UCLA coach Jim Mora began his weekly spot on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a grumble and two harrumphs. Some might say there also was a dismissive snap or two. This was Grumpy Jim.
He was asked about his Bruins appearing on the Pac-12 Network series, "The Drive."
“I’ve never said the words, ‘The Drive,’ to our team," he said. "I’ve never heard our players talk about it. They’ve never asked me a question about it. It’s a complete nonentity to us.”
He was asked about his team not playing up to expectations.
"How do you know we haven't played up to our own expectations?" Mora said, adding that he's not going to "talk about what he talks to the team about."
He was asked about Texas' pursuit of him last year before he re-upped with UCLA and the Longhorns hired Charlie Strong.
"You'll have to ask them if they considered me," he said. "I'm just excited to the coach at UCLA."
That's all he would say, even though a day later a story would appear on ESPN.com in which he provides great detail about the interview with Texas representatives.
A grumpy football coach isn't unusual, just as a coach who doesn't want to talk about his team's struggles or his flirtation with an other job isn't either. Yet after these tense initial three minutes, Mora transformed. He loosened up and became pleasant and expansive. His 10 minutes of allotted time stretched to 15. When he fielded a last question about changing a program's culture, you got the distinct feeling he was smiling while answering.
Call the analogy facile, but Mora showed that a quick turnaround is possible, and that's what he's hoping he gets from his team as it prepares to play Texas on Saturday in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That transformation with reporters included significantly more insight about his and his team's thinking after some folks turned up their noses following unimpressive UCLA wins over Virginia and Memphis.
“We enjoy the role of underdog," he said. "We feel like we’re kind of back to where we want to be, which is people are doubting us. There’s a reason for that and we’re OK with that. It’s up to us to prove that we are a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with. In the first two weeks, we haven’t necessarily done that.”
Then Insightful Jim apologized for his insightful answer, "I hope you can get something out of that.”
We can. Mora is even more aware than critical reporters that the Bruins first two games haven't yet matched reasonable expectations for his depth chart. The good news is his team is 2-0. It's entirely valid to question, however, whether his team will prove to be the national title contender it was projected to be in the preseason. The early returns suggest not.
Mora went even further with his beat reporters Tuesday, admitting his players were "tight" the first two weeks. "I think we let the outside expectations become a little bit of a burden to us," he said.
In Game 1, the offensive line looked over-burdened by Virginia, yielding five sacks and producing little running room. In Game 2, that line surrendered four sacks, but the running game was better and the Bruins scored 42 points and gained 540 yards. Yet the defense yielded 35 points and 469 yards.
While it would be easy to say that if you combine the defense from Game 1 and the offense from Game 2, UCLA would be fine, the real issue is improvement on the offensive line, the team's most questionable area. This is not a new thing.
UCLA has surrendered 97 sacks since the beginning of the 2012 season, tied for second-most in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's particularly concerning that this isn't about blitzes. QB Brett Hundley has been sacked 51 times in his career on plays in which opponents have sent four or fewer pass-rushers, the most for any Power 5 quarterback in the last three seasons. Bruins QBs have been pressured (hurried or knocked down) on a Pac-12-high 24 percent of their dropbacks the last two seasons, including 24 percent this season.
And it's not just about pass blocking. UCLA is averaging 71.0 yards before contact per game this season, second-worst in the Pac-12 behind Washington State. The Bruins produced 130 plays the last two seasons that lost yards, third-most in the FBS.
Despite these worrisome numbers, Hundley and the Bruins have managed to score a lot of points, as they've averaged 36.7 points per game the past two seasons. But unreliability up front is where UCLA's 2014 great expectations might get the Miss Havisham treatment.
As for Mora and the Bruins, who have tumbled from No. 7 to No. 12 in the AP poll, the reality is being grumpy at 2-0 isn't such a bad thing. He noted that the worst thing that can happen to a team is its locker room becoming permeated with self-satisfaction.
So while a few gritty harrumphs for Texas on Saturday and Arizona State on Sept. 25 might quell the doubters, that grumpiness shouldn't ever completely go away.