The mantra for the UCLA football team the past two weeks has been to stay focused on the present, but the Bruins are also keeping a bit of the past close by.
You'd think that the team would want to forget about what happened Oct. 20 at Arizona, where the Wildcats embarrassed the Bruins and the Bruins embarrassed themselves in a 48-12 thrashing, but UCLA sees that in a different light.
It didn't quite put the Bruins six feet under, though they were certainly in the ground at that point. But in the ground is where things grow and that's exactly what the Bruins started to do, using that disaster in the desert as fuel to propel the team to it's two best performances of the season in consecutive victories that put UCLA into a first-place tie in the Pac-12 South.
"Don’t ever forget Arizona," offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said. "Arizona is something that you always keep in the back of your mind. You never forget that feeling. If you remember the feeling that we had in Arizona when we came out of that locker room, then it makes you play harder."
The way the Bruins have played the last two weeks is a testament to the character and heart of a team that had major question marks in those categories after showing neither in Tucson. The Bruins entered that game with a shot at first place, too, but came out flat, got flatter and then stained the image of the program by engaging in a bench-clearing brawl when they were down, 42-7.
It was, indeed, a rock-bottom moment that changed the attitude of the team.
"We just told ourselves we are better than that," receiver Nelson Rosario said. "We all know we’re better than that. We had no business going out and showing that display of football. We just came back out and worked hard the next week at practice. We practiced like we wanted it and like we were ready to win."
The Bruins believed they could still win even when few believed along with them. Irate fans flooded message boards and sports talk radio demanding that coach Rick Neuheisel be fired on the spot. Others wanted to blow up the entire athletic department and begin anew.
Even the eternally optimistic Neuheisel acknowledged feeling pretty low after the Arizona loss. It also made him more determined than ever to right the ship.
"In the coaching world, there are highs and there are lows and the lows, unfortunately are lower than the highs are high," he said. "It’s just devastating to put that many man hours in and fail. But, you have to rally back form that. And that’s what makes this game special, you get to rally back."
And rally back is exactly what the Bruins have done, getting themselves into a position that none has ever been in before: Playing big games with conference title implications down the homestretch of the season. It feels good, the players say. But getting to this point from where the Bruins were less than three weeks ago is just as satisfying.
"It feels good when somebody counts you out and you're down and you come back," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "That’s the joy you get out of it. The joy is not about being out in front, it’s about being able to respond and that’s one thing I’m happy about is how we responded."
Not that anyone is satisfied just yet. The Bruins have a history of winning big games only to have just as big of a letdown. That's why the next game at Utah means so much more than keeping the Bruins in the conference title race.
A win in Utah would show, once and for all, that the Bruins are, indeed, a team on the rise.
"Next week is huge," Abbott said. "We can’t just plateau, we have to keep getting better. "The Bruins in the past would just plateau and say ‘Oh, we just beat a good team, whatever.’ We’ve got to try to beat everybody. Who says we can’t start a win streak around here. We can’t be content."
And, the Bruins can't forget what happened Oct. 20 in Arizona.
"It was a deal where everyone to a man on that team that day was embarrassed," Johnson said. "All you can do is come back the next week and fight...This game is played a certain way and unless you come out there and you fight and you do those things that good football teams do, you’re going to get that feeling we had in Arizona and we can’t ever let that happen again."