The UCLA Bruins are no longer a sleepy little football operation residing in the shadows of the Rams, Chargers, USC Trojans — and, just maybe — Mater Dei Monarchs.
L.A. loves a winner, and so do the national media. Broadcaster Colin Cowherd latched onto the story after UCLA downed Louisiana State over the weekend, predicting the Bruins would win the Pac-12 Conference while adding, “and I don’t think it’s going to be terribly close.”
The Cheez-It Bowl made UCLA its national team of the week. So did ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. College football coaches and Associated Press pollsters each ranked the team No. 16 in the nation. Some pundits even made UCLA a fashionable pick to make the College Football Playoff.
The first song blaring from loudspeakers at practice Wednesday — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” — seemed fitting for a team that had converted a legion of skeptics.
The bandwagon has even rolled into the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, where former Bruins star linebacker Eric Kendricks handed out UCLA hats to teammates who played for LSU (somehow getting one to grudgingly place it on his head).
It’s a strange new world of expectations the Bruins (2-0) have stepped into as they prepare for their next game, against Fresno State (1-1) on Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl. Could they stumble given the unfamiliar territory?
“We’re trying to prove a point this year, we’ve got a great team, we know what we have, so we’re ignoring the hype of whatever everything on media is saying,” senior cornerback Cam Johnson said. “That’s all good, all that candy, the eye candy, we’re just buckling down and staying humble and preparing for the next game, trying to win.”
Coach Chip Kelly said a veteran core that included 18 college graduates — and 16 players in graduate school — should insulate his team from the hype, keeping it hyper-focused.
“You can’t own success, it’s rented, and you’ve got to pay your rent every week; you’ve got to pay your rent every day,” Kelly said before practice Wednesday. “We’re proud of where we are right now, but we need to continue to work because 2-0 just means you’re 2-0. You can be 2-10 when it’s all said and done.”
The crowd of 68,123 that nearly packed the Rose Bowl sections not covered by tarps last weekend was largely feeling out the Bruins on what might be described as a rent-to-own basis. That is, except for the itinerant pocket of purple and gold.
“I noticed that a good amount of the stadium was filled by LSU fans, who are well known for traveling,” Johnson said. “So if we could just get all of L.A. and all the bandwagoners to hop on, that’s great, we need everybody.”
As he does every time his team has a Saturday off, Kelly dubbed the preceding days “improvement week.” Areas that needed correcting against LSU were wayward snaps; relaying signals among a roster that includes a bevy of transfers; and penalties that pinned the Bruins deep in their own territory or extended Tigers drives, leading to a field goal.
The team is scheduled to take Thursday off before practicing again Friday. Senior outside linebacker Bo Calvert said Kelly’s win-the-day mantra he learned as a freshman kept players grounded in the present, focused only on what they need to do next rather than a successful season.
“That’s how we’ve been able to have the two wins we’ve had so far is that we’ve been ultra-focused on the little details every day in practice,” Calvert said. “You wake up and we get a hydration test, so you’re trying to see what’s your score on that and was I hydrated last night, did I win that check? What’s the next thing that I do? Eat breakfast, check. Did I go to film, did I take all the notes I could, did I ask coach questions that I was thinking about the night before? Check. Did I go out to practice and work on my warmup drills and my fits and everything? Check. Did I have a good practice today?
“If you’re able to go through your whole day and check things off one by one and see all the things you were able to do and the wins and the losses you had that day, eventually the standard that you have for yourself is going to get higher and higher.”
Kelly said he was excited about center Sam Marrazzo’s progress in his recovery from an undisclosed injury but was unsure whether he would be able to play against Fresno State. Marrazzo has been sidelined since getting hurt against Stanford in the final game of last season.