PASADENA, Calif. -- The UCLA Bruins played like a team with nothing to win.
The Bruins were trounced 35-17 by the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at the Rose Bowl in the type of performance that was pretty easy to see coming.
Stanford was the team with everything to lose and played like it. The Cardinal (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) needed the win to clinch the Pac-12 North Division and secure a spot in the conference title game. UCLA (9-3, 6-3) had little to gain, having already clinched the Pac-12 South with an emotional victory last week against crosstown rival USC.
The Bruins say they gave it their best shot, didn’t hold anything back and were playing to win because they want to win every game. They kept their starters in until the end, called timeouts trying to score in the fourth quarter and continued to fight, but came up short in trying to match the intensity of a team that would have been out of contention for the conference title with a loss.
Against a team playing with the urgency of a must-win scenario, wanting to win just to win simply wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t do anything during the week that made it seem like we made it already,” offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo said. “We knew this was an important game and we had to come ready, but they were just a little more ready than us and we didn’t execute.”
It’s not that the Bruins lay down flat or didn’t put forth their best effort or didn’t want to win. It’s just that Stanford came in with the attitude of a team backed into a corner, executed each play as if it could be its last and demonstrated the difference between a team that needs to win and one that merely wants to win.
The UCLA players and coaches stuck to their company line after the game, telling everyone who asked that they had the same focus, same commitment to winning and same competitive nature that they have had every week this season. But the team on the field told a different story.
The UCLA receivers dropped more passes than normal, defenders missed easy tackles that turned into big gains and the team as a whole committed 12 penalties for a season-high 135 yards. This squad appeared unfocused and clearly was not the same one that had won its five previous games to earn a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
“We wanted to win this game today,” Bruins coach Jim Mora said. “That was our objective -- to win the game today -- and we didn’t do it. We came up short. But to insinuate that our players did not give their best effort would not be correct.”
If that’s the case, then the Pac-12 title game might not be worth watching. Giving your all at home and coming up with an 18-point loss doesn’t bode well for a championship tilt against the same team -- in its backyard -- in six days.
But that game will be different, to be sure.
That game will be winner-take-all, with a spot in the Rose Bowl as the prize. In that game, both teams will have a do-or-die mentality and the focus and intensity that come with it. UCLA had better hope so.
Bruins safety Andrew Abbott agreed.
“It’s for a championship,” he said.
Only one team had that championship mentality Saturday, because the game carried no significant ramifications for UCLA. The only thing the Bruins could have gained with a victory Saturday was home-field advantage for the Pac-12 title game, but that hope was lost after the Oregon Ducks defeated the Oregon State Beavers.
By the time the UCLA-Stanford game kicked off, Oregon had a sizable lead over Oregon State and the result was not in dispute. At that point, UCLA was playing only to reach double digits in wins, something Mora says should have been enough motivation.
“We’re trying to create a culture about winning,” Mora said. “The way you try to win is you go for it every single time you step on the field. And if you don’t do that, you cheat everybody.
“You cheat yourself, you cheat your players, you cheat your alumni, you cheat the students that support you, you cheat your fans, and we’re trying not to do that. We’re trying to be great.”
It’s just difficult to do that every week, especially after a run of four must-win games in the second half of the season. And even more so when you’re in a game that isn’t a must-win for you but is for the opponent.
“I don’t buy that we weren’t ready for this game. They just came ready to play,” Abbott said. “We were playing for a lot, too, and if the attitude that we weren’t crept into the team, then it’s got to go. A loss like this, you can just spiral and spiral. We can’t let that happen. We’ll be motivated to get back at them.”
That should be easier Friday, because the Bruins will have something on the line.