Now comes a week of waiting.
UCLA’s football team is headed for another second-tier bowl game, but which one will not be known until Dec. 6.
Only two Pac-12 Conference teams know exactly where they are headed next: Stanford and USC, which will be playing in the conference championship game Saturday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
USC’s 41-20 win over the Bruins in the regular-season finale for both teams allowed the Trojans to advance and left the Bruins as spectators for a third consecutive championship week.
UCLA suffered the double whammy of being denied a title shot and having a rival administer the coup de grace.
Getting over it becomes the task at hand.
“Any loss is disappointing,” said Aaron Wallace, a UCLA senior linebacker. “This one hurts more. Not playing for the Pac-12 championship hurts. Thankfully we have one more game.”
The who, in what and where on that game won’t be known until the entire bowl schedule is announced. The why and how are things the Bruins know all too well.
The last two seasons, UCLA needed to win its final regular-season game to win the Pac-12 South.
“It’s frustrating getting in the same position and not being able to get over the hump,” Wallace said.
A year ago, an 8-5 Stanford team routed the Bruins, 31-10, to send Arizona to the conference championship game. On Saturday, USC handed out the beating.
“The message is the same any time you lose,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “Are you going to let it destroy you, or are you going to deal with it?
“It’s always hard when it’s the last game of the year. We have a bowl, but for now there isn’t anything else to focus on to take the sting away.”
After a 4-0 start this season, the Bruins finished with an 8-4 record. They were 5-4 in Pac-12 play. This is the 17th consecutive season the Rose Bowl game will be played at UCLA’s home field in Pasadena, and the Bruins won’t be in it.
Certainly, UCLA can cite legitimate reasons. Injuries, particularly those to linebacker Myles Jack, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau, altered and weakened the defense.
Opposing running backs had field days. USC gained 235 yards rushing, becoming the fourth Pac-12 team to top 200 yards against the Bruins. And Utah had 197.
The Trojans had 103 yards rushing in the fourth quarter.
“It was frustrating mentally,” Wallace said. “It was the same play, and not being able to stop it consistently was tough.”
Losing three highly experienced mainstays was hard to overcome.
“We are really proud of the people who stepped up,” Wallace said. “But always in the back of your head was, ‘What if we had Myles? What if we had Eddie? What if we had Fabian?’ The reality is, we didn’t have them.”
What’s left, especially for the seniors, is a final chance to cleanse the palate in a bowl game. UCLA had an 81-82 record from 1999 until Mora and the 2012 recruiting class arrived.
“We put the program back in the right direction,” senior receiver Jordan Payton said. “It has been an up-and-down season. We have been on rolls and we had some losses. Injuries took a huge tool. Those are all excuses. At the end of the day, we have to be better.”
UCLA, with the sixth-best conference record in the Pac-12, are likely to land in either the Foster Farms Bowl or Sun Bowl on Dec. 26, Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 19, or the Cactus Bowl on Jan. 2.
The Foster Farms Bowl would provide a cruel twist of fate. It is played at Levi’s Stadium, which hosts the Pac-12 championship game.