LOS ANGELES (AP) — When everything is going well, struggles with penalties and punts might be a minor inconvenience.
In UCLA’s current state, decimated by injuries and relying on a freshman quarterback, they can be the difference between having a Top 25 ranking and being knocked out of the polls by two straight losses.
The Bruins (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) did themselves no favors in their 56-35 loss at Stanford, too often giving the Cardinal favorable field position or sabotaging their own chances to stay in the game with poorly timed penalties.
“We just have to clean the mistakes up,” receiver Jordan Payton said Sunday. “Those little things are killing us.”
Payton was flagged for the first of UCLA’s 10 penalties for 93 yards on an offensive pass interference call early in the first quarter at Stanford. Instead of converting a third-and-1, quarterback Josh Rosen threw an interception on third-and-16 that Stanford cornerback Alijah Holder returned 31 yards for a touchdown.
Payton wasn’t sure why he was penalized, and coach Jim Mora said film review of the play showed the defender initiating contact after Payton tried to avoid it before making the catch that would have moved the chains.
Mora was far more troubled by an illegal formation penalty that negated Paul Perkins’ touchdown run on the next series, leading to UCLA settling for a short field goal.
“The penalties that bother me are the non-aggressive penalties,” Mora said. “A false start bothers me. A misaligned formation bothers me, because those are concentration errors. Guys got to lock in and do a better job in those situations.”
Penalties have been a constant issue since Mora arrived at UCLA, which has ranked in the bottom 14 nationally in penalty yards per game in each of his four seasons. The Bruins are averaging 7.83 penalties for 75 yards per game this season, and two recent targeting fouls have Mora ready to re-examine how that penalty is assessed.
Receiver Kenneth Walker III was ejected for a high hit on Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez as he tried to block for Rosen, a rarity for an offensive player. Linebacker Kenny Young was tossed in the first quarter of the win over BYU for a hit on Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum.
“I don’t know that it needs to be changed, but it needs to be evaluated,” said Mora, who also pointed to the ejection of Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden in the Wolverines’ loss to Michigan State. “I just think the penalty is so severe sometimes that we have to really make sure it is being officiated right and being judged right and being interpreted right.”
Unlike Michigan, UCLA is at least getting its punts off successfully. How far they go is another matter. Matt Mengel ranks last in the Pac-12 with an average of 38.1 yards per punt, and the senior struggled again against Stanford.
After a solid first punt, Mengel’s next try went out of bounds after just 32 yards and gave Stanford a short field. The Cardinal scored three plays later to take a commanding 28-10 lead.
Mora pointed to the bright side, as UCLA has allowed minus-1 yards on punt returns. He praised Mengel’s work ethic while also keeping his options open.
“I know Matt is working very, very hard to do better,” Mora said. “It’s important to him. He’s a heck of a good kid and he doesn’t take it lightly.”
With Utah holding a two-game lead over the rest of the Pac-12 South, UCLA is aware that a loss Thursday night to No. 20 California would effectively end its pursuit of the division title. Payton said cleaning up those little mistakes is vital to keeping those slim hopes alive.
“For us to beat them, we’re going to have to come out and be mistake-free,” Payton said. “It’s no rocket science. Penalty-free, turnover-free, and score touchdowns.”
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