Oct. 26, 2001
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES - UCLA's degree of difficulty is about to increase significantly in the national championship race.
The Bruins realize what lies ahead, and that's one reason they aren't particularly excited about their No. 3 standing in the first Bowl Championship Series rankings.
The top two teams in the rankings at season's end play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3 to determine the national champion.
"We've got a difficult three-game stretch," linebacker Robert Thomas said. "Every game could mean the championship. We know what we have at stake, what our goals are. We've been doing a good job of playing one game at a time."
UCLA (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) has beaten one school ranked in the current Associated Press poll - No. 13 Washington - and four of the Bruins' victories have come over teams with losing records.
Overall, their six opponents have a cumulative record of 16-21.
"Right now, we're still in the Toilet Bowl, and we have to work our way up," Bruins coach Bob Toledo said.
The fourth-ranked Bruins next play a pair of road games - at No. 20 Stanford (4-1, 3-1) and No. 14 Washington State 7-0, 4-0) - before facing No. 11 Oregon (6-1, 3-1) at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 10.
That's three teams with a cumulative record of 17-2.
UCLA is behind Oklahoma and Nebraska in the BCS rankings. Since the Sooners and Cornhuskers meet Saturday, the Bruins should rise to at least second with a victory at Stanford.
After playing Oregon, the Bruins meet crosstown rival Southern California (2-5, 1-3) at the Los Angeles Coliseum and Arizona State (4-2, 1-2) at the Rose Bowl to finish the season.
"You lose one game and you're out," Thomas said.
"I think the big thing is what we've been telling them all along - the BCS doesn't matter until the end," Toledo said. "If you look too far down the road, you get hit in the head."
Although the Bruins have been involved in two close games - a 20-17 season-opening victory at Alabama and a 13-6 triumph over Ohio State - they haven't trailed in the fourth quarter yet.
In fact, while outscoring the opposition 203-77, they've been outscored 35-28 in fourth quarters.
"I think when you're dealing with experienced football teams, mature football teams, which we are, you're able to hang in there for four quarters," he said.
The next three opponents have far more productive offenses than any of the first six UCLA faced - Stanford is averaging 39.6 points, Washington State is averaging 44 points, and Oregon is averaging 38.6 points.
"It's a challenge for us," Thomas said. "All the teams we've faced had a good offense until they faced us. Oregon State was supposed to have a high-powered offense."
UCLA beat Oregon State 38-7.
The Bruins won their first 10 games of the 1998 season before losing 49-45 at Miami to keep them out of the national championship game.
Toledo has used the word "terrible" in describing that team's defense.
Things are much different now.
"Defense wins championships, offense sells tickets," Thomas said.
The Bruins will be facing a backup quarterback for the third straight game - Stanford senior Randy Fasani sprained his right knee in the second quarter at Oregon last weekend, and will be sidelined at least four weeks.
That means sophomore Chris Lewis, who completed 12 of 26 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns as Stanford rallied to beat the Ducks 49-42, will start.
"I think Lewis is one of the up-and-coming star quarterbacks in this conference," Toledo said.