UCLA Seeks Some Closure
If No. 17 UCLA does not play like a motivated team against Northwestern today in the 72nd Sun Bowl, the Bruins will have only themselves to blame.
“After the SC game, we still have a lot to prove,” senior quarterback Drew Olson said about the Bruins, who won their first eight games but suffered disheartening defeats in two of their final three, including a 66-19 loss to the Trojans on Dec. 3.
Said senior tight end Marcedes Lewis: “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves this year, and unfortunately we had those two losses but that doesn’t make our season. We have a chance to make a statement with one last game.”
With a 9-2 record, UCLA exceeded expectations, but the Bruins’ late-season slump and the recent suspension of kicker Justin Medlock have raised some doubts about the program heading into today’s game.
A loss to the Wildcats would give the Bruins three bowl defeats in three years under Coach Karl Dorrell. It would also give UCLA a 2-11 record in games after October the last three seasons.
“We’re ready to play the game, and I haven’t felt that way the last two years when we’ve been in this situation before,” Dorrell said. “We have a chance to really make a favorable impression on the season we’ve had this year. The team has the right mind-set to do whatever it needs to do in order to win.”
Since UCLA won eight consecutive bowl games from 1983 to 1991, the Bruins have lost six of their last eight postseason games, including upset losses the last two years to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic and Wyoming in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“In our previous two bowl games, we didn’t really understand the importance of the game,” fullback Michael Pitre said. “The situations were different than now and we didn’t handle them well. This year, we know that we have a lot to play for.”
Olson said the Bruins’ attitude for the Sun Bowl was much different because of their record.
“Any time when you go to a bowl game with a 6-5 record, that’s never a good feeling,” Olson said. “Going into a bowl game with nine wins or better, you’re going to be excited no matter what.
“Last year, Wyoming was way more excited than we were and they were more focused than we were. But our mind-set was so different than it is this year.”
UCLA will be facing a Northwestern team that also is motivated to win. The Wildcats have played in only five bowl games in school history and have not won a postseason game since 1949.
“We still have a long way to go to be the program we want to be, but our senior class has put us in position to do some things we haven’t done,” Northwestern Coach Randy Walker said.
“We’ve had some injury problems this year, just like UCLA. But our best players are still showing up. I refuse to worry about stuff like that. You worry about who you have and not about who you lost.”
Today’s game could be won by the team that has the football last.
Northwestern, which features a spread, shotgun-based attack, was No. 3 in the Big Ten Conference in total offense and eighth nationally with an average of 492.7 yards. UCLA was not too far behind at 429 yards a game, fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference and 24th nationally.
Although UCLA gives up 457.5 yards a game and Northwestern gives up the most in the country at 482.9, Walker said he wouldn’t be shocked to see the defenses step up.
“There’s some guys with a lot of pride on both defenses,” he said. “I’m not going to be surprised to see both defenses play better than people think.”
In the only bowl game featuring the Pac-10 vs. the Big Ten, Pitre said the Bruins are excited about playing in what some people consider one of the better bowl matchups.
“There are a lot of teams home wishing that they could be in our position right now,” Pitre said. “We know that. But we also know that we have to play well.
“When you have the bitter taste from losing two games like we did this year, you try and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
The Bruins are counting on a senior class -- which includes linebacker Spencer Havner, safety Jarrad Page, Lewis and Olson -- to lead the way.
“They’ve been through a lot and this has been a special season for them,” Dorrell said. “They’ve really stepped up with their leadership
A point not lost on them.
“We’re looking at this as a really big game, especially for the seniors,” Lewis said. “Our goal is go out and start a new streak of bowl wins for the UCLA program.
“Everything has gone by so fast. It seems like yesterday that we were freshmen. But now it’s up to us to leave the program in good shape for next year.”