SALT LAKE CITY –
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, American soldiers carried a familiar battle cry into the Pacific theatre.
Remember the Arizona.
It was to remind the soldiers of what they were fighting for after the sinking of the USS Arizona, which dropped to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Seventy years later, UCLA football players are using that very same message, albeit from a very different source, the day their program was sunk.
Or so we thought.
That 48-12 loss to the Wildcats on Oct. 20 was supposed to send UCLA into a tailspin, the collective follies of three years of rather forgettable football all culminating in that embarrassing defeat.
Only, it hasn’t.
UCLA has won two straight heading into today’s contest at Utah, including a 29-28 thriller over No. 19 Arizona State last Saturday that put the Bruins tied with the Sun Devils atop the Pac-12 South.
But despite the recent success, the rally cry remains the same.
“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. You remember that feeling you had in Arizona when we came out of that locker room, and it makes you play hard. If you have any pride within yourself, you have to come out and play hard so you don’t embarrass yourself the way we did in Arizona.”
But the message throughout this week? Almost the exact opposite.
Forget Arizona State.
The Bruins can ill-afford to rest on their laurels today in a place that has been unforgiving of late, Rice-Eccles Stadium, where Utah won 44-6 in the teams’ last matchup in 2007.
They understand that a win over the Sun Devils means little if it’s followed by a loss to the Utes, a defeat that would drop the team back to .500.
“It’s pretty easy for us, considering we’re only 5-4,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “We’re absolutely still humble, especially when we’re eight-point underdogs. That really humbles you real quick. You beat a ranked opponent and you’re still eight-point underdog? There’s a lot more to prove to the public and even to people in this program. We haven’t deserved to be favorites yet.”
Not with an offense that, despite recent success, has still displayed inconsistency and a propensity for turnovers and penalties.
Not with a defense ranked 76th or worse in all four major categories, including a 95th ranking (out of 120 FBS teams) in total defense at 427.9 yards per game.
Not with Utah running back John White in the offing, ready to build on his 113.8 yards per game, which ranks third in the Pac-12 and 16th nationally.
“That’s the biggest thing this week, coming into Utah – they’re going to try to run the ball and make us stop them,” UCLA junior middle linebacker Patrick Larimore said. “We’ve struggled with that, and White’s a good running back with good speed and vision, so it’s going to be a big challenge. The biggest thing is when we put them on tape, they’re a real physical team, a real tough team. It stands out.”
UCLA’s challenge this week, once more match the physicality of the opponent.
If Prince continues to run the way he has in recent weeks, the Bruins will have a chance.
The embattled quarterback has surged in the past two weeks, gaining 264 rushing yards while perplexing defenses with his option running. His play as of late has opened up the UCLA ground game, and Derrick Coleman has been the primary beneficiary, totaling 189 yards and five touchdowns in the Bruins’ back-to-back wins.
As long as Prince runs with the same reckless abandon he has recently, the Pistol will continue to thrive under the tutelage of Johnson and running game coordinator Jim Mastro, whose symmetry has improved through the course of the season.
“The plays come out of his mouth, but there are times in a game when I say, ‘Hey mike, what about…,’ and he finishes what I’m about to say,” Mastro said. “Now we’re at the point where I kinda know where he’s going next.”
It helps that Johnson knows a thing or two about running a multi-purpose game, as a former college quarterback.
It also helps that he knows a thing or two about defeat.
And that he remembers it.
“I had a game in college when I was playing, and I threw four picks in the first half and we lost,” Johnson said. “I’d like to forget that game, but I contributed to it. It was almost like I was point-shaving. I was tossing ‘em up. You put it in the back of your mind, but you move forward. It’s something you don’t want to define you as a player.
“Same thing with the Arizona game, we didn’t want that to define us.”