SALT LAKE CITY — UCLA got an unusually chilly and ominous reception Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
A brief but intense pregame snow squall seemed another bad omen for the shorts-wearing Bruins in a place that was a house of horrors in their previous two visits, a huge loss in 2007 and an icy, embarrassing splat-fest in 2011.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I started taping my wrists,” running back Paul Perkins said. “I psyched myself out for it, but when I got out there, it really wasn’t that bad.”
The squall passed quickly and the Bruins — after some nervous moments that included an onside kick Utah recovered with less than two minutes to play and then drove to UCLA’s 23-yard line in the waning seconds — put their nightmares behind them in rallying for a 34-27 victory.
What was it like for the Bruins in those final moments before they won their Pac-12 Conference opener and improved to 4-0?
“It was very cold,” Perkins said. “But the defense stepped up, and the offense knew they were going to do their jobs.”
Besides the harsh elements, the Bruins had to overcome an ankle injury that knocked running back Jordon James out of the game after the first half. James had entered the game ranked fifth in the nation with an average of 141.3 rushing yards a game. Mora said afterward he didn’t yet know the extent of the injury.
For UCLA, it was simply another hurdle to overcome.
“We have a great coaching staff. They coach us real well. They train us for times like this,” safety Randall Goforth said.
But some of their adversity was self-inflicted. They were assessed 13 penalties that cost them 100 yards, which Coach Jim Mora attributed to aggression rather than a lack of discipline. Whatever the cause, it can’t continue if the Bruins want to become — and remain — an elite team. “Right now the thing that’s holding us back is the penalties,” Mora said.
On the whole, though, there was more to praise than criticize. The team’s resilience has become a key strength, and that’s a characteristic that can’t be coached. It’s there or it isn’t, and it has been there whenever the Bruins have needed it this season.
“To come here to Utah, on a Thursday night, in a hostile environment and get a win, hey, we’re going to take it,” Mora said.
“The positives are always going to win because that’s the main objective. That’s what you’ve got to do: You’ve got to find a way to win.”
Although the Bruins fell behind, 14-7, they pulled even in the second quarter on a clever play that capitalized on the skills of quarterback-turned-receiver Devin Fuller. James took the snap and flipped the ball to Fuller, who reverted to his high school days and rifled a pass to quarterback Brett Hundley for a seven-yard touchdown throw.
UCLA practiced the play all week, and Hundley said it had worked every time. “That’s why we were so confident in running it,” said Hundley, who had never caught a touchdown pass before in high school or college. “Nobody’s expecting it.”
Mora said the game officials had asked last week if he had any trick plays. “I said, ‘I’ve got one, but I don’t think I’m going to use it.’”
He and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone picked a good time to use it.
The moment had to be sweet for Fuller, who has said he still thinks like a quarterback. His versatility and the Bruins’ resourcefulness underscore how they’ve progressed individually and as a team as they move into the teeth of a tough schedule and inch toward a top-10 ranking.
They needed every bit of that resilience Thursday, taking a 34-24 lead on Hundley’s 36-yard touchdown run with 3:33 to play only to have the Utes slice that with a 37-yard, bank-shot field goal.
The defense came up with six interceptions, three in the third quarter and two in the fourth, but that good work was nearly negated by an interception return for a touchdown by Utah’s Keith McGill early in the fourth quarter that allowed the Utes to tie it at 24-24.
Ten Bruins caught at least one pass, typical of Mazzone’s offense. Jordan Payton led the Bruins with 68 yards on three catches; Fuller had the most catches, with four. Perkins, who became the Bruins’ primary rusher in James’ absence, spun off tackles a few times to gain a precious extra yard or two and racked up 66 of his 92 yards in the second half.
UCLA’s progress and stability stand in dramatic contrast to the struggles at USC, which is trying to regroup after Coach Lane Kiffin was fired.
Things can change quickly, of course. It’s not quite two years ago that then-UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said the Bruins had closed the gap on the Trojans only to have USC crush his team, a prelude to his dismissal. But Mora has brought new life and a new attitude to the Bruins’ program, both welcome changes.
Where this will end up remains unclear. This was merely the Bruins’ first conference game, but they’re 4-0 for the first time since 2005. A triumph in what was once one of their least-favorite destinations can only bolster their confidence.
The Bruins this season have faced many forms of adversity, from significant losses like the tragic death of walk-on receiver Nick Pasquale to the annoyances of cold wind and snowflakes. They’ve handled their hardest times with grace. If they can keep that up, this will be an interesting ride.