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UCLA's 2015 season was a failure, but there is good news

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Nebraska upsets UCLA in Foster Farms Bowl (1:01)

Despite entering the game with a losing record, Nebraska makes the best of the situation and knocks off UCLA to win the Foster Farms Bowl. (1:01)

When you think about all the work that goes into every FBS teams' football season -- the hours, the sweat, the work, the film study, the emotional swings -- it should give you pause before using the word "failure." Few terms invoke a harsher judgment, particularly when the judged care so much about their work and the judgmental lack first-hand expertise, having never been good enough to be invited into the arena themselves.

Yet "failure" is an inescapable conclusion for UCLA's season after it got pushed around by Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl.

There are valid excuses for some of that failure -- critical and crushing injuries topping the list -- but ultimately an 8-5 record is not what this collection of players and coaches should have finished with, not in Jim Mora's fourth season following consecutive 10-win campaigns that ended with bowl victories and national rankings. Not with the preseason's only significant question -- quarterback -- being answered so decisively in the affirmative by talented freshman Josh Rosen.

Nebraska rushed for a season-high 326 yards against the Bruins. Nebraska rushed for 251 yards -- combined -- against Purdue and Rutgers, teams that combined for two wins in Big Ten play this year. Entering the bowl contest as perhaps the nation's best, er, 5-7 team, the Cornhuskers averaged 180 yards rushing per game, good for 55th in FBS. This, by the way, was the Cornhuskers' most rushing yards since September 2014.

Run defense isn't a new problem for the Bruins, who yielded more than 200 rushing yards to five foes this year, but Mora could bemoan it through a grin when, say, Arizona's 353 yards on the ground in the Pac-12 opener was attached to a 56-30 Bruins victory.

"We need to get bigger, obviously," Mora told reporters after the bowl game. "We need to get stronger, obviously."

Not to quibble, but the Bruins aren't particularly small up front. While a lot was made during the broadcast of end Takkarist McKinley tipping the scales at just 250 pounds, defensive linemen Kenny Clark and Eli Ankou are bigger than 300 pounds. Nor are they particularly young, as seven of their top-nine up-front defenders are juniors or seniors and none are freshmen.

There's no question there's a lack of depth. And no question that injured end Eddie Vanderdoes and linebacker Myles Jack could have helped. But the answer to what ails the Bruins defense is mostly in the head and belly and can be best ascertained by a collective pointing into a mirror. That goes for everyone in that locker room, and Mora seemed to know that as much as anyone after the game.

“It’s a matter of self-reflecting and looking at ourselves and seeing how we can do better as coaches and players,” he said.

It is fair to say this is the worst moment of Mora's four seasons in Westwood, not so much the bowl loss but the cumulative whole of a middling season, no matter that in the six seasons before he arrived, the Bruins never even bothered to win more than seven games.

Here's the kicker, though. That just might become a good thing. Failure, like manure, is often good fertilizer. Failure, if properly handled, can linger in a positive way. Failure can motivate. It can superimpose grit upon talent, the secret of sustained success.

If a Bruins defender is wondering if he should bail on a workout this offseason, maybe he will recall getting knocked on his rear end by a Cornhuskers lineman. If the Bruins are spending too much time reading and hearing about how good they should be in 2016 based on Rosen and a bevy of returning starters, they should just look at this game film again and see themselves getting blown up by a 5-7 Big Ten team.

Michael Jordan is one of sport's all-time winners, both as a player and as a commercial entity. But his best commercial was about failure.

"I've failed over and over again in my life," Jordan said as he swaggered -- slow motion -- into an arena looking impossibly cool. "And that is why I succeed."

The narrative is now set for UCLA as it moves forward from Mora's fourth season to his fifth. Even if the Bruins have a few early-entry NFL losses, they are going to be as talented as any Pac-12 team next fall. Many will pick them to win the Pac-12's South Division. They figure to receive a fairly high preseason ranking, though the bowl loss probably knocked them down a few notches.

Yet every preview will point out that UCLA has fallen short of high preseason expectations two years in a row. They will question whether the program is capable of taking -- cliche alert! -- "the next step."

And some will straight-up wonder if the program is too soft to compete for Pac-12 and national championships.

Such speculation during the next eight or so months should annoy and hurt. While Mora, like most coaches, claims he doesn't listen to outside voices, that, of course, is ridiculous. He knows everything that is written and said about his program, and he seems to only remember the bad stuff.

The good news is there is an obvious solution for overcoming past failures and silencing critics for Mora and his program.

First, show some grit and retake the line of scrimmage. Then, win.