UCLA players gesture to the crowd during the first half of a game against Oregon State at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 12. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
As USC was in Washington re-establishing itself as a first-rate program, UCLA was playing an atrocious game against Oregon State in a half-empty Rose Bowl.
UCLA had lost its previous four games. Oregon State had too.
The disparity between UCLA and USC should heighten an already-existing sentiment for the Bruins in their annual rivalry game against the Trojans.
Unlikely as it might be, the Bruins have to win.
They have to win to give themselves and their loyal supporters a moment of glory in a season absent of highlights. They have to win to make a statement about their future. And they have to win to prevent USC from reclaiming its place as the city’s dominant college football program.
This season is already a failure for the Bruins, who wound up defeating the Beavers, 38-24. Anything other than a victory over the Trojans would turn it into a complete disaster.
A loss at the Rose Bowl next week would eliminate whatever chance UCLA has of receiving a bowl invitation. USC would remain the first-choice school of the area’s top players.
This is an important time for UCLA Coach Jim Mora.
While Mora isn’t in any danger of being fired — he is under contract through 2021 and has a significant buyout clause — the upcoming game against USC could affect how he and his program are perceived.
Earlier in the week, Mora sounded as if he was acutely aware of his recent missteps. When he announced that Josh Rosen underwent a season-ending shoulder operation, he went to great lengths to explain how he couldn’t previously divulge information about his quarterback’s condition because of medical privacy laws. He said he offered a particularly flippant answer to a question about Rosen after a loss in Colorado last week because he was still overly amped from the game.
He also maintained his program is headed in the right direction.
“I think that sometimes progress is disguised in failure,” he said. “If I saw a team that was falling apart, wasn’t coming to practice and working hard, didn’t have the great attitude that they do, guys that were missing meetings or bickering, then I would be concerned. But I don’t see that.”
Whatever is happening behind the scenes, however, what is happening in the games remains a problem.
And let’s be clear: The losses are a function of how they are playing. The Bruins haven’t been able to catch the ball or run it. They haven’t been able to block.
Oregon State should have offered them a reprieve.
The Beavers entered the game with a record of 2-7, 1-5 in the Pac-12. Their starting quarterback, Darell Garretson, was out for the season. Their standout running back, Ryan Nall, was sidelined Saturday with a foot ailment.
None of that mattered. UCLA still looked like a bad team, and the Bruins did everything possible to keep the door open for the Beavers.
They continued to make inexcusable mistakes. Their receivers continued to drop footballs.
On their second play from scrimmage, running back Soso Jamabo fumbled. The Beavers capitalized on the turnover by taking a 7-0 lead.
UCLA nonetheless found itself up, 21-7.
But the Bruins botched punt coverage midway through the second quarter, resulting in a 39-yard return by Rahmel Dockery. Three plays later, the Beavers were back in the end zone and UCLA’s lead was down to 21-14.
There were some more nervous moments, courtesy of some second-half turnovers.
Mora maintained an upbeat facade, calling the victory “a step in the right direction.”
But was anyone convinced?
At this point, there’s really only one way to temper the widespread skepticism, and that’s to beat USC.
A miracle probably will be required, but it has happened before.
UCLA was staggering through a lost season with a backup quarterback in 2006. USC appeared to be headed to another national title.
The Bruins won, 13-9.
The stakes won’t be as high for USC next week as they were then. But they will be for UCLA.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez