UCLA’s promising year has been undone by inept running game

Coach Jim Mora began his fifth season at UCLA with plans to contend for the Pac-12 and national titles behind a run-based offense built to grind out hundreds of yards on the ground.

Seven games in, Mora would settle for even three yards and a cloud of dust.

The Bruins’ utter inability to run the ball is among the biggest mysteries of the Pac-12 season. After managing 43 yards rushing in a 27-21 loss at Washington State last week, UCLA (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12) ranks 126th out of 128 FBS teams with 91.1 yards rushing per game and a comically low 2.8 yards per carry.

“Hopefully we’ve come to a point where we can get it fixed, but it’s an obvious understatement to say it’s not acceptable and that it hasn’t been good,” Mora said. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen. That’s our issue. It all comes down to that.”

Only Texas State and Georgia State have managed fewer yards per game on the ground than the Bruins, who are off to the worst start of Mora’s half-decade in Westwood after three losses in the Bruins’ last four games. Last weekend in Pullman, the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 South posted a measly 1.7 yards per carry, providing no help for backup quarterback Mike Fafaul in the rain.

These rushing struggles don’t make sense on paper for the Bruins, who entered this season with a specific mandate from Mora to run the ball aggressively. UCLA’s new offensive coordinator, running backs guru Kennedy Polamalu, has three talented ball-carriers — Soso Jamabo, Nate Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi — running behind a fairly experienced offensive line.

Instead, UCLA’s line has been bossed around almost every week, and none of the three tailbacks has seized the job left by Pac-12 rushing champion Paul Perkins. The struggles have completely derailed the Bruins’ season, putting even bowl eligibility in jeopardy — a shock for a team led by touted quarterback Josh Rosen, who missed last week’s game with an injury.

“There’s really one issue that we’ve had, that is something we haven’t been able to fix yet, and that’s our run game,” Mora said. “We’re playing good defense. We’re throwing the ball well, but we’re not running it well, and when you can’t run it, it’s tough to do anything consistent on offense.”

With No. 19 Utah (6-1, 3-1) bringing one of the nation’s best defensive lines to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, UCLA’s problem doesn’t seem likely to go away immediately. But after using zone-blocking strategies last week to no effect, Mora’s staff is making even more changes this week to the Bruins’ rushing attack this week, streamlining its concepts and rethinking certain unnamed strategies.

“We’re simplifying the task,” Polamalu said.

When Polamalu replaced Noel Mazzone as the Bruins’ offensive coordinator and play-caller in the offseason, he intended to implement a complex power-running offense. While he hasn’t given up, Polamalu notes that the Bruins’ current offensive line was recruited to block for Mazzone’s high-tempo passing offense.

“It’s not that they’re not running hard,” Polamalu said. “It’s a scheme, and technique, and those things are what we’re improving on and teaching every day. I told the guys, ‘Just work on the little things and don’t worry about tomorrow.'”

Even with a late-season surge, the Bruins probably have wasted the sophomore season of Rosen, one of the nation’s most promising quarterbacks. Mora hopes Rosen will return from injury this weekend, but the coach acknowledges his offense must figure out its running game to have a prayer.

“I feel like I’ve let people down by not being able to get it going,” Mora said. “But I’ve also been in these situations before, many, many times, coached a lot of football games, and there’s not always an immediate fix. You have to work through it to find a way. I know it’s frustrating for our fans. Believe me, it’s equally frustrating for us. So hang in there, and you’ll still see some good football.”

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