PASADENA -- The strange saga of UCLA’s football season has taken twists and turns, featured highs and lows and introduced more questions than answers so it seems only appropriate that the season and the Bruins’ beleaguered coach will ultimately be judged upon the results of a high-drama final week.
UCLA defeated Colorado, 45-6, Saturday at the Rose Bowl, setting up a showdown against crosstown rival USC next week, with the winner claiming the inaugural Pac-12 South division title.
The Bruins, left for dead three or four times this season, kept kicking and screaming long enough to get in position to play themselves into the Pac-12 title game. Coach Rick Neuheisel, nearly sent to the unemployment line after a mid-season debacle at Arizona, rose to lead his troops to the brink of what would have to be considered a successful season.
The roller coaster ends next week at the Coliseum with city-wide bragging rights finally taking a backseat to some real consequences in a rivalry that hasn’t had serious consequences for quite some time.
“Playing ‘SC for the championship? That’s the way it should be,” Neuheisel said. “That’s the way it used to be. When I was in school, this was the game that you always pointed to that if you won, great things were going to ensue … That’s the nature of the beast. When I first got back here, that’s what I longed for. Not just playing for the championship of L.A., but playing for much bigger stakes.”
The situation now is this: If UCLA (6-5, 5-3 in Pac-12) wins against USC (9-2, 6-2), the Bruins will be undisputed champions of the Pac-12 south. A loss to USC and the Bruins could still back-door their way into the Pac-12 title game, but would need help in the form of losses by Utah and Arizona State.
But the Bruins hold all the South division cards heading into the final week, a position that seemed very unlikely for the Bruins just four weeks ago.
Then, the Bruins were coming off of an embarrassing loss to Arizona that figured to derail the season, but they somehow rallied to play their best football the next two weeks in victories against California and Arizona State.
Last week at Utah, another setback, but a few hours later came another reason to believe: Arizona State lost to Washington State and kept control of the south division race in UCLA’s hands.
“The way our season went, not a lot of people thought this was going to happen, but we never lost hope,” said safety Tony Dye. “Along the way, it was always, ‘we still have a chance, we still have a chance, we still have a chance.’ So we just kind of stuck to that and kept believing and so far it’s kind of been working out for us.”
It wouldn’t have worked out so well if UCLA had lost focus this week and looked past Colorado (2-10, 1-7). And UCLA’s season has been such that a loss to a team battling to stay out of the conference cellar wasn’t exactly far-fetched heading in.
The Bruins have had enough lackluster performances this season to warrant worry. The game at Arizona comes to mind as does a close home victory against San Jose State and a loss to Texas. But the Bruins took care of business Saturday, racking up 553 yards in offense and getting touchdowns from five different players.
Kevin Prince passed for 225 yards and a career-high four touchdowns and ran for 84 yards in 10 carries. Johnathan Franklin added 162 yards rushing and a touchdown as UCLA rushed for a season-best 328 yards and posted their largest margin of victory since 2005 against Rice (63-21).
“It was big to win in the fashion that we did,” said cornerback Andrew Abbott, who had two interceptions. “Now we’ve got to use this momentum and finish the season. People are going to say we can’t do it, but they are going to say what they say. They aren’t the ones between those lines on Saturday, just us.”
The task is clearly monumental. UCLA has defeated USC only once in the past 12 meetings and hasn’t own at the Coliseum since 1997. Not only that, but the Trojans are riding high off of a road win at No. 4 Oregon.
But the only thing that matters to the Bruins is that they get to play USC with some serious stakes on the line for UCLA, something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade.
“As if this game didn’t have enough on the line with the rivalry and bragging rights, now there is much more on the line,” Dye said. “It’s awesome to have something to play for in that kind of game. This is why you come to UCLA. This is why you play football.