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Over the past five recruiting cycles (2013-17), UCLA has signed 62 prospects that were rated four or five stars by Rivals.com.
In theory, the current Bruins roster is loaded with talented players pursued by schools located coast-to-coast.
Yet, since the beginning of the 2016 season, UCLA is just 6-10, making them arguably the most underachieving team in the Pac-12. Worse, since consecutive 10-3 seasons in 2013 and 2014, UCLA is 14-15 overall, 7-12 against Pac-12 schools.
In short, securing the signatures of all those elite prospects onto letters of intent hasn’t amounted to much winning in Westwood for the backsliding Bruins.
If you sense UCLA head coach Jim Mora’s seat is getting warmer, you’re right. A headline in the Los Angeles Times two days ago described Mora’s job security as “more tenuous.”
Last Saturday night’s 58-34 loss to the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto, Calif. dropped the Bruins to 2-2 overall with victories over Texas A&M (45-44) and Houston (56-23), and back-to-back losses to Memphis (48-45) and Stanford through the first four weeks.
Were it not for a miraculous comeback in the Sept. 2 opener against the Aggies, UCLA would be entering Saturday’ night’s clash with Colorado at the Rose Bowl (8:30 p.m. MT, ESPN2) burdened with a 1-3 mark.
In many ways, UCLA is a stereotypical Pac-12 team possessing a high-powered offense led by a quarterback (Josh Rosen) that has NFL scouts drooling over his arm strength and “the measurables,” but a defense that seemingly surrenders points as quickly (and meekly) as they score ‘em.
After four weeks, the Bruins are first in the Pac-12 in total offense (571.8 ypg) and second in scoring offense (45.0 ppg). Rosen, widely regarded as a certain first-round draft pick (along with USC QB Sam Darnold), leads the conference in passing yards per game (440.8), total passing yards (1,763) and touchdown passes (16), and has completed 65.5 percent of his passes this season.
One of the few negatives about the UCLA offense after four games is they have committed 10 turnovers, third most in the conference behind Oregon State (12) and California (11), resulting in a minus-5 turnover margin.
“We’re doing some tremendous things on offense,” Mora said Monday during a press briefing. “We’re scoring a lot of points. We’re moving the ball really well. But we’re always looking for ways to improve. One way we can definitely improve is ball security. Nine of our 10 turnovers have come on our end of the field, so our defense is backed up. That’s a point of emphasis offensively. To me, nobody has stopped us but us.”
As far as boasting a talented quarterback with a powerful throwing arm capable of leading his team to victory after victory, UCLA has checked that box.
However, UCLA still struggles to run the football consistently. Last year, the Bruins had by far the worst ground game in the Pac-12 as they averaged a paltry 84.2 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.
Those numbers have improved through in 2017 as UCLA in averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt. But the Bruins rushing attack still doesn’t scare many defensive coordinators.
UCLA’s defense? Now that scares people, especially Bruins fans.
UCLA enters Saturday night’s game against the Buffs at the Rose Bowl ranked last in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 524.8 yards per game, and 11th in scoring defense (43.2 ppg). The Bruins have yielded 44 or more points in three of their first four games.
Tackling has been issue, Mora said.
“Our tackling has not been up to par,” Mora said. “Some of that is pressuring and putting guys in angles where it’s tough to tackle. Maybe we haven’t given them enough looks at it during the week or given them enough drills. Our open field tackling hasn’t been good enough. Now we’re preparing to play a team that is much different than the one we just played, especially on offense.”
In particular, UCLA’s run defense has been awful. They are allowing a Pac-12 worst 307.5 yards per game on the ground. How poor is that compared to the rest of the conference? The 11th place team (Oregon State) is allowing 198.8 rushing yards per game.
That means UCLA is allowing over 100 more rushing yards per game than any other Pac-12 team. Yikes.
“We need to eliminate the big runs against us,” Mors said. “We’ve given up 14 explosive run plays in four games. That’s not acceptable. But that’s what has led to these huge amounts of yardage against us in the run game.”
Against Stanford, UCLA’s defensive front seven was physically manhandled by the Cardinal’s offensive line. Stanford finished with 405 rushing yards on 45 carries, an astounding average of 9.0 yards per carry. Time and again, Cardinal running Bryce Love (263 rushing yards on 30 carries) sliced through the first two levels of the UCLA defense while barely being touched by a Bruins defender.
UCLA has also displayed a lack of discipline on defense. In the first four games, opponents have secured a first down 17 times by way of penalties on the Bruins, an average of more than four times per game. That is the highest number in the conference, with the next highest team giving away a first down 12 times on penalties.
WEEK 5 PAC-12 SCHEDULE (Sept. 29-30)
Fri., Sept. 29
USC at Washington State, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sat., Sept. 30
Arizona State at Stanford, 2 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
Washington at Oregon State, 6 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
California at Oregon, 8:30 p.m. (FS1)
Colorado at UCLA, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
(All Times Mountain)
Byes: Utah, Arizona
PAC-12 SOUTH STANDINGS
Arizona State 1-0