PULLMAN, Wash. — Now UCLA players can dare to think about USC, and dare to dream.
The Bruins were hardly impressive Saturday. They hardly had to be. Beating Washington State seems the inalienable right of every Pac-12 team this season.
So the Bruins' herky-jerky 44-36 at victory Martin Stadium cleared the way for more important matters . . . the Trojans and the South Division title.
Brett Hundley threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns. The Bruins got big plays from the special teams, resulting in 14 points. The defense chipped in with a safety and returned a fumble for a touchdown.
And then the Bruins had to hang on at the end, after squandering most of the 44-14 lead they'd enjoyed in the final moments of the third quarter.
In short, it was just another Saturday night in Pullman for the Cougars (2-8 overall, 0-7 in conference play), and it allowed the Bruins (8-2, 5-2) to slink out of town with a sloppy, but needed, victory.
UCLA plays USC (7-3, 5-3) in the Rose Bowl on Saturday. This, though, will be for more than pride. The winner gets the Pac-12 South Division title and a spot in the conference championship game.
Coach Jim Mora's mantra, sometimes delivered with a stern look, demands that Bruins players forget about games after 24 hours, win or lose. The Washington State victory might get cleansed in 24 minutes.
USC is already occupying UCLA minds.
"This means the world to us with the position we're in and what's on the line," senior safety Andrew Abbott said. "We haven't got them since I've been here. It's going to be a sweet game to go into. It's going to be an emotional week. We know we got to get this one."
The Bruins were South Division champions a year ago, but only because the conference allowed them to call themselves champs. USC won the division, with a 50-0 victory over UCLA as the exclamation point.
The Trojans, though, were on probation, so UCLA faced Oregon in the title game.
Now the Bruins can go to the title game without explanations. All they have to do is beat the Trojans, who have won 13 of the last 14 games in the rivalry.
The NCAA has had more success against the Trojans than UCLA has in the last decade. Two USC wins over the Bruins were vacated as part of the Trojans' probation. Since 1998, UCLA has a lone 13-9 upset of No. 2 USC in 2006.
"It's a big game, for the city, last year, the rivalry, and it's going to show where this program is at," UCLA senior running back Johnathan Franklin said. "We always talk about turning things around. We've haven't beaten USC since I have been here."
UCLA needs to improve on Saturday's performance, considerably, to change that.
The 37-7 halftime lead certainly looked gaudy. But the Bruins know better. They seemed intent on playing down the Cougars' level. They just couldn't reach it.
What kept UCLA from more trouble in the first half was special teams. They blocked two field goals and two punts and forced a fumble on a kickoff return.
Sheldon Price returned a blocked field-goal attempt 68 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Bruins also scored after Stan McKay forced a fumble on a kickoff return in the second quarter.
Hundley was the Bruins' offense in the first half. He had 184 of their 203 total yards — 167 passing, 17 rushing.
He threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Franklin for a 14-7 lead with nine minutes left in the second quarter. He tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria moments later, after Fabian Moreau recovered the fumble on the kickoff.
A safety on a sack by Anthony Barr was followed by a touchdown pass from Hundley to Devin Fuller for a 30-7 lead. Eric Kendricks administered the coup de grace after Cassius Marsh stripped quarterback Connor Halliday of the ball. Kendricks scooped up the ball and went 40 yards for the touchdown.
The Bruin could exhale, almost, and start looking ahead to USC.
Said defensive end Datone Jones: "I'm an L.A. guy. I grew up in L.A. I've known all my life what this rivalry stands for. Last year, they beat us 50-0, so you know it's going to be big one."