Bruins, Huskies follow same, inconsistent path

A lot has been made of California's split personality this season, but it's possible UCLA and Washington are even more deranged.

Both started the season with high expectations, particularly Washington, which thought it had a Heisman Trophy candidate when quarterback Jake Locker opted to return for his senior season.

Splat. Both opened with losses on the road to mediocre teams.

Washington bounced back with a strong win over Syracuse. Joy! Then it got run over at home by Nebraska. Despair! Then the Huskies won at USC. Joy! Then the Huskies got bounced at home by Arizona State. Despair! Then they beat Oregon State in double-overtime. Joy!

Then they got waxed in three consecutive games. Lots of despair.

UCLA followed up its loss at Kansas State by getting trenched at home by Stanford 35-zip. Abandon ship! Then it beat Houston and Texas when the Cougars and Longhorns were still considered good. Back on the bandwagon! Then, after beating Washington State, the Bruins got waxed in two consecutive games and couldn't make plays at the end to upset Arizona. Bail on the Bruins!

Then, the Bruins upset Oregon State. Hope?

It's hard to project either way for either team as they head into a meeting Thursday night in Husky Stadium.

"When they play well in all three phases, [they] look really, really good -- as we have this year at times," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. "There are other times when things haven't gone well, that [things] have fallen apart on them, as they have for us."

And so both teams find themselves desperate for a win to keep bowl hopes alive. Sarkisian's Huskies need to win their final three game -- visits to California and Washington State are ahead -- while the Bruins need to win two of three -- they are at Arizona State then play host to USC in the season-finale.

So there's not a lot of margin for error, and everyone knows the stakes are high. A bowl game would make it a successful season for either team. A losing record would fall short of preseason expectations. Bruins safety Rahim Moore joked this week -- seemingly -- that he'd quit football if the Bruins didn't manage to earn bowl eligibility. It's clear both coaches aren't against dangling the bowl game as a motivational carrot.

"Whether I dangle it or not, our guys are well aware of what we need to do," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said.

As far as subplots, Neuheisel is one. The Huskies coach from 1999-2002, he's not very well liked by some in Seattle, who still blame him for the program's lengthy downturn, even though Neuheisel went to four bowl games in four years -- the worst was the Sun Bowl -- and won a Rose Bowl after the 2000 season.

Neuheisel, who has been gracious in his comments about Washington since being hired at UCLA, said he expects the animosity to die down, and that Huskies fans will mostly focus on rooting for their team. And as for his role in the program's downturn?

"There were a lot of mistakes made. Certainly, I made some," he said. "But it's been seven years. My last year coaching there was 2002. There's been ample time to fix things."

Another subplot is the return of Locker from a rib injury that sidelines him for the defeat at Oregon on Nov. 6. This will be Locker's final home game after a hugely disappointing season. Can he put on one final, big show, something like did down the stretch last year?

Speaking of quarterbacks, there's also UCLA's Richard Brehaut, who's been surprisingly effective running the Bruins pistol offense and has breathed some life into a once moribund passing game. It's taken some time, however, for Neuheisel and -- particularly -- offensive coordinator Norm Chow to develop confidence in Brehaut. Their hands were forced when starter Kevin Prince was lost for the year with a knee injury.

"Richard is kind of a swashbuckler who can get in there and throw the ball around and make it look really easy," Neuheisel said. "Then all of a sudden, when the defense is coming from a lot of different places, is he really aware of what's happening and remembering all the nuances that go with playing quarterback? He wasn't as advanced [as Prince]. Now that he's having to do it, he's learning and getting better very quickly."

Then there's the weather. It's expected to be cold and rainy. The perception is the Southern-California-centric UCLA roster won't be accustomed to that, particularly Brehaut.

Whatever the weather, though, Brehaut's best bet is to hand the ball off. The Bruins have run the ball well this year, and the Huskies rank 118th in the nation in run defense (219.6 yards per game).

Finally, Washington is going for a blackout -- black uniforms, black shirts for fans, black end zones -- in order to make a statement for the ESPN broadcast.

You could say they are dressing for a funeral. The question is: Will it be their own, or the Bruins in mourning after the game?