UCLA is back in the Top 25 after rebounding from its first loss, and coach Jim Mora knows his team could easily fall out again if it underestimates a California team off to its worst start in coach Jeff Tedford's 11 seasons.
The 25th-ranked Bruins go for their best six-game start since 2005 on Saturday night when they try to win their first game in Berkeley in nearly 14 years.
After outscoring its first three opponents 122-60, UCLA (4-1, 1-1) opened Pac-12 play with a 27-20 home loss to Oregon State on Sept. 22. The Bruins, though, evened their conference record last Saturday with a 42-14 road win at Colorado.
While Mora realizes that winning away from home in league play is a challenge - UCLA had dropped four straight and 18 of 21 road conference games prior to last weekend - a bigger concern might be a Cal defense facing its third ranked opponent in four weeks.
The Golden Bears (1-4, 0-2) lost both of those road games - 35-28 against then-No. 12 Ohio State and 27-9 to then-No. 13 USC a week later - and are coming off last Saturday's 27-17 loss to Arizona State, but Mora has been impressed with their energy level and ability to swarm the ball. So has his wife, Shannon, who was watching game film of the Golden Bears' defense against the Sun Devils when he woke up early Tuesday morning.
"She couldn't sleep," said Mora, whose team is seeking its best start since opening 8-0 seven years ago. "She goes, 'God, these guys play hard.' If my wife notices it, it's noticeable."
Cal's slow start also can't be ignored. Booed off their home field last Saturday when they were trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Golden Bears are in dire need of a victory as they're off to their worst start since opening 0-10 under coach Tom Holmoe in 2001 - the year before Tedford took over.
If Cal is going to get back on track, it will have to find a way to slow down a UCLA offense ranked fourth in the FBS with 558.4 yards per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is third in the league in total offense with 329.0 yards per game, while senior Johnathan Franklin is fourth in the nation with 139.4 rushing yards per game.
Cal also needs to get its offense in gear after totaling a season-low 285 yards last weekend.
Protecting senior quarterback Zach Maynard would be a good start after he was sacked seven times last Saturday when he completed just 9 of 28 yards for 126 yards. Maynard has been sacked a FBS-high 25 times.
"There were some plays we could have hit, but he is also under a lot of duress. We have got to give him more time to throw the football," Tedford said.
UCLA, though, is second in the Pac-12 with 18 sacks, led by junior linebacker Anthony Barr (six) and senior Damien Holmes (four).
If Cal's line can withstand that pressure, Maynard's brother, Keenan Allen, could be a major factor in this game. The junior wide receiver has team highs with 33 receptions and 388 yards.
Allen led Cal with seven catches and 83 yards in a 31-14 loss at UCLA on Oct. 29. Maynard was sacked three times in that game and threw a career high-tying four interceptions as the Bruins snapped a three-game skid in this series.
Since a 28-16 victory on Oct. 24, 1998, UCLA has been outscored by an average of 15.5 points while dropping six straight at Cal.
- Jeff Tedford