The 2016 UCLA football season ended with a thud, and Jim Mora’s program may have finally (hopefully) hit rock bottom.
On a cold, wet and downright miserable night in Berkeley in front of a half-filled stadium, the Bruins lost 36-10 to Cal in a fashion that resembled death by 1000 cuts. UCLA finished the season 0-3 against its California state rivals in Berkeley, Palo Alto and University Park.
Even with a potential bowl bid on the line, the Bruins played as if the offseason couldn’t come fast enough. Drops by both receivers and defensive backs (three potential pick-sixes went through defensive backs’ hands), penalties to extend Cal drives on third down, and just a general lackadaisical mood plagued UCLA all game.
UCLA had the ball for fewer than 19 minutes on offense for the third consecutive game, and the defense, which has been by far the biggest positive of this season, looked gassed by the end. It looked as if it had collectively gotten tired of dragging a sorry bunch on the other side of the ball and keeping them in every game, only to watch the offense squander every chance it had.
Even as it held Cal to 4 field goals in the first half, the Bruin offense turned in one of the worst performances in my living memory, scoring zero points and gaining fewer than 10 first downs against a defense that gave up no less than 45 points in its last 6 games.
I repeat: UCLA scored ZERO points against a team that had given up 47, 49, 45, 66, 56 and 45 points in the last month and a half.
It was a fitting end to a dispiriting season.
As the season ended, so did the tenure of offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu after he was fired on Sunday afternoon after one year on the job.
His first season as the head playcaller after 20 years as a position coach in college and the NFL could not have gone any worse. He oversaw a unit that finished near the bottom in Division 1 in rushing yards per game, ran for a mere 1011 yards as a team and looked so pathetic in lining up in heavy formations with undersized linemen that it broke blue and gold hearts to watch.
His offense will go up on the Mount Rushmore of terrible UCLA offenses, next to the ill-fated Pistol offense and whatever nonsense Jim Svoboda ran in Westwood. It means that UCLA will have a third offensive coordinator in three years, and the constant churn of coordinator turnover is one of the surest sign that there is chaos in Westwood.
What started so promisingly under Jim Mora careened last year and tumbled off the cliff in 2016, and now it’s fair to question if he will oversee a successful UCLA team at any point going forward as head coach.
This program is in need of a massive overhaul on offense. The installation of a pro-style scheme that incorporated fullbacks and tight ends went so poorly that it was scrapped after 8 games. The relief from UCLA fans that accompanied Noel Mazzone’s departure to College Station after 4 years of good to very good offense that was predictable and went missing at the most inopportune times now seems laughable. It’s easy to laugh at UCLA fans when the coordinator they wanted gone left, and the offense that remained resembled a smoldering pit of fire and despair.
The next offensive coordinator must, must, must come from the collegiate ranks. Jim Mora may want to win football games with a physical offense with a road-grading offensive line, but with the roster he’s assembled, he can’t. He has to accept that and adapt or die.
He’s got smaller and quicker lineman who excel at moving laterally to seal edges and can run like deer on screens, so he needs to set them up to succeed and play with tempo.
Mora’s got a stable of running backs who are one-cut specialists who have good burst and can hit a hole quick but aren’t shifty enough to dance through traffic. Instead of installing slow-developing run plays, he needs to bring in someone to run zone plays where they can cut and go without hesitation.
This kind of thing has been done before. Bob Stoops brought in Lincoln Riley and got to the College Football Playoff. Charlie Strong, defensive woes aside, brought in Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox and churned out a 2,000 yard rusher in one season. James Franklin hired Joe Moorhead and is now on the verge of a Big Ten championship.
A home run coordinator hire can re-energize a stale program and cool the coach’s hot seat in a hurry.
While the odds of this happening aren’t pretty (I fully expect Mora to hire an NFL retread as offensive coordinator given he knows the NFL best), they aren’t impossible. But the scary thing for UCLA fans is that there’s no way to know for sure what he will do.
One thing is for certain - Mora needs to get creative and look outside of his NFL and limited college circles for this next hire. He can’t stick with what he knows, because frankly, what he knows and likes - burly, physical and run-heavy football - can’t work in Westwood right now.
If he does what Bruin fans fear, and hire someone uninspiring like Greg Knapp or Cam Cameron, it very may well be the last hire he makes as head football coach of UCLA.