SALT LAKE CITY -- This was the ultimate snow job.
Not so much the weather that stormed through Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday during the first half of UCLA’s 31-6 loss to Utah that knocked the Bruins from the top of the Pac-12 South standings, but more the notion that UCLA could actually hold on to that top spot with a road victory.
After getting embarrassed at Arizona in their last road trip with first place on the line, the Bruins showed up in a Utah snow storm and were frozen out of first place once again.
The Bruins have shown all season an innate ability to bounce back from adversity, but not the ability to avoid it. They’ve shown the resiliency to overcome hard times and give hope by getting back into contention, but simply can’t manage to thrive when things are good.
The Bruins controlled their own destiny in the Pac-12 South race after defeating California and Arizona State the last two weeks and could have secured bowl eligibility with a victory at Utah, but they leave the Beehive State with neither control of the race nor bowl eligibility.
“We were super high on the mountain top when we were beating Cal and beating ASU and we’ve got to stay there,” said tight end Joe Fauria. “We can’t be going up and down, up and down. We’ve got to stay there and learn how to stay there and be mature enough to hold that number one spot.”
Learning how to do that is a process. UCLA has been embroiled in a culture of mediocrity for the better part of the last decade and doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to handle prosperity.
“Obviously we don’t have much experience at that,” quarterback Kevin Prince said.
That the Bruins followed each of their first four victories this season with a lopsided loss was the first indication that the team hadn’t learned to deal with success, but they seemed to have gotten overt that hurdle with consecutive victories the last two weeks.
But faced with the chance to capitalize on it and take a giant step forward, the Bruins fell flat.
“It’s a mindset,” cornerback Andrew Abbott said. “Being that team is a mindset. We have to establish it as a culture here. It’s not just a mindset for one week. We’ve got to change that culture at UCLA and be a top-notch team and that starts right now. It’s got to crack somewhere.”
It was unlikely to crack in Utah given the way the Bruins have played on the road over the past four seasons. UCLA is now 5-17 away from home since Rick Neuheisel took over as coach in 2008. Some of UCLA’s most memorable victories during that span have come on the road, but it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be turning around.
“It just seems like every time we come on the road we just lay an egg,” Abbott said. “It hurts more than anything because we know the type of team that we have and that team can never be displayed on the road, it seems like.”
There are myriad reason why playing on the road is more difficult than at home, but the inability to focus seemed to hamper the Bruins most on Saturday. They had 12 penalties for 91 yards, including six false start penalties.
“In order to be a front-running team you just have to win every game and then you’ll be a front-running team,” receiver Ricky Marvray said. “Do we have the components to be one of those top-tier teams? Yes we do. I just think it’s a matter of we have to focus more. We’re definitely holding ourselves back and what we’re displaying on the field is not what we’re really about, that’s for sure.”
Now, the Bruins have a chance to do what they do best: Bounce back. They have followed every loss this season with a victory. Chances are good for another with last-place Colorado coming to the Rose Bowl next week and the Bruins can become bowl eligible and a berth in the Pac-12 championship game is still mathematically within reach.
But time is not on UCLA’s side. With only two games remaining, they would have to win out -- including a victory over first-place USC -- to have a chance. The Bruins say they will take do-or-die mentality into the final weeks, knowing that in order to salvage any semblance of success for the season, they must win their final two games.
“Time is running out, that’s the truth,” Abbott said. “It’s just how bad we want it. We have two games left and it’s about how bad we want it. The Xs and Os, the personnel -- all that is out the window now. It’s two weeks. How bad do you want to win these two games?”