Missed chances haunt Bruins in Pac-12 opener
LOS ANGELES -- Halfway through UCLA's sloppy Pac-12 opener against Oregon State at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, running back Johnathan Franklin had 15 rushing yards, the team had amassed eight first downs, and the most impressive player in powder blue and gold was punter Jeff Locke.
For a team that entered Saturday having outscored its opponents 46-12 in the second half, no late magic developed under sweltering skies — only more poor execution.
The Bruins (3-1, 0-1 in the Pac-12) lost for the first time under coach Jim Mora, Jr. on Saturday, falling 27-20 to the Beavers (2-0, 1-0) in a game that blunted much of the team's early-season momentum and put a dent in its efforts to win the Pac-12 championship.
"Losses come. Not everybody's perfect. And they will come, but we will get better from them," said quarterback Brett Hundley, who was 27 of 42 passing for 372 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 45 yards on 10 carries with an additional score.
"We've just got to watch the film and execute better next time. We will."
As opportunistic as UCLA was against Nebraska in a 36-30 win two weeks ago, they were the exact opposite against Oregon State.
Immediately after the Bruins settled for a field goal after reaching the one-yard line midway through the first quarter, Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion connected with Brandin Cooks on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage that followed.
After Mannion fumbled and was intercepted on consecutive Beaver offensive plays in the third quarter, the Bruins twice were unable to take advantage of starting drives in Oregon State territory and combined for 14 yards on nine ineffective plays, the lackluster execution was highlighted when Hundley was unable to connect with a wide open Kenneth Walker in the end zone on what should have been a relatively easy six points. Walker, who did not dive, had the ball glance off his outstretched hand.
"I think that gave them momentum. It gave them energy and hope," Mora said of the missed opportunities.
"We've got to figure out a way in those situations to do a better job."
Franklin entered the game as the country's leading rusher and with 197 yards.
Saturday, he was unable to establish consistency on the ground, and through the first quarter was in the red as far as rushing goes, with one negative yard on three carries.
Pinned as a potential Heisman candidate three games into the season, he finished with 50 yards on 12 carries and struggled against a defense that pulled its safeties toward the line of scrimmage, in effect giving the Beavers a nine-man front.
"Jonathan is doing what he needs to do," Hundley said. "He gets the yards that you need, and he hits the holes when they're there. If one side of the game isn't going, I'll step up. If my side of the game isn't going, he'll step up. So I don't ever worry about him maybe not getting the greatest yards or anything like that. He has my back, and I have his back pretty much."
It was announced before the game that redshirt senior right guard Jeff Baca, who missed last week's win over Houston due to injury, would not participate Saturday.
The result was an ineffective ground slog that prohibited UCLA from controlling the clock or maintaining the tempo of its to-this-point productive offense.
"Jeff's a very good football player for us, and he's our veteran," Mora said. We've got three freshmen and sophomores and Jeff Baca. Jeff's a glue guy. But to say that that was a reason we weren't able to get things done would be an excuse."
While many had predicted this game to be the Pac-12 coming out party for a Bruins offense that to this point had surpassed cross-town rival USC in nearly every offensive statistical category, it was instead a breakthrough performance for Mannion, who connected on 24 of 35 passes for two touchdowns and an interception.
Accurate when throwing downfield and possessing a howitzer for a right arm, Mannion backed up his freshman All-American credentials with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in addition to the 75-yard touchdown reception by Cooks. He also had a potential 50-yard touchdown pass to Storm Woods negated because of a tripping penalty on the offensive line.
Though it took a while for the Bruins' passing offense to operate, there can still be some optimism taken over the youth of the passing game and the opportunities it received Saturday. Hundley, a redshirt freshman, used four underclassmen in his first four completions: Devin Lucien, a redshirt freshman, Kenneth Walker and Jordan Payton, both true freshmen, and Jordon James, a redshirt sophomore.
Redshirt junior Shaquelle Evans led UCLA with 148 receiving yards, 65 of which came on a long touchdown pass from Hundley with 49 seconds remaining in the second quarter that gave the Bruins a fortunate seven-point deficit at the half.
While many questions after the game were of the "larger picture" variety, Mora has little time for outside projections or anything that distracts his team from the next opponent on its schedule.
For the Bruins, that will be the Colorado Buffaloes, whom they'll meet at Folsom Field next Saturday afternoon in Boulder, Colo.
Under Mora, focus and work ethic will be the prescription.
"I just feel like we have to keep our eyes forward and continue to work hard," he said.