UCLA brings back old, familiar feeling of close but not good enough

UCLA brings back old, familiar feeling of close but not good enough
UCLA Coach Jim Mora looks up at the scoreboard late in the Bruins' 31-10 loss to Stanford at the Rose Bowl. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Same old, same rolled.

The Ghost of UCLA Gassed swooped back down upon the Rose Bowl on Friday in the continuation of a nightmare that has transcended eras, outlived coaches and consistently awakened Bruins fans into a cold sweat.


Stop me if you've … wait, of course you've heard this before, who hasn't heard this before?

A UCLA football team poised on the cusp of greatness has fallen awkwardly backward into the abyss of disillusionment. A UCLA football team with its fingers on the next level has been leveled.

This time it was five-loss Stanford wiping out the Bruins, 31-10, in a game that reinforced the frustrating history it was supposed to change.

When the game began, eighth-ranked UCLA was one seemingly simple victory from advancing to next week's Pac-12 championship game. Yet by the middle of the fourth quarter, the Rose Bowl tunnels were filled with angry fans trudging back to their ruined holiday weekends.

"It's happened again!" shouted one.

If the Bruins had advanced to next weekend's title game, a victory there over second-ranked Oregon would have surely propelled them into college football's inaugural final four with a legitimate shot at the school's first national championship in 60 years. Instead, their regular season has ended with quarterback Brett Hundley's injured right hand wrapped in ice and his face covered in pain.

"Really shocking,'' he said.

Shocking? Really? Even though the outmanned Cardinal team harassed Hundley, hit everyone, and overcame the absence of their best offensive player Ty Montgomery to pound the Bruins on four touchdown drives of at least 75 yards each, anyone with a sense of UCLA history would have to admit it was not really shocking.

This was the failure to tackle O.J. Simpson in 1967. This was the home loss of Troy Aikman's top-ranked Bruins team to Washington State in 1988, a defeat whose memory surfaced again Friday when the Bruins retired Aikman's No. 8.

This was the inability to stop Edgerrin James in 1998. This was Karl Dorrell's undefeated Bruins losing by 38 points to Arizona in 2005. And, yes, this stain has now been transferred to the legacy of Coach Jim Mora, who has yet to beat either Stanford or Oregon in six attempts, and who has suffered late and bad losses to Baylor, Arizona State and now Stanford in each of his three years here.

"Get all over Mora!'' shouted another fan fleeing through the tunnel.

After three consecutive wins over USC, Mora's Bruins may own this town, but, just like their predecessors, they have yet to possess the currency to purchase a truly big national moment. They will now end their season with yet another moment in the shadows of a bowl game in San Antonio or San Francisco or, you know, somewhere, wherever.

"We wanted the Oregons and Stanfords, that was our motto, we figured this was the year," said the Bruins' Myles Jack. "I guess not."

With the Bruins' dominating victory over the Trojans here just six days earlier — remember how the celebrating players jumped into the band? — many felt this would finally be the year for the program to leap this hurdle. Yet after Friday's game, the only track action occurred when, with heads down, the Bruins sprinted to their locker room, leaving the band alone to play for the handful of remaining fans.


"It's brutal."' said Jeff Ulbrich, defensive coordinator. "We're all crushed in a lot of ways."

They began the game crushing, holding Stanford motionless on a three-play drive and then responding with a 64-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 15-yard pass from Hundley to Thomas Duarte. No USC hangover there. This wasn't going to be a game, it was going to be a Pac-12 title warmup party.

"But from then on,'' said Jack, "it was just kind of mellow."

Mellow is a word that has haunted this program for years. Mellow is one of the poisons that have felled so many past accomplished UCLA teams. But, um, wasn't Mora supposed to have gotten rid of the mellow?

We're an extremely young football team,'' Mora said, noting there were but six scholarship seniors honored on Friday's Senior Day. "We're very young, still developing, we will get there. We are just not there yet physically. [Stanford] has been doing what they've been doing longer than we've been doing what we've been doing. ... These aren't excuses, these are just facts."

Bruins fans are growing tired of hearing about youth and growth and the inability to smash mouths like Stanford. Bruins fans were booing Friday when Stanford countered UCLA's opening touchdown with their four consecutive long drives led by quarterback Kevin Hogan, who played his best game of the season in completing his first dozen passes. The Bruins defense was steamrolled, their offense was befuddled, and their coaching staff called a couple of panic timeouts and even had Jerry Neuheisel throw up an eventually intercepted duck on a fake field goal attempt. The same Stanford showed up on every play, while UCLA's intensity and ingenuity varied from moment to moment, from harsh to, well, mellow.

"We can't go up and down like a roller coaster," said Jack.

An important part of that ride ended midway through the fourth quarter, when Hundley hit his right hand on a helmet, causing a finger to swell and leading to his removal from the game. Considering he is turning pro next year — he participated in Senior Day activities and even left the Rose Bowl with his locker placard stuck in his backpack — it was a sad way for a great player to end his UCLA home career.

But he's not the first Bruin to exit like this, and, unless this program can really change as Mora has promised, he won't be the last.

"Moments like this, we have to be able to be consistent and finish what we start,'' said Hundley.

Finish what they start. A simple concept. An endless wait.

Twitter: @billplaschke