Shortly after Colorado’s attempted Hail Mary sailed out of the back of the end zone and UCLA’s victory was official, the Rose Bowl started to empty. As the crowd marched toward the parking lots, one fan in powder blue was heard saying unenthusiastically to another, “A win’s a win.”
The response was delivered with similar level of non-excitement: “Yeah …”
That’s the kind of night it was Saturday.
The Bruins won 27-23 and in doing so, prevented their season from completely unraveling — for now.
Victories like this are sources of relief, not euphoria, and almost everyone treated it as such, from coach Jim Mora to his players to the fans. No one was about to make too much of this win, not with the multitude of shortcomings obvious to even the most casual of observers.
However, the first step in solving problems is acknowledging they exist, and Mora continued to do that after this victory with a refreshing level of candor. Now, many would argue Mora is the reason the problems are there in the first place, but that’s another discussion for another day. The coach will not be replaced at this stage of the season.
Nor should he be. A team of UCLA’s caliber can’t expect to become a national contender overnight. USC’s presence across town makes that hard to accept for a sizable segment of the fan base, but that’s the reality. Progress has to be measured in small increments — the kind of modest gains the Bruins made in the week after their embarrassing loss at Stanford. Whatever his faults, Mora recognizes this.
The result Saturday was an improved defense that contained Colorado standout running back Phillip Lindsay to 86 yards on 19 carries. The defense also came up with some key third-down stops, most notably in the fourth quarter when the Buffaloes were marching down the field and threatening to overtake UCLA’s 24-20 lead. Dual-threat quarterback Steven Montez scrambled for 37 yards to the UCLA 14-yard line, but the Bruins forced their visitors to settle for a field goal.
UCLA’s previously non-existent ground game sealed the victory on the offensive possession that followed. On third-and-six from the Colorado 28, running back Soso Jamabo ran for seven yards. The modest run extended the drive, enough so that after JJ Molsen kicked a 31-yard field goal to extend UCLA’s lead back to four points, there were only 26 seconds remaining in the game.
Mora complimented his team’s third-down defense and emotional resiliency — in addition to coming off consecutive defeats, the Bruins lost tight end Caleb Wilson and offensive guard Najee Toran during the game — but otherwise offered sobering appraisals of the performance.
“You can take a sigh of relief, but you can’t act like it’s all fixed,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”
Mora conceded the ground game was still lacking, and the numbers reflected that. UCLA ran for only 95 yards on 35 attempts.
“I would like to see us be able to finish the game with runs, more productive runs there, never have to kick a field goal and never have to kick off and never have to go back out on defense,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of room for improvement.” Mora’s teams at UCLA have always had problems with penalties, and Saturday offered more of the same. The Bruins committed nine infractions that cost them 85 yards.
In the opening quarter, defensive back Darnay Holmes became the fourth UCLA player ejected in four games because of a targeting penalty.
“I think was a good call,” Mora conceded. “We have to teach him to lower his point of aim and keep his head up.”
The Bruins were also flagged for three defensive holding infractions. One of them occurred near the end of the first half, right after UCLA was penalized for having 12 men on the field.
“We were coming out of a timeout and we end up with 12 guys on the field,” Mora said. “That’s my fault. There’s no reason why that should ever happen.”
The players were also restrained in the postgame news conference, an indication they have adopted the coach’s mindset.
“We have to keep building, keep stacking, keep getting better,” linebacker Kenny Young said.
Young knew what Mora did: There’s no quick fix here.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez