Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo makes a catch despite defensive pressure… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
PALO ALTO — The last time UCLA played in the Rose Bowl game, Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley was 5 years old.
"I was a little boy," Hundley said. "A very little boy."
It has been a long time. A very long time.
The Bruins' last bowl trip to Pasadena was after the 1998 season, making this the longest Rose Bowl drought in UCLA history. That can end Friday night.
All the Bruins have to do is beat Stanford, a team they lost to last Saturday. If the Bruins have adjusted enough to turn the tables, they will be off to the Rose Bowl. If not, either the Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl awaits and Stanford — along with either Nebraska or Wisconsin — will paint Pasadena red.
This season has been a quick turnaround for the Bruins, who had a record of 6-8 a year ago. But it has also been a long journey. Nine players remain from the 2008 recruiting class, which came to Westwood vowing to change the culture.
The Bruins were 21-30 the last four seasons.
"It was looking a little cloudy for a couple years," said cornerback Aaron Hester, a fifth-year senior. "It's been a long, long road. Now everything is in front of us."
To keep moving forward, the No. 17 Bruins (9-3) need to avenge a 35-17 loss to the eighth-ranked Cardinal that moved the game to Stanford Stadium.
Both teams are in the unusual situation of playing the same team in a six-day span. UCLA will try to stop Stanford from running the way it did in the first game. The Cardinal, with the hard-charging Stepfan Taylor running behind a big and physical offensive line, is built to trample people and did exactly that against the Bruins, rushing for 221 yards.
What is different from last weekend's game is what is at stake.
"Everyone always said, 'You win this, you get to go play in that," said UCLA defensive end Datone Jones, a fifth-year senior. "Well, if we win this, then we do go play in that."
That being the Rose Bowl.
Neither school has recent memories of the game.
UCLA was on the precipice of the national title game in 1998, then lost to Miami. The Bruins settled for the Rose Bowl and were beaten by Wisconsin. UCLA has not won a Rose Bowl since beating Iowa in the 1986 game.
Stanford last went to Pasadena in the 1999 season but has not won a Rose Bowl since Don Bunce and the "Thunder Chickens" defense beat Michigan in the 1972 game.
Stanford is in the midst of a football renaissance, with a 33-5 record the last three seasons. The Cardinal will appear in a fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history. A spot in the Rose Bowl would be the perfect finish for Cardinal seniors.
"I saw the recruiting class we had when I signed and I got excited," recalled Taylor, who is from Mansfield, Texas. "I didn't know too much about Stanford, but I was in awe of the recruiting class. We could do big things."
UCLA's seniors came to Westwood with similar dreams.
"I always wanted to play in the Rose Bowl, it's what I came here for," Hester said. "Now that we have the opportunity. I can accomplish my goal."
How much UCLA showed last week against Stanford remains unknown. The Bruins had already clinched their place in the Pac-12 title game as the South Division champion. Stanford needed a victory in order to hold off Oregon for the North title.
Hundley was sacked seven times and didn't use his running skills nearly as much as he did in a 38-28 victory over USC on Nov.17. The Bruins' defense was pushed around too, with Taylor running for 142 yards.
Some changes are certain, but Jim Mora, UCLA's first-year coach, was not in a sharing mood with the media this week.
"You've got to have wrinkles for every opponent," was as far as Mora would go.
Stanford Coach David Shaw was equally vague. "Some things we'll change, some things we'll tweak," he said.
Shaw's big concern was "complacency. … to think UCLA is going to come up here and roll over for us is completely wrong."
UCLA players say he's right about that.
Jones said he never doubted that the Bruins would get to this point, one victory from the Rose Bowl.
"We always had the potential," Jones said. "We came here to win big games."
Now they have a big one to win.
"I won't know about the culture change until after the game," UCLA senior running back Johnathan Franklin said. "If you're going to change something, you've got to be the best.
"And you can't be the best unless you win."