Column

UCLA wins a testy and weird Alamo Bowl, with off-field intrigue added

UCLA's win over Kansas State is more soap opera than game, with on-field antics and off-field rumors

UCLA's football season ended here Friday night in an explosion of joy, pride, emotion and confusion. Even some doubt.

The Bruins beat Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl, 40-35, and there was so much else going on that it defied imagination and challenges description.

This one was more soap opera than football. It was like a series of little volcanoes. The game was part Greco-Roman wrestling, part ultimate fighting and part Dr. Phil.

The good part, for this highly talented team that was put, by some, on a national championship pedestal well before anybody had played a game, was that they finished on a high, posting their second straight 10-3 season.

UCLA played like a national champion in the first half and ran up a 31-6 lead, clearly dominating. In the second half, they were outscored, 29-9, and ended up hanging on for dear life — or, symbolically — to the onside kick at the end running back Paul Perkins squeezed in a death grip while Kansas State players pulled and yanked at him.

"I just wanted the game to be over," Perkins said.

But much else was going on than merely the game.

It was star quarterback Brett Hundley's last game. He has eligibility left, but will turn pro. The end of the Hundley era is emotional enough, but when you add the rumors of the possible end to the Coach Jim Mora era and you have UCLA fans, certainly overjoyed at the bowl victory, also wondering.

Mora, as feisty a coach as there is in football, has done his best to defuse the murmurs and unwittingly pour kerosene on the fire.

He was recently quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I'd rather deal with moms and dads than wives and agents."

Then, a day ago, he told The Times' Chris Foster, "I have no plans to coach anywhere other than UCLA at this time."

The last three words do catch your eye.

All of this is only speculation-worthy because Mora is known to, at least at one time, covet the 49ers' NFL job, which is now open. He coached there for nine years, seven as a defensive co-coordinator, and has been a successful NFL head coach.

There is logic, even though Mora hates the speculation.

It gets more interesting.

In the first half, 300-pound lineman Caleb Benenoch was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct at a key moment. He crossed his forearms in celebration toward the Kansas State bench. When he got to the sideline, Mora ripped off his headset and charged down the sideline to Benenoch, proceeding to let loose with a verbal tirade that had TV doing replays and people tittering on Twitter.

There is the theory around the NFL that Mora is too much of a loose cannon for pro players, that things such as the act along the sidelines with Benenoch wouldn't play well with NFL veterans.

The Bruins were penalized 15 times for 128 yards. Both numbers were Alamo Bowl records.

"We got a little emotional," Mora said. "It got tense." Also weird.

And, in the case of one player, Boston Stiverson of Kansas State, sad. In the closing minutes of the game, Stiverson suffered a fractured leg and was taken off on a cart.

Shortly after, Perkins was wrapping his arms around an onside kick and as the rugby scrum around him was nearly turning into a fist fight, teammate Myles Jack was yanking opposing players away.

It got so testy that, even when UCLA was running out the clock, with Hundley merely taking a knee, another fight almost broke out.

All this was preceded by the appearance of not just one, but two fans, who wandered out separately on the field during one of the interminable game stoppages for penalties and ESPN commercials. It was like the game that would never end, and the clothed streakers led cheers, danced, dived headfirst on the field and were eventually escorted away, none too gently, by security.

When the game finally ended, the teams headed toward each other at midfield and, for a moment — before Mora and other coaches stepped in — it looked as if the usual handshakes would instead be fisticuffs. Fortunately, it didn't happen.

Afterward, Mora was asked whether he had any concern about his team's inability to hold the big lead. He snarled a defensive response, suggesting the questioner "walk out on the field, look at the scoreboard" and see which team had won.

UCLA, of course, didn't hire Mora for his bedside manner with reporters and only hopes to keep him around for at least the rest of his five-year contract signed in December 2013, with a total base pay of $21 million.

UCLA will have 18 of their 22 starting players back. More than 50 others on the current team are freshmen or sophomores.

Mora kept pointing out, and rightly so, that Kansas State was the No. 11-ranked football team in the country, three spots above the Bruins.

"We hung in there," he said. "That's been a symbol of our team all year, the grit, the toughness, the character…. I think the future looks bright for UCLA football."

In retrospect, the summary of Friday is easy. Hundley may be gone. But UCLA's head man has mastered the art of turning gutty little Bruins into feisty, angry bears.

Consecutive 10-3 seasons say that works and will keep working, assuming Papa Bruin keeps growling in Westwood.

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes

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