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A gut check for UCLA in Pac-12 title game against Oregon

It will take all the UCLA squad can muster to revive the spirit of the 'Gutty Little Bruins' to overcome the Ducks, earn a Rose Bowl berth and give Rick Neuheisel a parting gift to savor.

December 01, 2011|By Chris Foster

If there is a contemporary poster player for UCLA's "Gutty Little Bruins" reputation from long ago, it is senior linebacker Sean Westgate.

Westgate arrived at UCLA as a 5-foot-11, 205-pound linebacker and helped launch Rick Neuheisel's tenure as the Bruins coach by scooping up a blocked punt and running 13 yards for a touchdown in a first-game upset over Tennessee.

Now, with UCLA a heavy underdog to Oregon on Friday night in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference championship game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., he will try to prevent the Neuheisel Era from ending with a whimper.

The winner goes to the Rose Bowl, and nearly everyone expects the eighth-ranked Ducks —32-point favorites — to be playing in Pasadena on Jan. 2.

"This is Neuheisel's last game," said Westgate, who was among 22 freshmen in the coach's first UCLA recruiting class. "We're all upset to see him go."

No matter the outcome, this will be Neuheisel's last game as UCLA's head coach. He was fired Monday and the school announced that offensive coordinator Mike Johnson would take over as interim coach for the Bruins' bowl game.

UCLA against Oregon has been called a David versus Goliath matchup. However, David was skilled with a slingshot; UCLA doesn't always handle its "pistol" (offense) as capably.

The Ducks (10-2) followed a direct path to the title game, winning the North Division with a high-powered offense that figures to be a nightmare for what has been a shoddy UCLA defense. Oregon lost only to top-ranked Louisiana State to start the season and to No. 9 USC two weeks ago.

The Bruins' (6-6) road to the title game was full of potholes and detours. UCLA finished two games behind USC in the South Division standings but advanced to the championship game because the Trojans are not eligible for postseason play.

Despite a 50-0 loss to USC on Saturday, UCLA advanced because Arizona State lost its last four games and Utah failed to beat 2-10 Colorado at home last Friday.

"We lost games and sometimes it felt like, 'When is this ever going to end?'" receiver Nelson Rosario said. "That was the hardest part of my four years here. But this is a gift from the football gods. We have a chance to do what we came here to do, win a championship."

The group that came in with Neuheisel fell short of its goals, finishing with a 21-28 record in four seasons and losing all four games to USC.

"When we got here, we wanted to beat SC, win the conference championship and win the Rose Bowl," senior running back Derrick Coleman said. "The first, we failed to do. The other two, we've got one more opportunity."

The Bruins' 2008 recruiting class was ranked 10th nationally by Scout.com. Of the 22 freshmen, 14 will play prominent roles against the Ducks. The Bruins, talent-poor in 2008, had to play 10 as true freshmen.

That group started fast, with a 27-24 overtime victory over Tennessee, and Westgate scoring the first touchdown of Neuheisel's tenure. However, any giddiness was short-lived. Two weeks later, Brigham Young beat UCLA, 59-0.

But Westgate has seen a positive change.

"When we got here, there were a lot of guys who felt entitled," Westgate said. "You earn what you get. We worked hard. We changed the culture among players, my class and the class behind us. That's the biggest accomplishment of our senior class."

A bigger one could come Friday night.

"Our goal this year was to get to the first Pac-12 championship game," senior tight end Cory Harkey said. "We're here regardless what everybody thinks about our season.

"We're where we wanted to be."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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