Saturday, November 17, 2012
Jim Mora off to grand start
By Arash Markazi ESPNLosAngeles.com
PASADENA, Calif. -- The ad hung like a dark cloud over the UCLA football program for the past four years and like low-hanging fruit for USC fans that continued to mock it every chance they got.
"The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over."
UCLA's marketing department ran the sentence in bold letters over a picture of Rick Neuheisel in every local newspaper before Neuheisel ever coached a game at UCLA. It would come to define his failed tenure at the school and the shortcomings of a program that had lost 12 of 13 to USC, including a 50-0 loss last season that prompted Neuheisel's firing.
It may have taken four years and a new coach, but UCLA finally followed through on its declaration Saturday with a resounding 38-28 victory. The Bruins removed the quotation marks from a statement their fans have been waiting to scream with an exclamation point at the end for over a decade.
After beating USC, UCLA coach Jim Mora got the first of what he hopes are many future celebratory baths.
The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over!
Jim Mora had no idea the ad existed when he took the job as UCLA's head coach last December. He wasn't worried about monopolies and petty gamesmanship when talking about the crosstown rivalry with USC. When the topic of whether a USC drum major would be able to stick a sword into UCLA's logo at midfield before Saturday's game, a tradition few outside of either band was even aware of, Mora laughed.
"My job is to coach the football team," he said before the game. "All that stuff, that's periphery stuff. I've said many, many times I focus on what matters, and what matters is that we play good football on Saturday."
Mora's team played better than good football Saturday. They played great football, and in the process showed why they were not only the best football team in Los Angeles on Saturday but have been all season, whether the local and national media were aware of it until now.
While the 7-4 Trojans have lost every major game on their schedule, the 9-2 Bruins have beaten Nebraska, Arizona, USC and have a chance to finish their season with a win over Stanford next week at the Rose Bowl before playing in the Pac-12 championship game.
It's the kind of season USC quarterback Matt Barkley wished he could have had after coming back for his senior year. Instead it's the one UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is having as a freshman as he spearheads the turnaround of a football program that looks to start a monopoly of its own in Los Angeles.
"I told the seniors that I would not let them go without (beating USC)," Hundley said. "I couldn't let them leave without feeling the emotions of beating Southern Cal. It is huge for them. I play for them, I play for this team, but the seniors went through a lot."
With NFL scouts littered throughout the Rose Bowl press box and many more watching at home, it was Hundley, not Barkley, who looked the most poised and ready to play at the next level.
Barkley struggled early in the game, throwing an interception to UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester on the first play and throwing three straight incomplete passes as USC failed to score in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Hundley connected on his first 10 passes and led UCLA to a 24-0 lead before USC cut it to 24-14 by halftime.
Hundley set a new UCLA single-season completion record (249) during the game and moved to within 397 yards of UCLA's single-season total offense record held by Cade McNown. After the game, however, Hundley was still upset his 10 straight completions fell short of Neuheisel's consecutive completions record of 17 set in 1983.
Yes, Hundley has a list of records he wants to break at UCLA and is making his way down the list quicker than anyone thought, which will be a scary prospect for USC during the next couple of years of this renewed rivalry.
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"We are just seeing the beginning of how great Brett Hundley can be," Mora said. "It's going to take a lot of work, but he is a young man who is willing to work. He's got great coaching. His teammates love him, he's a tremendous leader and I think 11 games into his career, we are going to see tremendous things of this kid."
While Hundley will get much of the attention this week and will be the face of the program for the next couple of seasons, there were heroes all over the field for the Bruins on Saturday. There was Eric Kendricks' block of Kyle Negrete's punt in the third quarter, Joseph Fauria's acrobatic touchdown catch in the second quarter and Johnathan Franklin putting the final touches on UCLA's win with a 29-yard touchdown run straight through USC's defense and straight toward UCLA's student section.
"It was great to finally beat our rivals and clinch the South Division," Franklin said. "I definitely wanted to get this game and beat those guys."
As much as UCLA wanted to downplay the rivalry heading into the game, the actions of the players told a different story during and after the game. The Bruins threw the first punch to start the game, continued to fire away even as USC attempted to come back, and when it was over UCLA celebrated with a dance party on the field that carried on into the locker room after it was over.
"I understand what this rivalry is all about," Mora said. "I was on the field at the Coliseum when I just turned 13. My mom went to USC. My dad coached at UCLA. I understand what this whole thing is all about. But it's just one game. Until we can string some together and do it over and over again, then it has significance to me. Don't get me wrong, this has significance, but I mean real significance."
Mora was hesitant to touch the "monopoly" talk after the game but smiled when he was teased by reporters for acting as if a UCLA win over USC was routine.
"It is for me," Mora said. "I'm 1-0."