UCLA's visit to Arizona on Oct. 20 was a complete disaster for the Bruins. The 48-12 blowout defeat to a team that had lost 10 consecutive games to FBS teams and had just fired its coach had no redeeming value for the program and its embattled coach, Rick Neuheisel. ESPN's typically measured Rece Davis, who was doing play-by-play, opined: "Somebody in a gold helmet has to show some pride."
He was right. The Bruins looked like they were tanking it. That they didn't care. And that almost certainly would earn Neuheisel a boot out of Westwood.
But there's often a disconnect between easy fan and media judgments and the reality of a locker room. UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince called the loss at Arizona "devastating," but he firmly rejected the notion of the Bruins mailing it in because they no longer cared about Neuheisel's fate.
"We definitely like Coach Neuheisel and want him to stay. There's no question about that," Prince said. "There was nothing like us going into the Arizona game and saying, 'Hey, let's tank this so Neuheisel doesn't keep his job.' That's absurd. I know that fans probably think that. The Arizona game? Sometimes things just happen. Fans will make up conspiracy theories, but at the end of day we want to win games and we don't want any changes here. We like the coaches we have."
That, of course, could just be good-soldier speak. After all, Prince isn't the sort to trash talk his coach, or even provide a non-answer that allows folks to read between the lines. It strains credulity to believe that Bruins are in lockstep in support of their coach and his staff, which features two new coordinators this season.
But then a 31-14 win at California happened, the first time this season the Bruins played well in all three phases.
Further, the Bruins' season could be transformed -- and Neuheisel resurrected -- if they beat No. 19 Arizona State on Saturday. Not only would a victory improve their record to 5-4 overall -- just one win away from bowl eligibility -- it would give the Bruins control of the Pac-12's South Division. UCLA and Arizona State would be tied atop the division at 4-2 in conference play (USC isn't eligible due to NCAA sanctions), but the Bruins would own the tiebreaker due to head-to-head victory.Rick Neuheisel badly needs a win when the Bruins take on No. 19 Arizona State Saturday.
Which would mean that the Bruins actually control their Rose Bowl destiny. They are a six-game winning streak away from being the Rose Bowl champs.
Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Neuheisel could tell you about a team that started 0-3-1 in 1984 and won the Rose Bowl. So this isn't the most ridiculous scenario ever.
One of them. But not the most.
Things already are pretty odd. Who thought after Prince started 3-of-7 with three interceptions against Texas and got benched that we'd ever hear him receiving justified praise again as the Bruins' quarterback?
Prince has thrown just one more interception since his ill-fated afternoon against the Longhorns. He was the difference-maker against Cal, rushing for a career-high 163 yards on 19 carries, just as he was while leading a comeback victory over Washington State after Richard Brehaut was lost for the season with a broken leg.
His career, which includes 20 starts, has been star-crossed, riddled with injuries and inconsistency. And yet here is. Again.
"No. 1, he hasn't given up on himself," Neuheisel siad. "He believes he's got what it takes, and we do, too. No. 2, he's healthy. It's not been that way for most of his career. And I was really pleased that he ran as physically as he ran the other night. That's got to be where we plant our flag."
In other words, even with the Bruins getting four receivers back from their suspensions for their parts in the brawl with Arizona, the Bruins are not going to start passing a lot. They average 196 yards passing per game, but their most effective plays seem to be runs out of the pistol formation. With Prince being an increasingly legitimate run threat, that should make things easier for running backs Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman.
"Prince is playing extremely well right now," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "If they can run the football, they can create a lot of problems for you."
The Sun Devils have been just OK against the run this year, yielding 141 yards per game.
Of course, entertaining grand notions for UCLA remains a stretch. The program has failed to post a signature conference win under Neuheisel and has been excruciatingly inconsistent. More than once, talk of a corner-turn has been hushed by a dreadful performance. Beating Arizona State is the sort of thing Neuheisel hasn't done in three-plus seasons at UCLA, though he's posted some nice nonconference wins over Tennessee and Texas.
One of many big changes Neuheisel made this year was taking over coaching his quarterbacks. He is notoriously hard on QBs, having been one himself for the Bruins, and cameras eagerly seek him out when his quarterback makes a mistake. The sideline jabbering is not terribly distinguished, and more than a few folks have seen it as a significant problem on multiple levels.
But Prince feels like his relationship with Neuheisel has gotten stronger this year.
"I feel like it's been better because he is now the quarterbacks coach," Prince said. "The communication between us is better. We don't see eye-to-eye all the time, but we can communicate and work things out."
They also are on the same wavelength when it comes to dealing with criticism, which both know well.
Said Prince: "I don't listen to the criticism. I just continue to play the game and try to have fun and win."
Said Neuheisel: "The only thing you can do is ignore that .... It does me no good. I can't answer all the critics. All I can do is my best. I wake up every morning excited about going to work."
It appears Prince and Neuheisel are in sync when it comes to dealing with criticism. But can they -- and the rest of the Bruins -- get in sync and string a few consistent performances together?
If it happens, there may be a shocker in the South Division, and part of that would be Neuheisel keeping his job.