UCLA nose tackle Seali’i Epenesa remembers his visit to Utah as a sophomore in 2011. “I saw snow for the first time in my entire life,” he said.
Utah won, 31-6, on an icy field that became a slippery slope for the Bruins.
UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure recalls a field trip to Salt Lake City in 2007. “We went up there highly ranked; we were undefeated,” he said.
Utah won, 44-6, in game that had neither snow nor a UCLA touchdown.
The Bruins return Thursday to open Pac-12 Conference play at Utah.
Conference play always comes with travel advisories, with hostile environments from Pullman, Wash., to Tucson. Salt Lake City in particular has been a tough trip for UCLA.
In 2007, the Bruins were 2-0 and ranked No. 11 before heading to Utah for a nonconference game. When they returned, Coach Karl Dorrell was on the fast track to unemployment.
In 2011, the Bruins were in control of the Pac-12 South Division before heading to Utah. When they returned, Coach Rick Neuheisel was on his way out the door.
Toss in a 59-0 beating at Brigham Young in 2008 and the scoreboard reads: State of Utah 134, State of the UCLA Program 12.
UCLA this season is 3-0 and ranked No. 12, similar to the place the Bruins enjoyed in 2007. The comparisons end there, they say.
“We have a totally different mind-set,” McClure said. “Everything has changed.”
One big difference could be heard in Coach Jim Mora’s voice this week. He sounded like a raspy old blues singer.
Mora wasn’t around for previous Utah crashes, but he was on the sideline last year when UCLA met California, a team that finished with a 3-9 record.
One of Cal’s wins was a 43-17 rout of UCLA.
“We lost our focus,” Mora rasped. “I let us lose our focus. That was my fault. I felt it. I didn’t get it turned quick enough.”
He’s been doing what he could this week so it doesn’t happen again. “That’s why I can’t talk,” Mora said.
Mora could be heard by anyone walking past UCLA’s fenced-in Spaulding Field on Sunday, his voice ricocheting off Pauley Pavilion and echoing toward Westwood Village.
Whether he got his point across will be seen against a Utah team that is 3-1 overall, 0-1 in Pac-12 play.
“I heard about our history in Utah,” said Bruins guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, who played at Provo (Utah) Timpview High. “It’s not good.”
Su’a-Filo is the only player on the UCLA roster who witnessed the 2008 embarrassment. He was a high school senior watching from the stands.
“All I remember is UCLA losing,” Su’a-Filo said. He signed on to play for the Bruins anyway.
Su’a-Filo was on a Mormon mission and missed the 2011 game played on ice. Others have total recall.
Utah led, 7-3, at halftime, but any chance of a Bruins comeback quickly slipped away after that. “Oh my God, it was the coldest thing I ever experienced in my life,” linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. “I remember it being painful, that’s how cold it was.”
The Bruins can talk about the weather — there is no snow in the forecast for Thursday — but there was another element that affected the 2011 game. “Players were more individuals on that team,” Epenesa said. “We’re closer.”
Communication will be important in front of a deafening crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Fans everywhere are crazy about their team, especially in Utah,” receiver Shaquelle Evans said. “It puts an emphasis on starting fast and getting the crowd out of it.”
The Bruins failed to do that at Nebraska this season but still rallied for a 41-21 victory that turned 91,471 rabid fans into a cardboard cutout crowd.
Utah is only the first in a series of tough trips for UCLA in Pac-12 play this season. The Bruins play at No. 5 Stanford on Oct. 19 and at No. 2 Oregon on Oct. 26. UCLA hasn’t won at Palo Alto since 2007 and at Eugene since 2004.
UCLA also hasn’t won at Arizona since 2003 and against USC at the Coliseum since 1997.
Evans said the Bruins were road-tested this summer, when they spent a few days training with Navy SEALs.
“They took us out into the Pacific Ocean and dropped us in the water,” Evans said. “We had to swim to shore. Playing in front of 55,000 fans isn’t going to be anything.”
So again, it’s sink or swim.
After being dropped into the ocean, the Bruins swam.
After being dropped into Utah in the past, the Bruins have sunk.