Sam Strong

SAN DIEGO — Joseph Fauria savored his last minutes in a UCLA uniform, pausing to hand some gear to a couple of desperate fans calling his name. Then, the redshirt senior took his last, long strides as a Bruin into the tunnel at Qualcomm Stadium, fighting back tears.

The scene was tough to watch. It must be hard beyond comparison to walk away from something that has consumed the last five years of your life, but UCLA was never going to win this game. Fate wouldn’t allow it.

Yes, the Bruins were set up perfectly to reach the 10-win plateau for the first time since 2005. They were three-point favorites heading into Thursday’s Holiday Bowl. The stands were 80 percent blue, and UCLA’s high-powered offense was facing the 119th worst defense in the nation.

But the universe simply wasn’t having it.

Call it otherworldly intervention. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want, but there was no way this group of seniors was coming out on top. It sure would be nice to be sitting here writing about a senior class that endured to the end and was rewarded with a postseason win. But whether they like it or not, these 18 seniors will forever be synonymous with losing, and they know it.

“It’s been one heck of a roller coaster over the last four years,” senior defensive back Dalton Hilliard said.

“A lot of things didn’t go our way,” redshirt senior punter Jeff Locke added of his career at UCLA.

But why?

“We had great talent these last couple years,” redshirt senior safety Datone Jones said. “We were just immature.”

Their last hurrah was no different, a 49-26 drubbing at the hands of the Big 12’s Baylor Bears. This one reminded fans of the failings of seasons past (and of course the 43-17 loss to California in October). The Bruins were diving at ankles rather than making big plays. They were caught on their heels more times than they attacked on their toes.

For all the traditions UCLA bucked this year under first-year coach Jim Mora – and I didn’t see anyone jumping over any walls this year – the sour end to the season remains unchanged.

“The most disappointing thing tonight is being in that locker room as a team and the disappointment we feel for the outgoing seniors,” Mora said.

The Bruins have lost their final three games in each of the last three years, a reminder of how far they still have to come.

“We’re a long ways off,” Mora said. “We will fight our tails off to get there.”

Those 18 seniors won’t. Sure, some will go on to play in the NFL. Some will end their football careers in postseason all-star games. For some, Saturday night was their last time lacing up the cleats.

They saw it all. They cycled through four different coaching staffs – they were recruited by Karl Dorrell and then played for a revamped Rick Neuheisel staff in his final season. Those shifts may have something to do with the 30-35 record they’ll leave with.

“Playing three positions tonight basically sums up my career,” said redshirt senior offensive lineman Jeff Baca, who was shifted around the line because two starters left the game with ankle sprains. “A lot of ups and downs.”

There’s always a silver lining to be had, and those 18 seniors had no trouble identifying it after the ugly loss. They sat down together before the season began and left the meeting with one goal in mind: Let’s leave this place better than we found it.

It took them four-and-a-half years to do it, but consider that mission accomplished. Despite those 35 losses, only five of them came this season. It may be just 20 percent of their careers as Bruins, but it is something to be proud of considering the overall wandering trajectory of the program since the late 1980s.

“It’s always shoulda, coulda, woulda,” Hilliard said. “That’s always what you say after it’s over.

“They brought us in for a reason. They thought we could help bring the program back to where we needed to be. Finishing the season this way is unfortunate but we’re proud of the way we played and … proud of the fact that this program is headed in the right direction.”