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PASADENA, Calif. — The most anticipated UCLA football season in at least a decade was sinking fast Saturday when desperation turned to dysfunction on the Bruins sideline.
Moments after Oregon caught UCLA in a blitz and hit a screen pass for its second touchdown of a 42-30 rout, coach Jim Mora and first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich engaged in a heated argument on the sideline. Mora actually placed both hands on Ulbrich's face in attempt to calm him down after the irate defensive coordinator tore off his headset and handed the head coach his play card as if to say, "You call the plays."
Since FOX cameras captured the sideline squabble and broadcast it to a national TV audience, both Mora and Ulbrich had little choice but to address it with reporters after the game. Both attributed the argument to their passion and competitiveness and insisted they had no need to reconcile, but only Ulbrich was realistic enough to acknowledge the dispute reflected poorly on themselves and the program.
Said Mora, "Please don't read anything into that other than that it's just two guys who are just dialed in, are passionate about football and have a long history. That's all it is."
Said Ulbrich, "Obviously I lost a little control and I can't do that. I can't do that. I've got to handle it better. My strength is my passion, but my weakness is my passion too at times. At times there is no filter, and maybe I need to start developing that filter. Maybe I need to control my emotions better."
The longtime friendship between Mora and Ulbrich surely will survive this disagreement, but the idea that the flare-up is meaningless simply doesn't ring true.
It undoubtedly reflects Mora's disappointment at a defense that can't generate a pass rush or consistently stop the run and largely isn't playing up to its potential. It also reflects UCLA's desperation to salvage a season that began with such promise but seems to be slowly slipping away.
Thanks to quarterback Brett Hundley bypassing the NFL draft and joining 15 other returning starters from last year's 10-win team, UCLA entered the season as a top 10 team and a trendy national title pick. Fans flocked to the Rose Bowl in unusually large numbers in hopes of watching the Bruins reemerge as a national threat for the first time since they were stunned in Miami in the final regular-season game of 1998, a loss that kept them out of the first BCS championship game.
UCLA survived closer-than-expected wins against Virginia, Texas and Memphis to open the season and annihilated Arizona State two weeks ago, but everything started to unravel last Saturday night. Ten sacks and two missed field goal attempts with no time on the clock proved too much to overcome in a 30-27 home loss to unheralded Utah. Then in a marquee game against an Oregon team also eager to rebound from a loss, UCLA surrendered 553 total yards and committed two costly turnovers, enabling the Ducks to race out to a 42-10 fourth-quarter lead before the Bruins made the final score respectable with three touchdowns in the last 10 minutes.
The outcome preserves one-loss Oregon's slim hopes of climbing back into contention for the season-ending four-team playoff and all but eliminates the two-loss Bruins from the national title picture. The best UCLA can hope for is that winning out against a schedule that still includes Arizona, Stanford and USC would be enough to win the Pac-12 South and earn the Bruins a berth in the conference title game.
"We have to regroup," linebacker Myles Jack said. "We could either go up or down at this point. With two losses back-to-back, it could go haywire, but we just have to get back to our fundamentals, what got us to 4-0 in the first place."
While UCLA certainly has the explosiveness to bounce back from a losing streak the way it did last season, some of the mental mistakes the Bruins made Saturday were certainly disconcerting.
Hundley continues to struggle to sense when pressure is coming, a flaw that led to him fumbling on a frontside blitz from linebacker Tony Washington, setting up Oregon's first touchdown. A third-down defensive holding penalty extended Oregon's second touchdown drive and a punch thrown at the bottom of a pile by defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes cost the Bruins another 15 yards a couple plays later. And then there's a patchwork offensive line that yielded 23 sacks in UCLA's first five games and had Hundley running for his life early and often again Saturday.
"The one positive thing is we can learn from this," Hundley said. "To this point, we still have things in front of us we can accomplish. We can still get to the Pac-12 championship game and we can still win the Pac-12. ... I think there will be a two-loss team in that playoff, so hopefully we can win out and do our part. If we play good ball, anything is possible."
The sideline dispute between Mora and Ulbrich left their players in the uncomfortable position of answering questions about the state of the locker room and whether UCLA was as chaotic as the immaturity of its coaches made it appear. To a man, the Bruins insisted that was not the case.
"From the outside looking in, it might have looked bad today, but Coach [Ulbrich] and Coach Mora have known each-other forever," Jack said. "They have that relationship where they can do that and they'll be fine."
If only the same could be said for UCLA with such certainty. The program's most anticipated season in 15 years hasn't gone as expected and time is running out for the Bruins to salvage something positive from it.
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