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Rick Neuheisel downplays UCLA's big Arizona State game

The Bruins coach dials down pregame talk with a one-game-at-a-time philosophy, even though a victory Saturday would put UCLA in a first-place tie for the Pac-12's South Division.

November 04, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA receiver Taylor Embree, gaining yardage after a reception against Houston, says of the game Saturday against Arizona State: "This is the biggest game of my career since I have been at UCLA. If anyone says anything different, then they are lying."
UCLA receiver Taylor Embree, gaining yardage after a reception against… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

For more than three years, UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel has talked about the need "to get back to playing in big games."

On Saturday, he and the Bruins have one. Arizona State is coming to the Rose Bowl and a UCLA victory would move the Bruins into a first-place tie with the Sun Devils in the Pacific 12 Conference's South Division — with UCLA owning the tiebreaker.

So now that the opportunity is here, what does Neuheisel have to say about it?

"Our focus is just one game at a time," he said.

Huh?

"I think our mind-set needs to be on what we do rather than what might or might not be," Neuheisel said. "Unfortunately, that isn't exciting" for the media.

No worries. Arizona State was ready to fill the void.

Quarterback Brock Osweiler said the Sun Devils have to "finish what we got started and secure the South."

And, in case anyone missed the point, he added, "We understand that to meet our goals, this is one of those football games that we have to have."

The No. 20 Sun Devils (6-2 overall, 4-1 in conference play) have been in control of the South Division throughout the season. The only team still in the division race is UCLA (4-4, 3-2).

USC, which lost to Arizona State, is ineligible for the conference championship game.

"This right here, this is the biggest game of my career since I have been at UCLA," senior wide receiver Taylor Embree said. "If anyone says anything different, then they are lying."

The last time UCLA was in first place was Oct. 27, 2007, after starting 4-0 in conference play. The Bruins were routed by Washington State that day, lost four of their last five games and went to the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl without coach Karl Dorrell, who was fired.

The Las Vegas Bowl would look pretty good to the Bruins this season, but a bigger prize could be out there if they were to defeat Arizona State and later USC: a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a Rose Bowl berth on the table.

"The magnitude is much more than a lot of people know," UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester said.

Neuheisel knows, and has taken a stance radically different from his usual gung-ho personality.

On one hand, he has preached a "burn-the-boats" philosophy, taking it so far that players were given "BTB" T-shirts last week. Yet, when the idea of being tied for first place was first floated last Sunday, Neuheisel was ready to paddle around it, saying, "We're not going to talk about it."

Caution entered the fray two weeks ago, when the Bruins had their first chance to move into a tie with Arizona State. Instead, they were walloped by Arizona, 48-12.

So Neuheisel dialed down the P.T. Barnum portion of his personality this time around.

Still, facts are unavoidable.

The Bruins have not won or shared a conference football title since 1998, the longest drought in the program's history. Only Arizona has gone longer among old-school Pac-10 teams — the Wildcats have never finished first.

"We are fully aware of what's at stake," UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince said.

Embree went into detail, saying, "We have too many guys who have been at rock bottom for too long. We have a different mind-set now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

The question is, are the Bruins ready to run to daylight … or will they meet the onrushing train?

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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