It’s no secret what Jim Mora Jr. has accomplished since taking over the boys from Brentwood in 2012. The Bruins spent the 2000’s living in the shadow of the crosstown Trojans, struggling to compete for elite talent while in-state Cal and USC, and even Oregon basked in the December glory while Bruins fans had already moved on to basketball.
Mora led (7) UCLA into Charlottesville today to kick off his third year as head coach, with the recent blunders of his storied program all but forgotten. He was 19-8 in his first two campaigns, and in that time has built a highly physical, very talented team. He has a Heisman candidate under center in Brett Hundley, a dual-threat nightmare for opposing defenses, and a two-way stud in Myles Jack, who took home PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors in both offense and defense a season ago. Two guys that are near impossible to game plan for because of their versatility.
The Bruins were a preseason top 10 team this year, reaffirming the expectations for a team that only a few years ago was an afterthought. All summer Hundley and co. were discussed as Oregon’s biggest threat for the Pac-12 crown, and even heard their name thrown as being a sleeper to make the first ever College Football Playoff.
But they didn’t look like that team today.
They lined up to face a Virginia team that last year finished 2-10 in a less than stellar ACC. Cavaliers head coach Mike London is on the hot seat, and everyone in Vegas anticipated a beat down in Charlottesville.
UCLA came out flat and rattled, struggling to respond to the excellent blitz packages Virginia sent their way. Everyone knew Hundley was the X-factor coming into this game, UCLA flies as high as he does. But Virginia did their homework and caught him off balance and out of rhythm early. The opening quarter ended with a pair of goose eggs on the board, and all the momentum swinging Virginia’s way.
But while Virginia’s defense was stellar in the first, UCLA’s was even better in the second. All three of the Bruins’ scores prior to the halftime break were scored defensively. The Bruins did what the Cavaliers could not and created big-play turnovers, starting with Ishmael Adams’ pick-six on the opening play of the drive.
Virginia QB Greyson Lambert drove his team down right after to rebound with a field goal, 8:35 still remaining.
A few scoreless minutes followed, until the Bruin defense struck again with a 75-yard fumble return TD to stretch the lead to 14-3 in their direction. Lambert started to feel the pressure and on the ensuing drive threw another interception that was returned for a TD.
With the score now 21-3, Lambert got pulled in favor of sophomore back up Matt Johns. As the crowd laid silent and the Cavaliers looked up at the demoralizing numbers on the board, something funny happened. Johns stepped onto the field with 1:20 remaining, and led his team on an easy scoring march, going 2-2 for 61 yards and a beautiful TD pass to WR Andre Levrone, who made a spectacular grab out of the air for the score.
The fans quickly got back on their feet, the score sitting at 21-10 as Mike London and his team walked into the locker room for halftime with all the hype. Part of it because their backup QB just cruised to a bounce-back TD, the rest because they knew the Bruins sat in the visitors’ locker room desperately searching for answers.
With the wind at their backs, Johns led the team down the field to start the second half for another touchdown. By now the Virginia sidelines were rocking, and UCLA’s bench looked like the school bully that got beat up by the class nerd – deflated but mostly confused.
Football can be a chess match, and Virginia was setting up for checkmate nicely.
The Bruins’ blocking quickly bounced back from their awful first half performance, anchoring the UCLA offense down to the six yard line where Hundley capped off the drive with a tough running TD to quiet the crowd. What followed was an ugly crapshoot, Virginia put up a field goal in the fourth quarter to make it 28-20 but never got more than that.
Yes, UCLA did hold on to win on the road in a season opener, but Mora has a lot of red flags to address when he and his team get back to the Pacific time zone. In fairness, Virginia’s defense played outside its collective mind today, giving UCLA everything they had and then some. But there are no excuses in this game, only results.
If UCLA is considered a threat to dethrone Oregon, they’re going to need to score more and protect the ball. Sure, the Bruins went into halftime and made solid adjustments on the offensive side of the ball, but you can’t wait until the break to fix piss-poor blocking and an inability to control the football, and expect to win on a consistent basis.
Not against the Pac-12, and certainly not against whatever teams make it to the “final four” in January.
*Section Photo credit to USA Today Sports; Featured Photo (above) credit to The Big Lead