UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel can breathe a sign of relief after the Bruins pulled… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
By season's end Rick Neuheisel might want to call Athletic Director Dan Guerrero to his office and demand a raise.
What a stunning development this is, a 29-28 heart-throbbing win, UCLA vaulting itself within a couple more king-size miracles of representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl.
Dead and buried on national TV two weeks ago, the Bruins did not quit under Neuheisel — as shocking a development as this win over Arizona State was meaningful.
"Obviously a lot was broken on that Thursday night [in Arizona], but we've worked hard to correct it," Neuheisel said. "I'm thrilled with the resolve. Can't say enough about everyone's effort."
It's the first significant conference win in Neuheisel's four years on the job, and now all Neuheisel has to do is win three bigger games to get to Stanford or Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
Absurd, outrageous and impossible to even consider, but then how do you explain away this one?
UCLA beat the team that beat USC, and as excited as Arizona State was to end an 11-game losing streak to the Trojans, Coach Dennis Erickson has some explaining to do to his superiors.
His team just blew it.
Erickson's team had only to defeat doormats in UCLA, Washington State, Arizona and Cal to advance to the conference title game.
But now it's Neuheisel calling the shots in the South Division; stop for a second and ponder that turnaround.
"You have to rally back when you're down, and if it was easy everybody would do it," said Neuheisel who has already been given the 10-count. "It's about us, no one on the outside but us. And we're going to fight, scratch and claw one week at a time — beginning this week at Utah."
You had to be here to see it, and many of you were not because UCLA had offered no hint anyone would see anything worth watching.
There weren't even enough UCLA students to rush the field after Arizona State's 46-yard field-goal attempt fell short to end the game.
But that didn't stop the Bruins from dancing to the middle of the field and then milling around in jubilation — UCLA acting as if it didn't quite know what do after winning a big game.
Credit them all, and maybe Neuheisel the most for finding a way to keep his team grinding. They had every chance to roll over and call it a cold night after falling behind 14-6.
But somehow, some way, UCLA went ahead 16-14 at the half. Then the Bruins tacked on another touchdown to start the third quarter, players exploding on the sideline with every upbeat play the rest of the game.
This was the kind of football Neuheisel boasted UCLA would play when he took the job. It just never happened, certainly not in a conference game with any significance.
But look at brittle quarterback Kevin Prince now, a guy who has proven to be physically tough two weeks in a row. How many would have said there was any way he could rush for more than 200 yards in that time and still be standing?
Prince ran at Neuheisel's request a week ago and UCLA won. He did it again against Arizona State and UCLA had a nine-point lead over the nine-point-favored Sun Devils in the second half.
As any Bruins fan probably expected, Arizona State came back, scoring to make it 23-21. The Sun Devils scored again to go ahead, 28-23. And then UCLA fumbled, lost the ball and the collapse looked so familiar.
The Bruins got it back and fumbled again, this time falling on it. If you think the fans were nervous with the game still in doubt, it was pretty obvious how the players felt.
But somehow, some way — which ought to be the Bruins' motto down the stretch — they pulled it off. They were sitting third and 29 after an offensive pass-interference call, so they gained 33 yards.
And they scored with 42 seconds remaining to take one-point lead, and at the risk of sounding like Lane Kiffin, the Pac-12 officials continue to appear incompetent.
A pass-interference call on UCLA defender Aaron Hester has to be one of the worst calls ever made. At the very least it gave Arizona State a chance to win; at the worst it could have cost Neuheisel his job.
The Sun Devils capitalized on the bogus call, picked up another 12 yards and set up for a 46-yard field goal.
If the kid makes the field goal, UCLA gets a moral victory, which doesn't do much for Neuheisel's resume at the end of the season. The kid misses and Neuheisel's team now has a chance to win at least seven games and draw a solid bowl invite.
And how to do you fire a guy after a comeback like that?
The kick isn't close, and suddenly UCLA football is relevant again.
Unfortunately, it also raises
expectations, the fall greater, as
Neuheisel has learned, if potential is not realized.
As big as this win was, he's really got no choice now but to beat Utah and Colorado — no room whatsoever for pratfalls.
He does that, and then he plays USC for the opportunity to play in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
I can't believe I even typed that sentence.