With division at stake, UCLA aims to finally end football monopoly
In Jim Mora's first season, UCLA is in position to win the Pac-12 South over USC
Quarterback Brett Hundley leads an offense that is painfully young, but exciting
This isn't just any other football game, but the Bruins need to prepare like it is
LOS ANGELES -- On the page, the first-year UCLA coach looked so confident pointing in the general direction of his crosstown rival. Rick Neuheisel, proud UCLA alum, was about to launch his first season at the helm in Westwood when the school's marketing department saddled him with an image and a message neither he nor his team could back up.
"THE FOOTBALL MONOPOLY IN LOS ANGELES IS OFFICIALLY OVER," screamed the ad in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 25, 2008. Unfortunately, ink on a page couldn't end USC's gridiron dominance of the Southland. UCLA would have to do that on the field, and Neuheisel could never accomplish that mission. In four seasons under Neuheisel, UCLA lost four times to USC by a combined score of 134-28. The monopoly never was in danger.
This week, UCLA's current first-year coach made no promises. In fact, he tried his best to paint Saturday's meeting with the Trojans at the Rose Bowl as he would any other game. Jim Mora spent the previous 26 seasons in the NFL, where almost every regular-season contest does feel like any other game. But it's different in college, and it's different in this rivalry, which is why a local reporter prefaced a question Monday with this: "I'm sure you thought about this week when you took the job." Mora plowed ahead. "I didn't think about this week when I took the job," he said, "but I am excited." Later someone asked about last year's 50-0 beatdown in the Coliseum. "Who won?" Mora quipped.
Mora coaches UCLA, but he is not of UCLA. So this week doesn't mean as much to him -- even though in terms of aggregate consequences it may be the most important regular-season game of his coaching career. The Bruins are 8-2. The Trojans are 7-3. Saturday's winner will claim the Pac-12 South Division title and play the North champ (probably Orgeon) on Nov. 30 for the league title. Of more long-term significance, recruits across talent-rich Southern California will be watching. The Bruins have a prime opportunity to prove their program is on the way up and poised to zoom past USC, which is still dealing with the consequences of NCAA sanctions. Mora seemed skeptical this week that the result of one game might sway a recruit, but he considered it only from the short-term perspective. "I don't know if you win a game or lose a game that a recruit just flips," Mora said. He's probably correct on that point. A class of 2013 player probably will not change his mind based on the outcome of Saturday's game. But the Bruins could influence the members of the classes of 2014 and 2015 and help tilt the balance of power in Southern California and beyond.
USC has ruled this area since Pete Carroll's second season. The Trojans have turned the Bruins into an afterthought, but UCLA's first 10 games under Mora suggest the Bruins may finally hit back. They're not always consistent on defense, and they're painfully young on offense, but when everything clicks, UCLA is one of the nation's most exciting teams to watch. That's especially true of the offense, which has forced coordinator Noel Mazzone to rely on younger players than he ever has in his 32-year coaching career.
After a touchback gave UCLA the ball on its own 25 with a two-point deficit and 1:33 remaining at Arizona State on Oct. 27, Mazzone looked at his offense and counted. Three freshman receivers. Three freshman linemen. One freshman quarterback. "It's not like, 'OK guys, we've been there before,'" Mazzone said this week. "It's like 'All right, let's go out and try to make a few plays.'"
Those freshmen, led by quarterback Brett Hundley and mentored -- and sometimes carried -- by senior tailback Johnathan Franklin, made the necessary plays that day and maneuvered for a game-winning field goal. As the wins have piled up, Mazzone has stopped thinking of his freshmen as youngsters. "They've done a great job," Mazzone said. "I don't look at any of them like freshmen anymore. They're all old guys now to me. ... The only bad thing is when we have to go on road trips we have to get notes from moms so they can go."
Youth has not hampered Hundley, the redshirt freshman whose breakout season has been overshadowed nationally by fellow dual-threat redshirt freshmen Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Marcus Mariota (Oregon). Hundley is second in the Pac-12 in total offense (301.1 yards per game), and every week, he has absorbed more of Mazzone's up-tempo offense. "I think this with all quarterbacks," Mazzone said. "The more they play, the more they understand the offense, the more they can overcome our coaching. What did Johnny Unitas say? You haven't become a true quarterback until you can tell your quarterback coach to go to hell." Mazzone believes Hundley is awfully close to that point.
The trick for UCLA coaches this week will be convincing a bunch of excitable freshmen and a group of seniors who have never beaten USC to treat this week as they would any other. "Big games like this, I think you've got to bring people down a little bit," said senior guard Jeff Baca, who said his mission this week would be to keep the offensive line "grounded." Meanwhile, senior linebacker Dalton Hilliard said the Bruins have to treat the Trojans like "nameless faces." That's not easy when so many players grew up playing with and against one another. "We're not stupid here," Hilliard said. "We know who we're playing. We know their faces. We've gone to camps. We've been recruited with a lot of these guys. ... But we've got to want to come into this game like we have every game this season. You can't play this one any differently."
If the Bruins play the way they have all season, they should certainly be able to score on USC's oft-maligned defense. They may give up some points to quarterback Matt Barkley and the all-everything receiver tandem of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, but the Bruins have every reason to believe they can leave the Rose Bowl on Saturday with a Pac-12 South title that, unlike last year, didn't come by default. UCLA won the division title in 2011, but only because USC was unable to play for the league title because of sanctions. The 6-6 Bruins had already fired Neuheisel and knew they would get creamed by Oregon in the conference title game. This time, they know they have a chance to win a division title outright. That makes this the most important game in which these players have played. They can't end the football monopoly by beating almost every team except USC. The Bruins will have to slay the monopoly on the field Saturday. To do that, they'll have to prepare as if they're playing any run-of-the-mill opponent.
"We understand the significance, but we're going to try to normalize it as much as possible," Mora said. "Which will be impossible."