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Fixing spotty ground game crucial to UCLA's success

Fixing spotty ground game crucial to UCLA's success
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen fakes a handoff to running back Nate Starks during a game against Arizona State on Oct. 8. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

UCLA changed its offense this season with intentions of accentuating quarterback Josh Rosen's strengths while reliably running the ball.

Going one for two in those departments has led to a .500 record.

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The Bruins are 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-12 Conference halfway through the regular season, Rosen's passing success largely offset by a ground game that has chugged along in first gear in the rare moments when it's been able to shift out of neutral.

Heading into what's essentially a must-win game against Washington State on Saturday night at Martin Stadium, UCLA Coach Jim Mora isn't reversing course when it comes to the new offense.

"I think it's the best thing for our quarterback," Mora said earlier this week. "When we get the running game going, I think you'll see us turn into a really dynamic team."

There are no assurances that will happen. The Bruins have averaged 62.8 yards rushing over their last four games and are coming off their first negative-yardage output in that category since 2000 after backing their way into minus-one yard against Arizona State.

UCLA's passing game is also a giant question mark because of injuries to Rosen's lower body and the area around his throwing shoulder that have left his status uncertain for the game against the Cougars (3-2, 2-0). Mora was asked about Rosen so many times during a conference call with reporters that a Pac-12 spokesman jokingly asked the coach about his status.

"If I'm ready to play, I'm going to play," Mora said with a chuckle, slightly massaging his stock phrase about injured players.

The Bruins have expressed confidence in Mike Fafaul, Rosen's backup, though the reality is they probably don't want to face a team that could be considered the surprise of the Pac-12 North with a second-string quarterback and what's qualified as a third-rate rushing attack.

With tailbacks Nate Starks, Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi forming a nondescript trio, UCLA's struggles running the ball have been equal parts suspect blocking and an inability to generate yardage after contact.  Mora pointed out that left tackle Conor McDermott is the only starter back from last season on the offensive line, leading to some spotty play even before right tackle Kolton Miller was lost for an indefinite period because of a leg injury.

"There's a lot of change we're trying to accommodate for," Mora said.

If nothing else, the Bruins might have some history going for them. They have started 1-2 in conference play four times under Mora and the previous three they have won their fourth game, even rebounding to win the Pac-12 South Division in 2012.

Mora said bouncing back was the result of making quick fixes and having a roster stocked with resilient, high-character players who displayed a renewed sense of urgency.

"It's not about where you are but where you're trying to go," Jamabo said, "and we can still do what we want to do. We still have a chance to make the Pac-12 championship and that's perfectly in our hands."

Several Bruins have pointed to each of their losses coming down to the final drive, if not the final play, as evidence that they're a better team than their record indicates. But another defeat Saturday would leave them with a losing season record for the first time under Mora.

"It's a fine line between being 6-0 and 3-3," Mora said, "and we have to find a way to get over that line and make those plays when they need to be made. It's not like we're getting blown out, it's not like we suck, we're just missing a couple of components in every game, so we've just got to put it together."

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Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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