UCLA Football: 4 Positives from Win over California
UCLA 31, California 14.
After a horrific disemboweling in the desert, UCLA returned home to meet a California side that was coming off a huge 34-10 win over Utah.
The Bruins needed a win to keep their bowl dreams alive. Rick Neuheisel needed a win to the UCLA fans who are screaming for his blood at bay. The program needed something positive after the despicable melee at Arizona.
Saturday night in the Rose Bowl, everyone got what they wanted.
UCLA capitalized on four Zach Maynard interceptions on their way to a convincing victory over Cal, bringing the Bruins back to 4-4 on the season. It was their most complete performance all season on both sides of the ball.
Here are four positives to consider as UCLA goes forward.
UCLA Was Able to Rebound from Arizona Loss
To call UCLA's performance against Arizona ugly would be a disservice to ugly performances. What we witnessed last week was so disturbing that watching Joe Bruin get vivisected on closed-circuit television would have been preferable.
In the face of such an embarrassing loss, the Bruins could have folded the season. It's a credit to the team that they didn't.
A strong contrast to their flat, listless showing in Tuscon, UCLA came out energetic and passionate against a Bears team most would characterize as their second-greatest rival after USC.
You could see it in their play on the field: the way players pumped-up the crowd before every kickoff, the way they celebrated in the end zone, and the ferocity in which they played defense (we'll get to that).
It was clear that the Bruins were aware of their fans' disillusionment and ridicule after Arizona. Last night, it seemed they were looking for more than a win.
UCLA wanted respect on Homecoming Night, and got it in spades.
Despite a slow start compounded by an early Kevin Prince fumble, UCLA fought back in front of the home fans. The Bruins reeled off 17 unanswered after being down 7-0, including two of their four rushing touchdowns of the night.
While Johnathan Franklin had a decent game of the ground (13 carries, 45 yards, TD) and Derrick Coleman scored three times, the real UCLA rushing star didn't play tailback.
In one of the most effective displays of the pistol offense by a UCLA team, Prince led all rushers with 163 in just 19 carries. For a quarterback who is notoriously injury-prone, Prince showed resiliency after getting hit and intelligence when scrambling out of bounds.
His fakes behind the line of scrimmage were so good that Cal simply could not find the ball, often tackling a decoy Coleman or Franklin before realizing Prince was the ball carrier.
Although Prince ran the ball well, he still needs to get better with his arm. He was still guilty of overthrowing or missing open receivers.
UCLA didn't need a spectacular showing through the air when executing the running game so well, but going 9-of-18 for 92 yards and no touchdowns is not something the Bruins will be able to get away with on a nightly basis.
UCLA's Defense Stepped Up
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of UCLA's 17-point win over Cal was the exceptional play of their defense.
This was a unit that gave up six touchdowns in six straight possessions against Arizona, a group that not only couldn't cover anyone but couldn't stop one of the nation's worst rushing attacks.
The powder blue defense that took the field last night could have been a completely different group. The Bruins consistently pressured Zach Maynard into mistakes and contained star receiver Keenan Allen.
Maynard finished 14-of-30 for 199 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. The highly talented Allen was held scoreless as well, catching seven passes for 83 yards.
You couldn't really blame the defense for Cal's two touchdowns either. Both were a result of Bruin turnovers that placed the Bears deep inside UCLA territory. Take away those offensive miscues and the Bruin defense played well enough (and the Cal offense poorly enough) for a shutout.
Surprisingly, much of the pressure UCLA was able to keep on Maynard happened by accident. With starting DT Cassius Marsh out due to suspension, the coaching staff moved talented DE Datone Jones inside to fantastic results. Jones hounded Maynard all night, posting six tackles and a pair of sacks.
While the UCLA front seven played well in holding RB Isi Sofele to only 74 yards and a touchdown, it was the secondary that really shined.
Freshman safety Tevin McDonald picked off Maynard three times, the first interceptions of his college career. Veteran corner Aaron Hester added a fourth interception late, but by then the outcome was almost settled.
With Tony Dye out for the season and Dietrich Riley recovering in the hospital, UCLA will be thin at safety, which makes McDonald's performance all the more encouraging.
While the Cal offense does need work, Joe Tresey's men can enjoy their bit of redemption in a commendable all-around showing Saturday night.
Rick Neuheisel Gets a Reprieve
For one week at least, Rick Neuheisel's critics should stay quiet. Yes, his team played terribly against Arizona and yes, it was only Cal, but a win's a win.
To be fair, Neuheisel was working with a team with an injury-plagued defense that has also been decimated at receiver.
The fact that UCLA rebounded so strongly against California despite not being at full strength speaks to good coaching, something Bruin fans haven't seen a lot of in 2011. The same goes for how UCLA responded after going down 7-0 early
Credit should go to Neuheisel for his players' impassioned play, as well as his faith in Kevin Prince.
Every time Prince took off on a downfield adventure, you had to believe that Brett Hundley was warming up on the sidelines, yet play after play Neuheisel trusted his quarterback not to get injured while picking up positive yards.
The pistol offense simply does not work if you aren't willing to put your QB in a position of harm, and Neuheisel showed he could do that.
Neuheisel also kept his team team together as Dietrich Riley was carted off the field.
Both teams went down on one knee while paramedics tied the injured safety to a stretcher, but the Bruins retained their focus on the field despite their concern over Riley. Again, that's good coaching to keep your team fixed on the task at hand.
While by no means did Neuheisel completely redeem himself, he did take a step in the right direction.
Everyone is easier on the coach after a win, but if UCLA can upset Arizona State next weekend, they'll be in a tie for first place in the Pac-12 South. Why would you fire a coach after he just won the division?
It remains to be seen whether Neuhiesel and the Bruins can keep the momentum going.
UCLA Is Well Positioned for a Bowl Berth
UCLA's latest win over Cal puts them back at .500. If the 4-4 Bruins can win two out of their next four, they should be able to secure a bowl berth. A quick look at the schedule shows Arizona State, Utah, Colorado and USC still left to play, with two of those games at home.
Their big test for the Pac-12 South crown will come next week when the Sun Devils travel to Pasadena, but for the larger goal of a bowl game, the Bruins don't need to win it. Utah and Colorado still have only one conference win between them, so UCLA should count themselves favorites in both contests.
Then again, that was the narrative going into the Arizona game.
The key to UCLA's bowl hopes was winning this last game against Cal. By doing so, they now don't need to beat ASU or USC to make a bowl game.
When they play at their best, the Bruins are certainly capable of beating both of those teams, but chances are they won't. Now they don't have to.
UCLA has been a mess of inconstency in 2011, taking two steps back seemly every time they put a foot forward. With the season beginning to wind down, the Bruins need to find a reliable winning formula or face another losing season.
Their victory over Cal might have shown the way to winning stability.