I knew that things would be better for UCLA’s football team in 2012 when on the very first play in the Bruins’ very first game against Rice, Brett Hundley, who was making his collegiate debut, took the snap from center and ran 72 yards for a touchdown.
After a 6-8 campaign in 2011 which featured a 50-0 humiliation at the hands of USC and the firing of Rick Neuheisel, things could have not gotten much worse.
Bruin Nation was seriously wondering whether athletic director Dan Guerrero truly wanted to make a commitment to the football program, and I suppose it showed when Jim Mora, a former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks coach who wasn’t Guerrero’s first choice, was hired a few weeks after Neuheisel was let go and several other candidates, including Boise State’s Chris Peterson, turned down the opportunity to come to Westwood.
In retrospect, that hiring turned out to be a genius move as Mora hit the ground running right away, demanding a sense of accountability and toughness from the players and getting it, partly by taking the team to San Bernadino for two weeks of practices in 100-plus degree heat, which did much to help the Bruins bond.
That sense of toughness and accountability – a culture and attitude change, in other words – that Mora and his staff installed paid dividends in a big way this season, as UCLA did the following:
1. Won the most games – nine – since 2005,
2. Achieved a winning record – nine wins and five losses – for the first time in three years,
3. Achieved a ranking in the top 25 for the first time in years,
4. Won the Pac-12 South in a legitimate fashion, unlike in 2011 when the Bruins got to the Pac-12 championship game only because of sanctions at USC,
5. And speaking of USC, Bruin Nation would say that UCLA’s best achievement in 2012 was beating the crosstown rival, 38-28, ending the Trojans’ five-year win streak against the Bruins and avenging that 50-0 beat down in the process, taking back the Victory Bell and bragging rights to the Los Angeles sports scene for the first time since 2006.
Indeed, UCLA football did much to become relevant in college football again this season, but as Mora said after their loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl, which was their third straight defeat to end the year, the Bruins have “…a long way to go…”
Issues and concerns persist as UCLA was exposed in the defensive secondary, where they gave up tons of yardage in the air and committed tons of pass interference penalties (more on the yellow flags in a bit), and on the offensive line, whose lack of depth showed in the loss to Baylor when two starters went down with high ankle sprains during the game and not only was a banged-up player forced into action, the other back-ups weren’t up to snuff as Baylor took complete advantage, blitzing the whole game on the way to beating the Bruins by 23 points.
If UCLA is to move forward and continue to progress, those issues need to be addressed and quickly, as well as one that in my view was the most serious:
The Bruins were badly hurt by yellow flags thrown at them this season as their 130 penalties for 1,281 yards – which averaged out to 91.5 yards of flags per game – led the FBS and were factors in the team’s losses as they, in particular, extended drives on defense time and time again.
Simply and obviously, Mora, his staff, and the players need to clean the penalties up in the worst way, to at least cut the number of flags against them in half in order to not give the opposition more chances to do damage against them.
On a much more positive note, many UCLA players had great seasons in 2012 and were huge factors for the success that they achieved, led by senior running back Johnathan Franklin, who statistically had the best season of any Bruin running back as he broke the single season record with 1,734 yards as well as the career mark with 4,403 yards on the ground; both records were previously held by Gaston Green and had stood since 1987.
As Franklin’s running – his 13 touchdowns likewise led the team – kept the opposing defenses honest along with everything else, he is my official choice for Most Valuable Player. And he will most definitely be missed.
Shaquelle Evans and Joseph Fauria led UCLA in receiving, Evans with 60 catches and Fauria, who will also be missed as the 6’8″ tight end was a senior, with 12 touchdowns.
The Bruin linebackers and defensive line were as good as their mates in the secondary were at times shaky.
Datone Jones fulfilled his potential at defensive end with his 19 tackles for loss and six sacks, and Eric Kendricks led the Pac-12 with 151 tackles at linebacker, but it was another linebacker, Anthony Barr, who switched from running back during spring practice, that was the breakout player on that unit as 21.5 of his tackles were for loss and his 13.5 sacks led the nation.
Most importantly, to the delight of Bruin fans, Barr has announced that he will return for his senior season in 2013; he, along with Kendricks and defensive end Cassius Marsh, who had 10.5 TFLs in 2012, will lead UCLA’s defense next fall.
The guy who emerged the most for the Bruins, and perhaps the biggest factor in the team surpassing expectations in 2012 along with Mora, was Hundley.
The redshirt freshman quarterback from Chandler, AZ was Neuheisel’s prize recruit in 2011, and it showed big time this season as he broke records for passing yards (3,790), completions (318), and total offense in a season (4,095).
In short, UCLA has finally found the go-to guy to lead them, that the Bruins sorely lacked the past few years and that every team needs if they want to be great; Hundley will be the go-to guy for at least the next two years – three if he doesn’t leave for the NFL early.
As for 2013, UCLA will have some holes to fill as they urgently need to replace Franklin, to have someone step in that will take the pressure off Hundley the way that Franklin did.
Among the other Bruins that are gone are Fauria, Jones, punter Jeff Locke – whose 44.6 yards per punt and constant kickoffs into the end zone will be sorely missed – and defensive backs Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester and Andrew Abbott.
Along with Hundley, Barr, Kendricks and Marsh, Damien Thigpen – who could be the man at running back next fall depending on how he recovers from his torn ACL – and Xavier Sua-Filo, who was clearly the best among the offensive linemen, will return and be counted on to continue UCLA’s progress.
National Signing Day is on Wednesday, February 6, and that day will be crucial for the Bruins as Mora and company must sign a class that is ranked, at minimum, in the top 15 and particularly fill needs on the offensive line and the defensive secondary.
And it wouldn’t hurt to sign a quarterback who will serve as a credible backup to Hundley and who’ll provide more depth at that position as Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut depart.
All-in-all, despite the three season-ending losses – I personally feel that the Bruins peaked with that ‘SC victory and, though they played well in the Pac-12 title game, didn’t really have that much left in the tank after their triumph over the Trojans – UCLA’s football season in 2012 should be remembered as one in which they exceeded what people expected of them.
With a new coaching staff and entirely new systems on both sides of the ball, I had the Bruins going 7-5 this year, and although I was right about the five losses, I was happy to be wrong about the nine wins.
Unfortunately, 2013 could potentially be a tougher season for the Bruins as their road schedule promises to be a brutal killer, featuring:
- USC, as they seek to recover from their 7-6 season and avenge their loss to UCLA,
- Nebraska, who will likewise seek to avenge their 36-30 loss to the Bruins this past September,
- Oregon, with their lightning speed on offense, and…
- Stanford, who not only dealt UCLA two of their three straight setbacks on the way to the Pac-12 crown, but who recently became Rose Bowl champions for the first time in 41 years with their 20-14 win over Wisconsin and is now, at least in my book, an elite on the college football scene.
The next time the Bruins take the gridiron will be August 31 at the Rose Bowl, where they will play Nevada, and coverage of signing day on this site will commence the first week of February.
To wrap up, goodbye and best of luck to Franklin, Fauria, Jones and the other seniors who gave their heart to Bruin Nation.
And one last thing: GO BRUINS!!