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UCLA vs. Cal: Possibly a disaster, possibly not

The UCLA Bruins went to Berkeley and lost to Cal, a tradition dating back to 1998. But history is a tricky thing in college football, and there's good reason to look at Saturday's loss as something other than a complete catastrophe.

Bob Stanton-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

UCLA lost at Cal. That's a statement that's been accurate seven times since 1998, and that sense of familiarity is bound to haunt long-time Bruins fans. Fans of record deserve to air their grievances, after a 43-17 loss, and I hope they'll forgive me if I see a work in progress where they seen an unfolding disaster.

Jim Mora elected to kick a field goal midway through the second quarter, a decision that looked to long-term fans like the sort of conservative, faithless football that has plagued UCLA's program for years. That's how the folks at Bruins Nation saw it, but I'd like to offer a different reading. In the week leading to the game, Mora was open about his concern that the Cal defense was going to prove a significant challenge for the Bruins. Specifically, he was worried about the looks they were going to show. That's a detail that matters. Mora wasn't concerned that Cal's pass rush was going to blow past the Bruins (although given the five times Brett Hundley was sacked, he likely should have been.) He wasn't concerned that shutdown corners would leave Hundley with nowhere to throw the ball. He was concerned that his redshirt freshman quarterback would be confused by defensive schemes and would make mistakes.

In that context, going for the field goal makes sense. A 46 yard attempt from Ka'imi Fairbairn isn't a sure thing, far from it, but UCLA turned the ball over five times in their win against Houston. That was surpassed in their performance against Cal, which saw the offense hand the ball over six times. The defense bailed them out against Houston, but against Cal it wasn't to be. If Mora suspected this was coming then by all means, fault him for being unprepared or unable to deal with the challenge, but in-game loss minimization can be smart football.

Johnathan Franklin rushed for just over 100 yards, but that turns out to not be enough to carry the Bruins. Hundley looked like a redshirt freshman quarterback, making the kind of mistakes redshirt freshman quarterbacks tend to make, and not for the last time. There will be a time when "hey, he's young" won't be a valid excuse, but I don't think his sixth career start is that time. Hundley was pressured, the offense never got its tempo going, and they weren't alone in their struggles. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price continue to hamstring the Bruins' secondary. As a whole the defense didn't have an answer for C.J. Anderson or Zach Maynard, both of whom had their best game of the season.

Ordinarily I like to break up any complaints by taking a paragraph to praise Jeff Locke. No such luck in Week 6, as the senior punter failed to pin the Bears within the 20 once, and averaged 39.3 yards per punt, down from the 42.7 average he had entering the game. That's not a disaster, but in previous UCLA losses he's been a touch of brightness.

UCLA seems to be developing as a team that can stomp on lesser teams, but folds in the presence of serious opposition. That's not a good thing, but it's the kind of thing that can be turned around with the right moves and the right focus. The Bruins turned the ball over six times, and they were flagged 12 times for 99 yards. Taken together, those two things demonstrate UCLA showing a strong fervor for defeating themselves. That's not such a great passion for a football team to show, but if they can find a way to consistently point it outward they would really be onto something.