LOS ANGELES -- On one hand, UCLA’s game at California on Saturday is just the next hurdle UCLA must clear in its quest to escape more than a decade of mediocrity.
On the other hand, it’s a pretty big hurdle.
The No. 25 UCLA Bruins (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) play at California (1-4, 0-2) Saturday at 7 p.m. in a game to be televised by the Pac-12 Networks. UCLA will be looking to end a run of mini failures that has seemingly paralleled its struggles as a program.
The Bruins haven’t won in Berkeley since 1998, a span of six consecutive losses in which the Bruins have been outscored 222-129. In the 13 seasons since that last win at Memorial Stadium, UCLA has gone 81-80, had six losing records and won more than seven games only twice.
A victory over a struggling Cal team Saturday won’t be cause for any parades in Westwood, but ending that losing streak would certainly be a significant step toward burying the recent failures of UCLA football and could be seen as a sign that things are, finally, headed in a different direction.
“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t won there in that long,” said quarterback Kevin Prince, who started a 35-7 loss to the Golden Bears in 2010. “But we feel like this team is completely different than last year’s and any past year’s so I don’t see why we would compare it to any of those teams that haven’t won there since 1998.”
One thing that is different than most of those teams is that the Bruins are ranked. The last time UCLA played at Cal as a ranked team was in 2000—the first game of the current losing streak. Then No. 13, the Bruins lost, 46-38 in triple overtime.
But an even bigger difference is that the Bruins aren’t paying attention to that ranking. They also aren’t paying attention to their record or Cal’s record. Coach Jim Mora has preached since Day 1 that the only way to sustained success is to forget about the past and not look ahead to the future. The task at hand is the only one that matters to Mora.
“We keep the demands high and try to keep the focus narrow,” Mora said. “We don’t talk about what happened last week, we just talk about what the challenges are for this week. It’s about becoming consistent and that’s the way you do that is to focus on the process.”
The Bruins have bought in. When they got off to a 3-0 start that included an impressive victory over Nebraska and rose to No. 19 in the national rankings, they weren’t patting themselves on the back. When they lost to Oregon State, they put it behind them and got busy preparing for the next game at Colorado. They won, 42-14 in one of the largest margins of victory on the road by a UCLA team over the last 10 seasons.
“You have to approach every day as a separate goal,” linebacker Damien Holmes said. “You can’t think about at a long-term goal. If you want to think that, then it’s going to be a long season. You have to have short-term goals and that’s the next practice and the next game.”
For several years now, UCLA has talked about turning around the program, returning it to the national relevance it had during much of the mid-1970’s into the late 1990’s. There has been hope over the years, win streaks and victories that seemed to be program changing, but UCLA has finished a season ranked only once since 1998 and went more than four years without sniffing the rankings until cracking the top 25 this season.
“Before when we’ve had promising starts we’ve kind of found a level of complacency and not brought the same intensity that we did the week before and just kind of settled,” Prince said. “We weren’t shooting to get better every week so I think we learned that and I think we’re applying that now.”
A prime example of that is this week, Prince said. Where a past team might be talking about trying to end the losing streak at California and using it as motivation as they prepare for Saturday’s game, this team is focused only on preparing to play the Golden Bears the same way they would be preparing for any game.
“The only thing we want to do is win,” Prince said. “It’s a Pac-12 game and that’s what’s important. Ending the streak would be a nice by-product of winning, but that’s not what guys are talking about in the locker room. Nobody is mentioning it.”
Rankings, records and streaks don’t seem to matter much to these Bruins. The only thing they want to do with their ranking is improve it. Instead of finding satisfaction in a job well done, the Bruins continue to look for ways to improve. And instead of worrying about ending the streak, they simply want to play to their potential.
“I like to think that we’re not externally motivated,” Holmes said. “I like to think that we are self motivated by getting better and that no circumstance is going to change the way we work."
The devil is in the details, offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo said. In order to keep the program moving forward, each player has to try to do one thing better every day in practice. Whether it's a blocking technique, footwork, better discipline or becoming more in tune with your assignments, there is always room to get better.
“I think even when a team is rolling, you can still get better at different things,” Su’a-Filo said. “It’s very rare that you have a team that doesn’t have anything to work on. Those are special teams and we’re trying to get there.”