Bruins better scratch seven-game itch

LOS ANGELES -- It’s about time for the UCLA Bruins to get their seven-game itch.

UCLA (5-2) is on a bye week, sitting on their best record to this point in the season in five years. It’s only the fifth time in the last 14 seasons the Bruins have been 5-2 or better through the first seven games.

But seven games do not a season make, and the Bruins know that all too well. In 2003 and 2007, they started 5-2 only to finish 6-7. In 2001, they started 6-1 and finished 7-4.

It won’t be easy to erase that trend as the Bruins face much stiffer competition in the next five games than they have in the first seven, with games against the Arizona State Sun Devils (5-2), USC Trojans (5-1) and Stanford Cardinal (4-2) still to come.

“We’re about to see what kind of team we are,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “We had some success in the first half of our season and now we’re going to see how we can deal with it and how we can handle it and how hard we want to work and how bad we want it.”

UCLA’s first-half success is relative. Its five wins came against teams that are a combined 11-20, and of those teams only Nebraska has a winning record. UCLA’s only conference victories are against expansion Pac-12 teams Utah and Colorado.

The Bruins looked OK in a 27-20 loss to the No. 8 Oregon State Beavers, but two weeks later looked dreadful in a 43-17 loss at California (3-4). It’s difficult to figure out if the team is getting better as the season goes on, so it’s no wonder Bruins fans still have questions and doubts about the legitimacy of UCLA’s position at this point in the season.

“It’s warranted,” senior receiver Joseph Fauria said. “We have a lot of disbelievers with our past non-success. It’s only fair for them to believe that and we have to win more games for people to start jumping on the bandwagon.”

A look at the statistics suggests UCLA is not really getting better. They’ve progressively dropped each week in several major offensive statistical categories including rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.

Through three weeks this season, the Bruins were averaging 311 yards rushing per game; now they are averaging 216 -- nearly 100 yards fewer. Passing is at 288, down from a peak of 326 in Week 4. Total offense is at 505.29, which is more than 115 yards fewer than the 622 UCLA was averaging through four games.

Defensively, UCLA is showing improvement against the run, giving up 148.29 yards per game after allowing 191 through three weeks. But that is offset by a decline in pass defense. UCLA is giving up 250.86 yards through the air after giving up only 204 through three games.

You could say those numbers are skewed because the Bruins have played tougher competition the last four games than they did the first three ... but then that doesn’t bode well for the tougher games coming up.

“We have a tough second half of the year and we’re excited for it,” linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. “You don’t want easy games; you want hard, tough games. I think we feel like we are improving. I know we are a better team than we were last year, and I know we are continuing to get better each week. We’ll just come out and perform and see what happens.”

That’s not to say the Bruins are satisfied with where they are. A one-touchdown loss to Oregon State and the blowout loss to California linger in their minds. An ugly 21-14 victory over the Utah Utes also isn’t going to make anyone believe this is a Rose Bowl-bound team any time soon, so the Bruins have some things to prove over the remainder of the season.

“I don’t think we have reached our potential in any area,” safety Dalton Hilliard said. “Everyone has something to get better at. We are not satisfied with anything, yet, and we’re going to come out guns ablazing after this bye and make sure that we show everybody that we are one heck of a team.”

The Bruins are one victory away from becoming bowl eligible. If they can win at Arizona State next Saturday, it would mark only the third time since 1998 they have become bowl eligible before the end of October.

But mere bowl eligibility, something for which the Bruins have strived for much of the last decade, isn’t going to cut it with this year’s team. These Bruins are looking to go to a respectable bowl, not the bottom-of-the-barrel selections the Bruins got in 2009 and 2011, when they became bowl eligible in the second-to-last week of the season.

“Eagle Bank Bowls, Kraft Hunger Bowls, those are bowls they just throw you in,” defensive lineman Datone Jones said. “The last ones, you know. It’s time for UCLA to start playing in the bigger ones. We have great players on this team and great players deserve to play in the bigger games.”

And UCLA controls its own destiny at this point. The Bruins are a game behind Pac-12 South co-leaders USC and Arizona State, but have games coming up against both teams and could take the division by winning out.

It doesn’t matter that the schedule remains formidable, the Bruins say, as long as they avoid some of the inconsistencies that led to low moments in the first seven games. They believe they can put together a strong finish to the season.

“We had some ups and downs, but I feel like we answered all the downs so far,” Fauria said. “We are still in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title and if anyone doesn’t believe that they need to check themselves. We can’t look to far ahead but, we have a chance to put a Rose in our mouth and I’m excited for our team and I think we’re going in the right direction.”