UCLA-USC rivalry just another game to Mora

Jim Mora's previous detachment from the UCLA-USC rivalry seems to be serving him well. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- It turns out, the best man to coach UCLA this week doesn't care much about beating USC.

At least, Jim Mora doesn't care about beating USC any more than he cared about beating Rice or Houston or Arizona State.

Mora will lead his Bruins team on to the field Saturday at the Rose Bowl for the 76th installment in one of the most intense college football rivalries, but he insists on treating it like every other game.

The Pac-12 South Division title, a spot in the conference championship game and hopes for a Rose Bowl invitation hang in the balance, the first time since 1993 that the crosstown showdown carries such winner-take-all ramifications, but Mora refuses to let it become bigger than the Week 5 game -- whomever that was against.

The No. 17 Bruins (8-2, 5-2) have a better record than No. 18 USC (7-3, 5-3), are ranked ahead of the Trojans for the first time since 2001 and can earn some national buzz as a program with a victory Saturday. That's why a guy who has very little invested in the rivalry is the perfect man to coach the Bruins this week.

"It's almost like an unfair advantage," safety Andrew Abbott said. "I feel like he knows about the rivalry, but he never really cared that much about the rivalry. It kind of blocks out all the old history and it gives you a different feel that our coach doesn't care about what's happened in the past, he just knows this year. And that's the mindset that your team takes on."

Mora came to UCLA as the first football coach without a UCLA background -- as a player or coach -- since Red Sanders died just before the 1958 season. Sanders was the guy credited with saying "Beating 'SC is not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that."

Every coach since has adhered to that mantra, and those who don’t beat USC immediately draw the ire of the fan base, soon lose the support of the boosters and eventually end up out of Westwood.

But Mora's outside-the-box hire last December came with a naivety and unfamiliarity with this rivalry. He spent most of his career in the NFL, where rivalries such as this one do not exist. His head coaching stints came with the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons and it would be a stretch to find a true rival for either of those teams.

Mora saw it as a head-scratcher that one game could carry so much importance. Every week in the NFL is a potential loss, so getting caught up in anything other than the schemes, strengths and weaknesses of that week's opponent is a recipe for failure, and he brought that type of singular focus to the Bruins. It has come in handy, especially during a week such as this when distractions pile up.

"He taught us to focus," safety Dalton Hilliard said. "Not only have we not talked about this game at all this year before this week but there hasn't been any discussion of Southern Cal at all. It's amazing that this man has been able to keep us focused every week on that opponent only. We haven't looked ahead at all this year."

That's not to say Mora is oblivious to the importance of UCLA's rivalry with USC. He has been made well aware of its intensity this year, first when he regularly drew criticism for referring to USC as "Southern Cal" -- a term the Trojans prefer not be used -- and threw himself into the fire of the rivalry when he made preseason comments critical of the safety around USC's campus.

He has openly talked about how he and Lane Kiffin speak on the phone occasionally and acknowledged that he likes the USC coach -- something UCLA coaches are not supposed to admit.

But those kinds of naive behaviors further expose Mora's unfamiliarity with the rivalry and therefore enhance his ability to detach the emotions from the game and focus on the task at hand.

"He has no history with the UCLA and USC rivalry," Abbott said. "He had nothing to do with it before this week so he never mentioned it. He de-emphasized it. From a mental standpoint, it's good as a player because you just get behind your coach."

A change in approach can't hurt the Bruins. UCLA has lost 12 of the last 13 games in this rivalry, including five in a row. The most recent memory is a historic 50-0 drubbing last year after then-coach Rick Neuheisel had talked about how UCLA had closed the gap between the schools.

The only gaps Mora cares about are the run gaps his defenders will be responsible for filling. He's not worried about a program-changing victory over the region's dominant team, he's only worried about the changeovers from offense to defense.

The history of the rivalry and last year's loss are of little import.

Mora shrugs off minor shenanigans such as the dust-up between the school bands over USC's pregame ritual of planting a sword in UCLA's midfield logo. It's the X's and O's that concern Mora, not the 50 and O's.

"My job is to coach the football team," Mora said. "All that stuff, that's periphery stuff. I've said many, many times I focus on what matters, and what matters is that we play good football on Saturday."

But Mora has repeated that mantra all week, routinely talking about treating every game the same, sticking to the same routines, remaining consistent in preparation and not putting too much emphasis on past failures against USC. In fact, he said he hasn't even mentioned any past USC games.

"I haven't avoided it," Mora said. "I just don't care about it."

His players have bought in to what he is selling, refusing to acknowledge this week that the game is for anything more than the Pac-12 South title. They aren't worried about avenging the 50-0 loss or ending the five-game losing streak against the Trojans.

It remains to be seen whether the Bruins will win, but they seem to have a much better chance without all of those outside distractions. And if they do win, Mora will say 'good game,' celebrate his allotted 24 hours and then immediately turn his focus to Stanford and will want to beat the Cardinal next week just as badly as he wanted to beat USC.

And that is why Mora is the perfect guy to coach this team in this game with these kinds of stakes on the line.