PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Rick Neuheisel stood at entrance to the tunnel leading off of the Stanford Stadium field on Saturday night, grabbed UCLA players one by one before they went to the locker room, looked into their eyes and implored each one not to give up on the season.
"Keep believing," he told them, shaking their hands and patting them on the backside.
Stanford had just demoralized UCLA, 45-19, but Neuheisel knows his future depends on keeping the players interested after a deflating loss so he was doing his best to make sure nobody gives up.
Back in the locker room, he went from locker to locker giving similar greeting to other players, encouraging them to come back and work hard this week.
"We still have a lot to play for," he said to some.
It was a signal Neuheisel intends to keep fighting no matter how bad things might seem on the field, but you have to wonder if he was trying to convince the players to keep believing or trying to convince himself.
"We played one of the better teams in our conference tonight and I thought we gave them a heck of a fight," Neuheisel said. "Now, I’m not satisfied by any stretch of the imagination that we came away with this kind of loss, but I’m going to keep pounding on these guys that we are not far away."
UCLA was done in Saturday night by a series of untimely, momentum-changing mistakes against the No. 6 team in the country. But untimely, momentum-changing mistakes happen so often to UCLA, you begin to wonder if they are a part of the game plan.
They are not, obviously, but because UCLA losses always seem to include such plays, the Bruins continue to believe that they can become a good team if they simply cut back on the penalties, turnovers and improve third down conversions in key situations on both sides of the ball.
"It just comes down to execution," quarterback Richard Brehaut said. "Just all 11 guys doing their job. I don’t think it’s anything major. It’s hopefully something that we can look at the film and see that we are close to getting done."
On defense, the Bruins still seem pretty far from turning a corner.
The Bruins gave up 10 of 14 third-down conversions Saturday and now rank No. 119 out of 120 FBS teams in third down conversion defense. They have given up 114 first downs to opponents, more than all but 12 FBS teams in the country.
The Bruins gave up 200 yards or more rushing for the third time in five games and allowed 400 yards or more in total offense for the the third time this season. Simply put, the UCLA defense can't get opponents off the field. Yet even that level of defensive disarray hasn't dampened the dream of making this a successful season.
"We're going to get this thing turned around," safety Dietrich Riley said. "There is nobody on this defense who is giving up. We fought to the end tonight. We went down 17-0 and we could have easily given up, but we fought back and that's what makes you believe in this team."
The defense did, indeed seem to find its footing about midway through the third quarter. The Bruins cut the Stanford lead to 24-13 and the defense came out on the next series and forced the first Stanford punt of the game.
The Bruins couldn't capitalize and punted back, but UCLA's defense once again stiffened and forced three-and-out. Taylor Embree, however, fumbled while trying to field the ensuing punt and the Bruins' defense could not put up another stand so soon after coming off the field. Stanford scored for a 31-13 lead and the game got away from there.
"It was just a couple of plays that really broke our back," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "We just need to start believing in ourselves and have everyone doing their assignments and on the same page. It's a matter of executing on those key plays. Once we get there, that's when we will establish ourselves as a defense and I really believe we are close to getting there."
The question is why can't UCLA take that next step? The Bruins have been close to getting over that hump in other losses, but penalties, big plays and turnovers always seem to go against them.
The Cardinal didn't give up a 99-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter, the Bruins did. Stanford didn't allow a 51-yard touchdown two plays into the second half, UCLA did. Stanford didn't have two turnovers, both of which led to touchdowns, UCLA did. Stanford didn't get stuffed on four consecutive running plays from inside the five-yard line, UCLA did.
"We leave here feeling like we had a real chance," Neuheisel said. "The opening drive, we did not come away with points...Take that and the two turnovers and this is a pretty damn good ball game. Certainly give them credit for the victory, but I think we leave here knowing we can be a pretty good team, too."
At least that's what Neuheisel would have you believe.