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Bruins Will Go for This Title First

College football: With victory over Washington, UCLA assures itself of no worse than a Rose Bowl berth.

November 14, 1998|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — From somewhere beneath all that stuff piled up around the bunker--the confetti to celebrate the 8-0 start and the slings and arrows to denigrate the 8-0 start--comes word that UCLA can clinch the Pacific 10 title today. By the way.

Sights set on the national championship will be temporarily diverted to what has become a lesser crown. So the Bruins go forth today in noisy Husky Stadium, planning to keep their place as one of the teams on a path for the Fiesta Bowl but with an eye cocked toward the greatest fallback in college football: a Rose Bowl berth.

A victory over Washington today, in a game that appears likely to also include the requisite cold and rain, guarantees a Jan. 1 appearance in Pasadena. That's the worst the Bruins could do, no matter what happens next week against USC or two weeks after that at Miami. Just in case the stakes--staying in the hunt for the invitation they really want--weren't high enough already.

"I had never really thought about it," linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "I don't know if I assumed, but I was always looking for a national championship. I never thought about the Pac-10 championship. I just thought that was one of the goals along the way, to get to the ultimate goal, the national championship."

Coach Bob Toledo, aware that such a sentiment might have existed, addressed the Bruins on Monday about the importance of the here and now, even if greater glory should follow.

"A lot of people will look down the road, yeah," Toledo said. "And that's why some people get knocked off. They don't take care of business at hand. They look too far in the future. That's part of my job, to make sure these kids don't do that same thing.

"Our No. 1 goal right now is to beat Washington so we can secure the Pac-10 championship and be the representative in the Rose Bowl. That's our No. 1 goal right now. If we do that, then we can take the next step and worry about down the road. But this is a championship football game, and that's how we've got to approach it."

Indeed, there is no denying the importance of a win today, especially if it coincided with Arizona's losing at California. The Bruins could claim the conference title if either happened, thanks to their 52-28 victory in Tucson, but getting the double would allow UCLA to clinch outright, no tiebreaker involved.

That provides even greater motivation, whether it happens today or on rivalry weekend, when Arizona plays Arizona State and USC goes to Pasadena to face UCLA.

No Bruin team has stood alone atop the conference, without needing a tiebreaker to determine the winner, since 1985.

Only three have done it in either the Pacific 10 or Pacific 8, a timeline that reaches back to 1968.

Only five have done it in the last 40 years.

Now, this one can.

"That's definitely something to be proud of, when someone can actually say, 'The worst you can do is the Rose Bowl,' " senior guard Andy Meyers said. "That bowl is the granddaddy of 'em all. It's awesome. It's our home stadium. It's everything that we've wanted to achieve before this year, everything that we possibly could have achieved before this year. It's so huge.

"All of us were talking. We're all, 'Well, how many times have you been to the Rose Bowl?' And everybody's answer is, 'Zero.' 'How many times have you been sole Pac-10 champions?' 'Zero, we shared it last year.' My first year, when they did go to the Rose Bowl and I had a medical hardship with [center Shawn Stuart], we went but we still shared it with somebody else.

"No one's ever won it outright. No one can just hang the banner and not say co-champion. No one can say just champion. . . . No one here has done that on this team, and that's important to us."

The last three UCLA conference champions, in fact, tied for the best record, even a year ago, when the opening-day loss at Washington State sent the Cougars to the Rose Bowl. And of the two other times, 1987 and '93, only the latter got them to Pasadena on New Year's Day.

Not that they want to be there this season either. But it's the next-best thing to Tempe. Not to mention the best thing in the conference.

"We just know," Ayanbadejo said, "that this week is a ring game."

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