By beating #19-ranked Arizona State 29-28 Saturday at the Rose Bowl the Bruins are on a streak.
They broke the season’s cycle of loss-win-loss-win by winning two games in a row in the last two weeks and are now 5-4 on the season.
They easily played their two best games of the season back to back.
And we can easily chalk up that game to one that UCLA played up to its capability, for the second week in a row.
It’s a strange thing – college sports and specifically UCLA football. Two weeks ago, the program had clearly hit one of its lowest points in recent history when it was embarrassed on national television against Arizona. It is then completely uncanny that UCLA has bounced back to play its two best games of the season.
It’s a testament to the heart and perserverance of both the players and coaches.
Give Rick Neuheisel and his relentless optimism a great deal of credit. He didn’t give up, kept at it, stayed the course, and hoped that things would get better. And miraculously, they have.
This is not to say that the criticism we’ve leveled at Rick Neuheisel, the coaching and the program so far this season was unwarranted. It definitely was. But, then, you have to also acknowledge Neuheisel’s accomplishment in the last two weeks. Whether you still think Neuheisel should be let go as UCLA’s head coach, or you’ve changed your mind – or whatever the UCLA administration thinks – it’s really irrelevant in regard to this game, and appreciating what was accomplished.
Instead of rehashing much of the game, there was one series that really was huge in contributing to the win, and epitomized UCLA’s newfound intensity. The Bruins had led for most of the game, but in most fairly evenly-matched games momentum can flip back and forth. It looked like ASU had picked up the game-winning edge when they were ahead 28-23 and UCLA fumbled a kickoff that the Sun Devils recovered at the UCLA 27-yard line. There was 7:43 left in the game, and a score here, even just a field goal, would put UCLA two scores down (or a touchdown and a two-point conversion). UCLA’s much (and deservedly so) maligned defense had just given up a 96-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown and looked like they were gassed. So then they had to come back on the field for a quick change. It didn’t feel good. You could easily envision one run by ASU’s Cameron Marshall busting through a beleaguered UCLA defense for a 27-yard touchdown. But it didn’t go that way. On first down, Marshall runs to the 24, and UCLA defenders look quick to the ball. On second, ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler runs the zone read, there’s good pursuit, he takes it himself for a yard, and it’s third and six. On third, Osweiler drops, and UCLA goes with a four-man rush that actually puts some pressure on him, Osweiler can’t see anyone open and has to run, and gains two. ASU’s kicker Alex Garoutte misses the 37-yarder and the Bruins get new life.
UCLA’s defense was more or less getting run over by ASU’s running game for most of the night, but on this series they came up big. UCLA’s pass coverage clearly shut down Osweiler’s options on third down. What was so stunning about it was that it was completely out of character, for UCLA’s defense, and against the flow of the game. To be able to make that stop to change the direction of the game’s momentum was perhaps the best series for UCLA’s defense yet this season.
If you’re dishing out credit you have to give it to Kevin Prince and Derrick Coleman. Prince has proven he’s a warrior the last two weeks, but he’s also exhibited enough ability to be effective as a passer to give UCLA’s offense sufficient dimension. Coleman, quite simply, has to be one of the most intimidating running backs in college football at this point. He always had that body and strength, and ran with that low lean, but he has a newfound explosiveness that, combined with the other attributes, making him scary busting through the line of scrimmage. He absolutely laid out ASU’s Vontaze Burfict with a block in the first half, too.
And the offensive line has been the MVP of the season.
But the game ball has to go to the defense. It’s strange to say that when the unit allowed 465 yards, and 201 yards rushing. But ASU was averaging 36 points per game and UCLA held them to 28. Just enough to give UCLA’s offense a chance to win it. While it epitomizes the frustrating bend-and-not-break philosophy, you have to concede that it produced a win.
And there are those out there that will discount this win and the one last week against Cal, citing that neither the Bears nor the Sun Devils are very good. And that could be true. But UCLA, in some strange way, really made both Cal and ASU not very good. Cal followed up this week by pounding Washington State, 30-7.
And, most importantly, regardless of what side of the fence you are on in the Neuheisel debate, if you’re a Bruin fan you have to be satisfied to see the players come back from adversity and show this type of character and heart. The energy on the UCLA sideline has been electric the last two weeks, with the team clearly finding some motivation to get pumped. And to see someone who represents the good guys – like Derrick Coleman – run over, well, someone who can sort of represent the “bad guys,” like Burfict, makes you believe the world is upright.
But if you want to discuss the season, you need a little clearer head than just getting caught up in the momentum of the last two weeks. Clearly, as I said, this game goes in the playing-up-to-capability column, but the running total is 2-6-1. On one hand you can make the argument that the Bruins have found themselves and will hopefully play this way from here on out. And that very well could be true. If they did, they’d be 5-6-1 on the season in terms of playing up to their capability. If this does indeed happen, you have to recognize that there were 6 games in there that UCLA didn’t play up to its capability. While many could come away from, say, a 7-5 season feeling somewhat good, it’s completely fair to speculate about what that win/loss record would be if UCLA’s Playing-Up-To-Its-Capability Record was, say, 6-2-1 so far this season. If it had played Houston, Texas or even Arizona just two weeks ago the way it’s played in the last two weeks, what would UCLA’s record be right now? Why did it take 8 games into the season for this team to play at a decent level, and is that acceptable? Is it acceptable to the fans but, of course most importantly, will it be acceptable to the UCLA administration?
And then you can talk about the bigger picture, that of Neuheisel’s job, which everyone wants to do. If you put it in perspective, are the last two weeks enough to make the last 3 ½ seasons acceptable? If UCLA wins out, does it then make Neuheisel’s body of work acceptable? In the spirit of keeping it in perspective, Neuheisel’s record at UCLA would 23-26. And we wouldn’t even want to get into what the Playing-Up-To-Its-Capability Record would be.
You see, but is the thing. As a fan, regardless of what side of the Neuheisel fence you’re on, the Neuheisel Issue should be thrown out, at least for a moment. I think it’s entirely possible fo every Bruin fan to appreciate the win. If you’re on the pro-Neuheisel fence, of course, you love it. If you’re not, it’s still entirely possible to see it another way when considering the bigger perspective but also still basking in the win and relishing the boys in the very familiar blue and gold winning with flair and drama.