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Bruins persevere to vie for the Pac-12 title

Despite a trying season, UCLA earns a solid victory over Colorado and has a chance to play for the Pacific 12 Conference championship with a victory over USC next Saturday.

November 19, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince gives receiver Shaquelle Evans a hug after the two connected for a 54-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter Saturday against the Buffaloes.
Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince gives receiver Shaquelle Evans a hug after… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Actual tangible excitement returned to UCLA football again Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Mark it approximately at 7 p.m.

Up until then, it has been a season of discontent. Win one. Lose one. Talk about injuries. Try to keep hope springing eternal. A big win Nov. 5 against Arizona State was followed by a big loss the next week against Utah. The Bruins were gutsy only about 50% of the time, and that doesn't even get you past the B in BCS.

More attention was paid to the fate of fourth-year Coach Rick Neuheisel than to the fate of the team, although the two were joined at the hip.

Crowds at the Rose Bowl were dreadful. Saturday's was only 57,334 in a cavern that is configured for Bruins game at more like 85,000. The old buzz from the Terry Donahue era, and the days of Troy Aikman — even the days of Bob Toledo and Cade McNown — was long gone. At game time Saturday, empty seats were the dominant motif and the excitement level seemed higher on the nearby Brookside golf course putting green.

You could have stayed home and watched the game on something called Versus, if you could find it. To the credit of that cable network, the game finished in less than three hours. Had it been on ESPN, with 20 commercials every half hour, they'd still be playing.

But then it happened. A UCLA downer season turned the other way, at least for the moment.

With 14 minutes 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter against Colorado, Neuheisel stopped playing it close to the vest, went for the final dagger and got it. On fourth and four from Colorado's 21, the Bruins rushed up the middle for six yards and followed that immediately with a 15-yard touchdown pass, Kevin Prince to Joseph Fauria.

Now, there was no question. The Bruins were going to win. Fauria's touchdown and the extra point made it 31-6. The floodgates had opened. It ended 45-6, and there was sudden new joy in Bruinville.

Let the permutations begin.

Now, UCLA can win a spot in the Pac-12 Conference's first title game simply with a win next Saturday.

OK, that's not so simple. The Bruins play USC at the Coliseum, and the Trojans, despite being tackled hard and suffering serious injuries from the NCAA the last two seasons, are turning out to be very good. They messed up both vaunted Oregon and the BCS rankings when they hung on to beat the No. 4 Ducks at Eugene, 38-35.

Didn't see that coming, did you? Nor did you expect to see the words "UCLA football" and "Pac-12 title" in the same sentence.

USC against UCLA needs no extra kindling wood, but it sure got plenty with the successes at the Rose Bowl and at Oregon. The other contenders for the Pac-12 South title, Utah and Arizona State, stayed alive. But for Bruins fans, it is easy.

Win and you're in.

Surely, that is a long shot, and a lead-in week of discussion will make that more clear. USC is 6-2 in the Pac-12 and 9-2 overall. But it is ineligible to win the title, and so its main focus will be to make sure its hated rival doesn't, either.

To be sure, UCLA will be a decided underdog against USC. The Colorado team it beat was embarrassingly bad much of the time Saturday, although give UCLA credit for contributing to that. Colorado's 1-7 conference record and 2-10 overall mark are well earned.

The last time the Buffaloes won a football game outside of Colorado was at Texas Tech on Oct. 27, 2007. That was 24 away-from-home games ago. That calls for something more than coaching. Psychologists, maybe.

Still, UCLA and Neuheisel deserved this moment, if for no other reason than for getting through a season of perseverance.

Neuheisel, who hasn't done it recently after making it a postgame ritual, took the public-address microphone and told the crowd, "Despite the naysayers, we're playing for the championship next week."

In his news conference, the former Bruins quarterback said, "Playing 'SC for the championship is the way I want it to be, the way it should be. When I got back here, that's what I longed for."

UCLA, not long ago a team that sputtered on offense like an old Model T, picked up 553 yards. Its quarterback, Prince, not long ago a player who was injured so much he didn't even have a chance to sputter, completed 15 of 19 passes for 225 yards and four touchdowns.

Yes, it was against Colorado. Yes, when you take USC out of the picture, the Pac-12 South would be mostly JV teams in a conference like the Southeastern.

But you play where you are and survive as best you can. Neuheisel has preached in his four years about living for another day. That's hollow sounding after many of the lousy losses the Bruins have had.

But it sure works now. And the day UCLA has been living for will include USC.

That should be a rout. But then, no should-be has knocked out UCLA yet.

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