Pac-12 Championship has a different feel
In the days leading up to the 2012 Pac-12 Championship, Jim Mora has used the number 240 several times.
It was roughly 240 days ago that Mora stepped on to the UCLA campus for the first time as a college football head coach. He’ll tell you that it’s only been about 240 days since Anthony Barr, one of the country’s sack leaders, has been playing linebacker. About 240 days ago, UCLA’s career rushing yards leader was still Gaston Green, not Johnathan Franklin. And about 240 days ago, Mora and the Bruins had no idea that a quarterback who had never taken a collegiate snap would finish the regular season ranked 24th in Division I in total offense.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mora said. “I haven’t even been on campus for a year. Like I said, I’ve been with these kids for about 240 days really, in an environment where I’ve been with them on the practice field and in meetings.”
Fast-forward 240 days to the present, where UCLA is ranked 16th in the BCS and is prepping to take on No. 8 Stanford for the second week in a row in a winner-take-the-Rose Bowl Pac-12 championship game. The Bruins have effectively shed their lovable losers of Los Angeles image in just one season in a turnaround that saw them go from a mediocre 6-8 to legitimate Pac-12 threat at 9-3 with their first BCS ranking in six years.
Last season, the Bruins played in the title game under severely different circumstances. A general ineptitude in the Pac-12 South Division and a bowl ban still imposed on USC, the Bruins fell to an over-matched Oregon team who then went on to win the Rose Bowl.
But this season, the Bruins won that Division title outright. Although ranked lower than Stanford, they aren’t going in as a true underdog but on somewhat equal footing, giving this year’s title game a much different feel to it.
“I feel like we’ve earned it this year,” said defensive end Cassius Marsh. “I feel like we really earned it, and I’m proud of our team. I’m so proud to be a Bruin.”
Marsh felt he echoed the sentiments of the rest of the team with his Bruin pride, and the accomplishments this season are nothing short of impressive.
The mark of a good coach is how much he is able to get out of his players. Mora and his staff have been able to get tremendous production out of players that played only minor supporting roles throughout the last few seasons. Tight end Joseph Fauria has caught 11 touchdowns, nearly double what he caught last season. Linebacker Eric Kendricks leads the Pac-12 in tackles with 127 while Datone Jones and Barr have been the source of many forced turnovers.
While Jim Mora rarely looks past the next game, the Coach of the Year nominee is beginning to see what his future looks like at UCLA.
“Regardless of what happens on Friday night, our objectives are not to be a one-year wonder,” Mora said. “We’re trying to build something here that’s special and lasting, and every year plays in (the Pac-12 Championship game) and competes to play in the national title game. That’s our objective.”
When it comes to Friday night, the team has acknowledged the mistakes from last week’s game against the Cardinal that need to be righted. The mistakes weren’t exactly glaring, with penalty yards and defensive miscues being the bulk of them. Quarterback Brett Hundley has been given the green light to run more in Friday’s game, something he didn’t do much in the first edition of UCLA-Stanford last week. And as always, the higher the stakes, the higher the excitement, anticipation and adrenaline.
“It was just missed plays, missed tackles here and there,” Marsh said. “We were getting out of rhythm… We’ve just got to fix the little things, tweak the little technique things here and there and we should be fine.”
“We’re playing for a Rose Bowl now,” said wide receiver Shaquelle Evans. “We get the same team again to play for revenge and revenge is even sweeter when you’re playing for a Pac-12 Championship and a Rose Bowl, which was our goal from the beginning of the season.
“It’s easy to get refocused.”
Win or lose, the outcome on the Stanford Stadium field Friday night will be significant. This season has been an important building block in reviving the UCLA program, and it’s only the first step in that continuing process.
“This is just the start of hopefully, what I believe will be a long journey and a successful one,” Mora said. “What’s really awesome is seeing these kids have success. That’s what I want more than anything – just for these kids to taste what it feels like to be a champion.”