining moment, a 36-30 victory over Nebraska, lost a little luster this week when the Cornhuskers got steamrolled by Ohio State, 63-38.
UCLA’s three other victories have come against teams that are a combined 4-12. They have looked very good at times in those games, such as most of the Houston game, and also not so good at others, such as the first half at Rice.
The loss at Cal stung, but the Bruins haven’t won there since 1998 so it’s not all that much of a surprise, especially considering it was the first difficult road environment the team has played in this season.
So all in all, the Bruins at 4-2 halfway through the season are pretty much where you would have predicted them to be before the season started. The win over Nebraska was somewhat of a surprise, but then so was the loss to Oregon State, which nobody expected to be in the top-10 at his point in the season.
The problem is that the schedule gets much tougher from here, with no non-BCS conference opponents or Pac-12 bottom feeders to pad the victory stats. UCLA, with five freshmen starting on offense and 13 true freshmen who have played during the first half, needs to grow up fast in order to reach a level of consistently competing at a high level.
“There is no one saying ‘oh we’re young, it’ll come along, it’ll happen,’” Mora said. “There is a sense of urgency to reach that point, but we also know that it is a process that we’ve got to go through and so we’re trying to do it the right way.”
With such a young group, you almost had to anticipate a stinker like Saturday’s loss at Cal would come along at some point. You simply can’t expect a consistently high level with a freshman starting at quarterback and three freshmen and a sophomore starting on the offensive line.
But what Mora hopes is that his players can continue to learn from losses. To do that will take some different management techniques from Mora, who spent most of the last 25 years dealing with professionals in the NFL and said it’s a little different getting through the tough times with college athletes.
“It’s a lot more difficult because of the other things they have going on in their lives,” Mora said. “In the NFL you’re not dealing with school and you’re not really dealing with developing minds and personalities. Some of these kids are just young and this is their first real experience at failing at something.”
Ego management is a crucial part of keeping the sprits up, Mora said.
“You’ve got to be very careful about what you say and how you say it because it’s a young psyche,” he said. “They’re not as old, not as weathered, not as matured not as resistant to the criticisms as the older guys are.”
The 26-point loss at California looked a lot worse than it was. UCLA was within 12 points and driving deep in Cal territory with more than 10 minutes to play before things unraveled. Still, it hurt and Mora said the team was “solemn and quiet and concerned and serious” on the trip home.
It was a good sign, he said, that they took the loss so hard and was confident that the team would use it as fuel for the second half.
“We’ll bounce back, but when you work as hard as they work and you have the expectations that they have, it’s tough to lose,” Mora said.
The lopsided final score means little in Mora’s eyes. He said each loss is difficult to overcome, no matter the score.
“You don’t focus on the score, you focus on the process, you focus on the fundamentals, you focus on what we can do to get better,” Mora said.
That starts this week with a game against Utah, a team that thrashed UCLA, 35-7, in Salt Lake City last year and is going to be desperate for a conference win after starting Pac-12 play with losses to Arizona State and USC.
After that, the Bruins get Arizona State and Arizona, both teams that appear formidable based on first-half results, a difficult road trip to Washington State and then USC and Stanford, nationally-ranked teams, to close the season.
None of those games matter to Mora, however. The 24-hour rule to mourn the California loss has expired and it’s now on to Utah and Utah only.
“If you let losses linger or you let wins linger and you don’t get on to the next one then you are really doing it the wrong way,” Mora said. “We work really hard at making corrections and applying those corrections and moving on to the next one.”
And, he hopes, build some character and a little bit of an identity in the process.
“We’ll learn from it and we’ll get better, but it has to happen and it has to happen immediately,” Mora said, later adding that “I don’t enjoy the losses, but the challenge of trying to help these kids get through these things is a good thing.”