Bruins hope to stay on top after resounding win

Jim Mora and his coaching staff had to be pleased after UCLA's 66-10 win over Arizona on Saturday. Andrew Fielding/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- The catbird seat offers a pretty darn nice view.

It has been a while since the UCLA Bruins sat there, so you'll have to forgive them if it all seems so new, but there they are in the driver's seat for a spot in the Pac-12 conference title game and possibly the Rose Bowl.

And after a resounding 66-10 victory over Arizona on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, those thoughts suddenly don't seem so farfetched.

These Bruins are for real, with control of their own destiny for the rest of this season -- a far cry from last season's mediocre Bruins, who advanced to the Pac-12 title game only after an unlikely confluence of events in the final weeks of the season and then only because USC was ineligible for postseason play.

This year, if the Bruins get there, it will be no fluke.

"It's awesome because last year you were thinking about, 'This team has to win and that team has to lose,'" tight end Joseph Fauria said. "None of that anymore. It's all us. We knew that last week and now it's even more so. These last three games are a playoff. We have to win out to get to the championship game. It's in our reach, it's in our grasp and we're excited for the challenge."

UCLA (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) is a half game ahead of USC (6-3, 4-3) in the Pac-12 South Division standings. The Bruins play at Washington State (2-7, 0-6) on Saturday and then have their crosstown showdown with the Trojans on Nov. 17 in a game that is shaping up to be for the division crown.

The Bruins have their best record through nine games since starting 8-1 in 2005 and have reached seven wins in the regular season for the first time since 2006.

They entered the BCS standings this week at No. 18, one spot ahead of USC. They are No. 17 in the Associated Press rankings, four spots ahead of the Trojans. It is the first time in 10 years that UCLA has been ranked ahead of its crosstown rival, so it's no wonder the feeling is a bit unfamiliar.

"This team is not familiar with this success since I've been here," said senior cornerback Andrew Abbott, a captain. "The good thing is that no one knows what it feels like so we're just going along and seeing what it feels like."

Playing the way they did Saturday feels pretty good. The 66 points were the most UCLA had scored since 1997. An inconsistent UCLA defense held a high-powered Arizona offense to a season-low 257 yards and the game was a rout from the beginning as UCLA raced to a 28-0 lead and led 42-3 at halftime.

It's the kind of performance that can give a team a boost of confidence with some key games coming up. It's the type of effort that gets players to believe in what first-year coach Jim Mora and his staff are preaching, and it's the kind of lopsided win against a quality opponent that changes UCLA from perennial also-ran into a team to beat.

"It feels good to be in front," Abbott said. "It feels good to be in this situation. Everybody says 'oh, this has changed' and it has, but we can't get caught up in that. We're always the one chasing and we have to keep the same mindset and not get complacent. We don't consider ourselves being chased. We're chasing something."

That something is a Pac-12 title and there is still a long road ahead. For starters, Washington State is no easy place to play. Then comes USC, which started this season as the top-ranked team in the country. The final regular-season game is against Stanford (7-2, 5-1) but that game won't matter in the race if UCLA wins against Washington State and USC.

The Bruins are saying all the right things about having to take one game at a time and how Washington State is the only game that matters at this point, but they still have their eyes on the prize.

"It's a great feeling to know that we don't have to depend on anyone else," cornerback Sheldon Price said. "All it is is this team doing our thing and doing our job. As long as we keep doing that, we can see the prize."

Last year, the Bruins clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game even before playing their season finale against USC because last-place Colorado upset Utah in a Friday game the day before the UCLA-USC game. The Trojans were ineligible to participate so even though they trounced UCLA 50-0 and finished two games ahead of the Bruins, UCLA played for the title.

Because of that asterisk-stained division title, you won't find too many Bruins bragging about it.

"This team this year, we don't want to see that," Abbott said. "We don't want to see that we got in there because somebody else couldn't get there. We want to fight our way there."

And should they get there through the front door, it will be a much different feeling.

"Then we earned it," Price said. "We earned it."