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Seeking next level, not leveling off, UCLA opens season Saturday

After years of mediocrity, Bruins went 9-5 and beat USC in 2012. The season that starts Saturday vs. Nevada is about building on that, meeting bigger expectations.

August 30, 2013|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA running back Jordon James, left, celebrates with teammate Jerry Rice Jr. following a touchdown against Colorado last season. The Bruins had a breakout season in 2012. Will they achieve more success in 2013?
UCLA running back Jordon James, left, celebrates with teammate Jerry Rice… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )

UCLA is trying to redefine itself.

It used to be that keeping the USC drum major from sticking a toy sword in the Rose Bowl turf constituted a victory over the Trojans.

Leaning on the Pac-12 Conference to remove from its promotional video the clip of the drum major doing his stick shtick was considered a highlight.

Complaining about USC placing quarterback Matt Barkley's smiling face above Westwood was the closest thing the Bruins got to a billboard campaign.

What a difference a year made.

UCLA dominated USC — its football team, not its band — last season. The highlight-reel moment was when linebacker Anthony Barr stuck Barkley in the Rose Bowl turf. And the billboards around Los Angeles now have UCLA players staring down and warning, "The Bruins are coming."

How giddy are UCLA fans? It's like finding no line at Diddy Riese Cookies in Westwood.

However, it says, "The Bruins are coming," not "The Bruins have arrived."

Big difference.

UCLA opens its football season against Nevada on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl on the heels of a 9-5 season that included a 38-28 thumping of USC. The No. 21 Bruins also enter the game on a three-game losing streak, including a 49-26 thumping by Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.

"Our goal is to go to the Rose Bowl, win a national championship," second-year Coach Jim Mora said. "The fans have the same expectations."

Asked if there was a difference in those expectations, Mora chuckled. "Sometimes it's hard for people to see there is a process that you have to go through to get to where you want to be," he said. "We're in a culture that expects immediate gratification."

Things do change fast.

USC entered the 2012 season ranked No. 1. Yet the only chart the Trojans top this season is at

The Bruins are expected to reach the Pac-12 championship game for the third consecutive season — in 2011, they were stand-ins for probation-saddled USC. They return one of the conference's most exciting players in sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, and a top NFL prospect on defense in Barr.

"You can feel the atmosphere around town," safety Anthony Jefferson said. "UCLA fans are more enthusiastic."

It's easy to understand why. The Bruins have not played in a Rose Bowl game since the 1998 season, a 14-year drought that is the longest in the program's history. UCLA had an 81-80 record from 1999-2011, losing 12 of 13 games to USC.

"When you look at UCLA football, we had a stretch recently that was maybe as low as it has been in 40-50 years," said Ed Kezirian, a former UCLA player and assistant coach.

Rock bottom came in 2011, when UCLA finished 6-8 and was dismantled, 50-0, by USC. "You have a losing record and get clobbered by your rival, it doesn't get worse than that," Kezirian said.

Out of those ashes came Mora, who debuted with a nine-win season. Even fans who loathed the hire — urged fans to complain to UCLA's chancellor — have backed off.

"It's been a while since UCLA has generated this much excitement," Kezirian said. "It's fun."

The billboard campaign, designed to push ticket sales, has added to the frenzy.

"I thought there was only one," Hundley said. "They are all over the dang town. I like it. I thrive on the excitement of the fans. Let's keep going. Let's keep pushing through the threshold."

Billboards do not translate into success, though. Remember that the Lakers put up many asking Dwight Howard to stay. He left. And Barkley and USC went 7-6 last year.

Even Hundley, who has as much swagger as any player, wants to tap the brakes a little. "One game at a time," he said. "We can't look too far into the future."

There are questions and concerns. The secondary has been rebuilt. The offensive line remains a work in progress. Running back Johnathan Franklin — who took pressure off Hundley — is in the NFL. The Bruins have only 13 seniors — including two who are injured — and eight juniors on scholarship.

So some of the bluster around the program has been tuned out. ""The billboards are cool, but that's just noise," linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. "You don't listen to any of the noise."

The reasons why are well documented in Westwood.

In 2007, UCLA was coming off a victory over USC and was expected to contend for the conference title. The Bruins finished 6-7 and coach Karl Dorrell was fired.

Even marketing campaigns can be dangerous. In 2008, UCLA advertisements proclaimed that the "college football monopoly in Los Angeles was over."

It wasn't. UCLA went 21-30 the next four seasons and coach Rick Neuheisel was fired.

Another nine-win season would go a long way toward supporting the idea of change. Another victory over USC would enhance that — the Bruins have not beaten the Trojans in back-to-back seasons since 1997-98.

"It would show that this program was not a one-year thing," Hundley said. "It would show what we can be, something greater than what we are right now."

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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