UCLA is where it belongs in the Pac-12, for now.
A two-game audition, losing to No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 Stanford, showed the Bruins were not quite ready to strut across the big stage. It's what they do moving forward that will decide whether they belong back in the conference's chorus line.
Losing on back-to-back weekends to the Ducks and Cardinal will happen to most teams. It happened to Washington this season. What happens next matters.
Washington didn't shake off the losses. The Huskies, after losing to the Ducks and Cardinal, went to Tempe and were pummeled by Arizona State, 53-24.
The Pac-12 schedule-makers were kinder to UCLA. The Bruins (5-2 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 play) get Colorado (3-4, 0-4) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday as their follow-up to Oregon and Stanford. The Buffaloes have lost 12 consecutive conference games and are 28-point underdogs.
"I think it is very easy when you have a couple losses to go, 'It's that guy,'" said UCLA Coach Jim Mora. "It's human nature. The hard thing to do is say, 'It's me. What can I do better?'"
That was stressed behind closed doors this week.
"When you lose two games, you can start pointing fingers," said senior receiver Shaquelle Evans. "The main thing we have to guard against is not blaming other people. That was the message delivered to us by the coaches. They sometimes need to address this stuff."
The specifics stayed behind closed doors. All Evans said was, "I felt it too, like people were trying to blame other people. We're not going to do that. That's a negative you have to guard against."
The Bruins needed to play perfect games to beat Oregon and Stanford. They didn't.
Quarterback Brett Hundley struggled in both games. He had 64 yards passing against the Ducks and has had four passes intercepted in the last two games.
Injuries required the offensive line to be reworked on the fly against Stanford, and the Bruins were held to 78 yards rushing. Against Oregon, UCLA's line opened doors for 219 yards rushing and protected Hundley better.
The Bruins seemed to have forgotten how to throw the ball downfield, with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone taking the blame.
The defense played well enough, but wore down during the fourth quarter in both games.
"We made mistakes and got to learn from them," Hundley said. "As leaders of the team, we have to understand that we can't slack on anything."
Regarding any team issues, Hundley said, "I always try to self-critique myself."
Washington's experience was a reminder to the Bruins that a hangover can follow high-profile losses.
"They went to Arizona State and it wasn't pretty," Hundley said. "We have to have the right mind-set coming out of the Oregon and Stanford games. Nobody here is in a happy place."
There will probably be nothing but grins at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, at least on one sideline.
The Buffaloes seem the perfect palate-cleansing team. Colorado's entry into the conference has been a boost to offenses from Seattle to Tucson, and pretty much all Pac-12 points in between.
The Buffaloes beat Washington State, 35-34, in their first conference game a year ago. They have been hammered in nearly every one since. They gave up 50 or more points in six of their 12 conference loses.
Furthermore, Colorado has not had a winning season since 2005. The Buffaloes have tripled their win total from a year ago, but two came against lower-tier directional schools — Central Arkansas and Charleston Southern.
The Bruins, though, are making sure to say the right things.
"If we were playing an Alabama team, we'd come out just as fired up as if we were playing a Division III team," linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. "We're eager to play. We just lost two games and we're a very, very, very hungry team, regardless of who we're playing."
The Bruins know this can be a jumping-off point.
Arizona State is 4-1 in Pac-12 play and leads the South Division. The Bruins' easiest path to the conference championship game is by winning their last five games.
UCLA's last four games are against Arizona in Tucson, Washington and Arizona State at the Rose Bowl and USC at the Coliseum. Those teams are a combined 21-10 this season heading into the USC-Oregon State game Friday night.
"Of course people expect that we will win this game, but we have to make sure that we go out there and handle our business," Evans said. "This will be a good chance to get back on track."
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