Bruins re-enter the national spotlight

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PASADENA, Calif. — Naturally, UCLA coach Jim Mora would have preferred his Bruins be a pristine 11-0, having already locked up the Pac-12 South ahead of next week’s season finale against Stanford.

But let’s be honest. When you hoist your sails in Pac-12 waters, you’re going to hit a couple of rocks.

UCLA took on water midway through the season with back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon, and the national media just assumed the S.S. Bruin was unsalvageable.

But the Bruins bailed the water out. And five wins later — including their most recent 38-20 pasting of USC Saturday night — No. 9 UCLA once again finds itself hanging around for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And while swallowing a pair of home losses never sits well, perhaps the silver lining of the mid-season defeats is that the national media turned its oppressive stare away from Westwood, giving the Bruins the space they needed to grow into the team that throttled its rivals at the Rose Bowl Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeMyles Jack“I don’t know if it was the external pressure as much as it was the pressure we put on ourselves,” UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “We’ve got a young roster. They wanted it so bad. I dare to say too bad, to the point where they were pressing. This team has been built upon these guys trusting each other and loving ball and they almost lost that a bit in that mid-season lull. We dropped a couple and we swore to get back to who we are and not care about what everyone else thinks about us.”

Saturday night, UCLA looked every bit the dominant team many thought it would be when the Bruins were tapped as the No. 7 team in the country in the preseason. The defense was vicious — sacking USC quarterback Cody Kessler six times and picking up eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Trojans, who averaged 35.2 points per game coming into the game, were held to just 20 points.

Offensively, quarterback Brett Hundley shook off an early pick-six and ended up 22-of-31 for 326 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for a 15-yard score.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the Bruins are now 3-0 against USC in the Mora era. To boot, all three wins have come by 10 points or more. The last time that happened was 1953-55, a time period that saw the Bruins win the UPI national championship in 1954.

Mora took all of two sentences to relish the significance of the win.

“We don’t bask in moments,” he said. “We’ll just move on to the next moment.”

The next moment involves a Stanford squad that is 3-0 against Mora. With a victory Friday the Bruins will clinch the Pac-12 South and face the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game. If they lose, then Saturday’s Territorial Cup between Arizona State and Arizona will determine the division champion.

Schematically, the Bruins didn’t make any drastic overhauls when they hit their two-game skid. They took the leash off Hundley and gave him more freedom to run. And they put more of an emphasis on their base offense. But for the most part, the UCLA team Saturday — from an X’s and O’s standpoint — was the same that won Aug. 30 at Virginia.

“Those two losses feel like 100 years ago,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not [upset] that we lost both. I think we’ve seen the offensive line really improve over the last month. And the glass half full is that maybe we’re a better football team because of those losses. The kids refocused, and we went back to our base, and we figured we’d just get good at what we do.”

It sounds simple enough. The result has been a spike in the national rankings and UCLA’s second win over a top-20 team in its last five games. And the Bruins are sure to climb again when the new rankings are released Tuesday, given their win over the No. 19 Trojans and Ole Miss’ loss to Arkansas.

Of course, just like when his team was ranked No. 7 in the preseason, Mora was in no mood to talk about the playoff.

“I talk about the Pac-12 championship,” he said. “We have to win Friday. If we can win Friday, we will have another shot to win the Pac-12 championship. I don’t talk about that other stuff.”

And yet the “other stuff” can’t be ignored. Because if the Bruins were to win the conference, it would include a win over (likely) No. 2 Oregon and give them a compelling case for being the best two-loss team in the country. And if a conference championship counts for something — as the selection committee claims — the Bruins would have a very strong argument for inclusion.