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UCLA looking for answers on both sides of the ball

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

UCLA started 3-0.

It won at Tennessee, which beat Georgia by 26 points and lost to No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama by a combined 12 points.

It beat Kansas State 23-9. The Wildcats are now atop the Big 12 North.

But when the Bruins graduated to the Pac-10 schedule, things got tougher. And all the hope and good will from September seemed to disappear this month amid an 0-4 start in conference play.

A story in the UCLA student newspaper questioned how things were going under second-year coach Rick Neuheisel under a headline, "Neuheisel's team falling apart."

"I don't think we're falling apart," Neuheisel said during a testy press conference this week. "I think we're frustrated."

In order to reach Neuheisel's stated preseason goal of qualifying for a bowl game, the Bruins need to win three out of their final five games. They will be big underdogs in two of those games -- at Oregon State on Saturday and at USC on Nov. 28. The Bruins may have to sweep Washington, Washington State and Arizona State to earn bowl eligibility.

Which, by the way, is completely plausible.

Still, the Bruins are struggling on both sides of the ball, which is a regression because the anemic offense at least could look to a stout defense for help during the first three games.

The offense presently ranks ninth in the Pac-10 in every major category: passing, running, scoring and total offense.

That's probably a big reason that Neuheisel is willing to overrule offensive coordinator Norm Chow and play two quarterbacks. While Chow wants to stick with inconsistent redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, Neuheisel wants to give true freshman Richard Brehaut playing time in relief of Prince.

So Neuhiesel decided both will play at Oregon State.

"We've got two young quarterbacks and I'd like to see them both develop," he said.

As for that defense, after the three-game nonconference schedule, it ranked ninth in the nation against the run (74 yards per game), 15th in total defense (251 ypg) and 12th in scoring defense (12.67 pg).

But after giving up an average of 223 yards rushing in four conference games, the defense no longer seems so salty.

It doesn't help that middle linebacker Reggie Carter has been playing on a sprained knee for the past few weeks. And it probably won't help that starting defensive tackle Jerzy Siewierski injured his foot during Wednesday's practice.

Neuheisel pointed to third down as a big problem. The offense is converting just 28.9 percent of its third-down attempts, which ranks ninth in the Pac-10, while the defense is allowing Pac-10 opponents to convert 44 percent of the time. Through the first three games, UCLA foes converted only 26.7 percent of third-down plays, which ranked No. 1 in the conference.

Obviously, when the level of competition increased dramatically when Pac-10 teams came calling, the Bruins didn't meet the challenge.

Neuheisel said his team has played hard throughout the struggles. Despite an aggressive peppering of questions he faced this week, he mostly kept his sense of humor, noting that playing a team celebrating homecoming in black and orange on Halloween doesn't seem like a good idea. "It looks like their holiday," he cracked.

Neuheisel's honeymoon in Westwood may be over. Some Bruins fans may be showing signs of frustration. But Neuheisel continues to preach his philosophy of relentless optimism.

"I'm always going to side on the side of optimism," he said.