Myles Jack knows what the UCLA-Brigham Young football game will bring. He can tap childhood memories.
“BYU always played a physical game,” UCLA’s star linebacker said. “You saw their safeties coming up and popping guys. They were a team that played through the whistle.”
As he watched videotape of the Cougars this week in preparation for Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl, Jack determined little had changed.
“It’s a grown man’s game that we’re getting ready to play,” Jack said.
BYU was expected to be UCLA’s toughest test before the Bruins enter Pac-12 Conference play, but after the Cougars pulled off last-minute victories over Nebraska and Boise State, it’s now a top-20 matchup among 2-0 teams: UCLA is ranked No. 10 and BYU is No. 19.
In Westwood, this is seen as an opportunity to enhance UCLA’s national standing. In Provo, Utah, it has been framed as a chance to push for BYU’s inclusion into the College Football Playoff conversation.
The Cougars built a solid football program while competing in the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. But then college football expansion hit and BYU struck out on its own in 2011, a move viewed as an effort to become the independent equal of Notre Dame.
That dissolved into 8-5 records the last three seasons. A victory over a top-10 team would push the cause forward.
Cougars Coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked this week whether UCLA offered the biggest game since BYU left conference affiliation and became an independent in football.
“It’s the next game in BYU’s independence,” Mendenhall said.
The Cougars have beefed up the schedule. They traveled to Nebraska and played Boise State, which was nationally ranked at the time of last week’s game. After UCLA comes a trip to Michigan. Later this season, BYU travels to Kansas City to play Missouri.
Mendenhall has tried to soft sell the UCLA moment.
“I’m sure we’ll hear that this will be the biggest game of this era,” Mendenhall said. “Nebraska was pretty big. Boise was pretty big. UCLA is now pretty big. My guess is that Michigan will be pretty big.”
But this is big. A victory over the Bruins would advance the Cougars in the national polls and in perception.
“It’s fun that the teams are ranked,” Mendenhall said, “but to make more of it, gosh, that would be a distraction, and there are already enough distractions.”
Long ago, the Cougars were known for churning out quarterbacks. Now they carry a different rep, one of muscle. BYU has allowed only 95 yards rushing per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
“You can tell they are hard-nosed guys,” UCLA nose tackle Kenny Clark said.
That persona has hit some speed bumps. The Cougars are still recovering from an ugly brawl with Memphis players at the end of the Miami Beach Bowl in January. And then there was last week’s incident in which offensive lineman Ului Lapuaho punched a Boise State player in the groin. Lapuaho was disciplined, Mendenhall said, but will play this week.
UCLA Coach Jim Mora reminded his players this week not to get baited. He said he spoke about “being poised and being mature and being able to walk away.”
The Bruins have enough on their hands without shenanigans.
UCLA routed Virginia and Nevada Las Vegas to start the season, but what is different about BYU, Mora said, is “they are older, a more mature team. A lot of these guys have gone on [Mormon] missions. They have more life experiences, which I think helps them, especially when they play away from home.”