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Kurt Streeter

Gut-check time for Bruins after sour loss

September 14, 2008|Kurt Streeter

PROVO, Utah -- Two games into the season for the Westwood footballers and instead of answers all we have after Saturday's debacle is a cloud of questions.

How in the name of Rick Neuheisel does UCLA bounce back from 59 to zip?

How do they rebound from as soul-sucking a loss as has been suffered by the Bruins since the days of the Great Depression?

Will they be able to step past this defeat and summon the guts they showed in their first-game upset of Tennessee? Or will this cause a crisis of confidence that brings about a painful crumble and a season to forget?

When Brigham Young was finished with them Saturday, Bruins players and coaches looked as shocked as if they'd just taken the field against a team of ghosts. But to their credit, even if they had no other choice, they also firmly stuck to the postgame mantra handed out by their new head coach. Instead of throwing a fit, Neuheisel sought some perspective.

"It's game two of our season; we've got 10 more left," he calmly assured anyone who would listen. "We have to focus on what's broken. . . . We have to challenge our guys to bring a great effort . . . all of us have to get better."

That's an understatement.

This was a game in which BYU's players came out like wild-eyed warriors with fire in their guts. The Bruins, by contrast, looked like doe-eyed kids with sour tummies from eating too many late-night sweets.

The offense was simply inept. The defense trotted to the field with the confidence that came from holding off Tennessee. Then BYU romped downfield on an 11-play opening drive that featured six-for-six passing from Cougars' quarterback Max Hall, a drive he ended with the first of his seven touchdown tosses. (No, that's not a typo: Hall finished with seven and could have had 10 if he'd not been pulled early in the second half.)

All game long, every time you looked up it seemed a white-helmeted BYU player was either wide open, pouncing on a fumble, or easing into the end zone. With 14 minutes 30 seconds left in the second quarter, BYU was already up, 21-0. Roughly five minutes later, it was Brigham Young 35, UCLA nothing whatsoever. Of course it didn't stop there, but no need piling on.

"I don't even have the words to describe it," Alterraun Verner said, standing in a hushed locker room half an hour after the game.

Verner is usually a defensive dynamo, but he suffered through what generously can be described as a rough afternoon. He thought for a moment and then offered a single-word description of the afternoon: "Unexpected?"

Well put. Of course, nobody thought UCLA was going to come to Provo and blitzkrieg a team that hasn't lost in a dozen games. Then again, nobody thought a Bruins team that had just beaten vaunted Tennessee would fly home from Utah with two black eyes, a fat lip, a neck brace and a stiff limp.

Ten games remain this season, and only a few of them come against teams one can fairly judge as weak. Thank goodness for Washington State, Stanford and Oregon State. Still, for the Bruins, those games are far from sure things. If this game causes UCLA to buckle and fold, they could well play USC in December with nothing more than a 1, 2 or 3 in the win column.

Don't tell that to the Bruins, even after Saturday. They still believe.

"Nobody is going to have an emotional breakdown," assured Verner, asked about the future for this team. "We're going to hang in."

"The key right now will be just to focus," added linebacker Kyle Bosworth, who noted that watching BYU pile on the score made him feel sick. "We have to focus like never before. We can't afford to lose it."

Neuheisel, of course, took over at his alma mater expressly to help the Bruins in embarrassing moments like this: games where opponents smother the UCLA offense and then put more than 50 points of their own on the board. At the least, it is hoped that Neuheisel can avoid the embarrassing inconsistency of the teams coached by Karl Dorrell.

What happens next will be the mother of all gut checks for the Bruins, and almost certainly this season's best test of Neuheisel's mettle. "We have got to get our team back," he said, asked about his primary goal for the coming week. "They've been challenged. They understand that. We just have to find out who is healthy, who can play, and find out how to play 60 minutes with the guys we have."

It was good to hear the right things being said, good to see Neuheisel set the right course during a moment of trouble. But a trouncing such as this can't be what UCLA had in mind when it fired last year's coach and announced to the world that USC would soon be hearing footsteps from Westwood.

It's two games in and after this ugly loss, questions now hang over the Bruins like a cloud.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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