Mora's Bruins earning their due

BY foxsports • September 20, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Mora, Jr. was smiling through much of his press conference on Thursday in what had to be the least tense exchange with reporters in the football bowl subdivision this season.

One reporter noted that large placards depicting obscure and seemingly arbitrary images will be raised from the sideline to substitute players and set up formations, a trend that has emerged over the last few years amongst some coaching staffs looking to inject a quicker pace into their offense.

Mora clarified how the icons made their way onto the cards.

"A group of graduate assistants in a room, a little bit punch drunk from spending 80 hours at work that week, and it's 11 o'clock at night – some silly things come up," he said, before suggesting that the reporter create a Twitter contest to see if "anyone in the stands" could decipher the meaning of each placard.

Are we living in a world in which three games into the season the quarterback Mora chose has seized the position with a death grip, post-practice media scrums are light, and some believers are ready to crown the Bruins as the best team in Southern California?

Was that the sound of Rick Neuheisel punching a hole through his hat?

Yes, there is more optimism surrounding the program, and even the acutely focused Mora has been guilty of flashing a smile every now and then. But once the flightier cross-town comparisons or speculation beyond Week 4 of the college football season start to take place, that's when you've lost him.

"My focus has to be on the week and the game we're playing. Unless it is, then you set yourself up for failure," he said on Wednesday.

"I've learned through the years to stay very, very focused on the task at hand, and that's Oregon State this week. I know that when I was younger, I made a lot of mistakes. I'm trying not to make them again."

So as the marketing wing of USC's athletic department was devising which Westwood intersection to proudly illustrate its billboard love of Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley, Mora was leading his team through particularly physical spring practices and orchestrating a training camp in which the Bruins, one month and 80 miles removed from the first day of classes, practiced at Cal State San Bernardino for 12 days in average temperatures of over 100 degrees.

"Just coming out to an isolated area where all you can do is focus on football, I think that was good for us," senior linebacker Damien Holmes said.

It was one of the first buttons correctly pressed by Mora, whose Bruins are currently the best team in Los Angeles.

Not that it should come as much of a surprise after watching the Trojans' clunky defeat to Stanford in Palo Alto last weekend, but USC trails UCLA in nearly all major statistical categories after a three-game sample size nibble.

The UCLA offense is leading the Pac-12 in total yardage and ranks second in both passing and rushing yards per game. And now the offensive line will welcome senior right guard Jeff Baca back to the field after a one-game absence. The offense has held up impressively well with redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and senior tailback Johnathan Franklin carrying the team.

Franklin, who has 197 more rushing yards than any other running back in the Pac-12, is part of a ground attack that ranks fifth in the FBS by averaging over 311 yards per game.

Hundley threw for 305 yards and connected on four touchdown passes without an interception in the Bruins' breakthrough 36-30 win over Nebraska, one of the country's top performances by a quarterback against a high-quality opponent this season.

Weren't we supposed to be talking about Barkley and Silas Redd?

Hundley and Franklin have commandeered much of the attention, but the defense has fared well after losing its returning MVP and leading tackler from a season ago, Patrick Larimore. After Larimore suffered a career-ending concussion in training camp, the defense has relied on redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Eric Kendricks. Kendricks returned a fumble for a touchdown in last week's 37-6 win over Houston and leads the team with 25 tackles. Not to mention that senior cornerback Sheldon Price is tied for the country's lead in interceptions after recording three in the victory over Houston.

Perhaps the starkest difference between UCLA and USC is their ability to make adjustments and close out a game. UCLA's defense has led the team to a 46-12 scoring advantage in the second half and baffled a Big Ten offensive player of the year candidate in Tyler Martinez.

USC has been outscored 50-42 in the second half by Hawaii, Syracuse and Stanford. USC unsuccessfully finished its final drive against the Cardinal by taking two sacks, getting whistled for holding and false start penalties, and throwing an incompletion on a last-gasp 4th-and-40.

This isn't to say that there is any long-term tectonic shifting in the Los Angeles collegiate landscape occurring here. This isn't even to say that the Bruins will the better team than the Trojans after Week 4. But Mora has certainly put things in the right place for now and the next few years.

Of course, if there's going to be any talk over which is the best team in LA, UCLA (3-0) has to beat Oregon State (1-0) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday in Mora's first conference game since he was a graduate assistant at the University of Washington in 1984.

There have been previous UCLA teams that screamed with momentum out of the gates early in the season, only to sputter and fall apart.

Quarterback Ryan McCann, after defeats of third-ranked Alabama and third-ranked Michigan in September 2000 declared, "I think this proves we're No. 1 in the nation. I don't know who else we can beat or what else we can do."

The Bruins went 3-6 the remainder of the season and are only 77-73 since that gaudy comment.

It doesn't appear that any player under Mora is particularly concerned with anything beyond what happens at the Rose Bowl at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

"I like where they're at right now mentally," he said.