Jim Mora acknowledges that UCLA's trajectory of improvement this season has been complicated.
"For us, if you were going to do a graph, it’s been rather jagged, but always trending upwards, even when it didn’t seem like it," he explains.
The entire gamut of feelings and evaluations have checked in with the Bruins over the course of 10 games so far -- lofty hype, bitter disappointment, maddening inconsistency, and mercurial play all come to mind.
Ultimately, the smell of success is lingering even as the dust of the chaos begins to settle. UCLA is 8-2, and with only two games remaining, they have traversed the Pac-12 South minefield well enough to control their own destiny -- not only for a conference crown, but also (potentially) for a College Football Playoff berth.
Whether the Bruins finish the job relies heavily on their defense. Can that unit harvest the fruits of its up-and-down labor? USC is coming to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, so UCLA has its chance to answer that question against the likes of Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, and Javorius Allen.
A topsy-turvy campaign
For painful stretches of this season, struggles were prevalent for the Bruins. They were mainly rooted in the inability to generate a consistent pass rush; through eight games, UCLA had logged only 10 sacks.
The low point came on October 11, when Oregon ran the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl in a 42-30 game that wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate. Boneheaded penalties damaged any promising efforts, and there weren't many of those to begin with, as UCLA didn't reach Marcus Mariota a single time. After matters quickly escalated, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich tried to turn in his play card to Mora on the sideline during an embarrassing "I give up, you do it" moment caught by national television cameras.
"All the pressure was on us, and we let it get the best of us," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We got back to the fundamentals, counted on each other, and began trusting one another to do the job."
Quarterback pressure arrived the following Saturday at California. The Bruins sacked Jared Goff three times. One of those takedowns marked the coming out party of 6-foot-4 sophomore defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley, a player whose emergence has spurred the critical improvement of UCLA's pass rush.
Though the Bruins again failed to register a sack their next time out during an ugly double-overtime squeak-by at Colorado, the upward trend had begun -- even if the ascending line on that graph was jagged.
"We would see things that -- to us -- showed we were making progress," Mora said. "But I think the last couple weeks, we’ve just been a more consistent football team in all areas."
He's right. After the near-debacle at Colorado, UCLA has racked up three sacks apiece in consecutive wins against Arizona and Washington. Six of the Bruins' 16 sacks have come during the past two games. With McKinley bringing his heat, the contributions of physically imposing stalwarts Kenny Clark, Owa Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Deon Hollins have begun to overwhelm opposing fronts.
A positive effect
This Bruins' defense is loaded with talent, and the development of a rigid backbone up front has allowed this stockpile to truly shine. Outside linebacker Myles Jack might generate the most hype, but Kendricks' play on the inside has been UCLA's most spectacular element. His 110 tackles trail only Arizona's Scooby Wright for the Pac-12 lead, and his sensational sideline-to-sideline play was essential in the Bruins' biggest defensive statement of the year, a 17-7 suffocation of the Wildcats. The Bruins held Arizona to just 2.4 yards per rush and 3.6 yards per pass.
"We started knowing where we fit, trusting one another to do our job, and relying on our teammates," Kendricks said. "When we did that, you saw the outcome: We played excellent football."
Ulbrich, a first-year defensive coordinator, has indicated that he is finding a comfort zone when it comes to fine-tuning the intricacies of the defense and the best ways to maximize UCLA's abundance of talent. This development is obviously helping the entire unit, but it's led specifically to improved play from cornerback Fabian Moreau and less of a reliance on the secondary in general. The defense banked heavily on the work of top cornerback Ishmael Adams (two interceptions) earlier in the season, but now the load is more evenly spread out across the entire unit.
That comes just in time for the Bruins. They have been fortunate enough to see explosive Brett Hundley performances bail them out time and time again, but that's not a sustainable winning formula -- especially with a multidimensional USC team coming in, hungry for vengeance. If UCLA is, in fact, going to rise from the ashes to make good on the preseason hype, its defense will have to carry its recent balanced success into the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
"[USC] does a little bit of everything: Tempo offense, a good quarterback, running back, offensive line, wide receivers," Kendricks said. "There are good athletes everywhere. It’ll challenge every aspect of our defense."
This test comes at the most telling time, with UCLA finally encountering the moment of truth. The can cannot be kicked any further down the road; it's time to find out if these Bruins were worthy of preseason expectations.
"If we just handle our job and our end of the bargain, everything will handle itself," Kendricks said. "That’s what we continue to do. That’s what we continue to preach."