HELENE ELLIOTT

Terry Donahue sees a UCLA team ready for prime time

Former Bruins coach, who led the team to three Rose Bowl wins in the 1980s, is a fan of Jim Mora's coaching and Brett Hundley's leadership.

This post has been corrected. See below.

The last coach to lead UCLA to victory in the Rose Bowl game — or any significant bowl contest, for that matter — still refers to the Bruins as “we” out of habit and affection. Terry Donahue’s heart is still with UCLA, and he’s an unabashed admirer of Coach Jim Mora and the coaching staff for pointing the team toward sustained success.

Donahue, who won Rose Bowl titles after the 1982, 1983 and 1985 seasons, was at the Rose Bowl on Saturday for a ceremony that renamed the press box the Terry Donahue Pavilion. The Bruins further honored him with a 37-10 victory over Cal, improving their record to 5-0 for the first time since they were 8-0 in 2005.

“I think we’re clearly a top-10 team and we may be a top-five-caliber team,” Donahue said before the game. “We’ve got a road to go before we can prove that, but I think Jim has come in and he and his coaches have really instilled their vision of how UCLA should play and their program as to what he wants out of his athletes. They’ve done a fabulous job recruiting.

“To Rick Neuheisel’s credit, he left a lot of good players here. I think Jim would be the first to tell you that. When I got the UCLA job, Dick Vermeil left me some good players too, and you need that to get a good start onto your career.

“So I think Jim came in, he found some really good players. He put it together, took a guy like [Anthony] Barr and moved him from offense to defense and that really helped the team.”

Saturday’s game was closer than it probably should have been, given Cal’s extensive injuries on both sides of the ball. Penalties cost the Bruins again, and defensive end Cassius Marsh was ejected in the second quarter after being called for two consecutive offside infractions.

“The positives: We’re 5-0, starting six true freshman tonight,” Mora said afterward. “I thought we protected extremely well. We obviously threw the ball very well. ... I thought our defense played outstanding against an explosive offense. We held them to 10 points. That was fantastic.”

Brett Hundley completed 31 of 41 passes for 410 yards, the third-highest passing yardage total in one game in school history. He passed for three touchdowns but acknowledged: “There is a lot left out on the field, and we can get that much better.”

Though the team’s performance was flawed, the result extended a string of triumphs and enabled the Bruins to continue to build toward something bigger and better than what they’ve experienced the last few years.

Donahue said the defense reminds him of his top teams -- certainly high praise -- but he saved his top compliments for Hundley.

“His development and his ability level raises everybody on the team, very similar to the teams I played on at UCLA,” Donahue said. “We had Gary Beban. When you have Gary Beban, you’re going to have a good team if he doesn’t get hurt. And all the other players around Gary Beban are going to rise to a different level because Gary Beban is on the team.

“I think the same thing is true with a player like Brett Hundley. I really do. His ability and his leadership skills and all the things that he possesses help everybody on the team rise to a higher level. And I can’t say enough about how pleased I am about the job Jim has done, and his coaches. They’ve done a fabulous job.”

Mora is the fourth UCLA coach since Donahue’s Bruins won the Rose Bowl. Since then, Bob Toledo — who coached a Rose Bowl loss in 1999 — Karl Dorrell, Neuheisel and Mora have led them in bowl games at Las Vegas, Fresno, El Paso and other sites that sound like stops on a discount airline’s cross-country itinerary.

Mora said a few weeks ago he’s had to set his expectations higher. “Our aim is to be special. Our aim is not to be average,” he said.

That means a major bowl game, not an afterthought plugged in among Christmas specials and appetizers before the main event. The Rose Bowl will host its annual game on New Year’s Day and five days later will be site of the Bowl Championship Series title contest. Donahue can tell Mora about the exhilaration of winning in Pasadena and being carried out on the shoulders of your players and into history.

“They bill it as the Granddaddy of them all — it is. It’s a fact,” said Donahue, 69, a father of three and granddaddy of eight.

“Throughout my coaching career we went to many different bowl games. The only major bowl game that I would say I wasn’t in as a player, assistant coach or head coach is the Sugar Bowl. But I can tell you that all the bowl games we went to, the Rose Bowl is the greatest experience. And hopefully, UCLA will be back in there this year. And if not this year, then maybe next year. That’s what I think’s on the horizon for the team.”

How far off is that horizon? The Bruins’ next two games, at Stanford and at Oregon, will play a role in determining the answer. “That’s the meat and potatoes of our season,” safety Randall Goforth said. “We’ve got to attack it.”

And now that Donahue has left his name at the Rose Bowl to join his indelible legacy, the Bruins will have another reminder of what it means to be special and not settle for average.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

For the record: An earlier version of this column said the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day would be the Bowl Championship Series title contest. The Rose Bowl will host its annual game on Jan. 1 and the BCS title game on Jan. 6.

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