There’s a lot on the line Friday night for UCLA football: A win over California (5-6, 2-6 Pac-12) would secure bowl eligibility for UCLA (5-6, 3-5) and seal the program’s first undefeated home record since 2005.
And, oh yeah, there’s also the legacy of the recently fired coach that recruited and brought in nearly every player on the roster.
In the aftermath of Jim Mora’s firing Sunday, several of the Bruins’ team leaders have made it clear that they view Friday’s regular-season finale against the Golden Bears as a chance to win in honor of a coach they loved.
“The rallying cry is to carry on coach Mora’s legacy for the remainder of this year,” said junior quarterback Josh Rosen. “If you go on Instagram and scroll through my feed, (it’ll) say, ‘We love you coach, we’ll miss you,’ every third photo.”
Redshirt junior defensive back Adarius Pickett was among those to take to social media to thank Mora, and he told reporters the Bruins would be looking to prove a point Friday night.
“(We’ve got to) come out on Friday night with our hair on fire, get this win for coach Mora – let the university know that it was a mistake,” Pickett said.
Redshirt senior center Scott Quessenberry echoed Pickett’s sentiment when asked if the team would be trying Friday night to send a message to the decision makers who let Mora go.
“Yeah – I mean, I would say yes and I think everyone on the team would say that too,” Quessenberry said. “We’re obviously using it as an idea to honor his legacy and to go play hard versus Cal – not to say that we haven’t been playing hard all year, but if you need to find something extra, now you have it.”
Quessenberry is among those who will go through Senior Night ceremonies Friday without Mora there to share in the moment, a thought that caused the center to sigh deeply during his meeting with reporters Tuesday.
UCLA hasn’t won on a Senior Night since 2011, but perhaps a more meaningful trend is its spotless mark at home this season.
“What an incredible legacy that would be to leave,” said interim head coach Jedd Fisch. “That first-game win (against Texas A&M) where you had the second-largest comeback in the history of college football, and then to end it with being 6-0 at home and giving these kids the opportunity to play in a bowl game.”
Trying to rattle Rosen
Cal and UCLA both enter Friday on the doorstep of bowl eligibility with five wins, but the two programs have achieved their moderate success in very different ways.
One major point of separation: turnovers.
The Golden Bears rank third in the Pac-12 in takeaways with 23 on the year while the Bruins are dead last in the conference with just 11.
Cal’s turnover-oriented defense was a crucial component in its 37-3 upset of then-No. 14 Washington State on Oct. 13. The Golden Bears forced seven turnovers, including five interceptions against Cougar quarterback Luke Falk.
The performance against Falk was a prime example of the Cal defense’s ability to confuse even good college quarterbacks by employing a variety of looks.
“They’re very – I’m not going to say complex, but they do a lot of things,” Rosen said this week. “They come at you from a bunch of different ways, they’re a high-pressure team, they try to force mistakes.”
Rosen has been mistake prone at times this year, though his issues have more often arisen from an overly aggressive mentality than a failure to properly diagnose defenses.
In fact, a defense predicated on confusing the opposing quarterback could be an advantage for a passer like Rosen, whose intelligence is widely lauded as one of his best traits.
“We’re going to try to take advantage of some weaknesses that we think we see,” Rosen said. “When you try to do a lot of things (like Cal does) … you’re spread pretty thin. It’s hard to master everything.”
Golden Bears fans are well aware of Rosen’s talents, having watched him throw for 399 yards and three touchdowns against their team two years ago as a freshman, in the process outperforming former Cal quarterback and No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff.
“That guy, he throws the football as well as any college quarterback I’ve ever competed against or coached against,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox. “If he knows where he’s going and you’re not putting any pressure on him, he can throw it as well as anybody.”
A potential candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in this spring’s NFL draft, Rosen may be playing in his final home game for UCLA – and, if the Bruins lose, his final college game, period.
He wouldn’t comment on his future this week, keeping the focus on the game against Cal.
“I just want to win the game,” Rosen said. “There’s not really anything else this team is thinking about other than winning one more game. That’s the thought process right now.”