It was as much of a thank you as a rival will ever get.
“I’m not going to say that much, but the winning team was the team we wanted to win,” UCLA receiver Thomas Duarte said.
He was talking about USC’s win over then-No. 3 Utah on Saturday.
The victory by UCLA’s crosstown rival boosted the Bruins as contenders in the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division as they prepare for Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl against Colorado.
UCLA is now one game behind Utah, which it plays Nov. 21 in Salt Lake City.
As much as Bruins players and coaches stick to a one-game-at-a-time mantra, there was no minimizing the importance of USC’s win.
There are a plethora of scenarios in play, but UCLA would now capture the division title — and thereby qualify for the conference championship game — by winning the remainder of its games, just as long as Arizona State loses at least once more. Arizona State can win the division by winning out, just as long as USC and Utah lose at least once more.
Utah controls its own destiny. If the Utes win out, no one can catch them. But if Utah loses a game, the power could shift to USC, which has a tiebreaker advantage over the Utes and Arizona State.
With so much more football to be played, all UCLA knows for sure is that it did what it needed to do Thursday against California — win, after back-to-back losses to Arizona State and Stanford.
The victory “renewed who we are as defense, as an offense, as a whole team,” Bruins defensive lineman Eli Ankou said. “The energy is really good.”
Having lost back-to-back October games last season and in 2013, UCLA experienced an eerie comfort zone.
“We know how to bounce back, and we showed it against Cal,” Duarte said.
The Bruins went 6-1 after losing back-to back games last season.
“If we hadn’t been through that, we wouldn’t know what direction to take now,” Duarte said. “We can’t let our minds drift.”
There’s a catch
Duarte had a career-high 10 receptions for 141 yards and one touchdown against California. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen found him over the middle on several occasions.
“I’m willing to go over the middle and catch those balls,” Duarte said. “That builds [Rosen’s] confidence to throw over the middle.”
Duarte has worked to gain Rosen’s confidence since the spring.
“Coming in as a young quarterback, I knew he was going to have nerves,” Duarte said. “The ones who were consistent would build a relationship with him.”
Duarte has been slowed by hamstring issues the last two seasons. This season, he is second on the team with 33 receptions for 489 yards.
Of Rosen’s 15 touchdown passes, six have gone to Duarte and four to Jordan Payton, who leads the team with 37 receptions for 546 yards.
UCLA’s 1966 Rose Bowl team will have a 50th reunion this weekend, culminating with a ceremony at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
The Bruins won their first Rose Bowl game at the conclusion of the 1965 season, defeating Michigan State, 14-12.
Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban, Rose Bowl MVP Bob Stiles and former UCLA player and coach Terry Donahue are among the people expected to attend.
Donahue has been a player or coach for every UCLA Rose Bowl victory. He was a player in the 1966 game and an assistant coach in 1976. As head coach, he led the Bruins to Rose Bowl wins in 1983, 1984 and 1986.