Brett Hundley provided some heroics against Utah Thursday night. UCLA is 4-0 for the first time since 2005. Photo: USA Today Sports
I am running on four hours of sleep this morning but it was worth it after watching the way UCLA had to hold on against Utah last night. The Bruins built a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter but had to hold off a late flurry by the home Utes to get to 4-0 with a 34-27 victory. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley passed for 211 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 112 yards and another touchdown and the Bruins defense picked off six passes off the arm of Utah's Travis Wilson, the sixth coming in the final minute of the game to slam the door shut on a late rally.
UCLA forced six turnovers and managed to win by a single score. Ordinarily that may be a cause for some alarm, but considering UCLA pulled this one out on the road in what can be a tricky venue for some teams, and given the resiliency shown once again by this team leaves a bit of different impression. Between Thursday night at Utah and the way UCLA turned the game at Nebraska around, it looks as though this UCLA program has turned a corner and taken another step forward in their building of a Pac 12 contender.
Think about how UCLA is grown over the last few years. Two seasons ago UCLA had to apply for a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible for postseason play with a losing record. The Bruins reached the Pac 12 Championship Game despite being blown out by rival USC 50-0. The Trojans were serving a postseason ban and thus were ineligible for playing in the Pac 12 championship game. As a result, UCLA wiggled in with a 6-6 record, knowing that a loss would normally eliminate them from normal postseason circumstances. However, knowing the likely fate ahead of them, the school asked to be allowed to play in a bowl game since they realized they should not have been playing in the championship game anyway. UCLA did not belong in the same game or on the same field as Oregon that season, and it showed. A loss dropped the Bruins to a record of 6-7. Because they received the waiver from the NCAA, UCLA was allowed to play in a bowl game with a losing record, and they dropped the Fight Hunger Bowl to an Illinois team that entered the postseason losing six straight games.
Last season UCLA ushered in the Jim Mora era and quickly brought a new level of confidence to the field. UCLA earned their spot in the Pac 12 Championship Game last season and proved they could compete with Stanford by taking a lead in to the third quarter of the Pac 12 title game. Stanford proved to be too much for the Bruins that night en route to a Pac 12 championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl, but UCLA had built the foundation for future success. This season we are seeing the Bruins continue to build as they currently look like the Pac 12 South team to beat. A third straight trip to the Pac 12 Championship Game is something nobody would have predicted for UCLA when the conference expanded to 12 teams and introduced the title game, but that could be the realistic scenario developing this fall.
And it's not a fluke. This UCLA team is legit, but they have a huge set of challenges laying in front of them this month. Next week UCLA hosts Cal, which likely results in a win and a 5-0 start. After that UCLA will play back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon. The Cardinal and Ducks could be top five teams without a loss when UCLA comes to town, making these games the moment for UCLA to prove they are worthy of being in the Pac 12 championship conversation. Right now the Bruins belong in the conversation, as the Pac 12 South favorite right now, but the conversation is still heavily slanted toward the Pac 12 North powers at Stanford and Oregon, with both teams also being discussed in the BCS Championship discussion as well.
I don't think UCLA pulls off upsets in back-to-back weeks later this month, but a split certainly is not out of the question. For now, it will be important to not look past Cal. Otherwise all of this will go to waste.