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Early in the season, the end seems near for Rick Neuheisel

BILL PLASCHKE

'I know there are folks out there that are disappointed in our lack of success,' the UCLA coach says. 'I don't necessarily blame those people.'

September 17, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel talks to quarterback Kevin Prince after he had a second pass intercepted by Texas in the first quarter Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel talks to quarterback Kevin Prince after he had… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Rich Neuheisel has ceased giving postgame pep talks to Rose Bowl fans, but after Saturday's blistering, he could have knocked one out in two words.

"See ya!"

It's not the end, but it sure feels like it. The coach can still save his job, but the conditions appear unlikely and the rescue would be miraculous.

A bright and breezy afternoon at the Rose Bowl that should have represented everything right about UCLA football was instead a symbol of everything that is wrong, the Bruins bumbling and baffling their way to a 49-20 loss to Texas.

"After all we've been through around here, to see so many promising things go down the drain, it's frustrating," quarterback Kevin Prince said quietly in a UCLA locker room filled with dazed looks from kids who deserve better.

Down went Prince with three interceptions in seven passes. Down went the discipline with brutal penalties at awful times. Down went the tackling with the Longhorns rushing for nearly three full football fields while scoring their first two touchdowns untouched.

Down, too, went Neuheisel's smile, because as much as he acts as though he doesn't know it, he knows it.

He called one play "ridiculous." He called another play "atrocious."

He tightened his jaw and conceded, "I know there are folks out there that are disappointed in our lack of success. … I don't necessarily blame those people."

Those folks are the loudest ones in the room these days, boosters and alumni clamoring for the Bruins to start thinking about changes, talking about possible replacements, gossiping about the likes of Boise State's Chris Petersen.

It's unfair, really, as one can never seriously discuss dismissing a coach before conference play begins. But in the third game of a fourth undistinguished season, Neuheisel found himself in the middle of the same perfect storm that capsized predecessors Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell.

His offense was sloppy and unprepared. His defense was reckless and uninspired. The Rose Bowl was barely half full and quiet. The Bruins never really had a chance.

"I've been around too long to be stunned," Neuheisel said. "But I am disappointed."

He is not alone, fans booing from midway through the first quarter, many of them leaving with eight minutes left in the game, clogging the aisles with anger and disillusionment. Several of those who stayed until the end occupied their time by heckling Neuheisel as he walked to the tunnel.

"I just don't know, man," defensive end Datone Jones said, perhaps speaking for the entire Bruins nation.

The worst I-don't-know moment occurred on the Bruins' second possession, when they were facing a third-and-one situation around midfield. The offense came out in the wrong formation and Neuheisel quickly called timeout, which was smart. But the Bruins returned to the field with one extra man, resulting in a five-yard penalty, which was really, really dumb.

Moments later they punted, and afterward, Neuheisel shook his head and said, "We had kids on the sideline who didn't hear the personnel package."

Other I-don't-know moments included the defense jumping offside on the Longhorns' final drive of the first half, helping them convert a third down that led to a touchdown. Later that drive, the Bruins jumped offside on a goal-line play and still couldn't stop the Longhorns from scoring on a pass from Case McCoy to D.J. Grant. Then there was the 16-yard touchdown run by Texas freshman Malcolm Brown during which he lost his shoe and still ran over Tony Dye in the end zone.

Oh, yeah, there was also Joseph Fauria fumbling a pass at the Texas four-yard line, a late mistake that bookmarked Prince's three early interceptions, which led to his benching in favor of Richard Brehaut.

"It really stinks, because they really trusted me," said Prince, who is a stand-up kid, facing the music after his mistakes. The Bruins can use his character in their locker room, and I'm glad he's coming back for another season.

Whether his head coach will be joining him is another question. UCLA (1-2) probably needs six wins to give Neuheisel a chance, and I'm having trouble finding those other five.

Neuheisel's only other hope is that UCLA Chancellor Gene Block doesn't allow him to be fired because it would require buying out of the final year of his $1.25-million-a-year contract — plus buyouts for some of his coaches — and that wouldn't look good for a school system in deep economic trouble.

Next up, a visit to struggling Oregon State, which shouldn't be too much trouble except Neuheisel has yet to lead the Bruins to a win in a conference opener.

"This is our chance to prove all these naysayers wrong," said Neuheisel, and by naysayers he means darn near everyone.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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