Those high hopes are now a faint memory after the Bruins began the season with an overtime loss at Texas A&M and never really recovered. Their two conference victories were over bottom feeders Arizona and Oregon State, and they were ripped by crosstown rival USC, 36-14, last weekend.
The main reason for earlier optimism, of course, was quarterback Josh Rosen. As a true freshman last year Rosen was magnificent. He threw for 3,670 yards (292-for-487, 60 per cent), 23 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He led the Bruins to an 8-5 record including a victory in the Foster Farms Bowl.
This year his numbers were comparable (137-231, 1915 yards, ten TDs, five INTS) until he injured his shoulder in the sixth game against Arizona State. The Bruins held out hope for three weeks that he might return, but he never did, and they finally declared him out for the season.
Former walk-on Mike Fafaul has taken over and, although he has been all right, he certainly is no Rosen.'Fafaul"s a good quarterback," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said this week."Rosen has different skill set. I am really impressed with Fafaul"s touch, the ability to put the ball on guys and throw people open. He anticipates well. I"m not sure the passing concept has changed so much. But they have done a good job allowing him to do what he does well."
Fafaul waited four years for Brett Hundley to exhaust his eligibility, then saw the position usurped by Rosen last year. His big problem has been interceptions, he has thrown ten in 229 attempts vs. 11 TDs.
It certainly has not been because of nerves, according to his teammates."I haven't seen an ounce of nervousness," tackle Conor McDermott, Faufal"s roommate told the Los Angeles media."He's been excited, joking around after practice. 'I'm not used to being this tired.""
In fairness, he doesn"t have much of a supporting cast. The leading receiver is junior Darren Andrews with 55 catches for 709 yards. The most effective receiver lately is sophomore Jordan Lasley, who moved into the starting lineup just four games ago. He has 36 catches for the season, second on the team to Andrews, but in the last four games has just 18 for 307 yards. In the last six games he has five touchdown receptions, including a 56-yarder last week in the 36-14 loss to USC.
"He"s growing up, he"s maturing, he"s practicing harder, he"s taking the coaching, he just has a more mature feeling about him and that"s what you look for," Mora said of Lasley."It just happens at different times for different guys, but it"s great that it"s happening for him right now."
The Bruins have been killed by lack of a running game, which should be good news for Cal"s defense which is 127th out of 128 FBS teams in rushing yards allowed.
"It"s been a struggle," Mora said in the coaches" conference call this week."Hopefully we can put something together this week that allows us to run the ball. I don"t necessarily look at it as their stats vs. our stats. I just want to try to get something going in the run game.""
One reason for UCLA"s troubles might of course be that with Rosen out of the picture, teams concentrate on stopping the run and pretty much ignore the pass. USC did it, and with the exception of the Lasley score were pretty successful with the tactic.
But Dykes doesn"t think Rosen"s absence is the main reason."They are trying to get a run game going. They are getting it going more and more all the time," he said."I don"t know that you can sit back and say, 'Josh Rosen can throw the ball." So can this quarterback. They"re both good quarterbacks."
Whatever the reason the Bruins are averaging just 84.3 rushing yards per game. A total of 54 individual FBS running backs have by themselves more than the 927 yards UCLA has rushed for as a team.
McDermott, a preseason All-American choice by many outlets, anchors what should be a respectable offensive line. But the holes just aren"t there for Soso Jamabo (81 rushes, 313 yards), Bolu Olorunfunmi (68, 274) or Nate Starks (74, 208).
Defensively, however, the Bruins have more than held their own. They rank fourth in the conference in total defense (371.6 yards per game) and more significantly for this weekend third in pass defense (202.3). Cal averages 364.1 so something"s got to give.
"They have a great defense," Cal quarterback Davis Webb said."They have one of the best defensive fronts in the league and the backs are very athletic. They haven"t let too many people get behind them. … They are great athletes. They match up one-on-one."
For the second week in a row, Cal will be up against an explosive pass rusher. Last week, for all the troubles they had with Stanford, they were able to neutralize the dynamic Solomon Thomas. This week the challenge is Takkarist McKinley, a 6-2, 258-pound defensive end.
He is second in the nation in tackles for loss, 1.8 per game, and fifth in sacks per game 1.0. A native of Fremont who spent the 2013 season at Contra Costa College, McKinley considered Cal before enrolling at UCLA four games into the 2014 campaign. He has become an impact player.
"We didn"t know much about him when he came here," Mora said."He came after the season had started. He was very dynamic, but he was raw in terms of technique, fundamentals, things like that. But what you"ve got now is an explosive, exciting player who really understands the game… I think what fuels him is he"s one of those people who"s just driven."
And he has plenty of help. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes is among the country"s best, although he has been battling injury problems. Linebacker Jayon Brown leads the conference in tackles per game and the secondary, led by junior Jaleel Wadood and senior Fabian Moreau. is among the country"s best. UCLA has given up just ten touchdown passes all year, partly because they are very good at getting after opposing quarterbacks.
"They are pretty standard in their approach," Dykes said."They don"t have to blitz much. I think when you look at teams that are pretty successful defensively there are several different ways to do it. You can do it the Washington State way, where you create havoc by guys constantly moving around and blitzing. Or you can do it the Washington way, where you are really good up front and don"t have to blitz.
"UCLA blitzes more than Washington does, but they are good enough up front where they don"t have to move their players around a lot. That"s because they are big and strong enough to be able to handle those one-on-one matchups. The defensive front will draw double teams because they are big and strong. The linebackers are really good, they run around and make a lot of plays."
- UCLA leads the series 53-32-1 and has won the last three games and four out of five.
- This is the annual Joe Roth Memorial game, honoring the Cal quarterback who died of cancer in 1977. His number 12 is the only jersey number retired by the school.
- UCLA has intercepted at least one pass in six straight games and ten of the 11 games it has played.
- UCLA held six straight opponents earlier this year to under 400 yards of total offense. It held BYU to just 23 rushing yards.
- Rosen and Fafaul are the first two quarterbacks in UCLA history to throw for 1,000 yards in the same season.