UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince is tackled by Oregon defensive back Eddie… (Kirby Lee / US Presswire )
As parting gifts go, perhaps the only thing UCLA players could have done better was pull off one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
Or make it a bit closer at the end.
That did not happen Friday night at Autzen Stadium, but the Bruins sent fired Coach Rick Neuheisel off with an effort worth remembering in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference title game.
The Bruins, 31-point underdogs, hung with No. 9 Oregon through part of the third quarter before losing, 49-31.
That was more than the 59,376 in attendance or most anyone expected from a team coming off a 50-0 loss to USC and the announcement two days later that Neuheisel's four-year tenure was over, effective Friday night when time expired on the game clock.
"They can take my job," Neuheisel said afterward. "But they can't take those guys away from me."
Oregon improved to 11-2 overall and earned its second trip the Rose Bowl in three years.
The Bruins, who gave up a combined 99 points in their last two games, fell to 6-7 and now await a bowl invitation for a game that will be coached by Bruins assistant Mike Johnson.
Neuheisel finished his UCLA tenure with a 21-29 record. He said his players "fought valiantly" and showed heart against the Ducks.
"We made it a game," he said, "at least for a time."
The score was tied, 7-7, midway through the first quarter, and the Bruins were within 11 points early in the second half before Oregon closed its fist.
"I think we easily could have laid down and given in to everybody's predictions." said Bruins linebacker Patrick Larimore, who returned an interception for a touchdown. "But I feel like the team, as a whole, played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort."
Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas passed for three touchdowns and ran for another as the Ducks rolled up 571 yards and won their third consecutive conference title.
Running back LaMichael James rushed for 219 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first player in conference history to eclipse 1,500 yards in a season three times.
That, along with a defense that came up with several key fourth-down stops and sacked quarterback Kevin Prince four times, was too much for the Bruins to overcome.
"It's sad," UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria said. "The only thing I can say is we wanted so much to give this game to [Neuheisel]. It's a shame that we couldn't get that done."
UCLA gave the Ducks plenty of opportunities by fumbling three times in the first half. But they also made the Ducks sweat a bit on a chilly evening.
A field goal at the end of the first half made the score 35-17, and the Bruins forced Oregon to go three and out to start the second half. Derrick Coleman's 41-yard run set up Prince's short touchdown run and the Bruins were within 11.
But Oregon, as it did all night, answered.
James carried four times during a five-play drive that he ended with his final touchdown for a 42-24 lead. Thomas' touchdown pass to tight end David Paulson pushed the margin to 25 points.
"They're like clockwork," said UCLA cornerback Tevin McDonald, who forced a fumble that the Bruins failed to convert into points. "If you don't play perfect, they're going to burn you."
Prince passed for two touchdowns, both to receiver Nelson Rosario.
UCLA's last touchdown came late in the fourth quarter, Rosario making a one-handed grab to cut the final margin to 18 points.
"At that point in the game we knew we weren't going to win it," Prince said. "But, you know, we just want to make sure that people see that we never give up.
"We're never going to be quitters. We never want to be called that or considered that. We showed we wanted to continue to compete till the very end."
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UCLA game log
*--* DATE OPPONENT RESULT Sept. 3 at Houston L, 38-34 Sept. 10 vs. San Jose State W, 27-17 Sept. 17 vs. Texas L, 49-20 Sept. 24 at Oregon State W, 27-19 Oct. 1 at Stanford L, 45-19 Oct. 8 vs. Washington St. W, 28-25 Oct. 20 at Arizona L, 48-12 Oct. 29 vs. California W, 31-14 Nov. 5 vs. Arizona State W, 29-28 Nov. 12 at Utah L, 31-6 Nov. 19 vs. Colorado W, 45-6 Nov. 26 at USC L, 50-0 Dec. 2 at Oregon* L, 49-31 *--*
*Pac-12 title game