The UCLA Bruins beat the Arizona St. Sun Devils on Saturday in a game that saw them go down 14-0 before they knew what was happening. Four lead changes later, they walked off the field winners.
The UCLA Bruins were +7 underdogs going in to the game against the Arizona St. Sun Devils. What happened in the game doesn't exactly prove that they didn't deserve that line, because it wasn't unreasonable to believe that ASU was that much better than UCLA. They Bruins didn't prove that that wasn't the case on Saturday, they proved it didn't have to be.
Ka'imi Fairbairn put one through the uprights as the final seconds came off the clock. With the narrow win UCLA proved that they had fight in them, that they could be a tough conference opponent on the road, and they once again hinted that the program has turned a corner. Long-time Bruin fans are, as always, hesitant to believe that's the case. It's tough to blame them for that, but any Bruins fan who tells you that they don't have a keen eye on the Pac-12 South standings and the rest of the schedule isn't being straight with you.
It was an ugly game. Steven Manfro muffed the opening punt, a continuance of themes that have developed on special teams and with the freshman in particular. ASU quickly turned the mistake into points on the board when UCLA forgot to cover Kevin Ozier and he pulled in an easy touchdown. Things didn't look up from there, as the following UCLA drive was a three-and-out. The Sun Devil run game wrecked the UCLA defense on their next drive, going 75 yards on 10 plays, nine of them runs. The Bruins ended up down 14-0 very, very quickly, and an instant collapse would have been all too predictable. Brett Hundley would start overcompensating, interceptions would follow, the defense would quickly be worn out, and the whole game would be out of reach before anyone knew what was happening.
That's not what happened. UCLA put in a 75 yard drive of their own, a march down the field building to a Johnathan Franklin touchdown run, giving the defense a chance to rest and sending a signal to the entire team that nothing was out of control and a determined effort would put them back in the game. From there, the game was just a scrap. ASU was in UCLA's backfield all day, sacking Hundley seven times and disrupting the run game. Franklin didn't care if they were there, bullying his way to positive yardage when he needed to, cutting when he could. Screen passes and swing routes from Hundley fed in a strength of UCLA's offense, getting their receivers the ball in space and letting them go to work.
Franklin finished the day with 164 yards on 26 carries, higher than the average with which he entered the game. Hundley was 19-for-29 and 274 yards, with four different receivers having three or more catches. Damien Thigpen and Shaquelle Evans were the stars from the receiving corps. Thigpen gave the offense a 1 play touchdown drive when he took a pass from Hundley 65 yards for the score. Evans finished the day with five catches for 75 yards, four of them for Bruin first downs.
The defense showed the competent-but-unspectacular form it's been displaying all season, with Dalton Hilliard picking off Taylor Kelly and setting up UCLA to take the lead just before halftime. They had four sacks on the day and held ASU to 3.7 yards per rush attempt.
This week's Jeff Locke aside isn't about his kicking (49 yards per punt average, pinned ASU inside the 20 twice) but about his questionable decision making skills. With the team captains in the locker room when it came time for the coin toss, Locke was the only Bruin representative. He won the toss, but told the officials the team wanted to kick, rather than deferring. Deferring means that they can receive to start the second half, while kicking means they'll be doing just that. The officials asked him if he was sure, and he confirmed it. I'm going to read this as a positive, and say that Locke so cares for the Bruins that he wanted to put the team on his back and set them up just right with a perfect kickoffs to start each half. A real fighter, that Locke. Good form.
It would be tempting to read too much into this win. The Sun Devils are a tough opponent, but they're hardly the most fearsome squad in the Pac-12. UCLA has Arizona next, and the USC/Stanford combo that ends the season is going to require a supreme effort from the Bruins. But it was hard not to be heartened by Saturday's win. Mora was ecstatic coming off the field, crowing about how proud he was of his kids. The Bruins were down 14-0 and they didn't blink. They just went to work, stuck with the things the team does well, and came through when it counted.