Now comes the heavy lifting.
UCLA scraped off California on Saturday night. It took a little more effort than many thought would be necessary, and the Bruins went through some sluggish gyrations.
In the end, quarterback Brett Hundley and the Bruins did enough good things to overcome the bad in a 37-10 victory at the Rose Bowl.
Now all roads lead upward for the Bruins … or they are going to smack their skulls on the Pac-12 Conference’s glass ceiling?
UCLA plays at Stanford, currently ranked No. 5, on Saturday and at No. 2 Oregon on Oct. 26. Those two games could provide defining moments for the Bruins, and their quarterback.
“I embrace these games,” Hundley said. “I have always said, to be the best you have to beat the best.”
The No. 11 Bruins (5-0 overall, 2-0 on Pac-12 play) could be a top-10 team by Sunday. Stanford may not be. The Cardinal was upset by Utah, 27-21, Saturday.
Still, these are important rungs in climbing the Pac-12 ladder. Stanford is the defending conference champion, having beaten the Bruins in last year’s Pac-12 title game. Oregon is one of college football’s bluebloods.
“It’s a big two weeks for us,” Hundley said. “Big-time games, big-time opponents. But big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations. These games coming up show a lot.”
UCLA prepped for them with a less than big-time performance. Fortunately for the Bruins, the Bears (1-5, 0-3) were the perfect team against which to have an uneven effort.
The Bruins’ defense was on target. Safety Randall Goforth had an interception. Linebacker Anthony Barr recovered a fumble on a goal-line stand. Myles Jack ran around hitting anything not in a UCLA jersey.
The only transgression came from defensive end Cassius Marsh, who received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and was ejected from the game in the second quarter.
The Bears’ defense has earned a reputation this season for rolling over paws-up, and the Bruins did walk away with 488 total yards. Yet they struggled to put away a team that allowed Washington State to gain 643 yards a week earlier.
Hundley put up huge numbers, completing 31 of 41 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns. He took the Bruins 97 yards in the fourth quarter, finishing it with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Shaquelle Evans to massage the score.
Hundley completed 13 consecutive passes at one point and had the third-most yards passing by a UCLA quarterback.
Yet, there were times when the offense lurched along and Hundley had difficulty closing drives.
The Bruins had the ball inside the 10 three times and settled for Ka’imi Fairbairn field goals. Hundley missed receivers. Thomas Duarte dropped a sure touchdown pass.
“He missed a few,” Coach Jim Mora said. “But the guy passed for 410 yards; that’s pretty good. So I’m going to focus on that. If you want to focus on the missed throws in the end zone, you go ahead and do that. Tonight it is all about 410 yards and 37-10 win over Cal.”
Others were ready to focus on such things.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said, “Sometimes Kobe Bryant’s three-pointer isn’t calling. He’s still Kobe.”
Mazzone said that California loaded up to stop the run, and the Bruins gained only 78 yards rushing. The Bruins struggled on third down at times, converting seven of 15.
“We’re such a rhythm offense, once we make that first first down and get rolling, we’re hard to stop,” Mazzone said. “We missed a third and two and missed a couple other ones. When we do that, it seems like we can’t catch our rhythm.”
And, Hundley, he said, missed a couple of throws in the end zone and they got field goals.
Hundley was on the same page.
“We were 31 of 41 for 410 yards, and that looks so great in the stats,” Hundley said. “But you can do so much more than that. I did all right. I did OK. It could be a lot better.”
But it was a victory.
Earlier in the day, Stanford might have committed the cardinal sin of looking ahead. But that does little to take the luster off UCLA’s opportunity. Going to Palo Alto, followed by a journey to Eugene to play Oregon, could carry a daily-double payoff.
“These games can make people sit up in their seat and say, ‘All right, we got something,’” Hundley said.
Whatever the Bruins had Saturday, Mora can only hope it was of the 24-hour-virus variety.
“When you beat another Pac-12 team, 37-10, you take that and run with it,” Mora said.
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