Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
The UCLA Bruins are in an odd position, but doing anything other than throwing themselves completely into winning would be a mistake.
The UCLA Bruins was guaranteed their spot in the Pac-12 title game when they beat the USC Trojans to clinch the South, but their opponent is still up in the air and the Bruins have an odd bit of influence over who they face. A win over the Stanford Cardinal opens the door to the Oregon Ducks (who would need a win over the Oregon State Beavers), but a loss means they would face Stanford again the following week, this time for the title. While it's natural to let the mind wander over what is or isn't in the best interest of the Bruins, I wouldn't expect anything less than than a complete effort on Saturday. Jim Mora is trying to prove a point, the Bruins have completely and fully devoted themselves to that, and nothing about that point includes anything about dogging it against Stanford.
I think Mora is the key to the Stanford game and beyond, and not really in the usual sense of game planning, Xs and Os. Watching the coach through the season, he's seemed to grow increasingly tongue-tied in post-game interviews, relying simply on stammering through statements about how proud he is of these kids. He's always been a coach who governs with emotion, and keeping the team from a crash or a hangover is the key to the coming weeks.
The Bruins were obviously keyed up for the USC game, as well they should have been. It's hard to avoid a slide after that, you can only stay so high for so long. But how long can that go on? In other words, if they have to double down on intensity for the final week of the season, can they do it again for the title? One last time for a bowl game? Mora has to care for the team's momentum as much as anything else, but that's his style. Whether he pulls it off or not is a separate question, but we can rest assured that he's mindful of it.
The good thing is there's a lot of momentum in how the Bruins play. They're not really a slow or methodical team, and that bites back at them some of the time. But there are big moments in games, the kinds of things that keep teams pumped up, and UCLA needs to feed on those. The defense hasn't exactly been spectacular, in the spectacle sense of the word, but the defense has quietly started making plays, and many of the same people are making big things happen on special teams. Two punts and two field goals against Wazzu, another punt and field goal against the Trojans. Those are the kinds of plays that keep the team running at their maximum, that give them a sense that they won't be stopped. It doesn't even have to be blocking kicks, specifically, the Bruins just need reasons to beat their chests and scream their heads off.
Stanford's defense isn't a small challenge for the Bruins. They're ranked second in the country against the run, giving up only 71.2 yards per game. The pass defense carries its weight, ranked 23rd in the country and giving up 257.1 yards per game. But Brett Hundley has stepped up in a big way since his four-interception performance against Cal. He has 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in the five games since, and the idea that he might be tasked with carrying the game has fallen from nerve wracking to simply worrisome.
UCLA opened the week favored over the Cardinal. The market took a look at UCLA, a look at the defensive performances Stanford has turned in, and the line moved from UCLA -1.5 to Stanford -2. That suits the Bruins. They were underdogs last week, too, and if they can hit this one with the urgency and intensity they applied to that one they have a really good chance at doing Oregon a big favor. That might not be such a big favor to themselves, but I don't think the Bruins can afford to aim for anything else.