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UCLA

Column: The good vibes from UCLA’s season are gone after a loss to Nebraska

Ka’imi Fairbairn

UCLA kicker Ka’mi Fairbairn (15) watches a missed field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The last time anyone heard from Josh Rosen and Jim Mora before Saturday, they were lounging together on Mora’s couch the day after UCLA’s loss to USC.

Remember that outlandish tale told by Mora? About how his quarterback Rosen strolled into Mora’s Manhattan Beach home without even knocking and gave him a pep talk?

“Just walked into the house and laid down on the couch next to me and said, ‘We got it, we’ll be all right, we’ll get over it,’” Mora said.

Guess it’s time to get a bigger couch.

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No amount of cuddling can fix the cold-cocking delivered by Nebraska on Saturday night in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.

On a field decorated with a giant hen, the Bruins laid a giant egg in a 37-29 defeat that ends Mora’s fourth season, and Rosen’s first, with no trace of the feel-good vibes that ran through so much of it.

The Bruins entered from a powerful Pac-12 Conference that had won all four of its previous bowl games, and were playing a team from the traditionally suspect Big Ten. Yet that Midwestern team pounded them into sand, outpunching them from Foster to Farms.

The Bruins were coming off a regular season during which they were ranked as high as seventh nationally, and were playing a team that was 5-7 and invited to a bowl only because there were no winning teams left. Yet that losing team made UCLA feel like even bigger losers, ending the Bruins’ season with three defeats in their last four games and raising questions about the continued progress of the program under Mora.

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“We need to get bigger, obviously,” said Mora late Saturday. “We need to get stronger, obviously.”

The fiery coach has changed the culture of the program and led it to its greatest continued success since Bob Toledo ran the program in the late 1990s. But judging from Saturday’s loss, at least right now, Mora’s Bruins indeed appear to be running in place.

Three years ago, in his first UCLA bowl game, a 49-26 loss to Baylor, Mora’s team allowed 306 rushing yards and 494 total yards. On Saturday, Mora’s first bowl loss since then, Nebraska rushed for 326 yards and gained 500 total yards.

Three years ago, Mora’s team went 9-5 and ended the season with three consecutive losses. This year, after two consecutive 10-win seasons, it finished 8-5.

Yes, there are now more UCLA football fans bouncing around town than four years ago, the Rose Bowl is louder and more crowded, support has grown each season. But Saturday, the stands belonged to Nebraska. Although there was an announced crowd of only 33,527, making the giant home of next month’s Super Bowl look mostly empty, the place roared with cheers for the Cornhuskers, almost as if it were a Nebraska home game, even though Los Angeles is about 1,300 miles closer to Santa Clara than Lincoln is.

Late Saturday, Mora’s usual tough-football talk was not about his team, but the other guys.

"[They] play hard, play well, play the way you’re supposed to play,” said Mora of Nebraska.

As for his own group, he said simply, “There’s a lot of things we’ve done well, but lot of things we have to improve on, and we’ll address those.”

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The good news for UCLA is that its best player is one of its youngest players, star freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. The bad news is that he needs some help from those around him, most notably a defense that never recovered from early-season injuries to stars Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes and Fabian Moreau.

“We’re a little light on defense, everybody knows that, and they took advantage of it,” said Mora.

Yet this is Rosen’s team, and so Saturday it only figured that it was Rosen to lead them to a stirring opening and Rosen who was eventually flattened in the somber ending.

The Bruins took a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter on three drives led by Rosen passes both gutty and graceful. The defense blew that lead, the Bruins falling behind 37-21 seconds into the fourth quarter, but UCLA came back behind Rosen’s arm to pull to within eight points with the ball in the Nebraska red zone midway through the fourth quarter.

But on a third-down play, Rosen mishandled the snap, and then Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt.

The Bruins regained possession with 4:40 left around midfield and Rosen went back to work with another chance for a tie. But a drive that featured two dropped passes and one overthrown pass ended with an interception. It happened on a fourth-down play during which Rosen was driven to the ground by Michael Rose-Ivey as he threw the ball into the hands of Nebraska’s Chris Jones in the end zone.

“I threw up a desperation play trying to make something happen,” Rosen said.

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Rosen finished the game completing a respectable 26 of 40 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns, but he also had two interceptions, ending his season with four touchdowns and four interceptions in his last two games. His true-freshman numbers were tremendous for an 18-year-old kid, with 3,670 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

But yeah, he needs help.

“Bottom line, we just didn’t perform well enough tonight, both coaches and players,” said Mora.

The Bruins’ porous run defense, combined with a lack of discipline that has been a trademark of this season, once again dragged the program into mediocrity.

The Bruins entered the game ranked 88th out of 128 teams nationally in defending the run, and one could quickly see why. The Bruins also entered the game ranked 120th in penalty yards, and that trend also continued, this time actually giving the Cornhuskers all the momentum they needed.

The first Cornhuskers score, on their opening drive, was helped by a personal foul penalty against the Bruins’ Takkarist McKinley that moved Nebraska into the red zone, and they eventually scored on a one-yard run by Imani Cross.

The second Nebraska score came after Jaleel Wadood foolishly hit Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp after he was already out of bounds. The flag also moved the ball into the red zone, and Nebraska needed just two power running plays to finish the drive with another power run by Terrell Newby.

“Those two personal fouls really hurt us.’' acknowledged Mora.

Fittingly, those penalties gave the Cornhuskers a drive they never lost, while the Bruins ended yet another football season stuck in neutral.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke


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