UCLA can’t afford a loss to Oregon State on Saturday
UCLA’s path to the Pac-12 championship game is clear — as in obvious.
The Bruins must win out, which means they must:
Beat No. 12 Utah on Nov. 21 in Salt Lake City.
Beat USC on Nov. 28 at the Coliseum.
Oh, and they also have to get to those games without losing.
There are two games on the docket before those showdowns, starting with Oregon State on Saturday in Corvallis. The follow-up is a dangerous Washington State team visiting the Rose Bowl on Nov. 14.
“We lose either of those games and we’re out,” linebacker Deon Hollins said.
Having their minds on the task at hand while wandering eyes look ahead becomes the challenge.
There is nothing about Oregon State that appears threatening. The Beavers, under first-year Coach Gary Andersen, have lost 15 of their last 17 conference games, including all five this season. They have a 2-6 overall record. And quarterback Seth Collins is not expected to play because of a knee injury.
UCLA (6-2 overall, 3-2 in Pac-12 and No. 23 in the first College Football Playoff ranking) is a 17 1/2-point favorite.
The Bruins have steadied themselves after opening October with back-to-back conference losses to Arizona State and Stanford. They enter Saturday’s games coming off victories over California and Colorado.
“It’s crazy,” UCLA receiver Jordan Payton said. “I was looking at the games and stuff like that and I was like, ‘Wow, we’re 6-2. We’re still in this. We control it.’ What a great situation to be in for us.”
It’s also a precarious situation, and the Bruins know it.
“Pressure is pressure,” Payton said. “This is a do-or-die situation for us, and to come out of it alive we have to be 1-0 every week.”
For a reference point, the Bruins need only to think back to last season. A victory over Stanford would have clinched the Pac-12 South and sent UCLA to the conference title game. The Cardinal, which finished with an 8-5 record, manhandled UCLA in a 31-10 victory.
“We have to keep everything in perspective,” linebacker Aaron Wallace said. “Yeah, Utah could be important. But not if we don’t keep winning.”
Colorado threw a scare into UCLA last week, the Bruins entering that game as 21-point favorites and escaping with a 35-31 victory.
It left UCLA players wary of the next two games. Oregon State, Hollins pointed out, played Utah even for a half a week ago. Washington State nearly took down No.11 Stanford.
“The thing about the Pac-12 is everyone is a legitimate team,” Hollins said. “I don’t think other conferences have this type of parity. I wouldn’t call these trap games, but we’re playing some good football teams.”
Said Payton: “You can’t ever sleep on these teams.”
Oregon State has risen to these occasions in the past, racking up five seasons of at least eight victories from 2006 to 2012 under former coach Mike Riley. But Riley left after last season for Nebraska, and Andersen, who was hired away from Wisconsin, has set about overhauling the program.
The Beavers’ only victories this season are over Weber State and San Jose State, they have given up an average of 36.4 points in five Pac-12 games, and they’re not getting any breaks.
Collins, the type of mobile quarterback who has given the Bruins trouble, sustained a hyperextended knee while backpedaling during a stretching exercise last week and did not make the trip to Utah. Freshman Nick Mitchell, who threw for 204 yards and a touchdown against Utah, is expected to start Saturday.
“They have gone through some stuff, but they are still a Pac-12 team,” Payton said.
That theme comes from the top.
“Really, it’s about a window of opportunity that’s closing,” Coach Jim Mora said. “So let’s maximize every day, embrace every moment we get to spend together as a team. Those games down the road are only important if we win this one.”
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