These were not your 2008 UCLA Bruins.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince didn't find a red-faced Coach Rick Neuheisel in his face on Saturday, arms flailing as if he were attempting liftoff. The offensive line provided holes to run through, rather than digging them. Bruins fans left the Rose Bowl murmuring sounds of content.
There was such a different feel to UCLA's 33-14 victory over San Diego State that defensive players even complained a little about their offense keeping them off the field.
"I was like, 'Come on, man, either score or punt,' " senior linebacker Reggie Carter. "We kept getting three-and-outs and the offense was holding onto the ball. I wanted to hit somebody. But I can't complain. This was fun."
There weren't a lot of rollicking good times around the Bruins football team following a 4-8 season. And there were plenty of words of caution afterward Saturday.
But coaches and players framed this as a start, with the desired finish a bowl game . . . any bowl game
Prince, who had not played in a game in two years, had a first half, "that showed that he can play at this level," Neuheisel said, followed by a half, "that showed he's still a freshman."
The line, a source of "a lot of exasperation last season," line coach Bob Palcic said, set tailbacks Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin on touchdown runs. Coleman's run covered 29 yards and washed clean a slow start, giving UCLA a 16-14 lead with 5 minutes 33 seconds left in the first half. The Bruins' longest scoring play was 21 yards last season.
Those things left the defense as spectators for long stretches -- the Bruins had a 10-minute edge in time of possession.
"It felt good not to be out there for 80 plays," defensive end Korey Bosworth said. "It felt real good."
This was hardly a litmus test. San Diego State was coming off its own disaster of a season that prompted a coaching change. But Neuheisel said, "We saw glimpses tonight."
Not to mention a few flashbacks. Bruins fans must have had those Mountain West Conference jitters in the first quarter. UCLA was pummeled by Utah in 2007 and Brigham Young in 2008, by a combined score of 103-6. It seemed more of the same was in the offing when San Diego State jumped to a 14-3 lead.
Twice UCLA extended the Aztecs' opening drive with third-down penalties leading to a touchdown. Next, Ryan Lindley scorched the Bruins' secondary, connecting with Vincent Brown on a 78-yard touchdown pass.
Two possessions, two touchdowns.
"I told the defense we were just beating ourselves," Carter said. "Just slow down and play the game. We didn't have to do anything but our job."
The Aztecs had only 120 total yards after their first two series.
"There wasn't a sense of panic," Neuheisel said.
That, too often, seemed the game plan last season.
The offense is in Prince's hands this season, and the upgrade seemed clear in the first half. He completed his first six passes and was 12 for 16 for 140 yards by halftime.
Prince directed two scoring drives in the last six minutes of the half, one he started with a 17-yard scramble. Coleman scored on the following play. Prince then took the Bruins 80 yards, throwing a six-yard fade pass to Terrence Austin. He sounded very much in command afterward.
"I wasn't too worried about whether we had the lead at halftime," Prince said.
"I was just concerned about getting the flow of the offense going. If we didn't get in a rhythm, we were going to be in trouble."
Prince had two passes intercepted in the second half and finished by completing 18 of 29 for 176 yards.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow was unconcerned about the second-half slip, saying, "We won the game. He's a redshirt freshman. He hasn't played in two years. I felt he handled himself well."
That was made easier by the offensive line. The Bruins used nine different line combinations last season, but seemed to have the right chemistry Saturday.
The mantra from Neuheisel has been, "run the ball or die trying," and the Bruins lived to play another day. They finished with 144 yards on the ground.
After Austin returned a kickoff 65 yards, Franklin sprinted through a large hole for a 12-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 14-10.
"There wasn't much of that last season," guard Jeff Baca said. "We wanted to be a better team. We had to work to be one."