The UCLA Bruins are who we thought they were.
Many of us sipped the elixir of optimism that head coach Rick Neuheisel prepared for us in the preseason, and took another swig after the Bruins enjoyed two consecutive upsets of ranked opponents in Houston and Texas back in September.
UCLA football has made September seem so long ago with a painful October that has seen the Bruins lose to every opponent except for a one-score victory over Pac-10 patsy Washington State early in the month.
As pitifully as the Bruins have played in their last three losses to Cal, No. 1 Oregon and No. 15 Arizona, they still have a chance at the postseason—which is about as likely as the upcoming Harry Potter 7 sequel tanking at the box office.
Barring a season-ending four-game winning streak against Pac-10 opponents, the Bruins will not get invited to a bowl game in 2010. Only wins at home against Oregon State and USC coupled with a pair of road victories at Washington and Arizona State will salvage this campaign, and not further deter heavily-targeted recruits from committing to Los Angeles’ gold-helmeted stepchild.
While the allure of attending college and playing football in Southern California will not diminish, UCLA’s perennial image as a scrappy underdog may soon fade away—along with its current head coach—based on the direction the program is headed.
The Pac-10 has become an elite football conference, but the Bruins still play like an East Coast bias should be in order.
UCLA fans aren’t sure what’s more disheartening: that their program somehow got left behind in the ascension of the Pac-10, or that the Bruins soiled the golden opportunity in Eugene to showcase their talents to a national audience.
So far, this season has been all-too typical for UCLA fans to stomach: one or two unlikely victories shrouded in a nest of blowouts and bitter defeats.
In their last three games, the Bruins have been outscored by a total of 124-41 by Cal, Oregon and Arizona.
The 29-21 defeat on Oct. 30 to the Wildcats was a bit more uplifting, as the game was winnable when the Bruins were down by five with the ball with less than three minutes left.
But, some fans found less emotional torment in the Oct. 21 blowout loss at Eugene than Saturday’s fourth-quarter heartbreaker. It’s easier for many Bruin loyalists to change the channel after only two quarters when your team is down 32-3 at halftime, as opposed to sitting through three-plus hours of action, only to be disappointed at the final gun.
As fashionable as it is to pile on ninth-place UCLA, there are reasons for optimism as the Bruins head toward the home stretch of their schedule.
Brehaut Getting Better
It may be a bit early to sing a funeral dirge for UCLA’s version of the pistol offense, but the program that ranks 96th in points scored per game (21.3), 103rd in total yards per game (312.5) and a dubious 117th in passing offense (120 yards per game) out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams has shot itself in the foot this year more often than Bruins fans care to remember.
Cal proved vulnerable to the pistol when the Bears were handled by Nevada by a score of 52-31 on Sept. 17. After making much-needed adjustments, they jammed UCLA’s Revolver to the tune of 144 total yards and seven garbage-time points.
In case Neuheisel, or whoever is head coach of the Bruins in 2011, changes the Bruins’ strategic philosophy, Brehaut has the tools to be a formidable signal caller in a more traditional offense. His deep ball accuracy has improved, and the sophomore looked more comfortable in the pocket as he threw for a career-high 228 yards and a pair of scoring bombs.
Bruin Nation is sick and tired of the everlasting Kevin Prince injury watch. UCLA’s preseason starter has been mediocre when healthy, and has been terrible when he’s hurt, which has been almost the entire season and dates back to 2009.
The Revolver offense is not what brought Brehaut to Westwood. On the rare occasions he stretched the defense against UA, he chucked a 68-yard bomb to Randall Carroll, and followed that up with a 48-yard flea-flicker to Josh Smith that put the Bruins within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
The sooner that offensive coordinator Norm Chow sheaths the Revolver and relegates Prince to a backup role, the sooner the offense can gain some continuity. Until then, a dink-and-dunk, option-style passing attack won’t be sufficient when the Bruins are constantly playing catch-up in a competitive conference that features only two other sub-.500 teams besides UCLA.
More National TV Exposure Ahead
Whether ESPN’s advertisers like it or not, UCLA will return to the national spotlight for another shot at vindication/humiliation when they take on the Washington Huskies in Seattle on Thursday, Nov. 18.
The last time the Bruins were broadcast on the cable sports network on Oct. 21, the defense gave up a 60-spot to Oregon, who averaged scoring a point per minute in the contest. Although this lopsided result wasn’t unforeseen against college football’s top offense, the Bruins will have a chance to redeem themselves in front of a national audience against a Pac-10 program that’s even more of a disappointment than UCLA.
The Huskies rounded out the Sporting News’ preseason top 25 teams, but would be thrilled to finish the year with more wins than losses. Washington recently eclipsed UCLA in futility by getting shut out by Stanford 41-0 on Oct. 30. The Bruins surrendered a mere 35 to the Cardinal when they were held scoreless on Sept. 11.
As poorly as both teams have played, a loss to Washington couldn’t taint the Bruins’ reputation much further. In a season where the program has seen at least as many drug-related suspensions as team victories thus far, a win over UW could draw some national recruiting interest to Westwood and bring UCLA closer to a somewhat respectable .500 record.
Suspended/Injured Players Return
WR Nelson Rosario (high ankle sprain) was dressed for the Arizona game, but did not play. He should get back on the field against the Beavers in Pasadena next Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Ricky Marvray has been arguably UCLA’s most dynamic receiver in 2010 and will return from his suspension in time for the upcoming tilt versus Oregon State on Nov. 6 as well.
Senior left tackle Sean Sheller will be back to protect Richard Brehaut’s blind side when he returns from a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
Wide receiver Josh Smith provided much-needed big-play ability in place of Marvray with his touchdown against Arizona, but had just come back from suspension during the Oregon drubbing.
Perhaps Neuheisel has lost the respect of his locker room. With some of the most talented and indispensable players not adhering to team regulations, a lack of in-house control is as apparent to UCLA outsiders as the Bruins’ lackluster play.
If athletic director Dan Guerrero knows what’s good for the long-term value of the football program, he’ll take a close look at the Bruins’ last four games to see whether his head football coach of the future is currently calling the shots.
If UCLA can rally in the face of rampant injuries and off-field violations, then Neuheisel might at least prove to Guerrero that his team will play hard for CRN when his future with the team may be in doubt.