UCLA tries to remain focused for bowl game

UCLA Coach Jim Mora reacts after a fumble recovery by the Bruins during a win over Washington in November. Mora and the Bruins want to put last year's bowl loss to Baylor behind them with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

UCLA wrapped the first week of its preparation for the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday, going through a mock game that Coach Jim Mora hoped would keep the Bruins focused.

A year ago, UCLA came out flat against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl and was blown out, 49-26. Mora vowed to change the team’s approach heading into the game against Virginia Tech on Dec. 31.

The Bruins scrimmaged for about an hour, though it was not full contact.

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“I thought it was awesome,” Mora said. “I was a little worried when we came out, because we went to the Lakers’ game [Friday] night and got back kind of late.”

Mora said the start of practice was “a little ragged,” but that it picked up once the scrimmage started.

“I’m glad we did it,” he said. “We tried to treat this last week exactly like we would treat a normal game week in terms of how we practice. I wish we had done it last year.”

UCLA won eight consecutive bowl games from 1982-91. But the Bruins have struggled since, losing 10 of the last 14 bowl games. The Baylor loss, which denied UCLA a 10th victory last year, stung, and players were ready for a different approach this year.

“It’s like training camp,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “We have that mind-set where we’ve just got to grind through these practices.”

Virginia Tech seems to have similar purpose in its approach.

“I think the bowl game is just kind of that everlasting taste in everybody’s mouth of how the season ends, how the season went,” Hokies linebacker Jack Tyler told the Newport (Va.) News Daily Press. “If you go beat a team like UCLA, everybody kind of thinks this year was a success. If you go and lose, everybody kind of thinks the opposite.”

Kendricks’ surgery

Linebacker Eric Kendricks had successful ankle surgery Friday. Mora said that the junior “should be weight bearing in a couple days.” Kendricks is expected to be ready for spring practice, though he may be in limited workouts.

“The prudent thing to do is to take it slow and make sure he is at full speed for summer,” Mora said. “But you know Eric. He will be wanting to push through it.”

Kendricks hurt the ankle in spring practice last season and had surgery in the summer. He started every game this season, but Mora said, “he was in tremendous pain all season.”

The decision to get the surgery came “after a lot of back and forth,” Mora said. “The general consensus was he needed to get it done sooner rather than later.”

Mora said freshman Isaako Savaiinaea would start in Kendricks’ place. UCLA will also use a nickel defense against Virginia Tech, which has three linebackers and five defensive backs.

Senior day

UCLA’s last bowl practice ended Saturday with the seniors getting their annual ride off the field on the shoulders of teammates.

No non-senior is exempt. Quarterback Brett Hundley helped carry senior receiver Darius Bell to the locker room.

Worth noting: It took three players to carry Barr off the field. But, then, he comes with extra hardware. He was a consensus All-American this season.

Marsh an all-star

Senior defensive end Cassius Marsh has been invited to play in the East-West Shrine game. The game, which showcases seniors for NFL scouts, will be at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Jan. 18.

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