LOS ANGELES – Composure is always tested in a rivalry game, and this week gives No. 11 UCLA another chance to pass the test.
The Bruins struggled to keep their poise early on this season under the weight of enormous expectations but they enter Saturday's crosstown showdown against No. 24 Southern California back in control of the Pac-12 South.
Several players acknowledged they were already asleep by the time Oregon State beat No. 13 Arizona State 35-27 late last Saturday night, a result that means UCLA can advance to the Pac-12 championship game by winning its final two games against the Trojans and Stanford.
Running back Paul Perkins was awakened by his mother's reaction to that upset, but did not realize the ramifications until the following day.
"I just wanted to go back to sleep," Perkins said. "In the morning, I was like, 'OK, we're really in business now.'"
Knowing that they no longer need outside assistance to secure a rematch with No. 3 Oregon in the title game gives quarterback Brett Hundley a touch of ease in an otherwise emotionally charged week.
"It just feels better when you know everything you have to do," Hundley said. "You don't have to worry about anybody else. It's just about winning games and doing what we want to do."
And what UCLA wants to do is play another game without having to overcome self-inflicted errors. The Bruins had just four penalties for 37 yards in their last game, a 44-30 win at Washington, and did not commit a penalty in the first half.
That represented a dramatic improvement for a team that still ranks in the bottom 20 in the FBS in penalties and penalty yards, averaging 7.8 flags for 75 yards per game.
Linebacker Myles Jack credited a newfound maturity for the turnaround.
"We have learned from our mistakes," said Jack, who had to rein himself in against the Huskies after committing two personal fouls the previous week that extended Arizona's only touchdown drive. "We are just playing smarter football, better football, and I think it is going to show this week and moving forward."
Cornerback Ishmael Adams said he would try to help keep Jack under control again, while also singling himself out as someone who would be tested by the intense atmosphere at the Rose Bowl.
"We get very hyped at the beginning of the game. We're very active. We like to talk," said Adams, conceding the usual barrage of penalties has as much to do with UCLA's own tendencies as it does the track record of Pac-12 referees.
There is also a practical need for UCLA to be in control from the start, as USC is outscoring opponents by a staggering 129-22 in the first quarter this season.
If UCLA can withstand that early barrage and come away with the win, it isn't out of the question that the Bruins could end up in the College Football Playoff by winning the Pac-12.
Touted as a trendy pick to reach the inaugural four-team field, Adams admitted those predictions hindered the team's performance. Granted a reprieve by results in the conference, UCLA knows what it has to do to take advantage of the opportunity, and it starts with maintaining the focus that has served the Bruins so well of late.
"Why change what we have been doing now that it is working?" Adams said.