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UCLA Bruins still stuck in the forest

Stanford continues to torment UCLA after earning a 9th straight win in the series with 24 seconds to go.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA
Eddie Vanderdoes is superhuman - he can still stand after having his heart ripped out from his body.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

1. UCLA lost 22-13 to Stanford on Saturday night. It’s a very misleading score, skewed by Solomon Thomas’ fumble return for a touchdown he caused after sacking Josh Rosen on what was to be a Hail Mary attempt on the last play of the game. Just prior, Stanford had taken a 15-13 lead on a 70 yard, zero timeout drive that ended with Ryan Burns finding JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the endzone on a fade for the game-winner with 24 seconds left.

2. This is the 9th straight loss by UCLA to Stanford. Jim Mora is 0-6 against the Cardinal, losing by a combined score of 195 to 109.

3. This is the 3rd straight year in which UCLA has lost a home game after holding a lead 59 minutes into the game. Washington State in 2015 and Utah in 2014 both scored with under a minute to go to take the lead and win.

4. The UCLA defense played like titans for 58 minutes on Saturday night, particularly Kenny Young, Eddie Vanderdoes and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. After getting hit in the mouth on the first drive, a drive in which the beautiful violence with which Stanford runs its counters and traps left the UCLA defense helpless like it had done the previous 8 games, the Bruins forced Stanford into making errors and put the toothpaste that is Christian McCaffrey back into the bottle as well as one could.

5. Meanwhile, the UCLA offense continued to sputter, even if Josh Rosen did play his best game this season. The running game disappeared for a second straight game, and the interior offensive line continued to get no push as it has done all season long. The offense continues to look like that vintage car in your garage: it looks beautiful, and the engine is loud enough for the neighbors to notice, but it also has a top speed of 25 miles per hour and may lose an axle if it hits a pothole going to get groceries.

6. David Shaw tried hard to give this game to UCLA. His public and vocal refusal to go for 4th downs is hilarious given that the coach at the school with Ivy League-level academics (and who is an alumnus himself) is anti-math. What’s even funnier is that Jim Mora is just too generous and decided to give him the game right back by not only allowing Stanford to have a shot at a game winning drive, but also giving him 15 yards for free after Marcus Rios’ fair catch interference on the preceding punt to set up the winning drive.

7. A personal aside: this is the second most painful UCLA loss I’ve ever experienced, and it’s the worst home loss I’ve seen live. Here is the updated list in order:

-50-0 to USC, 2011. This was my freshman year and I was struggling through my first quarter in college away from home. The student bus I took to the Coliseum wouldn’t leave early, so I was stuck watching Lane Kiffin run up the score because then-sanctioned USC was ineligible for the Pac-12 Championship game the following week.

-Saturday. I now know what a still-beating heart looks like when a tree falls on it after first being ripped out from a body.

-52-14 to Arizona, 2005. This UCLA team went 10-2, but in the two losses, they lost by a combined score of 118-33, including 66-19 to USC. Arizona was 3-8, UCLA was ranked #5, and I locked myself in my grandpa’s room crying during my cousin’s birthday party after watching this.

-59-0 to BYU, 2008. This was Rick Neuheisel’s first loss as UCLA head coach, and it set the tone for a dreadful 4 years that saw the Bruins spiral into college football nothingness. Neuheisel beat Stanford this season, and was the last coach to beat Stanford, which was coached by Jim Harbaugh. Don’t let anyone tell you anything is impossible.

-20-17 to Notre Dame, 2006. Lost to Charlie Weis in the last minute, which is one of the levels of hell in the college football version of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

8. UCLA stands at 2-2, and the Pac-12 South is still winnable at this point. Colorado is fun, but currently with a backup quarterback. Arizona State is 4-0 but with a creaky defense. Arizona is an unknown, and Utah has a great defense while playing Russian Roulette with the ball on offense. USC is attempting to win games while lighting itself on fire. Josh Rosen was right when he said after the game that this game doesn’t mean much in the standings.

9. Josh Rosen was also right when he said that this game meant a lot in the hearts and souls of every Bruin player. Of course it did; after all, they’re the ones playing the game, and alumni and fans like me still can come into work or class on Mondays infinitely less injured than they are after they spent 4 hours ramming into Stanford’s human oak trees with 8 years of pent-up anger and anguish. I hate imagining what it feels like for seniors like Ishmael Adams and Randall Goforth who face the prospect of having never beaten Stanford. I can’t imagine facing down a dragon and having the sword ready to stab the heart, only for you to sneeze and drop the sword on your foot as you ready the strike. The mental devastation I felt trudging out of the Rose Bowl on Saturday night is insignificant compared to the physical and psychological toil the players felt after falling short again.

10. It feels like Jim Mora’s UCLA program hit its peak in 2013. Bringing in the #1 rated quarterback recruit and installing a new offense that was to fit his skill set and be more like Stanford were supposed to be the membership cards that got UCLA into the club of perennial conference contenders and occasional national title contenders. To boot, UCLA bought a sweet looking vintage car to drive over to the club in style. Instead, when the car started, they revved the engine so hard it blew a gasket.

11. On Saturday, lightning struck a tree, and it fell on the car just as it was backing out of the driveway. Now the car is totaled, and Bruin fans are left to wonder if it’ll ever look the same. Some Bruin fans had big plans for the car to cruise back to Pasadena in style on January 2nd, or heck, maybe even Phoenix, Atlanta or Tampa. Now they probably have to borrow their parents’ beat up Civic for a lonely drive on a desolate freeway to Las Vegas or El Paso.

12. It’s darkly funny that Jim Mora has another quarterback that brought other-worldly talent with him from the level below at his disposal, and yet he still hasn’t won the big game. Life isn’t fair, and time is a flat circle.

13. It’s also funny that the program that boasts of 300+ days of pristine Los Angeles sunshine a year continues to get burned in the most painful ways possible, like when you realize you forgot sunscreen at home 3 hours into a trip to Zuma Beach.

14. UCLA finds itself firmly entrenched in college football purgatory: better than the Power 5 also-rans who occasionally spring up to make noise, but not good enough to consistently challenge for Pac-12 titles and sneak in a Rose Bowl every now and then. It’s enough to earn them a spot in any article about underachievers, and this phenomenon has been ongoing for my entire life.

15. There is a din rising from afar in the Bruin faithful that is screaming to fire Jim Mora after what will be one of the most successful 5 year runs in school history. They believe a new coach will be the golden ticket out of purgatory and into college football royalty. Sure, you could fire the coach, but do you trust an athletic director who un-ironically hired Karl Dorrell AND Rick Neuheisel AND Steve Alford (different sport, but still) to make a good hire? Remember, the Jim Mora hire was panned by fans and writers alike. And sure, you can change the schemes and fire the coordinators, but are you going to put your team through three systems in three years? Sure, you can be more aggressive in-game, but do you expect a former NFL coach who’s been conservative his whole career to apply new-aged thinking about 4th downs and points correctly right away?

16. In all, UCLA was 2 minutes away Saturday these questions not being asked or not mattering at the current moment. Now they all matter, and a fan base that is oft-criticized will start to ask them before being called crazy and delusional. They aren’t crazy – the ingredients will always be there for a coach to win big in Westwood, and UCLA football really should be better than it has historically been. After all, the sunshine isn’t going away, nor is the Rose Bowl, and Southern California is still a high school football hotbed, and never mind the cachet that comes with a UCLA degree for players who don’t go pro. There is nothing that should stop UCLA from being a perennial contender.

17. But there’s also little wiggle room in college football purgatory – make one wrong hire, and you fall back into the dark ages. Stay the course too long, and the program risks running stale. So it’s never wise to run off a coach who has had some success if there’s no guarantee things will improve when the next coach comes in.

18. There is a third way that involves either the current coach making necessary changes or the athletic department striking gold when hiring a new coach. The path is craggy and a steep climb.

But as it stands, and as it’s been for the last 9 games against Stanford, there is a forest full of trees blocking the Bruins as they try to climb the mountain to college football royalty.