There were two topics that would get you nowhere with UCLA Coach Jim Mora this week: Trap games and Oregon.
Yet, those bought up unavoidable questions, no matter how hard the Bruins tried to avoid them. Navigating through the Pac-12 means circumventing certain pitfalls.
That was never more clear than Thursday night, when No. 2 Oregon was dumped at home by Arizona … in a trap game.
It left No. 8 UCLA poised to become the Pac-12’s flagship team, provided the Bruins can avoid the same fate as the Ducks.
UCLA (4-0 overall, 1-0 in Pac-12) plays Utah (3-1, 0-1) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. If ever there was a trap game for the Bruins, this is it. They are undefeated, coming off a 62-27 rout of Arizona State, and playing at home. The Utes are coming off an embarrassing loss to Washington State.
A week from now, UCLA plays Oregon in what was building to be one of the marquee games of the season. That changed when Arizona pulled off the 31-24 upset.
It made next week’s game a matter of urgency for the Ducks.
“I have said it before, the Pac-12, top to bottom, is the most competitive conference in the country,” Mora said. “You see it every week. What people perceive as upsets is just great competition.”
Those should be words for his team to heed as Utah arrives a 13-point underdog.
“We don’t talk about the next week, and we don’t talk about last week,” Mora said. “I think if you do bring that [into the team] it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re putting bad stuff in their minds.”
As for so-called trap games, Mora said, “I don’t use that term. This is a 3-1 team that went in and beat Michigan at Michigan. If that doesn’t get your attention, nothing will.”
Of course, Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham may be more of a believer in trap games. His team just lost one.
“There is no time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Whittingham said. “There is no rewind button in life. You have to forget about it, but you have to learn from it. You have to learn from your mistakes and understand that, but you can’t sit there and sulk and dwell on it.
“UCLA gets our attention now,” he said.
The Bruins claim complete focus on the Utes, even with Oregon on the horizon.
“I don’t even know who we play next,” Mora said. “I know we have a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against Utah. Our players have their minds on that.”
A nonscientific survey seemed to confirm that.
“We really try to take one week at a time,” center Jake Brendel said. “Utah is what I’m focused on. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Said defensive back Anthony Jefferson, “I don’t want to talk about Oregon. I’m focused on Utah.”
Now that’s coaching.
“What helps us avoid that concept of ‘trap game’ is the way we prepare,” Mora said. “We just go one week at a time. We have a plan for Utah, but play against our own standard.”
Mora has visual aids for that pitch: UCLA’s last two Utah game tapes.
A year ago, the Bruins escaped Salt Lake City with a 34-27 victory thanks to an acrobatic interception at the five-yard line by linebacker Myles Jack on the last play. In 2012, UCLA ground out a 21-14 victory over Utah at the Rose Bowl.
Add to that the pre-Mora Era meltdown in the Salt Lake City snow, a 31-6 loss in 2011, and the Bruins come in knowing they face a tough Saturday night.
The Utes are 9-19 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011. But teams usually had to earn those victories.
Something the Bruins know well.
“It’s Utah,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “It will be just another fistfight for us.”
Follow Chris Foster on Twitter @cfosterlatimes