Things are looking up in Westwood, but how long will it last with Rick Neuheisel at the helm?
UCLA’s season has been a roller coaster at best. The Bruins are 5-4 overall and 4-2 in Pac-12 play but have strung together consecutive wins only recently. For all we know, this team could be beaten by two touchdowns in Salt Lake City next week.
In fact, the bookmakers already have them as seven-point underdogs.
In the best-case scenario, UCLA wins out, putting them at 8-4 with a trip to the Pac-12 title game, where Stanford likely waits. If the Bruins somehow win that game, they’ll go to the Rose Bowl. Since we're dreaming, let's say they win that too.
A 9-4 record, conference title and Rose Bowl win looks fantastic in my imagination, but does anyone realistically think that will happen? Sure, UCLA could beat Utah and Colorado to get to 7-4, but is an upset over USC reasonable with the Trojans playing so well?
The fact that we’re talking about a Rose Bowl win like it’s some impossible dream out of Man of La Mancha is indicative of the lowered expectations Bruin fans are forced to have with Neuheisel calling the shots. UCLA fans should expect conference titles and invitations to big bowls.
I honestly hope Neuheisel succeeds this year. I want UCLA to do well, especially against SC. But maybe, after four years of half-imagined promises and shattered dreams, it’s time to move in another direction.
Let’s start with the barometer of success most Bruin fans measure their program against: the USC Trojans.
Since Rick Neuheisel’s first game as head coach for UCLA in 2008, USC has a 36-12 record with a Rose Bowl win, a Pac-10 title, an Emerald Bowl win and three consecutive wins over the Bruins.
The Trojans have finished with eight or more wins since 2008 and are currently 7-2 in 2011. Had USC not been barred from postseason play for 2010 and 2011, they would have appeared in four consecutive bowl games.
Contrast that with UCLA under Neuheisel. Since 2008, UCLA is 19-25 with no winning regular seasons. They have only one bowl win, a 2009 30-21 upset over Temple in the frigid EagleBank Bowl.
And then there’s the fact that UCLA hasn’t beaten SC since 2006’s 13-9 miracle.
Neuheisel once claimed that the monopoly on football in Los Angeles was over, yet his administration has done little to support that bold claim. While UCLA scored a handful of recruits away from USC, you could hardly say they’ve upset the balance of power.
When recruits fled USC after sanctions were imposed, they didn’t run to UCLA; they left town entirely.
Neuheisel had a golden chance to turn Los Angeles’ football spotlight on to his team with SC’s NCAA sanctions, but failed to do so in 2010. It’s hard to argue he’s done so in 2011, with USC the clear class of the Pac-12 South despite UCLA’s poll position.
Rose Bowls and eight wins seem fantastical under Neuheisel’s reign. Across town, they call it an average season.
In Neuheisel’s four seasons at UCLA, the Bruins have averaged 6.51 penalties for 57.43 yards per game. They’ve ranked in the bottom half of the country in penalties per game each year, dropping as low as 89th.
It’s not just the penalties that should bother Bruin fans, it’s when they happen. Look no further than the game against Arizona State if you need an example. Holding calls brought back a handful of runs that could have secured the victory for UCLA on their own terms.
Instead, they had to bite their fingernails and hope Alex Garoutte missed a makeable field goal.
Pass interference penalties have also extended drives when they should have died. Granted, the two called on UCLA during in the fourth quarter were fairly objectionable, but the fact remains that they were called. Again, if Garoutte hadn’t missed, the last one on Aaron Hester would have certainly cost the Bruins a win.
Excessive penalties reflect poor discipline, which in turn is a reflection of poor coaching. Speaking of poor discipline, the melee at Arizona was not a sudden event; the players had been boiling all game. The Wildcats were making fools of them on a national stage, and when the taunts began, they answered with fists.
It’s hard to believe that UCLA’s coaching staff didn’t realize their players were about to snap, but it seems they didn’t do enough to prevent the ensuing brouhaha.
What resulted was a black eye for the program and the school. While they’ve probably moved beyond it, the fact remains that Neuheisel couldn’t control his players when he needed to.
Again, the same is true with penalties. UCLA has been and will be in a lot of close games this year, with yellow flags often times being the difference. The bevy of penalties this team gets called for has to end, and it might not happen with Neuheisel on board.
While there performance against California was encouraging, UCLA could not stop Arizona State RB Cameron Marshall from running all over them at the Rose Bowl. Marshall’s performance puts in sharp relief the problems that have plagued the Bruins defensively for four years: the front seven haven’t been that good.
Nationally the Bruins rank 86th in rushing defense and 109th in sacks, standings that haven’t changed much in the last four years. UCLA ‘s front seven lacks the speed to get to stretch runs and the pressure to take good quarterbacks out of rhythm.
While Datone Jones has upside at DE or DT, the other defensive linemen have yet to distinguish themselves. Linebackers Sean Westgate and Patrick Larimore hit hard but lack speed, and Glenn Love has been hampered with injuries.
UCLA gives up about 186 yards per game, a mark that will win them no bowl games or big games for that matter. Marshall ran for 168 yards and nearly cost UCLA their biggest victory under Rick Neuheisel.
A lack of blue-chip skill at linebacker or on the defensive line has taken the Bruins out of games for years, something that Neuheisel should be held accountable for.
What mystifies many UCLA fans is the programs inability to constantly draw top quarterbacking talent to Westwood.
With USC seemingly churning out NFL QB after NFL QB with or without the services of Norm Chow, why haven’t the Bruins, who possess many if not all of the same recruiting advantages, snag an elite level quarterback?
Think about it. USC has produced Heisman-winning talent in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Matt Barkley, should he stay in school another year, will also be a Heisman favorite. Mark Sanchez starts at quarterback for the New York Jets.
Even one of SC’s old backups is making waves professionally. Remember Matt Cassel? He starts for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ever since Cade McNown left in the early 2000s, UCLA has been weak under center. Cory Paus? Ben Olsen? McLeod Bethel-Thompson? Ossar Rasshan? Even Drew Olsen was only great for one season.
More often than not, UCLA has started quarterbacks who excel with their feet rather than their arm. Remember Patrick Cowan? He was the architect of UCLA’s stunning 13-9 upset over USC and did most of his damage with his feet.
Kevin Prince is more or less the same, capable of throwing when he needs to, but primarily a runner. Brett Hundley, the Bruins’ heir apparent at QB, is also a runner.
Instead of solving this recruiting problem, Neuheisel adopted an offense that suits the kind of quarterbacks he can recruit: the pistol offense. Now it’s a plus if your quarterback can run, in fact, that’s the only way the offense can work.
A run-first offense doesn’t translate well into the NFL; just ask Tim Tebow. Bruin fans expected more in this area from Neuheisel, and so far he hasn’t delievered.
Perhaps the biggest reason UCLA can’t afford another year with Neuheisel is that the program doesn’t seem to have progressed very far from where he started originally.
The year Karl Dorrell was fired, he had just gone 6-6 without appearing in a bowl game. Over his five-year stint with UCLA, Dorrell has just one losing season, his first in 2003. The team went 6-7, with their seventh loss coming in the Silicon Valley Bowl.
Dorrell went 35-27 with UCLA, made them bowl eligible every year and never finished lower in the conference than tied for fifth. He also had a magical 10-2 season in 2005 that saw UCLA win 10 in a row, catapulting them into the national discussion.
Under Neuheisel, UCLA is 18-25 and cannot possibly finish better than 23-25 by the end of the 2011 season. After four years, Dorrell was 29-21, not much better, but better nonetheless. Neuheisel’s Bruins have suffered two 4-8 seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the old Pac-10 conference.
They have only been to one bowl game, going 7-6 in 2009.
How can anyone look at those numbers and think that the program has progressed? If anything, it’s regressed, and badly. If Dorrell, another prodigal Son of Westwood who had come home to coach his former team, was canned after five years of moderate success, why should Neuheisel get a pass?
Of course, Neuheisel could turn it all around in these last few games. He could win out and put on a show in the Pac-12 title game before heading to a good bowl. After that, the sky will be the limit in Westwood. Who would fire him then?
But then again, as he has shown since 2008, the Bruins could stumble under his leadership. They could play poorly against a team they should beat. They might not win another game.
Regardless, maybe it’s time for another change. I hope Neuheisel can turn it around, but if not, he should be shown the door just like Dorrell. UCLA can’t afford many more losing seasons.