OK, this is really getting fun now.
Who among us could have imagined this game? A game everyone predicted would be a shootout—a game where many people predicted UCLA to lose, in fact—was controlled by the Bruins from the opening kickoff. The Wildcats were more soundly beaten in this game than they were against Oregon, when Arizona held its own against the Ducks through a quarter or two. UCLA even looked a little Oregon-esque, going high tempo and scoring two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the game. The outcome of this game, even for the most skeptical of fans, wasn't in doubt past the three minute mark of the first quarter.
UCLA came out in its midnight blue jerseys, which really looked good, and its war paint last night, and it just felt like a different team, in front of a different crowd (81,000 for a night game against Arizona?). Say what you will about keeping the starters in until about the midpoint of the 4th quarter—may or may not be a classy thing, it's not the nice thing to do, it could get someone hurt—but there is something different about a coach whose primary concern is none of those things. You won't get any coach, player, grad assistant, or team manager to say it, but this was a statement game.
This was a beat down of a solid team. This was the kind of game that UCLA hasn't had in forever—not even really in that fluky, crazy, fun 2005 season did the Bruins beat a good team like this. After last week's cathartic last second road victory over ASU, which really seemed to exorcise some of the UCLA demons from the last ten years, this game feels different.
It feels like it might be the start of something.
Brett Hundley has been, it's safe to say, one of the best quarterbacks in the country this year, and is clearly in the upper echelon of the Pac-12. Aside from one inexplicably awful game against Cal, he's been fantastic all year, behind a mediocre offensive line. This game was just further proof that he is lined up to potentially be one of the best UCLA quarterbacks ever.
And he's a redshirt freshman! There's at least one more year of progress to look forward to for UCLA fans, and probably at least two. What he's been able to accomplish in Noel Mazzone's offense, as a freshman, is pretty much unprecedented in UCLA history. Not since Cade McNown ran the UCLA offense has UCLA had a quarterback with this kind of ability.
On Saturday, Hundley was magnificent, making an athletic play with his legs to score an early touchdown, and then showing great touch on his pass to Joe Fauria on the deep post for a touchdown. He's progressed so much since the beginning of the season, and such a crazy amount since the beginning of the spring, that another year of progress, behind a developing offensive line, could leave him with some pretty astounding accolades.
The offense, in general, is young, and has a very good chance to be better next year. Unless Xavier Su'a-Filo makes a crazy decision to leave (since he's four years out of high school, he could), the offensive line loses just Jeff Baca. At receiver, UCLA loses Jerry Johnson and Joe Fauria- losses, but not irreplaceable.
The big loss, of course, will be at running back. There are few people who would have predicted Johnathan Franklin going from good, solid running back to this nearly All-American level this season. But it's not fluky—Franklin has improved drastically this year, and is now permanently etched in the record books as the all-time leading rusher in UCLA history. With just a hair under 400 more yards this season, he'll also have the record for single season rushing. Even with Damien Thigpen and Jordon James having talent, Paul Perkins waiting in the wings, and Craig Lee coming into school next year, it'll be hard to replace Franklin's production.
The offense, though, when you take it as a whole, has a very good chance to be better next year, and that has to be an exciting thought for a UCLA fan base that's dealt with various pistols and versions of West Coast offenses over the past dreary decade.
The story of this game, though, was the defense, and it's the defense that gives you the best hope for this season, and the future. Facing the most prolific offense that UCLA has matched up against all year, UCLA had inarguably its best defensive performance of the year. The Bruins got significant pressure from its front five, and the linebackers, as a unit, had probably their best game of the season. Eric Kendricks, who has struggled adjusting to the new defense and making the defensive calls, has come into his own over the last two games.
The progress the front seven has made from the beginning of the year to now has to bode well for UCLA's chances through the next three games. Even with the secondary still performing about the same as it has this year, because the front seven is getting more pressure and tackling better, the defense is able to compensate for its below average secondary. If that can keep up, this team will actually be fairly difficult to beat.
Sure, there are still some things to clean up, even after a game like that. The secondary was still too handsy, and the team, in general, was penalized too much, with over 130 yards of penalties in this game for the Bruins. It's certainly a concern going forward, especially because not every game down the stretch is going to be a ridiculous blowout like this one.
But that's really about it, as far as complaints go. Even punt return, which had been a bugaboo before this game, was figured out, with Randall Goforth filling in as the return man and showing good hands, good decision making, and good shake on his runs. Shaquelle Evans was supposedly the first string returner for this game, but, Coach Mora, let's just go ahead and pretend it was Goforth, and move forward with him.
UCLA football is not boring anymore, is it? Even this win, by 56 points in a matchup that was a blowout in the first quarter, wasn't boring. Watching UCLA's offense systematically eviscerate an opponent, and watching UCLA's defense stymie most anything Arizona tried offensively, this was, for the second straight week, probably the most fun I've had watching a UCLA football game in years.
It probably wasn't lost on anyone that the last time UCLA scored 66 points in a game, it was 1997, near the start of the Bruins' 20 game winning streak, when UCLA was at or near the top of the college football world. Of course, with USC and Stanford left on the schedule, and, even if those go well, a potential matchup with the buzzsaw up in Eugene on November 30th, the odds of UCLA rattling off even seven straight wins are fairly long.
But there's a chance that UCLA could, at least, win the next three. The Bruins will be favored next week, and then probably slight home dogs against USC and Stanford. A year after going 6-8, UCLA has a halfway decent chance at 10-2 to end the regular season, and a pretty good chance at 9-3. If either of those two outcomes happen, the proverbial corner, so long in sight, might very well be turned.
And across town on Saturday, USC lost to Oregon in a shootout. Significantly, USC lost its third game of the year, which means that UCLA has a better record than USC for the first time since October of 2002. It also means, significantly, that UCLA has a very good chance to have a better record than USC going into the rivalry game for the first time since 2001. It also led to, significantly, UCLA being ranked higher than USC for the first time since November of 2001. Now, the Trojans will probably still be favored against UCLA in two weeks, unless something happens with injuries, suspensions, or other acts of God.
But the tide might very well be shifting. USC needed to be nearly perfect over the next three years to tip toe through sanctions, and this year, at this point, has to be considered a huge stumbling block. With just 15 scholarships to give out each of the next two years, and with huge depth concerns already this season, USC will almost assuredly not be better the next two years, and likely will be worse.
The time is ripe for UCLA to shift this rivalry once more back to Westwood. And for the first time in a very long time, the Bruins may have a coach capable of doing so.