UCLA’s new football mission: Get over it and get on with it
The hurt washed over Bolu Olorunfunmi and his UCLA teammates as they lingered in the cold tubs. They had come within 24 seconds of beating Stanford, the team they had fixated on for most of the previous nine months, only to fall short once more.
The Bruins were left with a long stretch of games they would have to win just to possibly earn another chance to face the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
In a moment most wanted to forget, UCLA Coach Jim Mora told his players to remember.
“Everyone was sad,” said Olorunfunmi, the tailback who had been unable to help the Bruins produce a game-clinching first down, “and Coach Mora was telling us to keep that in the back of our minds. Keep the taste of when we were in the tubs.”
The cleansing of frustrations could start Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. UCLA (2-2 overall, 0-1 in Pac-12 play) faces Arizona (2-2, 0-1) in the first of what could be considered eight consecutive must-win situations to get that desired rematch with Stanford.
There’s no denying that the Bruins have issues. They need to fix their running game and find a handful of reliable receivers. Quarterback Josh Rosen must significantly boost a touchdown-to-interception ratio that hovers precariously around one to one.
Yet the most important component of their preparations for the Wildcats might have been psychological after what transpired against the Cardinal.
The final 24 seconds, which included touchdowns surrendered by UCLA’s defense and its offense, replayed continuously in the Bruins’ minds during their self-imposed 24-hour window for processing a game and letting it go. Mora said his players were as down as he had ever seen them after a defeat.
“Every loss hurts and everything,” defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner said, “but this one kind of stood out the most.”
When the team reconvened Sunday, linebacker Jayon Brown, offensive tackle Conor McDermott and center Scott Quessenberry were among the players who spoke about letting what happened drive them.
“We let that loss, the last one, feed us into this week and throughout the rest of the season,” Brown said, “because we don’t want to feel like we did last week.”
UCLA hasn’t experienced much recent adversity in its rivalry with Arizona, going 4-0 since Mora became coach. But a mention of that success only triggered another catchphrase from Mora about history having no bearing on future results.
Whoever loses Saturday is going to be 0-2 in conference play and probably eliminated from contention in the Pac-12’s South Division, upping the urgency factor.
“We’ve been playing good football,” Mora said. “Now what we need to do is have results.”
Rosen implied that a spot in the College Football Playoff remained attainable for UCLA because of the quality of its losses to seventh-ranked Stanford and ninth-ranked Texas A&M. If the Bruins could beat the Cardinal in the conference championship, it would largely offset a loss to them earlier in the season.
Rosen said the unranked Bruins weren’t far removed from being considered among the nation’s elite because of the nature of their defeats, in overtime to the Aggies and in the final seconds against the Cardinal.
“We’re pretty much two plays away from 4-0, top five [ranking] in the country,” Rosen said, “but we still have the same team and we can’t let that affect us.”
UCLA’s remaining schedule appears favorable. What figures to be its toughest game — against No. 18 Utah, the only ranked opponent left as of this week — is Oct. 22 at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA probably won’t know where it goes from there until after its regular-season finale against California on Nov. 26. The Bruins have mentally penciled in Stanford on Dec. 2 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 title game.
But first things first. Actually, eight things are first.
“We’re never going to stop fighting,” Olorunfunmi said. “We have eight games left and we can still do what we need to do this year.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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