It’s always interesting to hear a football coach be contrite. But to hear a coach shoulder the blame more than a year after a loss -- even after he openly shouldered it immediately afterwards -- is even more interesting.
UCLA coach Jim Mora was extremely candid this week when talking about last year’s matchup with Cal that ended with a 43-17 thumping from the Bears. He’d talked about in the past. But from his comments this week, it’s evident the loss still haunts him.
“It’s a memory that needs to be remembered, and I brought it up to myself internally, the staff and the team many times already,” Mora said. “What I remember is, I did a poor job getting this team prepared mentally and emotionally to play a football game against a really good team on the road, and we paid dearly for it. They took it to us every way you could. We learned a really, really difficult lesson. But an important lesson. Every week you have to be dialed in to the opponent you are playing. You have to be mentally and emotionally ready to play. It’s been a constant reminder to me, not just this week, but really through the whole offseason and these first four games. I revisit my approach that week and what I did wrong and try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
“That one was on me.”
Since that game, the Bruins have won nine of their last 12, and Saturday night they get a shot at revenge when California comes to Pasadena. The Bruins are 4-0 for the first time since 2005, when they started 8-0. And with back-to-back showdowns on the road against No. 5 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon looming, it would be easy for the Bruins to dismiss Cal, which has lost nine straight games to FBS teams. But that’s not how Mora is looking at it. Not after what happened last year.
“Cal took it to us pretty good last year,” Mora said “Our focus is on Cal and only Cal. We don’t operate that way. That’s just part of our culture is to focus on the game we’re playing. Their skill players are outstanding, as good as we’ve faced to this point. The receiving group is fantastic. The backs are outstanding. The young quarterback is playing very well. They are a dangerous group with a ball in their hands.”
Moving the ball hasn’t been the problem for the Bears. They rank fourth in the conference in total offense with more than 515 yards per game and second in the league with 88 first downs. But they are 11th in scoring offense and 10th in red zone offense, converting just 80 percent of the time they get inside the opponent’s 20.
Defense has also been an issue -- mostly because 10 of 11 expected starters have gone down with injury. You can add cornerback Stefan McClure to that list -- he was officially ruled out for the season on Thursday with a knee injury.
“There is always a lot of work that needs to be done when you’re building a program,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “In some ways I think we’re ahead of where we ought to be and in others we’re behind. The thing we want to do is play well on Saturday, and that’s something that we haven’t done. That’s the most important thing is to put a product out there that is good and gives us a chance to win. I believe in building the foundation and the floor up, and sometimes those things don’t show up.”
It would behoove them to show up Saturday against a UCLA team that is averaging 48 points per game and allowing just 20.
It’s been well-documented that this has been a trying year for the Bruins -- specifically the death of wide receiver Nick Pasquale. But from that, Mora believes his team has gained strength and unity.
“This team has had to develop character and mental toughness very, very quickly this year,” Mora said. “Going on the road and playing a tough Nebraska team in the wake of the death of one of our teammates was really hard. But we gained strength from it. Going to Utah and playing what I think is a tough team ... that’s a character builder. These are all lessons that serve you well as you go through the season. I’m proud of the way our guys have handled it. That being said, we have to keep handling it. We have to keep going. We have to keep getting better. We can never be satisfied."