Work in progress: No. 25 UCLA looking solid, but coach Jim Mora gets no chance to enjoy it
LOS ANGELES – Eight games into his tenure at UCLA, Jim Mora still can't believe the kooky numbers on the stat sheets after the average Pac-12 game.
As long as his 25th-ranked Bruins keep ending up on the right side of those digits, he's likely to be happy with an impressive debut season.
A few hours after the Bruins finished off Arizona State last Saturday with Ka'imi Fairbairn's game-ending field goal in a 45-43 barnburner, the new coach had to shake off his natural concerns about the 535 yards allowed by his defense. With No. 24 Arizona's prolific offense visiting Pasadena this weekend, there's no time for lamenting.
"These college games are wild sometimes," Mora said Monday. "It's a new experience for me, some of these shootouts and some of the numbers that are getting put up."
Mora is figuring out the college game on the fly, but the Bruins are getting it all together quite quickly. With the same record as archrival Southern California, UCLA (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is bowl-eligible in October for the first time since 2005 after knocking off the Sun Devils.
What's more, the Bruins must leave the Rose Bowl only once more in the regular season, starting with a visit Saturday from the high-scoring Wildcats, who knocked off USC last weekend.
As a longtime NFL defensive coach, Mora prides himself on tough-nosed defenses — and yet he was thrilled after UCLA yielded 535 yards and 43 points in Tempe, saying yards are a useless statistic in measuring a defense's effectiveness. The Bruins have been tough, but their coach isn't immune to head-scratching and exhaustion after trying to keep up with a fast-paced Pac-12 offense.
"A lot of it has to do with the number of plays that get run," Mora said. "You look at our Arizona State game the other day, I think they ran 94 offensive plays. That's a lot of plays. There were 106 (combined) running plays in our game on Saturday. That's beyond anything I've ever heard of or imagined before. It's just a different game. It takes a little getting used to."
Mora is getting used to it just fine, and he's making enough correct moves to keep the Bruins moving forward in a remarkable debut season. UCLA has beaten Nebraska, Houston and Utah along the way, moving a half-game behind the Trojans in the Pac-12 South standings with a chance for a memorable November.
Mora is trying to be comfortable with the frenetic pace and wacky twists of college ball. UCLA fell behind by 14 points in the opening minutes against Arizona State, and the Bruins blew a nine-point lead before freshman quarterback Brett Hundley confidently directed a drive ending in Fairbairn's game-winner.
A fan base that grew accustomed to road disasters in the past decade under previous coaches Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel could barely believe the Bruins were celebrating at Sun Devil Stadium.
"It's nice to know when things are on the line, we can move the ball and get our kicker in position for a game-winning field goal," Hundley said. "During the drive, I didn't really think much of it."
Hundley's teammates are still wildly impressed by the confident teenager who already has set the UCLA record for touchdown passes by a freshman while racking up 2,457 total yards, 10th-best among all Bruins in school history. With four games to play, he's 1,195 yards behind Cade McNown's UCLA record for total offense.
The Bruins all realize they can't afford to look too far ahead in the record books or the Pac-12 schedule, although a seventh win would allow them to match Neuheisel's best season at UCLA in 2009. UCLA finishes the regular season with home showdowns against USC and Stanford — two more games that might be won by whoever scores last.
"It was a shootout last game, but I have a lot of confidence in our defense," Hundley said. "I always expect them to come out and shut down an offense."