LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jim Mora isn't even thinking about the Victory Bell, let alone a victory lap for his outstanding debut season at UCLA.
Although Mora's players say he has done more in 10 games to close UCLA's football gap with Southern California than Rick Neuheisel accomplished in the previous four years, the veteran coach wants none of the credit. Mora isn't taking any bows while his No. 17 Bruins (8-2, 5-2) are getting ready to play the No. 21 Trojans with the Pac-12 South title going to the winner.
"I'm just proud of the program, and that we put ourselves in this spot," Mora said. "The players, they've worked hard since the spring. They've stayed focused. They've done everything we've asked them to do, and so they put themselves in this position. I don't think about it personally, about myself. I don't think that way. I just try to do my best every day."
Yet UCLA has returned to national relevance during the brief tenure of Mora, the longtime NFL coach who has adapted to the college game almost seamlessly. With one more victory, Mora will match Terry Donahue's nine wins in 1976 for the most by a first-year UCLA coach.
His players' next goal is to put some parity back in their Victory Bell rivalry with the Trojans (7-3, 5-3), who are ranked lower than UCLA and sporting a poorer record in the Los Angeles schools' annual meeting for the first time since 2001. USC ushered Neuheisel out of town last year with a 50-0 victory, the biggest margin since 1930.
"We know who we're playing," linebacker Dalton Hilliard said. "It's another stepping stone for us to prove ourselves, to get our names back in the running for the BCS and for the top teams in the nation. But you can't play this game any differently than any other game this year."
Indeed, Saturday isn't about ending UCLA's five-game skid in the rivalry for Mora. The Washington alumnus has no ancestral stake in the crosstown rivalry, except for his memories of the 1974 game at the Coliseum during his father's sole season as an assistant coach at UCLA, when Mora was 12 years old.
Mora only cares about the game in the context of improvement and growth for his freshman-packed team. After dozens of 16-game seasons in the NFL, Mora is trained to maintain equanimity during a regular season, never getting too interested or too dispassionate.
He knows it's entirely another thing to sell that concept to teenage football players, but Mora is trying.
"They listen to us as coaches when we ask them to ignore the hype, and they do the best they can," Mora said. "I know they're excited, though. They should be excited. It's an exciting time. They're 8-2, and they have a chance to play our crosstown rival for a chance to go to the Pac-12 championship. They should be excited, but they still have to keep it in perspective. We've got to focus on the process."
The process is working out splendidly for the Bruins so far. Along with its highest ranking in the Top 25 in nearly seven years, UCLA is also No. 17 in the BCS rankings, its highest mark since Dec. 4, 2005.
After surging to a huge lead and holding off a late comeback for a 44-36 victory at chilly Washington State last Saturday, the Bruins have won four straight for the first time since 2005. UCLA is an impressively well-rounded team, with freshman quarterback Brett Hundley's offense complemented well by Mora's opportunistic defense, which is averaging nearly four sacks per game.
The Bruins still don't get a wealth of attention in Los Angeles, where USC coach Lane Kiffin's collection of high-profile talent and off-field drama dominates the casual fan talk. But UCLA's season has been a pleasure for right guard Jeff Baca and other upperclassmen who have spent their careers in USC's shadow.
"I'm very excited for the future of this program as long as coach Mora is here," said Baca, the only current starter on the UCLA offensive line who played against USC last year. "His intensity for the game, his knowledge of the game, everything is top-notch, and that's sincere. Unfortunately, I only have a few games left for him."