STANFORD, Calif. — The first game of UCLA’s 2012 season may have been on Aug. 30, but the season officially started on April 18 at 11:11 p.m.
Dalton Hilliard, a senior defensive back who missed Friday’s 27-24 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game because of an injury, had taken a photo of the title game logo at last year’s loss to Oregon and posted it to Instagram with the following message.
“This pic gives away what I wished for.”
Hilliard made an 11:11 wish, a wish no better than one that accompanies a shooting star, the blowing out of birthday candles or throwing a coin in a fountain. We wish for things that are unattainable, things we’re certain could never come true without a lot of luck and maybe some divine intervention (like on my 21st birthday when I wished S.I. swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker would leave Andy Roddick for me. … I’m still waiting).
However unlikely, Hilliard wished during spring practice that his team would return to the pantheon of the Pac-12 ““ a game the Bruins were in last year only because of USC’s ineligibility ““ a “gimme” as one UCLA player put it.
Instagram may not have been as trendy then as it is now but the photo got just seven “likes,” an abnormally low number for a popular guy like Hilliard. No one outside of the locker room believed it could happen. Jim Mora had just taken over the program and few knew what to expect. A Rose Bowl berth certainly wasn’t in the conversation.
Eight months later, Mora’s players’ bodies stood outside of their locker room, but their hearts were still on the field with rowdy Stanford fans trampling all over them. UCLA entered the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead, just 15 minutes away from returning home to the Rose Bowl game for the first time since 1998.
The Bruins came up just short, and if not for a bad snap, would have tied the game with a field goal. Just as it was last year at this time, the mood in the postgame locker room was one of despair, but despair of a different variety. Last year, their coach had been fired and they were the laughing stock of the conference. Now, they will be the favorites to win the Pac-12 South in 2013.
“I think we have a lot to be proud of this year,” Mora said. “We’ve accomplished a lot so far and it’s only the beginning. We’ve been together for less than a year. Our seniors have set a great foundation which we can build on and become a football team that competes for not only Pac-12 Championships but at the highest level.”
This one will sting. Mora couldn’t stop talking about the “24-hour” rule to forget about losses during the season but even he used the word “mourn” to describe his plans following Friday’s game. A close loss makes celebrating hard to do but UCLA fans should throw their own version of the Rose Bowl Parade for the way their team played this year.
UCLA will head to a respectable bowl game ““ the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27 ““ for the first time since 2005.
He’s too selfless to accept any of it but all the credit goes to Mora and his staff. Not only did he turn things around in the big picture but six days after the Bruins got embarrassed at home, they were on the brink of beating the same team on the road.
Don’t believe me? Ask the players.
“Coach Mora is everything that’s good about college football,” said redshirt senior cornerback Aaron Hester, who was only with Mora for a year. “I wish I could have been coached by this guy since I was playing Pop Warner. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. This season is just a glimpse of where this program is going.”
Hester’s right. While Mora is in charge, the sky is the limit. With reviews from former players like that, recruiting will be a breeze. Stocked with motivation from this loss, UCLA should show well in its bowl game. Then, Mora returns 16 of 22 starters to start working on next season.
Now, the job becomes harder as expectations will be significantly harder. But if I know Mora, he’s up to the challenge.
“If anybody thought that we would be sitting here tonight with less than 45 seconds left on the clock and the potential to tie it or even win it, I’m not sure anyone would have taken that bet,” Mora said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to become the team that we want to be. … I think there are a lot of bright things on the horizon for UCLA football.”