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UCLA players say they have benefited from winning close games

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is pursued by California defensive end Jonathan Johnson during a game on Oct. 18. The Bruins beat the Golden Bears, 36-34.
(Ray Chavez / McClatchy-Tribune)

In his comments after the Bruins slipped out of Berkeley with a 36-34 win over California last week, UCLA Coach Jim Mora said, “There will be those that say we only beat them by two points, but to overcome the disappointment of the last two weeks, that was self-inflicted, and to come into environment where UCLA has struggled and to overcome three turnovers is something to build on.”

It’s hard to argue most of that. There had been two weeks of self-inflicted damage resulting in back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon. And the Bruins had struggled in Cal’s environment, losing every game at Memorial Stadium since 1998.

Now, about the “something to build on” part.

The Bruins, 5-2 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 Conference play, have been through the wringer this season. They have won four games by a total of 20 points. Whether the close ones have been helpful experiences remains to be seen.

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Some people might say UCLA has been fortunate. Mora says the games built character.

“You learn how to win in a pressure environment,” Mora said. “While some people don’t like them, and at the time I don’t know if I like them, when I look back at them I think they build confidence and trust.”

The No. 25 Bruins would like to avoid another lesson any time soon.

UCLA on Saturday plays Colorado in Boulder, Colo., where victories have been handed out like complimentary gifts. Colorado (2-5, 0-4 in conference action) has lost 27 of 31 Pac-12 games since joining in 2011. The Buffaloes have finished last in the South Division all three seasons, and reside there again.

When Colorado joined the Pac-12, the expectations were that the Buffaloes could become a force with a greater footprint in the recruiting-fertile Los Angeles area. It was a big reason Colorado officials insisted they be placed in the South Division with UCLA and USC.

The Buffaloes are 0-7 against USC and UCLA since joining the conference. They have allowed at least 42 points in those games, including a 56-28 loss to USC last week.

Second-year Coach Mike MacIntyre was left trying to buck up morale this week.

“I see rewards for hard work,” he said. “I see individuals and different things coming together.”

And: “There is definitely no doubt that we want to get [a big victory] as quick as we can. There is no doubt about that.”

UCLA seems an unlikely victim. The Bruins’ three victories over Colorado in Pac-12 play have been by a combined score of 132-43.

“I would love to be on that end again,” said UCLA receiver Jordan Payton. But, he said, scratching out close victories “is our personality.”

The Bruins needed three touchdowns by the defense to escape Virginia. They slipped past Memphis by a touchdown at home. They escaped Texas with a three-point win. They then held off California.

None of those victories were secured until the final minutes.

The residual effect can be positive, Payton said.

“When I look at the scoreboard, and if it’s close or we’re down, there is no panic to me,” Payton said. “I know if there is no panic in me then there is no panic in anyone else. It gets us ready for the big ones.”

Those are coming.

UCLA is in no position to look past Colorado, but November is approaching and, with it, four key games — Arizona, Washington, USC and Stanford.

The Bruins have little margin for error in the South Division race. Even if they win their remaining games, they still need Utah to lose twice and Arizona State once in order to win the division.

“We have these big games coming up, and hopefully we get past them to the Pac-12 championship game,” said quarterback Brett Hundley. “They are all going to be close games. Winning like we have helps us understand that we can get through all of this.”


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