PALO ALTO -- They are close.
They are close as those red-slickered screaming students who swarmed their giant heaving bodies as they trudged off the Stanford Stadium field.
They are as close as those rose petals that surrounded their cleats when they clacked though the muddy tunnel.
They are as close as Jim Mora came to finally showing real emotion when discussing a UCLA team’s Rose Bowl bid that was suddenly and painfully stopped Friday night on the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado.
“We’ll eventually move on, but this one is going to sting for while,” the Bruins’ coach said, his voice thickening, his arm suddenly shooting up and pointing out to the soggy field. “You don’t get this close, and get that close, and lose, and not have it hurt.”
For UCLA today, it should hurt so good. The Bruins’ 27-24 loss to Stanford on Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game was a giant, if occasionally stumbling, step toward long-awaited respectability.
The Bruins outgained Stanford by more than 100 yards, outplayed Stanford into the fourth quarter, and hung with the favored Cardinal through the wind and the rain and the hostile cheers led by a drum major dressed like Zorro. The Bruins showed everything but experience, knocked around every black shirt but one, and nailed nearly everything but a last-second field-goal attempt.
A year ago in this championship game, the Bruins sprinted off the Autzen Stadium field with a fired head coach and program in chaos. On Friday, they walked proudly away with the knowledge that they came within a couple of wet whiskers of making their first Rose Bowl appearance in 14 years while nearly beating one of the hottest teams in the country.
This same Stanford team beat the Bruins by 18 points six days ago, yet might not beat them again if they played six days from now.
Yeah, the Bruins are that different. And, yeah, they’re that close.
“It’s only the beginning,” said Mora.
As with all important beginnings, there had to first be a heartbreaking ending, and so the Bruins’ hopes crumbled late Friday on a blown assignment, some bad nerves, and a missed kick.
The confusion occurred early in the fourth quarter with the Bruins leading by a touchdown. On third and 15, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan found Drew Terrell wide open in the back corner of the end zone for a tying touchdown pass ahead of a clearly bewildered Sheldon Price.
“There was a communication breakdown, we busted a coverage at a very inopportune time,” said Mora.
The Bruins then showed their inexperience when they started their ensuing drive with an ill-advised kick return (eight-yard line), a bad penalty (holding), and uncertain play that seemed affected by the loud Stanford student section over their back shoulders. They wound up punting just outside the end zone, the Cardinal started its drive at nearly midfield, and soon Jordan Williamson’s 36-yard field goal gave Stanford the lead.
“I didn’t see anything on our side that led me to believe we were overwhelmed,” said Mora. “But I did see a Stanford team that was very poised, had been there before, years in their program, and we’re just beginning.”
The Bruins did seem overwhelmed on their final drive, which featured quarterback Brett Hundley allowing himself to be tackled twice instead of throwing the ball away even though the Bruins had no timeouts. It ended with a missed 52-yard field-goal attempt by Ka’i Fairbairn, but, surely, no Bruins fan watching this game thought it was an ending.
Up next will be the Bruins’ first decent bowl game since that last Rose Bowl, a trip to San Diego or San Antonio with more national exposure. Then there will be a 2013 season with a returning Hundley deserving of preseason Heisman hype, with leading receiver Shaq Evans coming back, with much of a quick defense returning.
More than anything, the Bruins will be coming back with a toughness and swagger that we haven’t seen consistently around Westwood since Terry Donahue walked the sidelines.
For all of his great runs and controlled leadership Friday night, Hundley’s best new-Bruin move was probably his chase of Stanford’s Ed Reynolds during an 80-yard interception return. Yeah, the quarterback
who threw the lousy pass sprinted more than half
the field before finally catching Reynolds on the goal line.
For all the great defensive stops — Stanford converted fewer than half of its third downs — the best new-Bruin plays were the constant pressure from sideline to sideline that held Stepfan Taylor to 78 yards and generally pushed the biggest Cardinal around.
“You did poll people at the start of the season, and if anybody thought we’d be sitting here tonight with less than 45 seconds on the clock and a chance to tie or win it, I’m not sure anybody would have taken that bet,” said Mora.
I wouldn’t have taken it then. But I’ll be taking it next year. Jim Mora’s Bruins may not be rosy, but they’ve certainly become thorny, and for now, that’s bloom enough.