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Irrelevant little Bruins? It could happen

UCLA's embarrasing 35-0 loss to Stanford gets fans booing early and raises the question: Is this team worth watching?

September 11, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Walking into the Rose Bowl Saturday afternoon, I was greeted by a longtime UCLA football fan bearing a familiar UCLA football lament.

He was hanging out with hundreds of other tailgating faithful who, standing in searing September Pasadena sun, are increasingly wondering why.

"Isn't this supposed to be our show-me year?" the guy said.

It is. And it isn't.

Two games into a season in which the Bruins could show they are ready to fill the headlines vacated by probation-pillaged USC, they have shown nothing.

Two games into a season in which Coach Rick Neuheisel could show he can fill the buzz vacated by departed Trojan coach Pete Carroll, he has shown nothing.

With everyone prepared to talk about the only team in town that could compete in a bowl game, the silence has been unsettling … or worse.

Put it this way: Less than 90 minutes into the Bruins' first home game of the 2010 season Saturday against Stanford, their fans were booing as loud as I've ever heard any UCLA crowd boo.

They were angry with a horrendous lob pass by a scrambling Kevin Prince that was intercepted in front of the end zone by a thrilled Richard Sherman.

They were angry with the pass, angry with an earlier offsides penalty that led to the pass, angry with a UCLA team that was being essentially steamrolled by Stanford in a game that the Cardinal eventually won, 35-0.

Those are the kind of boos that eventually led to the firings of Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell. That's not happening here, not yet, Dan Guerrero likely to give Neuheisel at least the five years that Dorrell was given.

But goodness, two games into the season, and it feels like they are already two feet under. With upcoming games at Texas, Cal, Oregon, Washington and USC, this already feels like a team teetering on the brink of the worst thing that can happen to a sports team in this town.

They are in serious danger of becoming irrelevant, and once that happens, the Rose Bowl stands becomes even emptier than on Saturday night (with students not yet in school, there were huge sections of empty seats), and their roster will have even fewer top local recruits.

Think about it. When was the last big-time UCLA bowl game? More than a decade ago in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin?

When is the last time they've had a truly exciting player? Five years ago with Maurice Jones-Drew? They haven't had a true star quarterback since Cade McNown, nor a truly eye-popping receiver since Freddie Mitchell, both of whom played a decade ago.

If Neuheisel could not win, the hope would be that he would at least bring in players who would make us want to watch. So far, going 11-16 in his first 17 games here, he has done neither.

He won just one of his first seven games against ranked opponents, now losing six in a row, and on Saturday the gritty little excuses just didn't work.

They couldn't win because they have tougher academic standards? Not against Stanford. They couldn't win because they were playing a more established coach and program? Jim Harbaugh has been at Stanford only one more season than Neuheisel, and already he has beaten USC twice.

On Saturday night, UCLA looked like the tiny wannabe school with anonymous players while Stanford looked like the established Pac-10 power with cool Pac-10 quarterback Andrew Luck, and Bruins fans must be asking, when did that happen?

There was smart little Stanford, scoring the clinching touchdown in the third quarter on a drive that lasted — I'm not making this up — 18 plays. It covered 68 yards and lasted nearly 10 minutes. It ended with Stanford flattening the Bruins at the goal line on consecutive plays, Luck plowing Aaron Hester on the first one, Owen Marecic rolling for a one-yard touchdown on the second.

After a two-point conversion — Harbaugh is good at those, huh? — gave the Cardinal a 21-0 lead, it added insult moments later when Michael Thomas simply stripped the ball out of Prince's hands and ran 21 yards for a touchdown.

It wasn't only like that in the end, it was like that throughout the game, the Bruins embarrassed not only by the Cardinal discipline and toughness, but by their own lack of both.

Typical of UCLA's problem was a simple third-down-and-seven situation faced by Stanford deep in its territory in the first quarter. Even though it was early in the game, the Bruins called a timeout. Then, faced with an illegal substitution penalty after the timeout, they called another timeout.

When Stanford finally hiked the dang ball, Luck found Ryan Whalen on a 19-yard pass for a first down that kept alive a field-goal drive.

And that might not have even been the worst defended UCLA third-down pass, as Luck later completed a 34-yard pass to Doug Baldwin even though two UCLA defenders were covering him and one of those guys interfered with him. Yep, the catch led to another field goal.

Well, there's always basketball. Josiah Turner, the top-rated point high school point guard in California, was there on a recruiting trip.

Wonder if Ben Howland was able to show him … aw, forget it.

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