The UCLA Bruins get their second shot at the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship game, but whether or not the Bruins can do anything with that second chance remains a serious question. UCLA entered the first game as two-point underdogs, and midway through the week leading up to the title game oddsmakers are giving them nine points. That's a fair assessment, given the kind of game the Bruins turned in the first time around, one in which they couldn't stop the Stanford offense and couldn't gain anything against the Cardinal defense.
There have been rumblings, manufactured and otherwise, that UCLA's effort last Saturday was less than complete. To some folks that outright means Jim Mora realized he couldn't beat Stanford and just didn't try, to others it just means that the schemes were conservative and all the tricks were saved for the big game. All of that feels like a comfortable fiction, because nothing about that game suggested to me that I was watching anything other than the Bruins as they usually operate. None of the mistakes UCLA made looked strange or unexpected, they were simply an exaggerated version of what the team's been all season: inconsistent defense, ill-timed turnovers, and enough penalty flags to sew themselves a quilt. There's room for those mistakes against lesser teams, but not when you're playing the top 10.
One of the few advantages of last Saturday's game is that the Bruins should have a very clear idea of what they need to do to avoid a second straight loss. They gave up seven sacks; the pass protection has to improve and Brett Hundley has to be willing to throw the ball away. They gave up their second-highest rushing total of the season; they have to find a way to contain Stepfan Taylor. They gave up a season-high 135 penalty yards, their fourth straight game with 115 or more; they have to play disciplined and smart. This is basic football stuff, strategies that essentially boil down into "play well." UCLA didn't need to get whooped by the Cardinal to realize that they needed to play well. So if they knew it, what prevented them from doing so?
Emotion was a big part of what got UCLA past USC for the first time in six years. Going into the game against Stanford, I felt that maintaining that level of intensity would be crucial. I didn't see it against Stanford. And maybe that's where the silver lining of last Saturday's game shows up. The Bruins were underdogs before, but they could easily hit Friday as double-digit underdogs. There weren't large numbers of people picking the Bruins to be Pac-12 Champions before that game, never mind after it. If the Bruins can carry that with them, if they can take being thoroughly dominated and written off and use it to build a chip that they then hoist onto their shoulder, maybe they have a chance against Stanford.
Maybe they have a chance, maybe they don't. What's more certain is that there's very little pressure on the team. When nobody expects you to win, there's all kinds of room for you to do something special.