LOS ANGELES -- A lot sure seems to have changed in college football around Los Angeles in the past two weeks, especially here in Westwood. The vibe around UCLA football -- the perennial underachiever program—suddenly has folks buzzing. New head coach Jim Mora, the long-time NFL guy, is making it look like transitioning to this college stuff isn't very hard.
Few around Southern California, even around here, would've predicted a month ago that the Bruins would be the lone unbeaten among the two major college programs in L.A. Despite an offense starting five freshmen—including at three crucial positions (QB, left tackle and center)—they are 3-0 and No. 2 in the nation in offense. They are sparked by senior running back Johnathan Franklin, a local kid who leads the nation in rushing and has sprinted into Heisman contention.
Franklin is averaging over 180 rushing yards per game and 8.2 yards per carry to go with eight catches for another 121 yards. He also leads the country in all-purpose yardage.
“We're just working very hard,” Franklin says, when asked what's different about the team this year. “Anytime you're playing for a defensive-minded head coach, there seems to be more of an emphasis on toughness and discipline and just not being satisfied.”
This weekend, UCLA faces another test when Oregon State, fresh off upsetting then-No. 13 Wisconsin, visits the Rose Bowl. The Beavers held the Badgers to 207 total yards and essentially knocked Wisconsin running back Montee Ball out of the Heisman race. Ball managed just 61 rushing yards and saw his streak of 21 games with at least one rushing touchdown snapped. "We're going to face a really good defense this weekend," said Noel Mazzone, UCLA's offensive coordinator.
But the Beavers are also going to face a very athletic team with a lot of firepower and confidence. After seeing how impressive the Bruins have been, especially knocking off No. 16 Nebraska, there's been speculation that they have a chance to go on a big roll and open 10-0 before facing arch-rival USC. But don't talk to Franklin about the rising hype about UCLA football. On Tuesday night, a teammate showed him an online ad for free UCLA tickets. Just another reminder, the 5-11, 195-pounder says to stay humble. “We really haven't done anything yet.”
Still, the Bruins admit it is nice to hear people talking positively about the program for a change. Since Franklin arrived at UCLA, they've had more than their share of low moments. Mention last year's 50-0 thumping at the hands of arch-rival USC and it's probably the quickest way to get the smile off Franklin's face. He said the highest point previously was after the Bruins won at Texas in late September, 2010. Of course, that enthusiam fizzled fast. UCLA beat lowly Washington State the next week, then proceeded to lose six of its next seven games and ended up 4-8.
This year, people around the program are convinced that such a flop won't happen again. There's new leadership, both running the program and in the locker room. There's more intensity and focus on the practice field every day. Mora is bigger on going best-on-best more than most college coaches. That only ramps up the intensity that much more. Mazzone says that also has helped combat some of the team's inexperience.
"As young as we are, it forces guys to block full-speed guys," Mazzone says. "It's really good for (QB) Brett (Hundley). Plus, it helps him a lot to have Johnathan back there with him."
Franklin is quick to side-step any Heisman speculation. He will, however, engage in more long-range talk. “I want to be the mayor of Los Angeles,” he says beaming, adding that he did an internship in the mayor's office two years ago.
There are some lessons he took from his experience around City Hall that relate to the Bruins' rise. What's key to sparking change are patience and commitment.
“Everything can get done,” he says. “You just gotta believe they can get done and you gotta have the patience to work together to get things done."