Jim Mora: Is the Honeymoon Over?


This week the new iPhone 6 was announced.  It is bigger, faster, stronger than other generations before, but is this launch any more exciting than other rollouts?  A large screen and upgraded camera are nice improvements, but they don’t factor in your overall excitement of the product.  People will buy the new phones, but without as much hysteria.  Apple is seen as the lead innovator in smartphone technology, but has grown victim to their own expectations.

Jim Mora is in a similar spot early in his third season with the Bruins.  With a preseason top ten ranking and a bulk of returnees, this was the year they were making the leap to title contender.  Mora even turned down a highly lucrative offer from the NCAA juggernaut Texas Longhorns, giving hope that something special was developing.

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Everything seemed to be trending up. Just two games into his third season, he has already won as many games as his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, did in four.  On paper, Mora has exceeded expectations, but that is not the vacuum where college teams exist.

Year three is when you start to evaluate a new coach’s imprint on the program. While the cupboard wasn’t bare when he arrived, the players he recruited are starting to make an impact.  Now is the time when we should expect results, but can Mora deliver?

Oregon and Stanford have established themselves as the Pac-12 elite and there’s a rush to join this exclusive club. Every team is taking a run at them. With the influx of television money flowing to upgrade facilities and raise their profile, all while maintaining some measure of academic standards.

UCLA’s biggest challenger to the podium comes from the shadow cast by the elephant nearby.  There are few premier rivalries in college football.  Michigan/Ohio State, Texas/Oklahoma, or Alabama/Auburn.  In these special cases, your success is always measured against your main adversary.  With a great start to the Carroll 3.0 era and sanctions now concluding against USC, there is urgency to dominate the LA market now.

The question has always been, is Jim Mora Jr. the guy?  He wasn’t even UCLA’s first, second or third choice.  Maybe they should have kicked the tires on Bob Toledo!  While his dad was a longtime NFL headliner, Jr. had mixed success in four seasons at the helm.  The fact that he was fired after only one season in Seattle raises some eyebrows.  He made a great first step by assembling an accomplished coaching staff for the Bruins, but there has been a wait-and-see attitude whether he could make the adjustment to the college game.

Fortunately for Mora, progress meant being better than Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel, which was akin to singing better than William Hung.  Season one went better than anyone could have hoped with wins against ranked teams, getting the Victory Bell back from USC, and the Pac-12 South title, good for a 9-5 record.  While the team was inconsistent, they did prove they could compete against the conference’s upper echelon.

Season two started off in convincing fashion with a solid streak of five wins until they hit the back-to-back roadblocks of Stanford and Oregon.  After holding close in the first half of both games, the Bruins looked outgunned after both teams decided to put their foot on the gas.  The team went 5-1 for the remainder of the regular season, but their lackluster performance against Arizona State cost them the Pac-12 South title.  They ended the season with a dominant bowl victory over Virginia Tech setting the stage for high hopes coming into 2014.

This year’s love fest started to flourish in spring when Brett Hundley decided not to opt for the NFL draft.  Returning was a surprise as players rarely improve their draft stock when rated so high.  Nonetheless, he was anointed as a top-five Heisman candidate bringing the added expectation of regular season excellence.  With a solid returning core on both sides of the ball, everyone with a keyboard started pushing the Bruins as the next great thing.

Preseason polls had almost unanimously picked the Bruins to win the Pac-12 South, while selecting them only behind Oregon as the top contender for the conference crown.  Even both the AP and Coaches Polls had UCLA at #7 nationally.  The only thing left was to have this magnificent season handed to them.

Well, boom goes the dynamite.  We are only two games into the season and disturbing is the best word to describe what we’ve seen.  The Virginia game featured a vacant offense versus a much weaker opponent.  If Mora stated in his pregame speech that the defense needed to score three touchdowns, then my apologies for my criticism.  Instead, I’m willing to wager that a game ball should have gone to a rabbit foot.  With this being the first game for which they had to travel cross-country for a local 9 am start, I’m willing not to scrutinize this game as much.

Not to be outdone, the Bruins put together another stinker last week against an equally-heralded Memphis team.  I can’t be creative here.  The Tigers were under-sized and under-manned, but stayed within a touchdown for almost the whole game.  On the road. Entering as 20+ points underdogs.  There are frequent close games in college football due to luck and timing, but those weren’t the main factors here.

…this was supposed to be the season UCLA was going to step to the Oregons and Stanfords of the world.

What burrows under your skin is watching the level of execution for players at this skill level.  Dropped passes are easy to point out, but bad angles, sloppy routes and over-pursuing are signs the players aren’t well-managed.  Some of these gaffes are due to inexperience, but also to coaching technique.  If you’re encouraging your player to line up for the big play, you are also staged for a big miss.

The player rotation is sloppy as well.  One of my favorite universal sports quotes comes from hockey commentator Daryl Evans: “When you get tired physically, you make mistakes mentally.”  Seeing Myles Jack run in a TD is great, but when he’s out of position on defense and too winded to make a standard tackle on a running back, you have to rethink the usage of your players.

I could write paragraphs, but this was supposed to be the season UCLA was going to step up to the Oregons and Stanfords of the world.  So far, we’ve seen very little to suggest that will end up happening.  You want encouragement to see if this team can impose some form of dominance, especially in the easy part of your schedule.  Instead, it’s difficult to pinpoint the identity they’ll carry for the rest of the season.

In broader terms, we should have an idea about what type aggressor they want to be?  You watch Oregon and know they’re all about the read-option.  Stanford is a smash-mouth team.  UCLA?  You got me and I’m here to give opinions.

The team is only two games into the season, so we haven’t reached a DEFCON 1 level of rage yet.  The true sign of a great coach is how he handles adversity.  Teaching college kids is tricky, but that’s why he makes more than us.  It’s easy to kick-start a team bringing in a new message, but now that we’ve hit year three you wonder how much complacency has set in.

I like Jim Mora.  UCLA fans like Jim Mora.  We want him to succeed.  He has already proven capable enough of a coach to consistently bring 8-10 wins a season, but that is not the standard anymore.  Football has shifted to a world of absolutes.  Either you’re a frontrunner or you’re an also-ran.  Mora has had a taste of both, the question is where will his experience lie?