PASADENA, Calif. — UCLA’s season began with promise, excitement and national rankings under new coach Jim Mora. A couple of losses later, the Bruins are in danger of sliding out of the Pac-12 title chase at midseason.
At least Utah is in an equally precarious position when the teams meet today.
Both schools look to bounce back from discouraging defeats in the Utes’ (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12) first visit to the Rose Bowl as a Pac-12 school. UCLA is smarting from a blowout loss at California, while Utah had an extra-long week to stew in a dismaying performance during Southern California’s 38-28 win in Salt Lake City.
In the eighth season of his stellar tenure at Utah, coach Kyle Whittingham has a bit more experience than Mora in reversing the momentum swings that can hit college teams. A loss to UCLA would put the Utes in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time under Whittingham, and the veteran coach is confident they can get back on track.
“Both teams are in need of a win,” Whittingham said. “We both have two conference losses. Obviously, it’s a big game for both teams.”
UCLA (4-2, 1-2) dropped out of the Top 25 after falling 43-17 in Berkeley, but Mora remains confident in his ability to fix his first college team. Mora paid close attention to his players’ reaction to their first major setback of the season, and he was impressed by the Bruins’ businesslike approach as they began the second half of their season.
“I was surprised when I turned on the film (of the Cal game) at how hard we played on defense,” Mora said. “Because when you look at the score, you think we must not have played very hard. ... The conventional wisdom is they must have quit. But the reality of it is, it looks bad, but we didn’t quit.”
Mora also has faith in quarterback Brett Hundley and an offensive line that faces a stern test from Star Lotulelei, the prime NFL prospect on Utah’s defensive line. The Bruins yielded five sacks at Cal, and have given up at least two in every game.
UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin is expected to play after getting banged up against Cal, and a strong running game could be the best way to take pressure off Hundley. If the cool freshman is having nightmares about getting pursued by Lotulelei, he isn’t sharing them.
“I trust in the offensive line, and they played their heart out,” said Hundley, who ranks 16th in the nation with more than 315 yards of total offense per game. “With injuries and stuff like that happening, you may not know who it is, but you’ve got to believe and understand and get the guys ready. I can’t say I’m not worried about there being pressure. I just know I have to be ready to handle it.”
Lotulelei and his teammates hope to provide that pressure after their early efforts against USC’s Matt Barkley faded down the stretch last week.
With three losses in their last four games, the Utes are flirting with mediocrity for perhaps the first time in Whittingham’s tenure. Utah has never won at the Rose Bowl, but a victory would propel the Utes into the second half with a .500 record and hope for another bowl berth.
“We definitely know what’s at stake if we want to go to a bowl game,” Lotulelei said. “We’ve got to win these last couple of games. But right now all that’s on my mind is UCLA. USC is done, but UCLA has some explosive players, and that’s where we have to put all our focus.”
Utah’s offense has stumbled badly since the injury loss of quarterback Jordan Wynn, ranking 114th out of 120 FBS teams in total offense. The Bruins’ defense has been tough and resilient under Mora’s direction, but UCLA has given up 70 points in its two losses.
“They’re only growing pains if you grow from it,” Mora said.