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Bruins bedeviled by the same old problems in Tempe

UCLA’s hopes of a successful season start to dissipate like a mirage in the desert on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona State
Josh Rosen left the field injured for a second time in the game after this strip-sack by Arizona State.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Save this thought for UCLA, at least it’s been consistent this season.

In each of their 3 losses at the midway point of 2016, the latest coming to Arizona State by a score 23-20 Saturday night, you could point to the same set of issues as the causes. It seems as if those issues will keep UCLA out of any meaningful college football conversations this year and resign them to a lower-tier bowl game they’re lucky to make one.

Let’s examine them one by one.

A mystery suspension/injury brought on by Jim Mora without explanation? Yup.
There was no Bolu Olurunfunmi in the backfield, as he was left in Westwood. Starting cornerback Nate Meadors was on the plane to Tempe, and even stood on the sideline but did not play either. Meanwhile, his replacement, safety turned corner Randall Goforth, got beat for Arizona State’s second touchdown and got picked on by Tim White all game long. After the game, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley revealed it was Mora who made the call to not play Meadors and didn’t tell Bradley why.

An invisible running game? You betcha.
UCLA finished with -1 yard running after accounting for sacks. Let that simmer for a second. In trying to run the ball forward, they actually failed and ended 3 feet behind where they started. The Bruins are currently ranked 126th out of 128th teams in the country averaging a putrid 2.95 rushing yards per attempt, which is only better than Miami of Ohio and Texas State. As Daily Bruin writer Matt Cummings noted in regards to the rushing ineptitude:

Receivers dropping the ball? Sure.
Kenny Walker, who deserves a lot of credit for improving his game and becoming a more well-rounded receiver over his career, also has earned the derision of Bruin faithful because of his drops. He dropped two touchdowns tonight, and instead of 14 points, UCLA came away from those trips with 6 (more on that later). Jordan Lasley also continues to confound, dropping a surefire first down, but also turning a 8 yard slant into a 52 yard touchdown in the third quarter.

Poor offensive line play? My goodness.
Josh Rosen has been under duress all season, and Saturday, it finally broke him (almost literally). After a big hit two series in, Rosen limped off to the locker room midway through the second quarter with a hip injury and gave way to backup Mike Fafaul. Rosen returned for the second half until he left again at the end of the 4th quarter after being flushed from the pocket and having his shoulder and wrist fallen on by three Sun Devil defenders. Even with the injuries, Rosen and Fafaul were harassed by pressure and blitzes all night, and the Sun Devils finished the night with 5 sacks. Rosen actually played well in this game despite limping on one leg, but he never consistently had more than a second or two to make a throw. Somehow, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, show case penalty and all, continues to be the highest paid assistant coach in the country while not proving to fans that his coaching works. In the clip below, notice 3 UCLA linemen getting shoved back into Rosen, who has nowhere to escape.

A stellar defensive performance gone wasted? Unfortunately yes.
It’s easy to complain about the offense, especially in the context of the UCLA’s simply outstanding defense. In the first half alone, the defense held Arizona State to 3 points (which came after Rosen was sacked and fumbled) and caused two consecutive turnovers (which netted zero UCLA points). Overall, the Sun Devil offense gained a total of 275 yards and rushed for only 86. Kenny Young had yet another great game, and aside from Goforth’s problems (which aren’t fair to him given that he is a safety by trade), the UCLA secondary was fine even while losing Jaleel Wadood to injury. The defense started to crack in the middle of the third quarter, but still held tall inside its own 10 to force an ASU field goal, and the Devils had their first touchdown drive only after Takkarist McKinley left the game to nurse an oblique injury.

For as turgid as the offense has been, Tom Bradley deserves immense credit for his defense that has kept UCLA in every game this season. On Saturday, the Bruins committed 4 offensive turnovers, finished with negative rushing yards and got their quarterbacks destroyed. And yet, the defense STILL gave them a chance to tie it at the end. While Arizona State did lose its starter to injury and had to burn a freshman redshirt as a backup, Tom Bradley’s unit saved this game from being an unmitigated disaster. The switch to a 4-3 unleashed McKinley as a truly elite pass rusher and Eddie Vanderdoes as a running game destroyer, and the linebackers are playing their tails off. Add those to an already top-end secondary, and you have a defense that can do just about anything to keep you in the game.

Doug Haller of AZCentral put the defensive masterpiece of the first half into context:

Stubborn coaching that contributes to a loss? Oh my.
Jim Mora deserves credit for bringing UCLA back from the college football dead, but UCLA is starting to backslide. His gruff with the media about not disclosing injuries and mysteriously leaving guys out of games (this is the 8th straight week there has been a mystery suspension going back to last season) for the sake of competitive advantage is an act worth thin. His experiment to play a more physical offense behind a power running game has failed spectacularly behind a dreadful offensive line and 3 running backs who are underperforming.

And to boot, his in-game management was demonstrably bad on Saturday. Down 13-6 in the third quarter, he elected to kick a field goal from the 2 yard line instead of trying for the tie. In the short term, this decision ended up not mattering after UCLA scored on its next possession anyway, but it’s a stunning indictment when you can’t trust your team to gain two yards to score. The offense you installed to run people over wasn’t even given a chance to try that where it matters.

This was preceded by a punt from the Arizona State 34 yard line in the first half after he had already sent JJ Molson out to try from 49 (he missed). What is different about two yards more? On the ensuing punt, Austin Kent shanked a punt for 20 yards, and after a kick-catch interference penalty, Arizona State had the ball at the 29 yard line. Mora’s choice to punt and play field position netted him a whole 5 yards.

The points left on the table by Mora came back to haunt UCLA in the end. At the end of the 4th quarter, the defense held strong (again) and prevented an ASU first down to end the game. Arizona State punted the ball, the offense got the ball back with only 48 seconds left to travel 50+ yards to try a field goal to tie with no timeouts. Laughably, Mike Fafaul was sacked twice and tossed a desperation interception to end the game.

In a better scenario, this game ends in a UCLA victory 24-23 after the Bruins punch in for a touchdown from 2 yards out on 4th down and the defense kills a last minute Arizona State drive for a come back. Better still, UCLA wins this game going away after it trades in their 3 points for 6 at least twice. But alas, Mora’s in-game management woes continue, and now his team is floating into the abyss.

UCLA is now 3-3 with a 1-2 record in the Pac-12. A tough trip to Pullman to play Washington State looms on Saturday. The South is surely lost unless total chaos ensues and the South winner finishes 5-4. There is a good case to be made that they should be 6-0, but they almost certainly should be 5-1 and 2-0 in conference play. But that case is irrelevant - they lost those games, and as it stands, they are now in danger of failing to make a bowl game with an incapable backup quarterback if Rosen is out for any prolonged period of time. The defense continues to be wasted away by an offense that has more recruiting stars in its running backs (12-5 for Soso Jamabo, 4 for Nate Starks, 3 for Bolu Olurunfunmi) than it does rushing touchdowns (9) and has receivers who drop at least one pass quarter. The only receiver without a drop this season, Theo Howard, is also the one that has played the least this season.

The program itself continues to fall short of any expectations placed before it, and it’s on track to post a worst record than the preceding season for a third consecutive season. Going back to last season, UCLA is 3-5 in its last 8 games. The alarm bells for UCLA football are starting to ring louder and louder, and Bruin fans are wondering if Jim Mora will hear them enough to do something about it.