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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

This year's UCLA opener felt different

Last season the Bruins opened with big win over Tennessee, then got blanked at Brigham Young and finished the year 4-8. This year's squad is superior to the one that beat the Vols.

September 06, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Last year over Labor Day weekend, UCLA shocked Tennessee in overtime in Rick Neuheisel's first game as Bruins' coach.

Fans at the Rose Bowl got so excited they did 18-claps.

It turned out to be a mirage, though, not a building block.

That win still defies logic. Football forensic scientists who studied it ultimately threw up their hands.

It has generally been dismissed as an unbelievable housewarming gift, from Rocky Top to Ricky.

Fans did a conga line out of the Rose Bowl that night while pundits thought "this can't be real."

It wasn't. Two weeks later, UCLA lost at Brigham Young, 59-0, and finished the season 4-8.

Saturday night, over Labor Day weekend, at the start of Neuheisel's second year, UCLA climbed back from a 14-3 hole to defeat San Diego State, 33-14.

The UCLA defense gave up a 78-yard touchdown bomb and the Bruins' starting quarterback fumbled two center snaps in the first half and had two passes intercepted in the second.

The weird thing is, it felt so much different.

UCLA played OK against a mediocre team but exits this Labor Day with a team superior to the one that beat Tennessee.

College football is often a game of perception versus reality -- what you see in relation to what you ultimately get.

"It's a different team," defensive tackle Brian Price said. "It's a different chemistry."

For one, moving the ball no longer seems like an Arctic expedition. The offense totaled 359 yards, the line surged, the tailbacks darted and freshman quarterback Kevin Prince mostly threw line drives.

UCLA's offense averaged 5.2 yards a play against the Aztecs, which allowed defensive players to get reacquainted with their water bottles.

"It always helps when you don't have to be on defense for 80 plays," end Korey Bosworth said. "The offense moved the ball better than I've ever seen them."

The night was 100 miles from perfect. Two third-down defensive penalties allowed San Diego State to maintain possession on its first scoring drive.

Prince, who hadn't played in a real game in two years, added a "yeah, but" to a solid performance by throwing two second-half interceptions.

"I made a couple of dumb mistakes," he said.

He also made several nice throws -- in time, on target, in places where only his guy could catch it.

Prince completed 18 of 29 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked only three times -- hey, in Westwood, this is progress.

As Neuheisel said 15 or 20 times in his post-game news conference, "there were glimpses."

The Bruins remain frighteningly inexperienced, especially on offense. Sixteen true freshmen or redshirt freshmen played.

"There's so many young people out there," Neuheisel exclaimed.

Yet, you can see where this is headed. You can detect an overall upgrade in team speed and quickness. Freshman tailbacks Johnathan Franklin and Milton Knox combined for 88 yards in 12 carries.

There was quickness not yet fully unveiled. First-year receiver Randall Carroll, the fastest high school kid in California last year, got playing time but didn't make a catch.

Remember, this is the Carroll whom the other Carroll, Pete, wanted.

We caught glimpses of others on the rise, tailback Damien Thigpen and tight end Morrell Presley, another take-away from USC.

After the game, Neuheisel got on his pedestal and addressed the UCLA die-hards who half-filled the Rose Bowl.

"I promise you we're going to get better," he said.

And you know what? It sounded more promising and possible than anything he said last year after 59-0 in Provo.

The defense is actually looking the offense in the eye again. "It's good to see offensive people scoring a couple of points," Bosworth said.

The only thing left is a little thing called the rest of the season. A year later, though, it's hard to image the game after Labor Day being a BYU-type implosion.

UCLA heads to Knoxville next week to play Tennessee. It's a game the Bruins might very well lose.

Yet they could return a better team than the one that beat Tennessee last year.

Like we said, it's weird.

"Last year was one of the best wins I've ever been a part of," sophomore safety Rahim Moore, who tied a UCLA record Saturday with three interceptions, said of the Tennessee victory.

"This is a good win, too. . . . But the team has to learn more. We can't let this victory go to our heads. We have work to do."

Saturday, UCLA only grabbed the lunch pail. It only defeated San Diego State.

But at least it felt like something better -- or at least a glimpse.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.comDufresneLATtimes

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