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UCLA preaches cohesiveness as defense overachieves and offense struggles

UCLA preaches cohesiveness as defense overachieves and offense struggles
UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul speaks with Coach Jim Mora before the game against Washington State. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

A mid-tier bowl game, the one maddening constant of the Jim Mora era at UCLA, now might qualify as a relief for the Bruins.

They are off to the worst start of Mora's five seasons as coach after a 27-21 loss to Washington State on Saturday night sunk the media's preseason Pac-12 Conference South Division title favorites into fifth place.

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A winning season is no sure thing for UCLA (3-4 overall, 1-3 Pac-12) given that all five of its remaining opponents, starting with Utah (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, have a higher winning percentage than the Bruins in conference play.

A defiant Mora talked after the Bruins' third loss in four games about his team fighting its way out of a slump. That probably starts with getting quarterback Josh Rosen back from the injuries that sidelined him against the Cougars and avoiding any infighting among players from an overachieving defense and a vastly underperforming running game.

"I've never in my career been around a run game as awful as this," Mora said after the Bruins gained 43 rushing yards and averaged 1.7 yards per carry. "That has to be the first thing we address. It's staggeringly poor and we have to fix it."

Tensions were predictably high after the defense gave the offense two final chances to beat the Cougars, only for receiver Jordan Lasley to lose a fumble and backup quarterback Mike Fafaul to float a pass that was intercepted.

Asked about the atmosphere in the locker room after the game, receiver Darren Andrews said, "I'd rather not say."

Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes said hostility should exist in a losing locker room but stressed the need for cohesiveness in the days that follow.

"It doesn't look like it out there," Vanderdoes said, "but we just gotta enforce playing as a unit and keeping the team together and the last thing that we want is for everything to fall apart and for it to get worse and worse and worse and have a snowball effect."

Several players said the defense continually encouraged the offense amid its struggles, though no one hands out participation trophies in major college football.

"We can't go out there and play" for them, linebacker Kenny Young said after the UCLA defense held Washington State quarterback Luke Falk without a touchdown pass for the first time this season. "We did our part, but we fell short."

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the Bruins' loss was that they had a chance to win the game without Rosen or any semblance of a running game.

UCLA took over on its own 30-yard line with 2 minutes 43 seconds left, needing a touchdown for the go-ahead score. Fafaul quickly completed a pass to Lasley for a 13-yard gain, but the ball was poked out by linebacker Dylan Hanser and the Cougars recovered. The initial ruling on the field was that Lasley was down, but Fafaul could not get off the next snap, allowing officials to review the play and rule it a fumble.

"Even with the fumble," Mora said, "we had a chance to get a snap off and negate the fumble if we had executed what we work on every week multiple times and that is so disgusting to me. I mean, the fumble is certainly distressing, but not being able to execute a simple play that we run every week is even more distressing. I'm obviously not doing a good job of getting the message through."

Said Fafaul: "We couldn't get set quick enough and that's on me as a quarterback not being able to direct my guys."

UCLA offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu said he had warned players about getting chased from behind and the need to secure the ball after receiver Kenneth Walker III lost a fumble in the first half. Apparently the message didn't register.

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But Polamalu mostly blamed himself for the Bruins' shortcomings, saying an offense that ranks No. 126 out of 128 major-college teams in rushing yards per game (91.1) and yards per carry (2.81) was on him. Some simplifying of schemes and a return to old plays that had worked did nothing to help a problem that only deepened.

Polamalu freely solicited solutions afterward.

"I just sat with the guys and went over and talked to them one on one and basically said, 'How can I help? What is it? Is it the scheme? Is it this? Is it that?' " Polamalu said. "They're frustrated, all the way from the running backs to the tight ends to the o-line."

There was plenty of hurt to go around and a temptation to play the blame game before moving on to Utah.

"You can't feel sorry for yourself," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "You gotta hang together or you'll hang separately."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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