Column: ‘Ecstatic, then real frustrated’: The motto of the Jim Mora era at UCLA

Bill Plaschke, Chris Foster and Lindsey Thiry discuss UCLA’s 31-27 loss to Washington State at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.


They were two moments that symbolized an era.

Jim Mora football is jubilant football. Jim Mora football is devastating football.

With barely a minute left in UCLA’s regular-season Rose Bowl finale Saturday night, under a sliver of moon and within shouting distance of midnight, Josh Rosen tucked the football under his right arm and ran. And ran. And ran. And eventually dived into the end zone after covering nearly half the field to give the Bruins a lead over Washington State.

The UCLA sideline was decorated in dancing black uniforms. The Rose Bowl stands were filled with a booming eight-clap. A chill was lifted. A game was saved.


Then, it wasn’t. As quickly as the band could put down their triumphant brass, the Cougars used seven plays to drive back down the field and score on a 21-yard pass from Luke Falk to a tumbling Gabe Marks with three seconds remaining to give Washington State a stunning 31-27 upset over the No. 19 Bruins.

The UCLA sideline was decorated in doom, players staring toward the sky, players running for the exit. The Rose Bowl stands were emptying in silence, fans hidden under hoodies and hunched over in disappointment.

“Ecstatic, then real frustrated,’’ Rosen said afterward, providing a motto for the four seasons of Jim Mora’s Bruins.

Ecstatic, then frustrated. Play to the verge of greatness, then stumble back into the crater of disillusionment. Win seven of nine games and need only a victory over double-digit underdog Washington State for momentum heading into the season’s final stretch, then give that game away.

Happens every year. Looks like it’s happening again.

“It’s a very disappointed locker room,’’ Mora said. “That is something we have got to get over quickly.’’

Improbably, the Bruins are still alive for the Pac-12 championship. With a Utah loss to Arizona earlier Saturday night, the Bruins can win their final two games — at Utah and at USC — to win the South Division title and advance to the title bout.

But after Saturday night, does anybody really believe that can happen? Is UCLA really capable of going into Salt Lake City and exchanging punches with the angry Utes when it couldn’t beat down an undermanned Washington State team that had not won in the Rose Bowl in nine years?

And, let’s be honest, even after three consecutive wins in Los Angeles’ cross-town hoedown, does anybody think UCLA will be favored this time over those survivors at USC?

“As crazy as it is, competitive athletics are crazy, and we are right in the hunt for what our goal was all along,’’ Mora said.

You want crazy? That happened when some of the Cougars taking the field during pregame warmups wore no shirts and raggedy shorts as if they were a sandlot team.

You want more crazy? During the Bruins’ first two drives, they reached the Washington State two-yard line, yet through their own mishaps and disorganization they couldn’t find the end zone.

The first drive included three false-start penalties, two within steps of the goal line. The Bruins threatened again with their second drive, but this time Jordan Payton dropped a pass, fullback Nate Iese was stopped on a strange run call, and Rosen threw it away under pressure.

Speaking of pressure, that’s exactly what’s increasing on Noel Mazzone, the Bruins’ affable offensive coordinator who sometimes does not get the most out of all this talent. Like when Rosen throws for 340 yards and no touchdowns. Or when Payton ties a school record with 14 catches for 152 yards and no touchdowns.

“I’ve got to do a better job,’’ Mazzone said. “We get a penalty, I call a stupid play…’’

Oh yeah, penalties. The Bruins entered game as one of the 10 most penalized teams in college football, and they lived up to their reputation with 13 flags for 75 yards, mistakes that seemingly cost them every time you looked up. Bruins fans soundly booed the officials throughout the night for perceived failures to penalize Washington State, and Mora even walked off the field shouting for somebody to fire one of the referees, but none of that could fix the Bruins’ continued lack of discipline.

UCLA’s Paul Perkins, the running back whose 121-yard night was wasted, added another possible moniker for the Mora era.

“Penalties is the motto of our team this year,’’ Perkins said. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t get over this penalty hump.’’

They lacked discipline in other ways. Late in the first half, the Bruins basically fumbled away a touchdown, with Ishmael Adams losing the ball on the 14-yard line while trying to do too much on a punt return, leading to the Cougars’ backup quarterback Peyton Bender throwing a seven-yard touchdown pass to Dom Williams.

Then came that final drive, engineered by Falk, who seemingly shouldn’t have been in the game after taking a huge hit in the first half and groggily failing to immediately get up, although he was able to return in the second half.

Falk seemed clear-headed during those final seven plays, picking apart the injury-depleted UCLA secondary with such ease that he faced only one third-down play. And that was the touchdown play. And, yes, the Bruins were penalized on the play, with pass interference on Adams being declined.

UCLA’s seemingly loose late attitude was implied by Rosen, who asked if he thought his team had won the game on his thrilling 37-yard run.

“No,” he said. “But I kind of got the feeling everyone else did.”

For sure, Jim Mora’s Bruins do some really cool things. On Saturday they wore helmets with bone frog decals in honor of the Navy SEALS. They also held their Senior Night activities at halftime so the seniors could be feted by a nearly full Rose Bowl.

Included in that ceremony was the memory of wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who died when struck by a car in 2013. This would have been his final home game, and so five of Pasquale’s teammates wore his name on the back of their jerseys, and they surrounded Pasquale’s family during the ceremony. In the middle of the group was Mora, who wore a cap emblazoned with Pasquale’s No. 36.

Nice stuff. Neat stuff. Then the night ended with another heaping of lousy stuff, a game that spoke for an era.

Ecstatic, then real frustrated.

Twitter: @billplaschke