UCLA in search of first 10-win season since '05
UCLA’s comeback campaign started with a bold move out in the inland empire and will culminate with the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl next week in San Diego. Here’s a look at the biggest moments and the key players in the Bruins’ 2012 season.
Offensive MVP: Brett Hundley
It was the year of the freshman quarterback. While the spotlight has been firmly on Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel as he took home college football’s top honor, Brett Hundley’s performance in his first collegiate season has been stellar. Hundley showed poise under pressure and promise for the future, leading the No. 17 Bruins to a 9-4 record and a season unlike one UCLA has experienced in recent years.
Hundley was named the starter during fall camp in San Bernardino and it was considered a bold decision at the time considering experienced starters Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut were still on the roster. But head coach Jim Mora was impressed by a demeanor that never changes no matter what situation he faces, and his ability to make to plays on the ground and in the air. Hundley understood how to space the field in Noel Mazzone’s offense, racking up 3,776 yards of total offense, good enough for 26th in the country.
UCLA has had a rotating door of quarterbacks in recent years which has often been the culprit of their struggles. Hundley will lose key target Joseph Fauria and his go-to ground guy in Johnathan Franklin, but Hundley has obviously shown an immense amount of potential in his first season and has yet to fully reach that. It looks as though UCLA has finally found its quarterback of the future.
Defensive MVP: Anthony Barr
Barr still contends that it was his idea to move to linebacker. His coach says it was a mutual decision. Either way, everyone agrees that it was a move with arguably the biggest payoff this season. Barr terrorized opposing quarterbacks all season, with a nation-leading 13.5 sacks in his first year at the position. Mora contends that he has never seen anyone move so seamlessly to a new position, especially one on the other side of the ball, and he has said that his junior linebacker was the most impactful defensive player in the Pac-12 and possibly in the country.
His dominance didn’t go unnoticed: Barr was named an All-American, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a possible top-15 draft pick by Mel Kiper Jr. For now, Barr says he is leaning toward remaining a Bruin.
Signature Win: Nebraska
Many will argue that it was taking back the Victory Bell from USC, but UCLA’s 36-30 win over then-No. 17 Nebraska was a win that showed what the Bruins were about on both sides of the ball.
Franklin had his second-straight 200-yard rushing game and the Bruins rushed for 344 yards. Datone Jones’ fourth-quarter safety that broke a tie and swung the momentum back in the direction of UCLA. The Bruins defense forced 29 turnovers this season, an aspect of the defense that became somewhat of a signature.
However, it also highlighted the special teams issues that would continue to be a theme for much of the season. Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 36-yard field goal early in the game and a 34-yard attempt in the fourth quarter. The Bruins were flagged for two penalties on the kickoff and two on punts. The Bruins went through a rotation of return specialists over the course of the season.
The Bruins have won big early in recent seasons past but then failed to put together anything better than mediocre the rest of the way. Following the win over the Cornhuskers, there were questions of whether or not history would repeat itself. Now on the brink of the first 10-win season since 2005, this wasn't a flash-in-the-pan win against a brand-name team. This win re-established UCLA as a serious contender.
Toughest Loss: Stanford (Pac-12 Championship Game)
With the roses on the line and only a field goal needed to tie, the Bruins were doomed by a bad snap and a kick that went wide left.
Prior to the game, the team was absolutely confident that they would be playing in a BCS bowl game on their own home field for the first time since 1999. It set up perfectly – the culmination of a breakout season under a new, high-profile but still unproven head coach, and the underdogs playing in a hostile atmosphere in the pouring rain – which just made the disappointment sink in deeper.
“It hurt for a little bit,” said Fauria, before adding, “Maybe two, three, five days.”
Now over the sting of the loss, it’s more fuel for the bowl fire.
“I really think we’re going to come out on top and be part of a 10-win season,” Fauria said. “We’ll be a part of the UCLA elite.”
What to Expect Next: Offensive Shootout
You might have heard of the quarterback that Baylor lost this season, seeing as how he is a Heisman Trophy winner known best by the nickname RGIII. In the Bears’ first season without their star signal caller, they were dealt lumps. They began to crack when they just barely beat Louisiana-Monroe on the road in the third week of the season, and then engaged in one of the most memorable games of the season in Morgantown. In a game that involved little-to-no defense on either side of the field, the Mountaineers and the Bears put up basketball-like numbers with Baylor falling on the wrong end of a 70-63 score.
Baylor leads the country in total offense. Conversely, the Bears’ defense ranked 120th out of 121 Division I teams.
The opposing numbers are not lost on the Bruins.
“Their offense is ridiculously good,” Mora said. “They go at a fast tempo...They've got guys that can run after the catch, and they stretch the field well."
Also not lost on UCLA is the fact that the Bears toppled a No. 1 team in Kansas State, hanging nearly 30 points on the Wildcats. From there, the Bears won their next two games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, racking up more than 1,200 yards in the process but giving up only about 150 yards less than that total.
“Sometimes they get into scoring matches but they make their stops where they have to,” Fauria said. “I’m excited to see our team compete against this defense and get some points on the board and see who the better offense is.”
Baylor (7-5) runs a spread offense similar to those of Houston, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington State, handling all but Arizona State somewhat easily. The big difference in this spread scheme will be the threat of the No. 1 receiver in the nation in Terrance Williams.
“They play with a lot of heart,” said defensive end Eric Kendricks. “And they know they’re good too, they’ve got a lot of athletes and they play with a lot of confidence as well. So they start doing things that are very common of championship teams.”
Who to Watch for
With 27 days between the Pac-12 Championship game and the Holiday Bowl, UCLA is using some of the extra practice time to get the redshirts and underclassmen into the practice mix. When talk arises of the next up-and-coming Bruin, the consensus seems to be safety Taylor Lagace.
“Someone who has really impressed me is Taylor Lagace,” Kendricks said. “He’s been working his butt off all season.”
Lagace was a three-star prospect coming out of Arcadia High School. A solid, all-around athlete with good speed and high IQ, was the recipient of the special teams’ Charles Pike Memorial Award for Most Outstanding Scout Team Player. After a year of development, he appears ready to step in for UCLA next season.