SAN ANTONIO—They are who we thought they were.
Immensely talented and sporadically dominant, anyone arguing the UCLA football program hasn’t experienced a consistent rise since Jim Mora’s arrival to Westwood didn’t watch the first half of the Alamo Bowl.
But anyone arguing the Bruins 40-35 victory over 11th-ranked Kansas State cements UCLA amongst the nation’s elite, did not watch the second half of the Alamo Bowl.
Leaping out to a 31-6 halftime lead, a lead earned by way of relentless pass rush and superb offensive execution, UCLA nearly suffered their second embarrassment of the holiday season.
A Bruins’ defense that looked every bit the part of a unit many considered championship caliber surrendered three second-half touchdown drives, putting just three points on the board themselves by the time the Wildcats narrowed the score to 34-28 with 4:54 to play.
Ghosts of seasons past were haunting UCLA’s victory parade.
Then thunder struck.
Maligned much of the season, the Bruins’ offensive line gashed a hole in the Wildcats defense, allowing tailback Paul Perkins to explode through the hole for a game-clinching 67-yard touchdown.
Relentless, Kansas State answered with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Lockett. But the ensuing onside kick landed safely in the arms of Perkins, putting the icing on the tailback’s breakout season.
“That hole was huge. Anybody could have run through it,” Perkins said. “And on the kick, I just wanted to secure the ball and get us out of here with the win.”
For the third time in the program’s 95-year history, UCLA secured consecutive 10-win seasons, earning a prime time victory over a highly-touted opponent.
While 18 of the teams 22 starters will return in 2015, Friday was the last we will see of a handful of players instrumental in the team’s turnaround under Jim Mora.
Quarterback Brett Hundley, who totaled 232 yards of offense and three touchdowns, will forgo his final season of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft.
Defensive stalwarts Owa Odighizuwa and Butkus Award winner Erik Kendricks, who together sacked Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters three times, will be the newest Bruin defenders to contribute at the next level.
Special teams aces Tre Hale and Ryan Hofmeister will be leaving as well.
While it will be difficult to secure a third consecutive 10-win season absent these cornerstones, the standard these players set during their UCLA careers have made 10-win seasons an expectation, and national championships the goal.
“We hung in there,” said Mora. “That’s been a symbol of our team all year, the grit, the toughness, the character…I think the future looks bright for UCLA football.”