Over the next two weeks, UCLA has the opportunity to change the course of the Pac-12, nay, the college football landscape. With back-to-back road games at Stanford and at Oregon, the Bruins could shake up the national championship picture and assert themselves as one of the top two or three teams in the country.
But first things first.
“We’re only thinking about this week and playing Stanford,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “It’s an opportunity for us to go on the road and play a very, very good football team. A team that beat us in the Pac-12 championship game. A team that we have a ton of respect for.”
Unlike the Cardinal last week, the ninth-ranked Bruins were able to come out of Salt Lake City with a victory two weeks ago. And it’s not like Utah gave the world a blueprint on how to beat Stanford -- a team Mora says has “no weaknesses.” Rather it was what Utah didn’t do -- namely making mistakes against the Cardinal -- which UCLA hopes to replicate when it travels to Palo Alto on Saturday. Do that, and Mora likes his team’s chances. And having seen Utah intimately just two weeks ago, he wasn’t shocked by the Utes win.
“They are big and they’re tough and they’re physical and they’re smart and they are very well-coached,” Mora said. “In order to have a chance against a good team like Stanford, you have to play as mistake free as you are capable of playing because if you don’t, they are going to make you pay for it. What Utah did was limit their mistakes and they were solid and they didn’t give up big plays other than the kickoff return. That’s what we have to be able to do.”
UCLA is coming off of a 37-10 home win over Cal, where the Bruins totaled 488 yards and quarterback Brett Hundley completed 31 of 41 passes for 410 yards and three scores. Mora said he was pleased with the production, but felt like his team left too many plays on the field. For example, three times the Bruins got inside the Cal 10-yard line and had to settle for field goals. Not mistakes, just not touchdowns.
Efficiency will be key in Palo Alto, where the Cardinal have a 12-game home winning streak, the third longest in the nation behind Michigan and South Carolina.
This will be the third time in 10 months the teams have met. As noted above, the teams played in the Pac-12 championship game, which Stanford won 27-24 at home. Just one week earlier, the Cardinal thumped the Bruins 35-17 in Pasadena in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“I don’t know that their personality has changed a whole lot,” Mora said. “They are who they are, which is a tough, physical team that doesn’t make mistakes and hurt themselves. You see a team with a lot more confidence in their quarterback -- rightfully so with the way he’s played -- so they aren’t afraid to spread it out a little bit or and sling it down the yard. They have no weaknesses. That’s the thing when you look at them. You see no weakness in their team. They are a team that is always going to give themselves a chance to win. You have to respect that. It shows they have a smart football team that is really well-coached.”
For the Cardinal, who tumbled from No. 5 in the rankings to No. 13, it’s all about staying the course.
“I always talk about perspective and not making things too big and not letting them be too small, but looking at where we are,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “Here’s where we are, 5-1. We’re not bowl eligible yet, before we talk about anything else. We’re still in a battle for our conference to try to get to the conference championship game. We’re a game behind Oregon and tied with Oregon State. It’s all about perspective and understanding where we are and what we need to do.
“We’re a mature group, I have to make sure my focus is on what’s important and remind them, as I have been all year, not to worry about what other people say. All that matters is how well we play and we didn’t play well last week. If you don’t play well in our conference, you’ll lose."