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UCLA avoids an early letdown and keeps title hopes alive

It was not a win the Bruins were proud of, but also one they don't have to give back
The defense saved any title aspirations by accounting for 21 of UCLA's 28 points
We won't really know — maybe for weeks — what UCLA's first win means

Call it what you want — rust, jitters, heat cramps, brain cramps — but preseason top-10 UCLA did not kick off 2014 looking like a postseason top 10.

If UCLA is still a national contender coming out of Scott Stadium on Saturday, well, so is Rutgers.

Also, scratch Brett Hundley's name from the pre-September list of Heisman Trophy contenders. Replace him with Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill.

Or, maybe it's still early?

Luckily, if you bleed powder and blue, they don't hand out playoff bids before Labor Day.

It was all UCLA could do to slither out of Charlottesville with a 28-20 win over Virginia.

It was not a win the Bruins were proud of, but also one they don't have to give back.

"Defense saves the day," now there's a laugh.

What would UCLA's 1998 squad have given for that headline coming out of Miami?

Horrible defense that December day cost the Bruins a shot to play for the first Bowl Championship Series national title.

Saturday, the defense saved any title aspirations by accounting for 21 of UCLA's 28 points.

UCLA's offense was outscored, 20-7, by a Virginia offense no one has compared with Baylor's.

The Bruins' offensive line, down two starters, got worked by Virginia's active defensive front.

UCLA postgame exit interviews had a general theme: It was stuff along the lines of "pardon our dust while your tax dollars are at work," and "don't judge a playbook by its cover."

Or, as offensive tackle Malcolm Bunche really put it, "This is not our best."

Coach Jim Mora, who worked off some season-opening energy by running stadium steps two hours before kickoffs, might have considered sending the offense back out for some postgame "gassers."

He should not have any trouble motivating his team for next week's home opener against Memphis.

We won't really know — maybe for weeks — what UCLA's first win means.

We assumed UCLA was good based on last year's record and the return of Hundley, and that Virginia was bad because the Cavaliers finished 2-10.

Virginia actually looked formidable … especially Jon Tenuta's defense.

"Virginia was by all means a very good team," UCLA tailback Paul Perkins said. "I don't listen to the media, but from what I was hearing we were supposed to blow them out by 21. They are an excellent team and I have the utmost respect for them."

How good is Virginia? Check back after the Cavaliers play at Florida State on Nov. 8.

There was well-intentioned talk this summer about UCLA not wanting to expose Hundley as a featured running back.

All that went out the barn door, though, when Virginia cut the third-quarter lead to 21-17.

Events dictated that Hundley get his entire body involved … or else. You can't win a shot at a national title in Charlottesville, in August, but you can lose one.

With UCLA runners struggling, Hundley provided the offense's only points on a six-yard run with 1:02 left in the third quarter.

It provided an 11-point lead UCLA needed to nurse into the fourth quarter.

"Great players have to make great plays when they need to be made," Mora said of Hundley.

Mora may say that a lot this season.

UCLA hasn't had this kind of preseason exposure in a while, and the Bruins played nervously, like a child at a piano recital.

What should people take from UCLA's opening effort?

"First game," Hundley said. "You can take what you want. We got a 'W.' But there are a lot of things we have to fix."

If the Bruins get things fixed, and continue to win, the Virginia game will be a blip.

Saturday's win won't cost a dime if UCLA goes undefeated and wins the Pac-12 title.

Virginia will be forgotten if UCLA can remember how to beat Oregon.

It doesn't matter this year that Oregon, last year, won at Virginia, 59-10.

UCLA is blessed with a preseason positioning it may not actually deserve. The Bruins play in a blue-chip conference and are already on the selection committee's radar.

With the exception of last year and Florida State, almost every contender in recent history has had to eke out one or two tough wins during the course of a season.

Did you see Auburn play last year?

Go back and look at the final scores of Ohio State's 2002 title season? The Buckeyes finished 14-0.

If you can survive a tough, early game, it can work in your favor.

UCLA might have circumvented a letdown before playing next week against Memphis, one week before Texas.

Good teams grow from near misses, and Mora needs to exploit reels of Virginia bloopers to his advantage.

Mora thought his offense played tight.

"I think we need to kind of calm down and just play the game and not put too much pressure on ourselves," he said.

Despite all that went wrong Saturday, he added, "I'm excited about this football team."

He may be alone after Saturday, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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