The atmosphere in the UCLA locker room after the 24-21 loss to Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl on Thursday night was tense. Some players wore angry faces, while others appeared sad or simply stared straight ahead with a blank look.
Four of the last players to leave Sam Boyd Stadium were juniors: tight end Marcedes Lewis, linebacker Justin London, defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu and receiver Junior Taylor.
Four players who began their UCLA careers with hopes of playing in big bowl games against national powers. Instead, they'll be entering their senior seasons playing for a program that lost in minor bowl games two consecutive years against teams that love to upset a Pacific 10 Conference opponent.
"Our team effort has to be focused on every snap," said Lewis when asked about the 6-6 Bruins' problems with consistency. "We were ready for Wyoming, but we were not ready to play every play.... That pretty much sums up our season: lack of focus when we needed it the most."
Added Taylor: "I'm not saying that we took [Wyoming] for granted, but it wasn't the same UCLA team that played USC, Oregon and other teams during the season."
The defeat certainly did not enhance the Bruins' image. It raised more questions than anything. And Coach Karl Dorrell's critics have more ammunition because UCLA lost to a Wyoming team that did not come close to having the same talent as the Bruins.
For whatever reasons, Dorrell's team did not get the job done, which happened too many times this season.
"We have to learn how make our own plays," Niusulu said. "We can't keep doing things right and then make a mistake that costs us. We have to force the other teams into mistakes more. That's what killed us this season."
One problem the Bruins appeared to have was in their attitude and approach to Thursday's game. After favorable reviews following a victory against the Ducks in Eugene and pushing the No. 1 Trojans to the limit at the Rose Bowl, UCLA may have gotten caught up reading positive press clippings.
Lewis said that the Las Vegas Bowl loss was the lesson the Bruins needed to learn.
"With all the adversity we faced this year, we should be that much stronger next season," Lewis said.
"This season, we've lost in every possible way. We've had games when we've been ahead and let teams come back; we've had games when we've started out late and then finished strong, and then there were those when we just didn't finish."
Showing consistent progress is something quarterback Drew Olson has struggled with.
Before suffering a knee sprain in the first half against the Cowboys, Olson did not look sharp. He made many of the same mistakes that derailed his play early in the season, and he did not appear decisive when throwing the ball.
With celebrated Brigham Young transfer Ben Olson committing to UCLA last week, Olson's hold on the position may be in jeopardy when spring practice begins in two months.
And let's not forget junior college transfer David Koral, who rusted on the bench during the season.
Koral, who was rumored to be considering a transfer before the Las Vegas Bowl, certainly helped his standing with two touchdown passes.
Koral completed some difficult throws and made plays with his mobility, which is something Olson hasn't done often enough. In order for Dorrell's West Coast offense to work, the quarterback's decision making is crucial.
The offensive line made great strides under coordinator Tom Cable, led by center Mike McCloskey, who may be the team's most consistent and complete player.
UCLA will miss seniors Steven Vieira and Paul Mociler, but freshman guard Shannon Tevaga emerged as a solid blocker over the second half of the season. If Cable can get 6-foot-9, 345-pound junior tackle Ed Blanton to play in a dominating fashion, the Bruins could be even better across the front.
Defensively, UCLA spent a season learning on the job. Sophomore tackle Kevin Brown has shown potential to be a star, and freshman end Brigham Harwell made his share of great plays. Junior college transfer ends Kyle Morgan and Justin Hickman improved with each game.
Freshmen linemen Bruce Davis, Nikola Dragovic and William Snead took their lumps but gained valuable experience.
The defensive strength next season will be at linebacker, with starters Spencer Havner, Wesley Walker and London returning along with backups Aaron Whittington and Fred Holmes.
Junior safety Jarrad Page and freshman cornerback Trey Brown will return as secondary starters. Backups Eric McNeal, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes along with a couple of incoming freshmen will give UCLA more speed in its defensive backfield.
"This says nothing about our future," London said. "This is a different team in a different situation than teams in the past. We're going to be cool. We're going to show how we learned from our mistakes."
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Not Two Easy
Karl Dorrell has the worst record over his first two seasons at UCLA since Edwin C. Horrell went 7-9-4 in 1939-40. A look at how UCLA coaches have fared in their first two seasons since then:
*--* Coach Years Record Pct. * Bert LaBrucherie 1945-46 15-5 750 * Henry R. Sanders 1949-50 12-6 667 * William F. Barnes 1959-60 12-6-2 650 * Tommy Prothro 1965-66 17-3-1 850 * Pepper Rodgers 1971-72 10-10-1 500 * Dick Vermeil 1974-75 15-5-3 717 * Terry Donahue 1976-77 16-6-1 727 * Bob Toledo 1996-97 15-8 652 * Karl Dorrell 2003-04 12-13 480