UCLA could take L.A. from Trojans

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
12:00
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Last year, UCLA "won" the Pac-12 South Division and advanced to a bowl game, "honors" that were appropriate moments for mocking finger quotes. The Bruins were two games behind USC in the South standings and coming off a 50-zip loss to the Trojans. They got a ticket to Eugene to get whipped by Oregon only because the Trojans were ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.

Then the Bruins opted to use a rules loophole that allowed them to go to a bowl game despite a losing record. Just to make things a bit messier, they also fired head coach Rick Neuheisel. And then they got pushed around by a bad Illinois team that had also fired its coach and lost six in a row before meeting the Bruins.

Ugly times. And the Trojans cackled, anticipating their sure super-awesomeness in 2012.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
AP Photo/Nick LuceroThe annual rivalry game with USC will have more than bragging rights at stake this season for coach Jim Mora and UCLA.
Ah, but the sun is rising in Westwood under new coach Jim Mora, and the Trojans are no longer cackling at anyone. In fact, the Bruins are now casting a shadow on USC, which for the first time since 2001 trails UCLA in the BCS standings.

USC behind UCLA. In football. We'll now pause for a moment to let the UCLA folks savor that for a bit.

But wait ... there's Mora, er, more!

If the Bruins can survive a trip to Pullman, Wash., on Saturday, they will host USC on Nov. 17 with the South Division on the line. They could win the division right there and advance to the Pac-12 title game, no finger quotes or asterisk required. The secondary benefit would be putting a powder blue boot print in what was supposed to be a special season for USC.

That scenario assumes, by the way, that the Trojans don't flop at home Saturday against Arizona State. If that happens, the Bruins would merely need to win any two of their final three games -- Stanford visits on Nov. 24 -- to win the division.

In other words, UCLA controls its own destiny, which is nice.

The Bruins were picked to finish third in the South in the preseason media poll, but they've risen through the ranks with a high-powered but balanced offense and an attacking defense. The Bruins are young -- 12 true freshmen and 13 redshirt freshmen have played, with seven starting on Oct. 13 against Utah -- but the resurgence has been as much about upperclassmen with previously meandering careers finding their rhythm under a new coaching staff.

That starts with senior running back Johnathan Franklin, who has long been known equally for explosiveness and fumbles. This year, he's fourth in the nation with 133.78 yards rushing per game, he's a likely first-team All-Pac-12 selection, and he's not lost a fumble. Oh, and he became the Bruins' all-time leading rusher last weekend with 3,873 yards, breaking Gaston Green's mark from 1984-87.

Then there are guys like defensive end Datone Jones, cornerback Sheldon Price and linebacker Damien Holmes, all seniors, and receiver Shaq Evans, defensive tackle Cassius Marsh and outside linebacker Anthony Barr, all juniors, who are turning in breakout seasons.

The Bruins' offense has been reborn under coordinator Noel Mazzone and redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley, averaging 226 yards rushing and 289 yards passing. The defense, forced to support a high-tempo offense, not unlike Oregon (the Ducks have run 739 plays; UCLA, 735), is surrendering a respectable 23.4 points per game while forcing 22 turnovers and recording 33 sacks under coordinator Lou Spanos.

And the Bruins have been good on special teams.

The lone face-plant on the schedule is a seemingly anomalous effort at California, when Hundley threw four of his eight interceptions. That sloppy, feckless performance gave rise to old bugaboos about inconsistency and softness on the road. But those grouses were answered by a comeback victory at Arizona State and a 66-10 bludgeoning of Arizona this past weekend.

Of course, things can reverse course quickly. The Bruins should be wary of the trip to Pullman, even if the Cougars have lost six in a row and seem to be having issues with new coach Mike Leach. UCLA is only 10-8-1 in Pullman all time, and it's going to be chilly for the 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff.

Still, there's legitimate hope in Westwood that Mora is not only rebuilding this program, he's also doing it quickly. The Bruins are in the thick of the South race this season, and the intriguing youth on the roster suggests a foundation for future success.

Ted Miller | email

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