Three weeks ago, on September 11, UCLA played its second game of the 2010 football season. They faced Stanford, considered to be one of the better teams in the Pac-10. It was not a pretty sight. The Bruins were outplayed in every way imaginable, losing 35-0 to the Cardinal. UCLA was 0-2 and seemingly headed for a 1-11 or 2-10 season.
A friend (or to be precise, a guy who follows me on Twitter, but I imagine we would actually be friends if we ever actually met in person or knew what each other looked like) wrote me, "I await your epic rant."
Then, one week later, UCLA beat 23rd ranked Houston, 31-13, at the Rose Bowl. But, I chalked that up to Houston being overrated and also losing its first and second string quarterbacks to injury during the game.
It would be September 25 when UCLA would face its day of reckoning, venturing out to Austin to take on No. 7 Texas. I was braced for the worst, so much so that I did not even make plans to watch as I had to work. And, following the game through the excitement of text message updates on my phone, I saw that UCLA had upset Texas 34-12.
Texas was supposed to have one of the top defenses in the nation, but the Bruins ran over the Longhorns all day, picking up 264 yards on the ground, including 119 from Johnathon Franklin, using its new "Pistol" offense. UCLA attempted just nine passes, completing just five of them for a meager 27 yards (one went for a touchdown for one yard.) Five turnovers by Texas aided matters greatly. The game brought back memories of 1997, when an 0-2 UCLA team traveled to Austin and won 66-3, starting a 20-game winning streak for UCLA. (The 27 passing yards were the fewest for a UCLA team in a winning effort since 1978, when UCLA ran a veer offense.)
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel along with Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow decided to change UCLA's offense to the Pistol (so named by its inventor, Nevada coach Chris Ault, because the quarterback lines up behind the center a shorter distance than a quarterback in shotgun formation does) in order to improve the Bruins ability to run the ball. And so far, the Bruins have shown themselves to have a capable rushing attack. But the passing game has been mostly dormant.
Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince has missed numerous practices with various injuries, and has even had to sit out practice this week. He's completed just 29 of 63 passes with four interceptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Prince has not been helped by an inexperienced group of receivers, none of whom have made people forget J.J. Stokes or Freddie Mitchell.
However, despite the 2-2 record, the Bruins are going to be hard-pressed to finish the season with even a 6-6 record unless a lot of breaks go their way. UCLA should be able to handle Pac-10 doormat Washington State Saturday at the Rose Bowl, but then the schedule is extremely unkind. And that's because, with the exception of Washington State, there are no easy weeks on the Pac-10 schedule.
Next week, UCLA travels up to Berkeley to play Cal (which did give up 52 points to Nevada, the other Pistol offense in the country) and then gets a week off for before having to go up to Eugene to face Oregon, which has been putting points on the board as if they were playing basketball. Home games follow against Arizona and Oregon State, before heading on the road for two weeks to play Washington and Arizona State. UCLA finishes the season on December 4 at home against USC. The best chances for wins would be at Berkeley and at Seattle, and then the Bruins would need to win two of three home games against the Wildcats, Beavers, and Trojans. It's a very tall order.
The Bruins will likely not be favored to win any game after playing Washington State, barring a major injury by an opponent. Prior to the win over Texas, the last team ranked in the Top 10 that UCLA beat was No. 7 Oregon in 2007. And Oregon started that game with its second string quarterback starting, and ended it with its fourth string quarterback playing.
UCLA's lack of a passing attack is going to hurt it against teams like Oregon, Arizona, and USC which can put points on the board quickly. If UCLA falls behind, the team would have to rely on Prince's arm to get it back in the game, which is a very risky proposition. The defense features pro prospect Akeem Ayers as a defensive back, but the rest of that unit is not as strong as in the past two seasons.
Neuheisel received a fair amount of criticism early for the Bruins poor play. He maintained his optimism and he and Chow stuck to their offensive plan, even though the Bruins looked hopeless just two weeks ago. Neuheisel* needed a signature win over a ranked team to give his team some credibility.
*Before each game, Neuheisel has a videotaped message in which he tries to explain his pet phrase "passion bucket." I have listened to it twice. It manages to make less sense the more I hear it.
With USC on probation the next two years, it would seem that this is the time for UCLA to try to win back some of its reputation as a local football power. UCLA did beat USC eight straight years from 1991-98, but that seems like a long time ago. Especially since USC has won 10 of the last 11 games, shutting out UCLA once and holding the Bruins to a single touchdown four other times.
However, USC has started out 4-0, albeit against a much easier schedule than what UCLA faced. The Trojans, ineligible for the the conference title, have beaten Hawai'i, Virginia, Minnesota, and Washington State. The Trojans, under new coach Lane Kiffin, take on underachieving Washington at the Coliseum on Saturday.
If UCLA can somehow pull off a 6-6 season (which I think is the best they can hope for), yet another minor bowl game is in their future. Last year, UCLA got to play in the Eagle Bank Bowl in Washington, DC, a place where many people like to visit in the dead of winter. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco may be the best that UCLA can hope for. (It's played in San Francisco. It used to be the Emerald Bowl, and before that, the Diamond Walnut Bowl, and before that, the San Francisco Bowl.)
2011 is the year that Neuheisel is hoping will be the one where the Bruins finally compete for the conference title. By then, the conference should be the Pac-12 as Colorado and Utah are scheduled to join the club. The UCLA Athletics Department announced Neuheisel's hire with full page newspaper ads announcing that "the football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over!" It will be up to Neuheisel to make that true soon. Or else there will be epic rants written by just about every UCLA fan.