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UCLA’s season starts to wash away in the Palouse

On a rainy night in Pullman, a treacherous first half dooms the Bruins to a second straight Pac-12 defeat.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington State
UCLA Head Coach Jim Mora lays into punter Austin Kent after his -1 yard punt (seriously!) in the first half.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, seven games in to the 2016 season, what else is there to say about UCLA that hasn’t already been said? I don’t know, but after UCLA’s 27-21 loss to Washington State in Pullman on Saturday night, it is my duty to re-litigate those issues from Saturday that have derailed this season and risk cratering it into the ground. At the very least, I will do so with more GIFs and links to at least make the mess more visually pleasing.

And so, without further ado:

The running game is nonexistent, and Jim Mora’s insistence on establishing it early in games bordered on high comedy a month ago. It’s just sad now. Mora’s bewilderment at how bad it is sounds more like a man yelling away his problems and less like he’s trying to find a solution. In his defense though, the running game is so bad it’s beyond repair thanks to an offensive line that is offensive to offensive line play. It’s so bad that UCLA gets stuffed for zero or negative yards on nearly 32% of its rushing attempts, more than any other team in the country (stuff rate).

There is no receiver on the roster that can be relied upon for consistent production without a boneheaded mistake, other than possibly Darren Andrews (who has been a dim light of hope in this black hole of an offense). Jordan Lasley had a nice touchdown pass to ignite the second-half comeback, but he also had the costly fumble with under 3 minutes left as UCLA embarked on a game-winning drive down 6 to try and win the game. Kenny Walker dropped another would-be touchdown. Receivers like Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Shaq Evans of Mora-era lore sort of masked these issues because they were primary, secondary and often tertiary targets for Brett Hundley.

Heck, even the refs caught the UCLA-hosted dropped passes parasite on Saturday.

One story line of this season that has been generally overlooked has been the shockingly poor punting game and uneasy kicking game. It’s been easy to overlook seeing as the offense has generated much of the chagrin around the program, but it became unavoidable on Saturday. In his first punt of the game, Austin Kent’s boot netted exactly -1 yard after bounces backward. Seriously. UCLA would have been better off attempting the 4th down with 11 yards to go instead of punting.

(here’s Mora trying to yell his problems away again, by the way).

Of all the problems with UCLA this season, this made me laugh with regards to the kicking game after Mora brought in the backup, Andrew Strauch, to kick the extra point after UCLA’s first touchdown (starter JJ Molson hadn’t missed one this season). Molson hasn’t been otherworldly this season, going 9-14 and missing some from 40+, but he’s a freshman kicker. Molson kicked the next two PATs, so it was a weird move. Lest we forget Kai’mi Fairbairn’s foibles as a freshman, and Mora’s faith in Fairbairn was repaid in spades by the time he graduated. Trying to ignite a kicking battle over halfway into the season between a walk-on and a 4 star recruit seems...odd.

Eventually, the sterling UCLA defense, which has been the lone bright spot this season, had to give at some point, and it cracked in the third quarter, ceding 14 points to Luke Falk and company. However, Washington State’s newfound run game and elite passing offense behind Falk was stymied for the whole game, gaining only 4.09 yards per play and being held nearly 2 yards below their per-play average going into Saturday. The secondary especially had itself a fine game, as it held Falk without a touchdown for the first time in 22 games and to a paltry 5.4 yards per attempt. The 364 yards the Cougars gained was their lowest offensive output of the season by over 100 yards, and they had to get there in 89 plays. UCLA’s offense and special teams did the defense no favors, especially with the 3 turnovers (4 including Mike Fafaul’s last -gasp heave of a pick) and the literal negative punting, but the defense put on yet another Herculean effort to give the Bruins a chance to win.

The defense isn’t spared though - penalties on third down came back to bite the Bruins in the backside, but it’s a minor quibble in what has been an outstanding defensive display for the last six games running. I will continue to sing the praises of guys like Takkarist McKinley, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Young each and every week because they are balling out and deserve love in this wretched season. Tom Bradley really does deserve credit for crafting a system that fits the talent of his players. Last year, that system ran out of gas at the end without Vanderdoes and Myles Jack and Fabian Moreau, but the defense should continue to churn along for the rest of this season and next as the depth fills in.

UCLA now stands at 3-4, the worst record this late into the season of the Jim Mora era. UCLA’s odds of finishing 6-6 and being bowl eligible have shrunk to 51.8% after hovering about 85% for the first month of the season. Of the 5 remaining games, only Oregon State looks close to a guaranteed win, and the Bruins have two tough road trips to Boulder and to Berkeley left on the schedule, and never mind a November 19th game against that other school across town that is suddenly resurgent. It shouldn’t surprise any UCLA fan to see the team sitting on its couch watching bowl season come December if Rosen is still out for an extended period of time for the last 5 games of the season.

Simply put, the 2016 season has already been downright disappointing. Even if the Bruins were to rip off 5 straight wins to end the season at 6-3 in conference and 8-4 overall, the heights the program expected to reach continue to drift further and further out of reach. To be blunt, this is close to inexcusable, especially given the talent on hand in Westwood. Mora and his coaching staff have done a nice job of raising the talent level and putting the program in place to compete, but it’s been downright pathetic to watch the offense attempt to block anybody or try to run the ball at all this season.

What’s so infuriating for UCLA fans is that the problems are clear as day to anyone watching. The game from Saturday essentially plagiarized the offensive script from the Arizona State game. I’ll be honest, I get annoyed when I see articles that suggest that UCLA is actually better than their numbers this season. I’m not irritated not because of the thought process, but because the numbers seem to ignore facets of the old-fashioned eye test. The defense is doing a whale of a job holding this team together and carrying an anemic offense and ineffective special teams unit close to the finish line in games. But when only one of three phases of the game is playing well week in and week out, it won’t be good enough to get the victories needed, no matter how good the numbers look.

Nearly two thirds into the season, it seems unlikely that the offense and special teams will up their play to get into the same stratosphere as the defense’s, but that’s why they play the games, and that’s why fans like you and me watch on 12 fall Saturdays.

A final note, and this is the most damning indictment of them all: