Sun Devils defensive back Alden Darby celebrates after Bruins receiver… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Once again, UCLA felt ready for the roses.
Once again, the Bruins clumsily bloodied their hands grabbing at them.
In only two seasons, Jim Mora has changed the UCLA football culture and brought it to the brink of New Year's Day. But on the cold and barren brink it will remain, UCLA again falling out of Rose Bowl game contention in a late autumn chill Saturday with a 38-33 loss to Arizona State.
Last season the Bruins' title quest ended in the Pac-12 Conference title game. This season it ended two games earlier, but just as painfully, UCLA left standing on a cold Rose Bowl field staring at a Sun Devils team dancing and doing grass angels.
It is Arizona State that will play Stanford for the Pac-12 title in a couple of weeks, and UCLA will head into next week's neighborhood brawl with USC simply hoping to put an exclamation point on a rebirth that has once again stumbled upon a comma.
These are the new
Bruins, but ...
These are the tougher and more resilient Bruins, but ...
These Bruins fell behind 22 points at halftime, fought back to pull within five points early in the fourth quarter, then stumbled down the end with a missed 37-yard field-goal try by Ka'imi Fairbairn and a bunch of missed blocks by inexperienced linemen during a final drive that netted all of 11 yards in eight plays and never crossed midfield.
So they were close after not being close, and inspiring after being awful, and, well, they have won eight of 11 games and their expanding fan base now nearly fills the Rose Bowl, but....
“There's something growing around here that's going to be special,” Mora said. “It's not there yet, but it's growing.”
The gap between the Bruins and greatness was evident after the final play, when the loudest Rose Bowl roars came from a hearty group of Arizona State fans sitting above the end zone, and all the energy came from a Sun Devils team that sprinted down the field to party with their crowd.
If there was a swimming pool on the premises, here's guessing the Arizona State players would have danced in it. The UCLA fans tried vainly to clap their way into the Bruins' psyches, but the UCLA players just ducked their heads and disappeared into the tunnel.
“We're a little beat up,” quarterback Brett Hundley said.
They were nearly beaten down, Saturday's game starting with more than an hour's worth of old Bruins, UCLA falling behind, 35-13, at halftime to a veteran high-powered team that had crushed USC and seemed bent on destroying all of L.A.
The Sun Devils started the game with a 76-yard scoring drive, added another first-quarter touchdown and an 18-yard interception return by linebacker Carl Bradford, then scored on the final play from scrimmage of the first half on a 19-yard touchdown pass from the seemingly unstoppable quarterback Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong.
“They were more ready to play in the first half, that was clear,” linebacker Cassius Marsh said.
Even the Bruins coaches took a pounding, as they surely wound up questioning their seemingly sensible move of celebrated freshman Myles Jack to running back full time.
Although Jack gained 86 yards and scored a touchdown, his left-side linebacker spot was constantly flooded with Sun Devils carrying the ball. Arizona State's first two touchdowns, three-yard runs by Kelly and D.J. Foster, occurred in areas that would have been patrolled by Jack.
“It's not permanent,” Mora said of the switch, the same caution he has been saying for weeks, and now the world knows why. “Myles heart is at linebacker, he wants to be a linebacker.”
The half ended in the worst possible way for the Bruins, with the taunting Sun Devils running off the field under stunned silent UCLA fans with their hands to their ears and their fingers to their lips.
“We got ourselves into a hole in the first half and were not able to recover,” Mora said.
But they almost recovered. Where former Bruins teams would have completely collapsed, Mora's guys almost pulled it out, and for a program that has been struggling so many years in mediocrity — 15 years since its last Rose Bowl game appearance — this was brightness indeed.
“A lot of teams, they fall behind like that in the first half, they would just throw it in the tank,” Hundley said.
Hundley completed only three of nine passes in the first half, but he came back to complete 15 of 17 in the second half, another sign of maturation from a kid who surely has realized that he can use another year of college football.
Hundley led the Bruins on a 79-yard scoring drive to start the second half, then they quickly scored again after a Sun Devils botched punt snap.
The gap was further closed after a 65-yard scoring drive at the start of the fourth quarter that included a fourth-down pass to freshman defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes.
“They fought back, we were in it, they had shots,” Mora said.
But with a first down from the Sun Devils 11-yard line and a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, the Bruins couldn't protect Hundley and they had to settle for a field goal attempt that was missed. And then on their ensuing drive, Hundley never really had a chance.
“We just have to get better from it, and we will,” Mora said.
How much better have they become in two years under their coach? This city will find out Saturday at the Coliseum. No ifs, ands or buts.