UCLA not satisfied with being 'close'
Jim Mora knows what program can be, but acknowledges 'we're not there yet'
EUGENE, Ore. -- Jim Mora didn't want to hear it.
He didn't want to hear it from the reporters gathered before him after the game, his players seated around him in the locker room or his athletic director waiting to give him a hug near the team bus.
It wasn't good enough.
UCLA and Oregon were tied 14-14 with less than three minutes left in the third quarter, but the final score was all that mattered to Mora as he stood in front of his team. Oregon outscored UCLA 28-0 to finish the game, turning the Bruins' upset bid into a 42-14 rout.
"We didn't come up here to play them close," Mora said. "We didn't come up here to give it the old college try. We came up here to win the game and we didn't get it done and it's disappointing. I told the guys we played hard but playing hard is not enough."
There might have been a time when UCLA football would have been happy staying with Oregon for three quarters, but that was before Mora took over. Moral victories are for losers and Mora is tired of seeing UCLA lose these kinds of games.
Since 1998, UCLA is 1-24 against teams that finished the season in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll, with the lone victory coming against USC in 2006, when the Bruins kept the Trojans out of the BCS National Championship with a 13-9 upset.
As good as the start of the season was for UCLA – and it was the best start the team had enjoyed in close to a decade – the Bruins knew it would ultimately be defined by arguably the most difficult two-week stretch any team in the country will face this season.
A 5-0 start to the season had UCLA in the top 10 of the AP and Coaches polls for the first time since 2005, but that was before back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon, two of the top five teams in the country and the class of the conference over the past four seasons.
UCLA responded to the back-to-back challenge with back-to-back losses. The results, however, don't truly indicate the state of the team and a program that is on the verge of challenging Oregon and Stanford's place atop the conference and the upper echelon of college football.
No one expected UCLA to come into Autzen Stadium and beat the Ducks. Not the Oregon fans wearing "We Want Bama" T-shirts almost three months before the BCS National Championship. Not the bookmakers who listed UCLA as 24-point underdogs. Not even UCLA fans, most of whom were simply hoping to see a "good game" as they made their way into the stadium.
But UCLA expected to win and played like a team that was fully capable of pulling an upset before the fourth quarter unraveled, turning Autzen Stadium into a house of horrors for the Bruins.
UCLA was within a touchdown of both Oregon and Stanford in the fourth quarter the past two weeks, but came up short in both.
"It showed me how close we are and yet how far we are and how many things we have to get better at," Mora said. "What we have to do is learn from these last two weeks and apply the lessons. We got to get better. You look at Stanford and you look at Oregon and they're two similar programs. They've been doing it a long time a certain way. They recruit the same type of athletes to fit their system. I don't want to say we want to be Oregon or we want to be Stanford, but we want to be the type of program that can have consistent success."
UCLA's game plan worked during the first half as the Bruins created a turnover on the second play of the game, held Oregon to 3 of 7 on third downs while converting 6 of 9. They withstood an interception by Brett Hundley and a fake punt that resulted in a touchdown to go into the half tied. Mora, however, wasn't interested in talking about the first half after the game.
"We came up here to win this damn game and we didn't get it done," Mora said. "We weren't satisfied being 14-14 at the half. There are no moral victories in sports, not when you're trying to be a champion. We reject that notion. I feel bad for them but I have to hold them to a high standard if we want to achieve what we feel we're capable of one day achieving."
It was a difficult game for Hundley, who at times showed flashes of the player who was talked about as a Heisman candidate, and other times showed flashes of a player who is not quite ready for primetime. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown but also threw two costly interceptions. Hundley also threw two interceptions against Stanford.
"Before everyone starts talking about the Heisman, let's freaking do something first around here," Mora said. "I'm not talking about Brett, I'm talking about us. You got to win these games."
Hundley took responsibility for the loss after the game and echoed the same sentiments as his coach before he boarded the team bus.
"We're not here to be good enough," Hundley said. "We're not here to earn respect from anybody. We're here to win games and that's what we came to do. We're not playing for respect and we're not playing to be close and coming out with a loss against a top-two team in the country. We're playing to win games and that's what we got to do."
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"If I start to use that as an excuse, this program is going to slide in the wrong direction, and that can't happen," Mora said. "We're not good enough yet. I'm not good enough. The coaching staff is not good enough. The program is not where it needs to be yet, but here's the positive: We know what we can be, we have a vision of what we're going to be and we're making steps to get there."
Where UCLA wants to be is where Oregon is now and has been for some time. When Mora looks at Oregon's style and coaching staff and players, he sees the kind of team he wants UCLA to be in the near future.
"They're a machine," Mora said. "You look at their coaching staff and except for two I think they've all been there 20-something years. They've got a system in place. Their system works for them. They recruit the right kinds of athletes. They have consistency. That's what we're trying to get. We're 21 games into it and we're not yet where we need to be. We're going to keep fighting our tails off every freaking day to get better."
UCLA will likely get a chance for a rematch in six weeks if both teams win their respective divisions. Time will tell if the Bruins will be up to the challenge of defeating Oregon by then, but there's little doubt the arrow on UCLA's program is pointing upward. It's only a matter of time before the Bruins are winning these kinds of games instead of searching for answers, as they were Saturday night.
"We've got to be able to get to a point as a football team where we do the things on a consistent basis that champions do, and we're not there yet," Mora said. "We're trying desperately to get there. These kids are working their tails off. This staff is working hard but we're not there yet. We'll get there."