TUCSON -- They are rewriting script after script, Jim Mora’s UCLA football team continuing to put different twists on a recent history of woe.
The latest new title? Razing Arizona.
Ten years after UCLA last won on this chunk of Sonoran desert –- a wretched dry spell that resulted in the end of one long unbeaten streak and the firing of two coaches -- the Bruins have finally made tumbleweeds bloom.
It happened at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night in a 31-26 victory over the Wildcats that was occasionally so surreal, it could have been a head-scratching mirage.
The Bruins threatened to blow it open early with two quick touchdowns on Brett Hundley brilliance. They then threatened to blow it, period, with a momentum-squashing failed fake punt.
The Bruins regained their swagger with a couple of scoring drives led by -- kid you not -- freshman linebacker Myles Jack. Yet that swagger became a stagger when Arizona kept scoring and had two final possessions to win it.
With thousands of red-clad fans waving flags and shouting, ‘’Beat L.A.,’’ the game ended only after Ishmael Adams made a lunging interception with 36 seconds left.
The desert demons were dead. A program that had been outscored 161-66 in its last four games here found a way to survive. Is it any wonder the struggle had nearly made Mora sick?
“I’m about the vomit the whole game,’’ he said afterward with a weary smile. “I know that doesn’t sound real good, but at one point in the game I’m thinking to myself, is there an ulcer going in there?’’
In the end, after UCLA’s seventh win in nine games, the only thing rumbling was the interview room table that Mora was tapping with his fist for inspirational emphasis. At one point during his postgame comments, he stopped giving an interview and started giving a pep talk.
“We’ve got a long ways to go, there’s no doubt…but what’s awesome is that we’re making strides,’’ he said, tap, tap, tap. “We know where we want to go, we can see it, we work every day to get there, it’s only a matter of time before this program goes where we’re aiming.’’
The Bruins openly admit they are aiming for -- and in complete control of -- a most unlikely Rose-colored destiny. If UCLA wins its final three games against Washington, Arizona State and USC -- only the Trojans' game at the Coliseum is away from Pasadena -- it will win the Pac-12 South Division for the second time in two seasons under Mora and advance to the Pac-12 championship game at probably Stanford with the Rose Bowl at stake.
Think the Bruins would have no chance against the top-five Cardinal? Think again.
When they lost to Stanford by 14 points earlier this season, they trailed by just a touchdown in the fourth quarter and had the ball on two possessions with a chance to tie. In the conference title win by Stanford last season, the Bruins led in the fourth quarter and Ka’imi Fairbairn missed 51-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds that would have tied it.
“If we win out, there’s going to be a lot of talk at the end of the season,’’ Hundley said. ‘’No doubt, it’s something we all believe, we know we can get there.’’
If they get there, it will have to be on the back of Hundley, who missed some receivers late but still continued to improve from his midseason woes by throwing for 227 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Oh yeah, he also ran for 75 sprinting, sliding, scampering yards that included another score.
Hundley was on the bench when the Bruins’ last visit here included a brawl, a streaker and a finality to the UCLA coaching career of Rick Neuheisel. Watching his defense survive from the sidelines in the final moments Saturday, Hundley knew things were changing.
“This team is different, it’s starting to show, people are starting to take notice how different this team is from past teams, we’re really doing big things here,’’ he said.
Indeed, when is the last time a Bruins defense ended a 78-yard drive -- and helped change the game -- with a goal-line hit that caused a lost fumble? Jordan Zumwalt had so much fun knocking the ball from Ka’Deem Carey and turning it into a touchback midway through the third quarter, he watched video of it immediately afterward on his phone.
Said a gleeful Zumwalt: “I spun him, a full spin.’’
Said a grinning Mora: “(Zumwalt) is our Energizer Bunny. Last week at the Rose Bowl I look out and he’s leading an eight clap.’’
Also, when is the last time a Bruins team had enough young and raw talent that a linebacker could suddenly be handed the ball -- and he ends up essentially saving the game with it?
That would be Myles Jack, and the game was essentially clinched when he darted inside, then outside, then outran three Wildcats down the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, capping a 120-yard rushing performance accomplished in a half-dozen carries.
Last season he was a running back and linebacker at Bellevue (Wash.) High, but the Bruins need him more on defense, and had only hinted that he might also carry the ball here. But, seriously? He didn’t start running until last Wednesday? He practiced for a final time Saturday morning on a patch of grass outside the team hotel? There is still nothing for him in the playbook?
“It was one of those, ‘Hey, let’s try this,’ ” Mora said.
At the end of this week they will try something else, a rare Friday night home game against Washington with the Bruins dressing in new dark uniforms and urging their fans to wear black.
“If you are a UCLA fan, and you’re seeing this or reading this, take the day off, buy something black, and get out to the Rose Bowl,’’ Mora said. ‘’It’s going to be an environment you don’t want to miss.’’
Changing colors, changing perceptions, chasing away ghosts.