It’s a rivalry that’s become the wrong kind of noisy UCLA tradition, the eight-slap.
Eight consecutive defeats to Stanford. Eight straight lost opportunities to become a Pac-12 Conference power. Eight successive bouts of disappointment, each more infuriating than the last.
The Cardinal’s dominance of the Bruins goes back eight games, seven years and two coaches, though UCLA Coach Jim Mora isn’t keeping count.
“Well, they haven’t beaten this team eight in a row,” Mora said this week as the Bruins (2-1) prepared to play their Pac-12 Conference opener against No. 7 Stanford (2-0, 1-0) on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl. “They’ve never beaten this team.”
Mora repeated his defiance during the Pac-12 coaches conference call when a reporter asked what he had learned from the last eight years of facing them.
Mora: “Well, I haven’t been here eight years. I’ve only been here four years.”
Reporter: “Well, you know what I’m saying.”
Mora: “Well, I don’t.”
Mora was correct, and it’s also understandable to disassociate yourself from UCLA’s longest losing streak in a series since it joined what would become the Pac-12 in 1928. Mora has been around for five of the losses over his first four seasons, including the 2012 conference title game.
It’s the kind of history that might make anyone on the wrong side defensive.
“Every time this week comes up,” UCLA running back Nate Starks conceded, “everybody’s on edge — coaches on edge, players on edge. Everybody wants to get this done.”
Stanford’s mastery was among the reasons UCLA overhauled its offense and bulked up over the off-season. The Bruins collectively added hundreds of pounds of muscle and switched to more of a pro-style offense featuring tight ends and a fullback, though they’ve often looked more comfortable operating out of the spread during the season’s opening month.
“I think we appear — appear — to be better equipped,” Mora said, repeating the word for emphasis. “Now we have to go make it happen on Saturday.”
UCLA has also prepped for the beef-eaters otherwise known as the Stanford line by emphasizing an inside running drill. It’s a nine-on-seven format that features no secondary and fewer wide receivers but plenty of running the ball between the tackles.
“That’s how we open practice,” Starks said. “Hard-nosed football, downhill, running the ball, and that’s how it’s going to be all game against Stanford.”
The Cardinal never ventured far from the Bruins’ minds even while training in the 100-degree heat of San Bernardino last month.
“It’s time to beat Stanford this year,” UCLA linebacker Kenny Young said at the time, “so I’m glad we’re making the changes we’re making.”
The Bruins’ urgency was reflected in the scout team gathering on the practice field before 6:30 a.m. this week, well before their more prominent teammates. It gave them time to practice the kinds of moves they might see from Stanford All-American running back Christian McCaffrey, the latest in a long line of UCLA foils.
Of course, there are some challenges no amount of preparation can overcome.
“Nobody’s Stanford,” Mora said. “They’re different, they’re unique [and] that’s one of the things that makes them so great, the type of athlete they have and the type of scheme they run.”
Mora acknowledged that all of his team’s changes wouldn’t matter if the Bruins executed poorly, got shoved around the field or failed to sufficiently surround McCaffrey with defenders.
One factor that could boost the Bruins’ belief is Mora symbolically hitting the reset button. As far as he’s concerned, UCLA’s series with Stanford is deadlocked at 0-0.
“All I worry about is this team right now,” Mora said. “They have not beaten us and we have not beaten them and that’s why we’re playing Saturday.”