LOS ANGELES (AP) – Although Jim Mora’s first season at UCLA is off to a largely stellar start, the veteran NFL coach knows he still has much to learn about the college game.
As it turns out, so do his young Bruins.
California exposed many of those knowledge gaps in the Bruins’ blowout loss in Berkeley last week, knocking UCLA (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) off its roll and out of the national rankings. Mora is hoping UCLA can repair many of those holes this week before the Bruins begin a tough second half of the season with Saturday’s visit from Utah (2-3, 0-2), their only game at the Rose Bowl in October.
Mora and his staff have injected energy and innovation into the Bruins, who are just two wins away from matching last season’s total despite all of their upheaval and turnover. But the head coach is still a novice at motivating and handling teenage players, adding an extra degree of difficulty to everything the Bruins are trying to do in their bounce-back season.
“I’m trying to learn more about it every day,” Mora said. “I’m not an old, seasoned vet when it comes to things like this. It’s a responsibility that I take pretty seriously, but I’m by no means good at it yet. I’m trying.”
Mora’s professional approach seems to work for the young Bruins, who didn’t always seem to be a tough-nosed team during coach Rick Neuheisel’s four seasons. Yet when he watched tape of their loss at Cal, Mora saw his players working hard and competing, but still making mental errors that kept them from beating a previously one-win team.
When Mora went into UCLA’s morning meetings Monday, he was pleased by the attitude he saw.
“There wasn’t a smile in that meeting room,” Mora said. “There wasn’t a sound. I appreciate that. They’ve got a lot going on in their lives, but they’re really committed to this.”
Although UCLA got off to a 4-1 start with a highlight win over nationally ranked Nebraska, much of those good feeling crashed down in Berkeley, even if the loss wasn’t as bad as the final score suggested. The Bruins were within 12 points and driving in the fourth quarter when Brett Hundley threw one of his four interceptions deep in Cal territory, eventually allowing the Golden Bears to score 14 late points in the 43-17 win.
Hundley had the roughest game of his strong freshman season despite setting a UCLA record with 31 completions against Cal. Mora was pleased by Hundley’s reaction to adversity — namely, not much reaction at all.
Hundley chalked up his four interceptions — three in the fourth quarter — to circumstances, not bigger problems.
“Later on, when we had to press the situation, I had to take some chances,” said Hundley, who also passed for 253 yards and two touchdowns. “I’m not worried about it. Not everything will always go your way. You’ve just got to get on and pretty much play the game. That’s all it means. You’ve got to get better.”
Although six games are a small sample of Mora’s work, it’s clear UCLA’s offense is prolific under coordinator Noel Mazzone. The Bruins are averaging 529 yards per game, eighth in the nation and third in the Pac-12, behind Hundley and tailback Johnathan Franklin, who is playing through bruises on his hands and legs.
Franklin is among the nation’s leading rushers with 799 yards midway through his senior season despite running behind an inexperienced offensive line, although he played sparingly in the second half against Cal while nursing those injuries.
UCLA’s second-half schedule is rougher than its opening half. Following the visit from Utah, the Bruins play two of their next three on the road against Arizona State and Washington State, with a visit from Arizona sandwiched in between, before finishing with home games against powerful Southern California and Stanford.
Mora will keep working on every aspect of his new job down the stretch, hoping to learn just as much as his players from their first year together.
“I’m making more mistakes than anybody around here, I guarantee you that,” he said. “If you totaled up all my mistakes, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the mistakes the players make.”